Friday, August 30, 2013

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh to tourists

Our life of peace and serenity in Hoi An, Vietnam was once again about to take a turn back to the chaotic world of Vietnamese urban life. We had planned, and tried to book train tickets from Hoi An to Saigon, which was the old but very much alive and commonly used name of Ho Chi Minh City. The train in Vietnam was something that I really wanted to experience, and I had all but convinced Hannah that it would be an enriching experience. The name "Reunification Express" just sounds like something you have to do, at least that was my argument. The journey by train from Hoi An to Saigon would take at least 20 hours but we were prepared to accept that fate. Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones with that plan. All sleeper coaches on the train were sold out for days before and after our required departure and rather than sit upright in a cattle car for 20 hours we decided to make other arrangements. Luckily (for Hannah) flights from Hoi An to Saigon were inexpensive and quick, so that became the new plan.

We arrived Saigon without issue and our awaiting car took us to the center of the Saigon expat and tourist activity, District 1. We were immediately ambushed by blocks and blocks and streets and streets of literal chaos. Bars and clubs blared, restaurants (mostly makeshift or street food stands) bustled with activity. The Vietnamese seemed to take many things from their French influences including baguettes, smoking way too much, and setting up chairs in one direction along busy streets so patrons can sit, smoke, and drink while watching the chaos on the street pass them by, which is why Saigon is commonly referred to as "the Paris of Asia."

We had booked 2 nights in Saigon in District 1 at the Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel; in case you are wondering there are indeed at least another 2 of them. We didn't want to overbook our stay in District 1 as we had heard that it could be a crazy place and we thought we may want a bit more of a local scene during our stay in Saigon, so we left ourselves the option of booking the final few days elsewhere....which would turn out to be one of our trips missteps. Entering the Beautiful 3 we were indifferent...nothing to rave about but nothing to complain about. We didn't notice until the following morning that there were no windows at all in the hotel room, and we never thought to look or ask. We soon realized how much a window changes a hotel room. We would wake up each morning and have absolutely no idea where we were, what time it was, if we had missed the day, or we should just go back to sleep.

We dropped our bags and in the true nature of squeezing every bit of excitement out of a night in Saigon I convinced Hannah that we MUST IMMEDIATELY head to the Saigon Night Market. Night Markets in SE Asia were a staple of every city we visited. We were beginning to realize that you can transplant a Luang Prabang night market in the middle of Bangkok, and staff it with vendors from Saigon and it would be exact same market. They are all selling the exact same Chinese made trinkets and T-shirts. The only major difference is that the beer T-shirts have a different brand of beer imprinted on them. Hannah was in no mood for a night market and as soon as we arrived I realized that neither was I. We lasted 10 minutes and headed back to our hotel's busy street (which was getting progressively crazier) for our first Saigon street food experience.

 We sat down at a decent looking Pho Bo Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup stand and in 3 minutes were served an amazing bowl of Pho by the sweetest mother (~70 yrs old)/daughter (~50 years old) pair. We loaded up our bowls with hot chili, bean sprouts, and basil and went to town. At that moment Hannah and I both had a silent agreement that we be eating at this soup stand at least once a day. We hardly noticed that directly behind us was a bar that, like most bars in Saigon's District 1, was also a brothel.


We spent the following day wandering around several of Saigon's neighborhoods, checking out a few of the sites, but mostly just enjoying the diverse parts of the city. We were very impressed with Saigon, the Western and French influences were very prominent. The streets in many areas were wide with sidewalks that were comfortable to walk on, unlike Hanoi where it was probable to get killed (or burned) by a moped even when on the sidewalk. There were high end areas such as the Dong Khoi neighborhood that were reminscient of 5th Avenue in New York with a combination of high end shopping as well as plenty of opportunities to buy Mark Yacobs bags or Louis Wuitten purses. 

As you walked down these ritzy streets we were continuously offered manicures and pedicures by girls handing out flyers. We are quite sure that all Westerners look alike because it was not uncommon to pass by and say "no thank you" to the same person 5 times but still have them attempt to hand you a coupon. I began telling them that I just had 3 manicures and couldn't possibly have another, but they still insisted. Walking through the rain we were insistent on finding a local beer joint but we somehow ended up on top of the highest end bar in Saigon having 12 glasses of $12 wine. Sometimes it's hard to be a tourist.

Much as we have loved every other Vietnamese city that we visited, we also loved Saigon for many of the same reasons. We rarely found ourselves eating at a restaurant in Vietnam. Our meals were almost always grazing on street vendor foods as we walked around town. We did find a great restaurant through our brother in law Eric which happened to have locations in both Hanoi and Saigon called Quon An Ngon. We ate there twice in Saigon toasting Eric both times, but everything else that we had worth mentioning was at a roadside stand.


After 2 nights in the crazy District 1 of Saigon Hannah and I were looking for a more local, less touristy scene. We did our normal extensive due diligence and decided it best to stay at a hotel located in a neighborhood further out of the center. As the taxi drove us to the hotel we tracked diligently on Google Maps. We were a bit surprised and unsure what was happening when the taxi passed the hotel, or what we thought was the hotel and continued driving for another 20 minutes. We finally arrived at the hotel and Hannah and I both looked at each other with that common unspoken phrase, "have we made a huge mistake?". The hotel was not only 20 minutes by bus from anything that we'd want to see or anywhere we planned on going, but it was also accessed by back alleys. As we walked along the alley to get to the hotel chickens roamed freely on the streets, the screen doors of the local homes were open and the residents laid in plain view on mats on the floors, and women sat in the streets washing dishes. The hotel itself appeared to be very nice, and the hospitality of the manager was very welcoming. We explained the truth, Google Maps had told us the hotel was 20 minutes closer to the city center, and this probably wasn't going to work for our 3 nights remaining in Saigon. She was fully understanding, refunded our money in full, and within 30 minutes we were back in a taxi headed back to District 1.

My trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels was another great way to see the Vietnamese propaganda machine in action. The tunnels hold complex mazes and underground structures used by the Vietnamese when fighting the Americans in Saigon. We learned about all the ways traps are constructed and many other tactics the Vietnamese used to defeat the American invaders. The best part of this excursion was being able to shoot whatever crazy automatic machine gun I wanted to. I chose an AK47 and M60 machine gun. I have absolutely no idea if I even came close to hitting the targets, but it was a blast regardless.

Here I am doing my best to fit into a hole made for much smaller people.

Here is a video of me shooting a massive machine gun and hitting nothing but loving it.

For the remaining time in Saigon we continued to eat incredible food on the street, having a regular dinner at our favorite Pho soup stand. We visited the War Remnants museum where one can see the finest in captured American artillery and weaponry including planes, tanks, and more, displayed in the proudest fashion by the Vietnamese. Also on display were room after room of pictures of the damage done by Agent Orange, not an uplifting exhibit to say the least.

We also took in a cockfight.

I also exercised my alter ego and played Adam Sandler for a couple of star struck Vietnamese girls.

Saigon marked the end of our amazing adventure in Vietnam. We have loved Vietnam, loved the food, loved the craziness, and the overall organized chaos that makes a country like this so exciting. We definitely would like to return to see more of this country and eat as much as possible.

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