Thursday, January 14, 2010

HCMC, errr.... Saigon

Jan 2 to 9, 2010 (by Swiss)

Given Chris' departure in less than a week, we decided to make Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as the locals prefer to call it, more on that later) our base for the remainder of Chris' stay. This would allow us to catch up on some history as well as allow Chris some much needed R&R (he was on vacation afterall.) Located in the south of Vietnam, HCMC/Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam and certainly has a large city feel to it. It comes across as a bustling city, including a variety of dining/shopping options and hellish traffic.

The neverending quest for lodging
As seems to always be the case when we arrive at a new location, our goal was to find a viable lodging option upon our arrival. Previous attempts to contact guest houses and hotels from Cambodia were generally fruitless (responses ranging from "We are full" to "No speak English"), so we decided to chance it and walk the alleys of Saigon to find a viable option. We actually had one particular place in mind, but according to google maps, it was located far from our bus drop destination.

Since we had the giant proverbial "tourist" sign on us courtesy of our backpacks, it was just a matter of minutes until a "helpful local guy" offered us to show a couple of lodging options. The first was a $30 per night hotel, that was actually quite nice but above our price range, even split between 3 people (yeah, we're on a budget.)

He then showed us a second place run by a German speaking Vietnamese woman, who seemed somewhat insulted that we didn't want her $20 per night room that was loud and dumpy in addition to lacking the ability to properly close its door. So we finally managed to ditch Mr. Local (we saw him hustling tourists throughout the week) and found a place that was clean, had TV and a fridge, and, although it lacked wifi, at least had an ethernet connection in the room.

At $24 a night we quickly came to realize that the $15 spots listed in wiki travel were not as abundant as we had hoped. Plan was to spend one night here and then search out the place we had found online earlier but seemed to be outside the area where we had settled for the night. After depositing our stuff, we went for a quick stroll in town (it was getting late), had some snacks at a street stand and called it a night.

Crazy crazy Saigon
We awoke Saturday on a mission to find the elusive Nguyen Khang hotel. I had emailed them from Cambodia, and actually got a response back at night stating that they were booked for the previous night. Given that it was the weekend, we hoped that they might have some openings for the current or next night. Google map in hand, we headed east on our little mission.

So, to make a long story short, google maps was wrong. We discovered this as we arrived after a 15 minute walk to the supposed location and found absolutely nothing, other than a bunch of fancy hotels and a tourist information center. The nice lady at the center informed us that the desired hotel was acutally located just a few blocks from where we had spent the night. D'oh! So we headed back, found Nguyen Khang, and were informed that they were full and triple rooms cost $28 per night. They were located down a very nice and quiet alley, however, so we decided to check out some other places. This is how we stumbled upon the Giang & Son hotel, which offered nice rooms (TV, fridge, hot shower, wifi, and free breakfast) for $25 and had an open room available. We took it, a very good choice as it turned out.

The remainder of the day involved moving our stuff to the new digs, checking out town, scoring Chris a new backback, and avoid being killed by traffic (see next section.) We checked out the Ben Thanh market, where Chris got to practice his bargaining skills (I heard later that they "tag" good/bad bargainers by giving you a certain color bag for your merchandise.) He scored a very nice "Northface" backpack for just over $10. While walking around town, we also decided that this city must be what depressed phone technicians have nightmares about:

Below are some more pictures from around town

We decided to randomly start strolling to find a nice place for dinner. We managed to find Oc Hai San Trang down a little side alley after about 45 minutes of walking around, and we could not have been luckier. The place offered snails and sea food (anybody who knows me is aware of my snail phobia, so no, we didn't order snails.)  We promptly ordered prawns, scallops in onion grease, and some fried rice. The food was off the hook. Beer was cheap, the service great, and the side alley atmosphere very much enjoyable, including music that is little more up Jason's alley than mine. So we ended up staying there late into the night, determined to return again at a later date.

Our help figuring out how to eat our seafood

This is how they roll
Yeah, I know, lame title. But I figured it was very apropos. Having spent the last 3-4 months in SE Asia, we have been quite accustomed to scooters. In fact, if you've been following this blog, you know that we often rent one to be able to get around. And, much like other large cities, folks here rely on scooters to get around. What differentiates Saigon from the rest, however, is that it is absolute chaos in how they go about it. At any given time, there are hundreds if not thousands of scooters buzzing around the streets in a way that would scare the crap out of most westeners. People here load their entire families (we saw multiple occasions where 5 people were on a scooter) and heavy goods (one scooter was being loaded with a fridge and TV) while crossing in, out, and across traffic like fearless maniacs. We quickly determined that renting a scooter here would be equivalent to sucide. So, enjoy the pics and video below, although trust me, they don't do it justice.

FYI, to cross traffic by foot, you oftentimes just have to step out into traffic and let the scooters buzz around you. We quickly learned to just keep a steady pace, let scooters avoid us, while focusing on not being hit by cars and trucks (they don't avoid you.) Not for the faint hearted, although I'm happy to report that we are all still alive.

Visa FAIL, when in Rome, and the life of a tourist
Monday would roll about with a mission of procuring a Chinese visa for our visit there in February. Lawton had heard through various blogs that it can at times be challenging to get such a visa, and given we had almost a week in Saigon, we figured this would be a good place to give it a shot. Although we had gotten off to somewhat of a late start (see pics from previous night for justification), we were determined to drop off our passports, grab lunch, and then check out the Reunification palace.

It was on the way to the Chinese consulate that we realized that we were out of passport photos, itineraries were adjusted for a quick stop for pictures. As it turned out, the pics would not be ready until 13:30, and the Chinese consulate was closed for lunch until 14:00. Long story short, we managed to get our pictures (just over $1 for eight pics - nice), but the Chinese consulate didn't do Visa apps in the afternoon, delaying our application until the next day.

So the main mission of the day resulted in failure, and plans were adjusted to have an enjoyable afternoon at the reunification palace. It didn't open until 13:30, so while we were waiting for pictures to be printed, a decision was made to procure and consume some coffee. An overly helpful coconut juice vendor near the palace informed us that if we wanted cheap coffee, we should go to the end of the adjacent park instead of opting for the expensive westerner shops surrounding the palace.

Intrigued, we wandered to the other side of the park only to find absolutely no coffee vendors. We did, however, notice a bunch of locals consuming coffee. So we asked one of them where we could get coffee, and they promptly asked us to have a seat on the curb (newspapers were handed to us to sit on.) One of them then yelled across the park to an inconspicuous lady walking around. She promptly came our way, our helpful Vietnamese friends translated our order, and 5 mintues later a scooter pulled up with fresh iced coffee for each of us. At 7000 dong (just over 30 US cents), it was a fraction of the cost of the shops around (30,000 to 50,000 dong), and it was quite the experience enjoying coffee with the locals in the park. When in Rome... :)

The remainder of the afternoon was spent at the Reunification Palace, where, after a 15,000 dong admission fee, we were invited on a free tour of the property. It was the home of the president of south Vietnam during the war and was the site of the official handover of power during the fall of Saigon back in 1975. Today it serves as a site to host various official state events. Needless to say, it was full of history and quite an enjoyable visit - read: very much worth a visit.

We returned to our hotel in the afternoon, where Jason was quickly making friends with the staff, who would be getting a kick out of serving him a variety of traditional Vietnamese foods (mainly fruits) to taste. Dinner was consumed at Q"uan An Ngon", where my initial order was politely refused (they figured I would not like it), so I ended up getting a more traditional pho. Jason, in part to make his co-worker Eme jealous, ordered some excellent Bun Thit Nuong. The setting, in a light covered, tree filled courtyard, was outstanding, especially at night.

Visa un-fail, war, and hanging with the locals
Agenda item #1 for the next day was to get to the Chinese embassy early, which in our case was 9am. This, of course, after a brief breakfast of baguette with butter and jam for us all. An effortless application process (although they only allowed us to apply for a 30 day single entry visa) got us out of the consulate 20 minutes later. We were to return on Friday with $130 to pay for this sucker. Most other countries are charged less, but China is doing a quid pro quo deal with the US and apparently this is what we charge the Chinese for a US visa. Fair is fair, I guess.

With paperwork squared away, it was on to the "War Remnants Museum" (also formerly known as "The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government", "Museum of American War Crimes, and "War Crimes Museum.") The museum houses a wide collection of photographs (and some other artifacts) mostly documenting the period of American involvement in the Vietnam war. While perhaps a tad one-sided (hard to judge for me), it was a very visual and deeply touching portrait of the crap that went down during the Vietnam war, including the aftereffects of the use of dioxin (Agent Orange) during bombing raids. In fact, we noted a disproportionate number of handicapped/disfigured people during our visit of Saigon, and wonder how much of this was a function of dioxin poisoning. Though often very graphic, it was very much a worthwhile experience, if for nothing else than to demonstrate and to reflect upon how ugly war really is. 'Nuff said.

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

Having had our dose of depressing history for the day, we moved on to have some coffee and cake at Nguyen Trang Coffee, of which Anthony Bourdain apparently is a fan. Nothing like cake and coffee to lighten your day. Hey, at least we didn't stoop (scoop?) down to ice cream.

After a quick break at our room, we decided to go have a couple of 55 cent evening beers at a streetside joint. It was there where we met a Vietnamese regional sales manager for Budweiser, of all things. Ironically enough, he too was enjoying the local Saigon beer over the American brand he was selling during the day. 

He was a tad bit of a strange character, but nonetheless we decided to join him at a local restaurant for a goat meat hot pot. The dinner ended up being very delicious, and since we had a local doing all the ordering, it was also quite effortless. During dinner he gave us a little local insight on Ho Chi Minh City, passionately insisting that most locals don't like Ho Chi Minh and continue to refer to Saigon as Saigon, rather than the official name of HCMC. It took me a while to catch on, but I'm now pretty good at calling it Saigon.

There were a group of Vietnamese girls adjacient to our table, with whom, thanks to our local tranlator, we managed to somewhat communicate. We joined tables, and Chris and I later joined them and some of their friends for some Karaoke in town. It was good times, even though all communication had to be routed through the sole english speaking girl there.

Have you seen Avatar?
Ok, Wednesday was a wasted day. We admit it. Chris went off to one of the parks to do some reading, while Lawton and I decided to catch a movie (mind you, temperatures in Saigon were in the upper 80's, so we needed A/C.) Our three options included: Sherlok Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Avatar. We chose the last one, if for nothing else than to add to their sales numbers worldwide :) It was ok, I guess, but c'mon, James Cameron, get to the f-ing point.

That evening we also realized that the computer down in the lobby did not have access to Facebook, so Chris with the help of Jason went to work to change their DNS server settings so as to allow the computer to access this site. Apparently they are trying to block access to Facebook, but so far have limited it to the ISPs doing it on a voluntary basis by removing from their DNS servers (from what I understand, at least.) Bottom line, the IP address is still accessible, but there is nothing pointing to that address. After they fixed that, the woman at the reception desk expressed profound thanks and sadly asked "Why is my government trying to block Facebook?", a rather depressing question if you think about it.

We think China will be even more strict, likely blocking access to the facebook IP address. So while nerding out, Chris also helped us set up our computers to access his VPN network in Switzerland. This, in theory, should allow us to bypass the Chinese censorship. So if you hear some news stories about two Americans being arrested in China next month on internet crimes, that may be us. In the meantime, we are some of the few folks who can access Facebook and other sites here in Vietnam and likely China. Score :) We also booked tour tickets to the Cu Chi tunnels for the following day.

"You all look the same to me"
Thursday would be yet another sight seeing day, this time the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels are part of an extensive (250+ km) tunneling network strategically used by the Viet Cong during the war. Located about 90 minutes outside of town, we hopped on our bus around 8:30, where we were introduced to our tour guide. He was very funny, and promptly introduced himself by his Vietnamese name. He then went on that most folks can't remember his name (I'm guilty of that), and said it's easier to remember that it rhymes with John Wayne. So John Wayne (JW) it would be from there on out. After running through the itinerary for the day, he asked us to please stay together as a group, and handed each of the participants a sticker to be applied on our shirts. "I need the sticker to identify you as part of my group, because to me, you westerners all look the same", he exclaimed, which of course drew a round of laughter from the 20-25 westerners in the bus. It end up being a very entertaining day.

The first stop involved the visiting of a manufacturing facility selling artwork made by handicapped war victims. It was interesting, albeit a tad of the "make you feel guilty, buy something to make you feel better" variety. We were looking forward to the tunnels.

We arrived at the tunnels around noon. JW explained a little about his history (he was in the army for 3 years, and actually did training at these tunnels back in the 90's.) Apparently the army even today uses the tunnels for training purposes. He also explained to us, contrary to popular belief, the Viet Cong (btw, the Vietnamese referred to them as Guerillas rather than VC), did not live in the tunnels during the war. They were modified to include living quarters by the army following the war, along with planting trees that now are quite abundant in the area. There are three levels, the deepest of which can only be accessed by crawling on one's stomach. Only level 1 is currently accessible for tourists. Sightseeing included a review of various tunnel openings...

Swiss squeezes into a tunnel opening

...some gnarly boobie traps....

...and an explanation on some of the drainage "tunnels" used to remove water during heavy rainfalls. These were openings that were not concealed, and opposing soldiers often thought they had found actual tunnels, which served for nothing other than to remove water, as they were much to small for a person to fit in (apparently soldiers sometimes tried to go in):

Some tunnels were part of a multi-tiered parallel trench system, which allowed the VC to move from one trench to the next. Tactically, what they did, is fight in trench #1 until they were overpowered, then moved back to trench #2. As the enemy approached trench #2 (again, parallel to trench #1), some VC backtracked via the tunnel to trench #1, effectively placing their fighters both in front and behind the opposing force. Tunnels were also boobie trapped in case they were discovered. Overall, very nasty warfare, but one couldn't help but imagine how effective it probably was.

The highlight of the day, of course, was our opportunity to go through about 100 meters of a "westernized" (read: slightly enlarged and electrically lit) tunnels. Exits were located every 20 meters, of which Jason and Chris took advantage after 20-40 meters. I managed to squat/crouch my way all the way to the end, where I emerged tired, sore, and sweaty. Our guide, ever the joker, mentioned that it's much easier for Asians as they grow up going to the bathroom squatting. People here, he explained, call western toilets a "lazy toilet." Well, I like my lazy toilet, thank you very much.

The tour wrapped up by us watching a terrible, propaganda ladden movie before we were shuttled back to the bus. Jason chatted up our guide as we were trying to locate the United airlines office. This is because we did not have the second round of airline tickets booked, and since we both had a bunch of frequent flyer miles, we wanted to see if we could maybe book some of our more expensive tickets using miles. JW quickly noted that we had mobiphone SIM chips, and off he went to program our service so as to send us a text message when we receive a call while our phones were turned off. Not really what we were wanting, but hey, why not.

In his defense, he also managed to find out where the United Airlines office was, although it was somewhat lost in translation, as we ended up at the American Airlines office later in the day after being dropped off near the war museum by the bus. A 1.5 hour quest finally got us to the desired office, where we were informed that we couldn't book a one-way ticket using miles. Suck it, United (yes, a roundtrip ticket of course would have been an option, but cost too many miles and $$$ to make it worthwhile.) So that option is out, and I guess we'll just pay for our tickets instead.

We decided to return to Oc Hai San Trang, the seafood place we had visited four days' prior. Again, the food was very good, to the point that Jason figured we should let Anthony Bourdain know about it. Anyway, we once again ordered the Shrimp pot along with some of the best beef/veggie dish we've had thus far (Rau muong roast with beef - basically morning glory with beef.)

Zoos and high rolling
As the end of the week, and therefore Chris's departure, were quickly approaching, we decided to let Friday be one final day of R&R. For this, it was decided to grab our ipods and books and to go check out the Saigon Zoo and Botanical gardens. But first, it was time to swing by the Chinese consulate to hand them USD 130 in exchange for them allowing us a 30 day stay in their country. It all worked out, making both Jason and me very happy.

The zoo and gardens, definitely 70's vintage, were ok, although some of the animals (especially the elephants) did not seem to be the happiest creatures. Our main object were the gardens, so the zoo came as part of the package. I would not recommend it, per se, but it was interesting to see some of the animals.

Since Friday would mark the last night in Vietnam for Chris, we decided to check one more Bourdain hangout by having a drink at the Rex hotel. Now mind you, the Rex is a very classy joint and generally out of our price range. But, as we did at the E&O hotel in Penang, sometimes rolling high is fun and necessary. So we had one cocktail, while amusingly watching a tacky performance by some derivative of an Asian themed American 70's lounge singer.

The last dinner was celebrated at a BBQ spot, where we had beef and giant shrimp grilled at our table. It was there that we met a nice Danish couple (the country, not the pastry), with whom we had a couple of street side drinks later on. Chris and I stayed out late into the night (hey, I only get to see my brother every so often.)

Bye Saigon, see you in 3 weeks
Since we had our visa, Chris was taking off, and Vietnam is more than just Saigon, we decided to make Saturday our (somewhat) last day in Saigon. We would return at the end of the month after meeting up with our college friends Cyndi and Matt Alderson in Hanoi later in the month. I escorted Chris to the 152 bus to the airport, crossing the hazardous traffic near the bus stop one more time, before heading back to the hotel. We had earlier decided to reserve 2 rooms there for all of us (Cyndi, Matt, Jason, and myself) upon our return. Out of nowhere, the family running the hotel invited us to have a traditional Vietnamese dinner with them. Their daughter, who spoke excellent English, joined us, and we had an outstanding dinner with the family. Very nice, we were humbled. Stay at Giang & Son if you get a chance. Shortly after dinner, we boarded the night bus....

...and off it was to Nha Trang, a coastal community about 10 hours north of Saigon.


Amy said...

What's with the facemasks in the traffic pic? Illness, smog?

The karaoke reminds me of staying with Vietnamese immigrant families in NYC as part of a high school project. They were really into the karaoke! I remember Seasons in the Sun as the song of choice.

BTW, any advice on credit cards for int'l use? I went with Capital One (supposedly no foreign transaction fees) now that I'm moving to Ireland for a year, but figured you guys are the experts.

(Jason's coworker from Lilly)

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