12 May 2014
A highlight of the day and quite a funny moment was going thru security at the very small Siem Reap airport where for the first time in months and many, many flights we were required to take off our shoes going thru security. I almost wanted to laugh and remind the airport security where we were and that no one has cared about taking off shoes, taking out liquid bags or laptops to go thru security since we left the US. Oh, the fun of airport travel!
Upon landing in Saigon and making it off the plane and thru the terminal to the visa booth, it was about a thirty minute wait after we completed the arrival paperwork and submitted our visa approval letter before we had our passports and our thirty day visas in hand. I guess we should have seen the extra steps in receiving a visa and hefty price tag as an omen for things to come.
We followed the signs out of the airport to the taxi stands but after we hoped in the taxi we knew we were in the wrong type of taxi. Immediately he wanted us to pay for the airport exit fee but we insisted we would only pay the meter rate. After taking the long way to the hotel we finally arrived and again our driver tried to ask for another 50,000 dong but we said no and walked off. We had no small bills so he had already received much more than the metered fair, not the best of welcomes to Vietnam.
We made it down the alley to our hotel and were greeted by two very gracious hosts, which was a nice change. Our room wasn’t ready we left our bags and at their suggestion made our way around the corner to a good pho restaurant. It was then off to do some wandering in our new neighborhood. While I quickly took note of the Starbucks and thought a coffee would be nice, I could tell from the side eye I got from Adam that, Starbucks was not in my future. I did however as we watched traffic go by at the main roundabout see local looking coffee spot and after one sip I was in love and wondering why they hell I was even thinking Starbucks sounded nice. It was also the best spot to just sit and watch the chaos that is driving here. And of course laugh and sit in awe of what can be carried on a motorbike. Most days I think I have seen it all, but the next day I will see something else crazy. You really can carry any and everything on a motorbike. I guess I can never complain that my car is not big enough to fit my belongings. Once we finished our coffee and tea (it comes with a cup as well) it was back to settle into our room and relaxing before we heading out for the evening on a tour with Back of the Bike.
We were both very excited to get oriented to this city especially on the back of a motorbike. After traveling by motorbike in a few cities I feel plenty comfortable on the back of one, but I was still curious to seeing how I would react in such a busy city, either way we figured it would be a great experience and a lot of fun. There are about 10 million people in HCMC and about 6.7 million motorbikes so there really isn’t any better way to experience a local perspective. Our drivers arrived at our hotel to pick us up and soon we were off on our tour that would take us throughout a good portion of the city.
Our guides would drive us around to a bunch of different neighborhoods all while pointing out different sights and giving us an overview of some of the uniqueness of HCMC and Vietnam.
We started by traveling just across the river from our hotel into the hustle and bustle of the backpacker area. And just like any other backpacker area it was wall to wall inch to inch vendors selling crap clothes, tourist day trips, food so I really couldn’t tell you if we were on Khao San road in Bangkok or HCMC, it really looked almost the same. It was then up the road by one of the many parks we would see on our ride, I really am impressed with the number of parks here and how everyone at all hours takes advantage of the open space. Since it was just after 6pm, most people were using the park as a workout spot. We even saw a group doing Zumba!
As we passed by a hospital, my guide told me that if you want a bed at a local hospital make sure you book five months in advance, including all you moms to-be otherwise you will be giving labor out in the hall. When you go to the hospital there are three types of groups, those with insurance, VIPs and cash (I don’t recall if the last one is right). As insurance is compulsory here it really does you no good if you want a bed in a room, for that you need more money.
We cruised thru a section of town that featured shops solely dedicated to wedding stationary. It was here I learned that the process to determine the day you are married is very similar to that in Cambodia. Here the matchmaker will pick a date that is lucky for both the bride and groom and that is the date you will get married. I was also told that men and women do not cohabitate; the response was a solid no with a furrowed brow almost like I was asking a crazy question. In conversation she also told me that if a family member were to die the couple could not get married until three years after the death.
We then drove thru a section of town where flowers were sold, mostly for weddings and funerals. While it was much smaller than the flower market in Bangkok but there were still so many colorful varieties of orchids to ogle at.
My guide was born and raised in Saigon and when she mentioned her grandmother lived in San Jose, I asked if she had ever been there to visit. Immediately she said no as she was afraid it might be too cold. I laughed and said well I was afraid that traveling here I would not be able to handle the heat and humidity, to which she quickly responded that there was AC. And at that moment I think I blew her mind when I said, well we have heaters for when it gets to cold.
Our first stop of the evening was at the market. And we started off our visit with a very fun game. Adam and I were each given 10,000 dong (about 50 cents) and a mission to buy as many different items in the market and the winner will take home a bag of mangosteens.
Feeling very confident in my negotiating skills and with the help of my guide teaching me a few key phrases like ‘how much?,’ ‘one,’ and ‘thank you’ I was impressed with my loot in my three bags, until we reconvened and counted up how many items each of us had bought. Turns out Adam ended up with 21 items to my 20 because one of the ladies selling produce just gave him a bunch of random small produce. I guess the local women were too happy to have a man wandering in the produce market so they took a liking to him. Go figure???
As we made our way out of the market on motorbike navigating by the vendors, people, bicyclists and of course other motorbikes, I was shocked at how calm I was getting so close to many people and things. I guess I really have adjusted to this chaos being a new normal and a way of life. I really have come a long way. After this trip I will probably have to reteach myself to use a seatbelt.
There are only three Starbucks shops and on our tour we went by two of them. McDonalds opened two months ago (Feb) here in HCMC and there were lines for hours. Near our hotel there was a grand opening sign of their section franchise set to open May 16, needless to say we weren’t too sad we wouldn’t be around for it.
Making our way down another side street we went by a large group all dressed in white with a man serving food in a unique white headdress. When I asked what was going on I was told it was a funeral and that they can last for a week.
Next we made our way to our dinner stop for the evening where we got to try our hand at cooking up some local street food banh xeo which is a rice flour batter fried and then filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts.
Once it’s finished cooking you place it on a sheet of rice paper, add some fresh herbs, roll it up like a taquito and enjoy. After cooking up a few ‘pancakes’ we pulled up some chairs and sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor and were quite pleased. In addition to the banh xeo we also had some bo la lot which was beef cooked up inside a betel leaf, and lastly we tried some balut.
If you’re unfamiliar with balut it a fertilized duck egg that they stop during the incubation period and then ‘hard boil’ the egg and serve it up. Now we were a little hesitant to try this (me especially) as the only image we had of belut is how they eat it in the Philippines. There they let the incubation go until only a few days before the duck would be born so when you crack open the shell you’ve got a whole baby duck beak and all ready to go. As we were talking with our guides they assured us that the balut here was nothing like that as that would be really, really gross and they stop their eggs about halfway through the incubation period as opposed to a few days. We got a good laugh out of that as we’re sitting here thinking any of it would be gross and they’re thinking how gross it would be to let it incubate longer. The difference in perspective always has to make you laugh. After realizing that he wouldn’t be chewing on a duck beak Adam decided to give it a shot and actually quite enjoyed the egg. After convincing me that it just tasted like a really good hard-boiled egg I took a bite and it was not half bad.
After dinner our next stop was to a vendor selling coffee. And we learned the secrets of my new favorite coffee. They roast the beans in butter! So if you never believed the statement, butter makes everything better, well you should. The beans smell and taste as if they have chocolate ground in and the end result is a cup of coffee that basically tastes like you’re drinking a chocolate cake. And the secret to making the perfect cup is to place two spoon-fulls in the ‘coffee-maker’ place the press on top, add another half scoop and add just a dash of water, count to 10 or 15 then pour the rest of the water in. Sit patiently and wait for the coffee to drip thru the filter, remove the coffee maker add sugar and enjoy. And for those who like milk, add sweeten condensed milk to the cup prior to the start of the coffee making process!
And no tour with would be complete without a conversation about Vietnam. As we road thru another market and towards our hotel my guide dove right into the topic with a ‘most Americans always ask how I feel about the war,’ and her optimistic, never look back thinking said it all when she said something along the lines of, ‘that was in the past, things change.’ Which sums up perfectly my impression of this city has been thus far.
Best item being carried by a motorbike: A tree
Today’s Travel: Flight from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City on Vietnam Airlines, and around Saigon motorbike
Accommodations: Huong Trinh Hotel. A nice guesthouse down a quiet alley in a perfect location to take in all the sights of the city.