Heading home from a recent trip to South East Asia, I was treated to this view from the window of the #CebuPacific plane. While it is a budget airline, the service and comfort was equal to most other airlines. Taking advantage of regular super sales, travel to an within SouthEast Asia is really affordable.
With direct flights from Sydney to the Philippines, SouthEast Asia is just a few hours away
After a pleasant nights’ sleep at the Hong Han Hotel, I woke fresh and hungry. One floor down I could smell the delicious flavours of freshly cooked food along with the rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee. I may have mentioned, that in a short few days, the particular kind of coffee made in Vietnam had become a firm favourite.
After packing my meagre belongings I wandered down one flight of stairs to the first floor where breakfast was being served on the small balcony overlooking the street. It was the usual fare, to which I had quickly become accustomed, with tasty bread rolls and a selection of fruit and various cooked offerings. My favourite was a kind of a cross between an omelette and scrambled egg, all washed down with a coffee.
I chatted with some of the guests who were visiting from all corners of the world, and spent a lazy half hour just soaking up the atmosphere. Seeking out mine host, Kim, I sought some advice as to where I needed to meet the bus that would take me south to Vung Tau that afternoon. We agreed that, although it was a short walk, it was probably best if I take a cab, given my proven ability to get lost. As usual, Kim sorted out the arrangements and I rebooked my room for when I returned after the weekend.
The cab duly arrived and, saying farewell to Kim, I took the short ride to the bus station. In the event, I could possibly have walked faster as the cab had to negotiate traffic and took a somewhat circuitous route, however, I arrived in good time and settled down to wait for the thirteen seater bus.
After a slow start through traffic, we finally found a freeway that took us pretty well all the way to Vung Tau, about two hours to the south. We stopped for a break around the halfway point, but other than that we made good time. Once we arrived in Vung Tau, the driver crisscrossed back and forth across the city, delivering each passenger to their door. I was the last to get off and easily found the address where my friend Alex lived.
Alex was a colleague of mine who had made the move to Vietnam to retire, and this was a great chance to catch up with him and his lovely wife Chi again. Their home was spacious and cool and I was quickly made to feel at home. Along with Alex and Chi, the family composed Chi’s mother and daughter, Nho.
Friday night and it was Alex’s habit to relax a little at a local sports bar called Lucy’s. This proved to be the watering hole of a fair number of Xpats from Australia, and along with the usual banter, the big screen televisions ensured that conversation was loud.
The following day, Alex took me to see some of the highlights of Vung Tau. This involved going two up on his motor scooter and dashing around the streets between all of the other scooters, each setting their own wild course. Always an exhilerating way to travel.
We visited the markets where, as in most markets I visited in Vietnam, there was row apon row of produce of every kind. All kinds of meats and veges were displayed. By now, I was well accustommed to the lack of refrigeration and had come to accept that, while it is the custom of where I have lived, this is everyday life in Vietnam. It speaks to the precious way that Western Society has come to live and in doing so has lost much of its resilience to bugs and disease.
Vung Tau is set on a peninsula and has two fairly distinct areas. On the East is the main beach where folk from Saigon come to spend a lazy weekend. The western side is on a sheltered harbour and appeared to be more the realm of the locals.
Between these two areas,lies a steep hill, up which the little scooter laboured under our combined weight. Through the trees we caught glimpes of the sea and further over on a ridge, stood a large statue of Jesus, arms raise as if blessing those who passed by in the sea below.
At the top we came to a lighthouse where it seemed many folk came to simply pass the time away.
A group of men sat playing a board game while groups of young folk gathered here and there playing instuments or taking selfies
Heading back along the coast road, we stopped in at the local supermarket. Alex drove down a narrow ramp and we came to an undrground carpark much like those back home in Australia. This one however, only parked motor cycles…. Not a car to be seen and in fact, the entrance was so narrow a car could not fit in.
Back at Alex’s, Chi had prepared a lovely Vietnamese meal, after which we went off to take a siesta. I was soon awakened by Alex rushing urgently past my door and I emerged to find the top floor awash with water. The rain was falling in a volume I had not witnessed before and it was all hands on deck to keep the water from entering the bedrooms. In that we only partially succeeded but almost as suddenly as it began, the rain stopped and we were able to quickly swish away the mess.
Outside the town had faired little better with water rising almost waist deep across the street. I was bemused that most folk bearly gave it a second though and went about their business in the usual way. It was only those affected by the inundation that took time out to clean up, along with a few neighbours who pitched in to lend a hand.
Apart from a few inconsiderate cab drivers who swished past at such a speed their bow wave sent a cascade of water back into the shops, it was smiles all around with neighbour helping neighbour (and me just taking photos to record the moment)
That evening Alex and I spent a couple of hours at Lucy’s watching the rugby before adjourning across the road to the wharf where there was a huge resturant set up. Food was great, as was the company and soon we were racing home on the scooters for a good nights rest.
The next morning Alex took me on another tour, up another steep road, to where there was a military base. As we neared the top of the road we came apon a small settlement. Here tourists had stopped to interact with the monkeys that abounded here. As usual, it was necessary to take care as they were quite bold and likely to snatch away anything that may have taken their fancy.
Onwards and upwards, we came to the end of the road where, in a makeshift building, families were having a meal or simply hanging out enjoying each others company. Children were rushing about, as they do, entertaining themselves with simple games.
We sampled a local drink that was made onsite. It was the sweet juice from crushing sugar cane and while very sweet was quite nice and refreshing.
Alex told me that he walked that road daily for execise when he first arrived in Vung Tau which was quite impressive in the steamy heat.
Quân Đội Dân Việt Nam translates to Vietnam Peoples Army
Heading back down we met up with Chi and went to an upmarket restaurant along the coast for breakfast. Again food here was great and the views provided a panorama of activity that kept me thoroghly entertained. I was taken by a fisheman who was tending his lines, all the while rowing his boat with his feet.
The water way was busy and there were craft of all kinds plying back and forth with those in tiny vessels taking their chance between the much larger hulls. Barges, full to the gunnels slipped passed, almost as if praying no wave would come along for fear of being swamped.
The restaurant was on some acreage with the paths and gardens beautifully kept. It was pleasant to end the meal with a stroll along the paths before heading back into town.
The rest of the day was spent in pleasant company and all too soon I had to prepare for my return to Saigon. This time I was taking the River Cat, which is a fast ferry service connecting Vung Tau with Saigon and taking a little over two hours.
The trip across the bay was a little rough but that soon settled as we entered the river. I watched the passing scene with interest as we cruised along. The river banks were largely covered in dense jungle and often there were large floating islands of vegetation to navigate past.
As the sun set we came into sight of Saigon with its towering bridges and the buildings beginning to dress up in their evening refinery as lights came on across the city
With my pack on my shoulders I wandered once again through the darkening streets of Saigon. I was headed for my room at the Hong Han. Walking up the Nguyen Hue, I marvelled at the light show that the buildings put on and the peacefulness of this city filled, as it is, with so many souls. I had just one more day to spend in this city and I reflected on the people I had met and how, in such a short time they had touched my life in such a rich way.
My walk had taken me as far as the Saigon River and it was well into the night before I found myself heading back to the street where I thought the hotel was.
It was only then that I realised I had no clue as to where the hotel actually was or even what it looked like…………….
I tried using the GPS on the phone but as soon as I reached one end of the street it would tell me I needed to be at the other. After the third trip along the street, trying to avoid emptying my wallet for all the girls selling souvenirs, I finally stopped and asked a group of them if they could help me find it.
That was when my stay in Vietnam became an adventure to remember. These girls, Dung, Linh, Tinh and Russia, turned the search for my hotel into a quest and between us we hustled up and down the street having a blast. Although they couldn’t understand me, nor I them, we seemed to reach a level of communication that got us by. I was almost disappointed when we finally found the front door, hidden away and looking like any old shop front as if desperate to remain hidden from the maddening crowd.
Even at this late hour Kim was still on duty waiting to make sure all her guests were tucked away for the night.
I decided that, if I was to buy any souvenirs, I would only buy from these girls who had helped me out finding my hotel. I saw lot of them on the street over the next days and learned a little about their way of life. I learned that when sales were poor, they compensated by not eating and so, as I cruised the street checking out, first one, then another coffee shop, I would invite them in for a sandwich or drink should they pass by.
The group grew to include Hue and her sister Huong and spending time with these girls taught me so much about what it means to live and work on the streets of a city such as this. I realised that I live a privileged existence: like being inside a plastic bubble, where there is always a safety net to catch those of us who might fall. For the locals born of this city, life is a continuous battle for survival. Yet despite all of this, the people here were always friendly and ready with a quick smile. It is a way of life very different from that which I have grown up in but one that I felt had a reality that will remain with me. These girls made my holiday all the richer for knowing them. .
I gained their friendship and, I think, respect, for one night I was sitting in the middle of the street on the pavement chatting to them when another new girl arrived. I had not seen this new comer before but she had a very young toddler with her even though the hour was late.
She appeared to be having trouble with her phone, so I offered her mine to use. She promptly put her toddler on my lap and in that instant the atmosphere became quite tense. Hue, who was sitting behind me moved up very close and I felt a hand at the zip of my trouser pockets. I was all at once disappointed, for I had felt that we had built a friendship that was better than being pick-pocketed. Then I realised that the zipper was being closed and Hue then patted down my other pockets to make sure they were closed.
It turned out that the new comer used her child to pick the pockets of the unwary and Hue had moved in to protect me from becoming a victim. Such a small thing but it meant so much to me. It earned her a dinner out in a restaurant.
By the end of my time, the girls had asked if they could have a number so that they could keep in contact.
They have continued contact with me, even after I returned home to Australia, and often ask when I will return. One day soon I hope, for there is still so much to do and see there
The second morning, after a delicious breakfast, I was whisked away to the second hotel, the Hong Han, by the concierge and his henchmen. There, mine host was a lovely lass called Kim who, it seems is quite famous around the world due to her friendly service and attention to detail. It seemed that nothing was ever too much for Kim.
Always happy to go that extra mile to make sure your stay is a great one, Kim can also help you to plan you holiday itinerary, not only around Saigon but also Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. If you are planning a stay in Saigon then check out the Hong Han for a place to stay. Tell Kim you heard about it on this blog.
I settled in and then decided to go for a walk and so, without so much as a glance over my shoulder, I headed out.
After my jaunt with a guide the previous day, I had decided the I would walk everywhere I could and see the city at a more leisurely pace. This was both a good and bad decision: good because I saw so much more detail, but bad because it was hotter than that to which I am accustomed and the heat was quite draining. I supplemented my hydration with frequent stops at cafes to sample the Vietnamese style of coffee to which I had become addicted.
Called cà phê đá, it is made with a special filter that sits atop the coffee glass. The coffee is dripped over a teaspoon of sweetened condensed milk and when done, one can stir the milk, as little or as much as needed, to reach the level of sweetness desired. All this occurs at the table and is as much a part of the experience as is the drinking.
If one desired a cold version, cà phê sữa đá, one could order a glass of ice and then simply pour the stirred coffee over the ice. Either way the coffee was great.
I had seen many of the main tourist attractions with the guide but as I ventured further I discovered a wide boulevard without cars or bikes. At the top end was the Ho Chi Minh City Hall. This is a quite magnificent building was built during the first decade of the twentieth century in colonial French style. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City Hall in 1995 in honour of Ho Chi Minh who had led the peoples revolution during the early part of that century.
I walked down the boulevard watching the people. There were many who were obvious visitors, cameras on their necks and that aimless, hopelessly lost look in their eyes. Then there were the workers, each clipping their heals along the pavement as if they needed to be somewhere else right at that moment. And then there was me…. in no hurry, totally lost but not bothered as I had all day in which to find my way home………
At the bottom end of the boulevard, an eight lane highway formed a tangible barrier to reaching the Saigon River on the other side. The street was filled to overflowing with cars, trucks and of course, the pandemic motor cycles.
I found a pedestrian crossing of sorts and decided to cross. It had no lights but even when I stood right at the edge of the road, no-one showed even the slightest inclination to stop and let me cross. After ten minutes or so a group of Vietnamese came along and simply walked across in front of the cars. They managed to get to the other side without a hitch and so saying a silent prayer I boldly stepped into the street. Each step followed the next and suddenly I found myself in the midst of a swirling mass of steel and glass. I faltered……. You should never falter…… Faltering makes things start to come undone. The cars, that had happily been avoiding me, now had to deal with a rogue pedestrian who had no apparent direction or purpose. No one knew where I might go next and they started to swerve and panic. Horns honked and tyres squealed but amazingly I stayed on my feet. I heard a voice calling…”Keep Moving..Just keep moving” and I did just that. I made a bee line for the other side of the street and the safety of the footpath. It only took a few seconds but each seemed like an eternity.
Safely across, I wandered along the side of the river. Wide and slow, these waters carry much fright on ever present ships that ply this waterway. I watched a ferry that had come from Vung Tau, a city around two hours south of Saigon, unload. People watching is such an interesting pastime. Each has a different look, a different purpose and their interactions with life can entertain me for hours.
I sat for a while and chatted with a guy who owned a three-wheel cycle. The two wheels were at the front and there was a double wide seat for passengers. Old Mate sat at the back and peddled his customers around the city. He had been doing this for around twenty years. After learning that I was from Australia he became quite excited and proceeded to tell me about how he had been wounded while fighting alongside Australians during the Vietnam conflict. I had the impression that, had I been American, he would have altered his story to reflect that. I saw this guy all over the city in the days that followed.
Right at that time, he was waiting out the traffic and I spent an enjoyable half hour or so chatting with him and some other folk who had sat down to rest at that spot.
As the evening drew the curtains on yet another day, I sat beside the road and watched the traffic that had, amazingly, grown even more voluminous. The end of the working day had people rushing home. Like a swollen stream the flow of vehicles ran on into the night. In the midst of all this traffic, one could also see the odd street trader, pushing their two wheeled and carts along paying no heed to the traffic rushing by.
Street lights came on as well as car lights and the scene changed yet again. Opportunities for light trails became the only option as the city put on it’s evening wear and the duller colours of the day receded into nothingness
It was well dark when I decided to head for home, and again I was forced to brave the busy street to reach the boulevard on the other side. Nothing had change, the traffic was if nothing else, worse than when I had crossed over earlier but this time I had it nailed. Just step out and hope, never falter, never fail!!!
The name of this boulevard is Nguyen Hue, and now with the night fallen it had taken on a new life. People seemed content to just loiter around in groups and as I made my way up the street I was taken by the colour of the lights on the buildings that lined the street.
Many of the buildings lights were animated playing a series of changing patterns that gave the whole area a festive feel.
There were the ever present street hawkers as well as some street performers, all looking to glean a dollar in a harsh world.
I came across a space that was void of people. Lights set into the pavement were constantly changing colour and security police were rushing to and fro waving people away. There seemed an air of expectation and so I settled down to wait.
On the dot of seven, great spouts of water burst from around the lights and for the next fifteen minutes we were treated to an amazing spectacle of light and water. Then, just as suddenly as it started, it stopped, and, much as they do when a train goes by and the barrier arms come up, folk started to walk across the pavement again. Save for the wet pavement, there was no sign that anything special had just occurred here.
At the top of the boulevard the scene had also changed. The lights had come on at City Hall and it stood out from the city night in awesome contrast.
On the approach there is a statue of Ho Chi Minh standing seven metres high and looking down towards the river. Made of bronze, this statue is even more imposing under lights than during the day. Many folk were taking selfies in front of it with the city hall as a back drop. I spent some time getting a few shots before heading back towards the street where I lived.
Nearer home, a street that had been full of vehicles when I walked through earlier in the day, was now a bustling street market. Marquees stood where cars had driven and folk were sitting down to eat their evening meals in any of the myriad of temporary restaurants that had appeared as if from nowhere. Clothing,souvenirs and almost everything else that one could want were on display as I walked the length of this momentary shopping mall.
My walk had taken me as far as the Saigon River and it was well into the night before I found myself heading back to the street where I thought the hotel was.
It was only then that I realised I had no clue as to where the hotel actually was or even what it looked like……………. But that is for another story