Saturday, September 27, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam: a day tour of Ho Chi Minh City

The facade of Vietnam's Reunification Palace

May 12-14, 2008

Vietnam served as my jump off point for my two-week adventure in Southeast Asia.

I left Manila a little before midnight via Cebu Pacific, and arrived at Ho Chi Minh City at 1am (that was Manila time, I think. We're an hour ahead).
For my two-week Southeast Asian trip, I alloted just two nights and one whole day in Vietnam.

I wasn't actually interested in going to Vietnam, thinking that it is simply a third world country shabbier than the Philippines. This was my attitude towards Vietnam despite the fact that the country is always teeming with tourists, compared with the Philippines with only a handful.

I would not have passed by Vietnam if it were not my entry point to Cambodia. There are no direct flights from Manila to Siem Reap as of yet, but my friend who used to cover the transport beat said talks are ongoing between the Cambodian and Philippine governments, so expect a direct flight really soon.

But when I set foot on what I thought was a war-torn country, I realized that I underestimated Vietnam.

Than Son Nhat International Airport itself was a big revelation. Peering from my window in the plane, I thought it was an architectural wonder, a quintessential modern edifice with wide glass panels, white-washed walls and big halls.
I took a photo of myself using my camera phone even if I was forewarned by some friends that taking photos inside the airport is prohibited. My attempt was successful, but my camera phone failed to capture the real beauty of that structure.
My "day zero" in Vietnam was greeted by a funny encounter with a Vietnamese immigration officer. The officer asked me to explain what is the "Ñ" in my last name. Then he drew a letter "J" with a line on top of it and said, "Philippines?"

I was actually freaking out and managed only to reply, "It's actually Spanish."
After some thought, the officer stamped the entry permit on my passport.

I marched outside and looked for a cab. A fellow blogger told me in an e-mail that taxis from the airport going to the city should cost about P300. But my below-sea-level bargaining skills failed me, and I ended up paying so much (don't ask how much, but it's really expensive that I considered myself mugged by Vietnamese).

But the moral of the story is, wherever you are, avoid touts.
My impression of Vietnam at night was that it was a place similar to the Sampaloc district in Manila -- marked by old, shabby structures and dirty sidewalks, that is.

The "lobby" of Yellow House Hostel

I got to my hostel, Yellow House Hostel, where I pre-booked a mixed dorm-type accommodation at for $6/night plus a booking fee of $2. The hostel is located at Bui Vien St., which is right at the heart of the backpackers' district called Pham Ngu Lao.
Bui Vien, I found out the following day, is lined with cafes and restaurants as well as stores selling cheap artworks, souvenir items and clothes.

It was already 2am but since I haven't had a decent dinner, I tried walking along Bui Vien to check if there are restaurants open. I found a cafe (that sounded a nice idea since, I was told, coffee in Vietnam is simply the best), but I need "real" food. I found Chin Chin Chin (999), probably Vietnam's answer to 7-11, and grabbed instant noodles. I also got bottled water, instant coffee, and a chocolate bar in anticipation of the spicy treat that I am up to.
Having failed on my plan to get a decent meal, I just decided to call it a day and promised myself that I would wake up early the next morning to catch the tourist bus.
Day One
I woke up at 7am as planned and had breakfast at the hostel (yeah, breakfast, which consisted of coffee, jam, butter, French bread and banana, was included in the $6!), only to find out that the tourist bus leaves at around 730am!

In my frustration, I just asked for an itinerary and decided that I would check the highlights of the city on my own. When I stepped out of the hostel, a motorcycle offered to bring me to five destinations for $10. The guided tour offered $8 to six destinations (if memory serves me right), including snacks and lunch. But not bad, at least I thought I wouldn't be pestered by the fact that tour guides often ask tourists to rush.
But more than this, riding a motorcycle proved to be fun. It gave me a real feel and different perspective of the city as the motorcycle meandered through hidden and main streets. It was fun being in the middle of tree-lined streets, pass by parks with lush greenery, and see lots of heads with helmets.
My driver gave me about an hour for each of the destinations and agreed at a particular time to meet outside afterwards.
I checked out the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The Notre Dame of Saigon was interesting with its beautiful facade and the presence of statues of Chinese saints (but of course I still think churches in the Philippines are better). Just across the Notre Dame was the Post Office, which looked like a train station but really was interesting. They have beautiful souvenir items there such as masks, stamps, and hand-painted bamboo bookmarks, the latter which I got for $1 each. These items cannot be found in the market so better buy right there if you find interesting items.

Vietnam's take on halo-halo, with free iced tea.

Then I had lunch at Ben Thanh market. I random-picked a carinderia-looking eatery where the chicken tasted beyond my expectations. For desert, I once again random-picked a halo-halo looking desert with green stuff inside which came with a small glass of iced tea (which didn't taste good). So adventurous of me to food trip just like that!
After that, I visited Binh Tai (not sure if I spelled it right), then to a Buddhist temple.
Binh Tai market wasn't actually in the itinerary of the guided tour. The driver told me goods are cheaper there but I wasn't really able to buy anything except for half a kilo of ground coffee, a fan worth about P5, and a bottle of coke which cost $1.
So when in Vietnam, make sure you have dong in your pocket even if stores do accept US dollars. Merchants don't bother to give change if you pay in US dollars -- even if goods cost less than a dollar.
My road trip ended at about 3pm, so I decided to take a break and spent half an hour chatting with fellow sojourners.
There were 10 beds in my room. All of them were occupied but I met only three from Australia, two from England and a Chinese girl. There were only two of us Asians in that room.
In those conversations, I realized that backpacking is a concept that is totally alien to Filipinos, save for the adventurous few. Perhaps I was the only backpacker at the time who had a "real" luggage instead of a backpack, three pairs of footwear including a white Lacoste tennis shoes, and a laptop. And based on the stories of my fellow backpackers, my two-week trip was probably the shortest they've ever encountered compared to one of them who has been away from his country for seven months already and will only come back as soon as he runs out of funds.

Not only that, I was probably the only one with an organized plan o
f how my next 13 days will be.

After the chat, I decided to check out the water puppet show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre at Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, which is not far from my hostel. The ticket was $4 (as far as I remember).

My room mate said the show's a crap, but I thought otherwise. The stage is made up of a scaled-down Chinese-looking pavilion and a pool of murky water in front. On each side of the stage, there were three players of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, who also served as the voices of the characters. At the end of the show, six (or eight?) others would reveal themselves as the ones controlling the water puppets.
Tourists would not understand a single word the performers were uttering but the show gave me a peek at the musical and artistic traditions of Vietnam. The music is a mix of Chinese and other Asian influences with the flute, an instrument that looks like an Asian violin, a timpani, a stringed instrument that looked like that of Korea's, and other gong-sounding instruments which made the entire package akin to the musical traditions of Cambodia, Thailand, Southern Philippines and Indonesia.
I thought the show was fascinating -- and it would be for kids. Their dragons even came with firecrackers on their mouths.
To cap my Saigon day, I asked the motorcycle driver to take me to Huong Lai Restaurant, which is also not far from the puppet theatre. I just got the idea from my Lonely Planet Southeast Asia.

Inside the Huong Lai restaurant.

I highly recommend this restaurant so for those thinking of going to HCMC, better check out this place. The setting was on the second floor of a colonial-looking house, and the set-up is quite similar to the upper floor of a typical bahay na bato in the Philippines -- wooden floors, wooden furniture, yellow light flooding the whole space, etc. It would pass as an ideal "date place" for me.
The food was not so bad. I took the cheapest set meal, which consisted of what looked like Vietnamese pancit canton, purple yam soup, and another dish that I couldn't remember, plus a desert called "che," which is sweetened mung beans.

At $7, it was not at all bad. It's that good that I wanna go back there.

The servers were former street kids, so going there would be like helping these young people.

After that, I had to rush to the hostel to sleep early because my bus ride going to Cambodia the following day would be at 6am.
Quite long for a blog entry? I think this is proof enough that indeed, how I regret that I underestimated Vietnam, tsk tsk.

A view from the balcony of the Reunification Palace.
Facade of the Post Office.
The city hall.

The busy Bui Vien Street. Note the motorcycles on the sidewalk.


eye in the sky said...

Hey. Your adventure's finally starting to unravel through your blog. Will be reading it leisurely. Let me just say, Congrats for finally getting it started. I am the same. Takes me forever to start writing them.