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
One of the best things about Asia is that it is so very close to… well… Asia. On a recent trip to see family in the Philippines, I took the opportunity to fly to Vietnam , only a short two hour hop from Manila. This was a part visit with an old work colleague and an adventure for myself.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the night having left Manila at around 10:30 pm. I had previously purchased a visa via the telephone while in Manila and now had to pick it up as I entered Vietnam at the airport. There was a short queue by the time I arrived even though I had packed light and had no checked luggage. I settled in to wait my turn. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long a wait, but by the time I had cleared customs with my newly stamped and stickered passport, I was bone weary.
This proved to be a small disaster, as my friend Alex, had emailed me instructions on how to avoid being ripped off by the more scurrilous taxi drivers in the city. I stumbled through to the waiting ranks and told a porter where I needed to be. He didn’t understand too well so I gave up and got into the first decent looking cab I saw.
This is where it all started to unravel… The price he gave me was about four times what Alex had told me was fair. By the time this surfaced in my brain, we were well on the way to the city. I decided to try and negotiate…..
My erstwhile fluent English speaking cabbie suddenly forgot every English sounding syllable he had ever learned and it was only when I pulled the international incident card that he relented and handed back the difference.
He dropped me at the end of an ally and I had to negotiate some rough looking diamonds who were loitering in the area. After safely arriving at the hotel, a weary manager showed me to my room and I sank thankfully into my bed.
The hotel was called the Bich Duyen and was comfortable and price friendly. I realised that I would be needing a third night before I headed south to Vung Tau to visit Alex but was told they were fully booked. They phoned a sister hotel and arranged a night for me there. Same price, same conditions.
The first day I wandered the streets of Saigon’s District One looking at the touristy wonders and trying to avoid being ripped off by the many hawkers trying to make a living off the many tourists visiting the city.
I was looking for a shot of a world globe that sat atop a tower. The sun was behind it and I was having difficulty in getting the settings to work.
This guy (In the stripped shirt) was hanging about making me a bit nervous as to what were his intentions until he simply came up and began to shine the straps on my thongs. “A” for persistence… He simply would not take no for an answer.
Of course, one spends some time in the markets when on holiday, and one of the bigger ones in town was just down the street from the hotel. Ben Thanh Markets Cover an area the size of a large street block, and the walls were packed with goods of every shape and size. Being a foreigner I was the target of every seller hoping to tempt me with their wares.
I did get a replica NorthFace backpack which became my go-to bag while I wandered the streets. Cheap and perhaps nasty I didn’t have great expectations that it would last but it has served me well for quite some time and so became a pretty good investment
I visited the War Museum, locally known as the Museum of American Atrocities. This was an interesting place but one where you need to keep an open mind and remember that it is only a shrine to history. One could spend many hours here without seeing it all.
I had been walking somewhat aimlessly for several hours and I began to tire. I was approached by a guy on a motorcycle who offered to take me around the main tourist attractions. This involved a trip through the middle of a very busy multi-laned roundabout. The traffic ebbed and flowed around us and the ride was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.
He took me to the cathedral called the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon where I reluctantly handed him my camera so that he could take a photo of me standing in front. I was prepared tat any moment to have to run him down in case he made a dash away with my camera, but in the end, I had judged him too harshly as he cheerfully handed the camera back and pointed out some good photo spots near the old Central Post Office over the road.
He was obviously in the employ of a certain “massage” establishment as we seemed to drive past it on a fairly regular basis with him extolling the virtues of the ladies inside..
Eventually, darkness fell and he delivered me to my Hotel where he insisted on picking me up again next morning to take me to, even more, attractions across the city.
I took a leisurely shower before wandering back out on the street to check out the nightlife. Walking passed a shop selling tours, I asked about pricing. I was to discover that I had paid way too much for my afternoon’s sightseeing and so resolved to be elsewhere in the morning when my companion was to meet me. It seems that it is far better to buy tours from the streetside tour operators with shopfronts than those who cruise the streets
After a fast food meal in a place much like MacDonalds, I headed home for a night’s rest and plan my next day’s excursions. Little was I to know that tomorrow would bring about events that would lead me to see Vietnam with totally different eyes (Cont…)