Visiting Vietnam – Day 1

I confess, I’m a newbie at traveling. In fact, I hardly stepped out of the country for the few years that I’ve been working, with the exception the occasional visits to Malaysia. Yes, you could call me a swakoo (mountain turtle) for that matter. Vietnam in my impression before the trip was interesting as it was dangerous. A few close friends had shared experiences of getting pick pocketed of their wallets and other valuables while they were there, warning me to be careful and alert. It didn’t take any advanced algorithm to derive that I should not bring the better camera.

My well-abused camera bag holding a D70 body, 18-70mm, 50mm and 70-300mm lenses, SB600 speedlight and various battery chargers.
My well-abused camera bag holding a D70 body, 18-70mm, 50mm and 70-300mm lenses, SB600 speedlight and various battery chargers.

Of course, a n00b traveler like me didn’t go alone. I had the company of the well-traveled Girlfriend and her friends and friends’ friends.

We would fly on a budget flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Thankfully, there were no delays, unlike my first budget experience on Air Asia. 2 hours later, we landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

People waiting to fetch their guests
People waiting to fetch their guests.

We were ushered into a SUV that would bring us to the hotel. Shops in different shapes and sizes line up both sides of the streets.

Along the way to our lodging
Along the way to our lodging.

Plenty of motorcycles and pedestrians stream endlessly along and across the roads, so horning was something really common as a form of a friendly precautionary signal to fellow road users.

Vietnam's preferred form of transport
Vietnam’s preferred form of transport

We had initially booked a night’s stay at Madam Cuc situated in Bui Vien. But when we arrived, we were moved to an inferior hotel run by the lady boss’ relative. Worse, we were placed at the top floor of the building. Walking up flights of stairs was one thing, but the worst was the pathetic water pressure that would make our showers in the evening miserable.

Bui Vien
Bui Vien

We didn’t waste time to set off on our free and easy walk about Ho Chi Minh City. With our luggage out of the way, we proceeded to the local money changers and then got ourselves a few bottles of water. Armed with a tourist’s map, we trotted our way around.

The common narrow, deep and tall architecture seen all around.
The common narrow, deep and tall architecture seen all around.

Unlike Singapore, their cables are above ground, which makes for an interesting sight for me.
Unlike Singapore, their cables are above ground, which makes for an interesting sight for me.

Ho Chi Minh City is surprisingly simple to get around with some basic map reading skills. Thereafter, it is a choice of renting a motorcycle (which doesn’t require a driving licence, only confidence), flagging down a taxi (pretty cheap by meter, averaging 1 to 4 US dollars) or just by foot (if you have the time). Bicycles if you are confident enough on the roads that hardly employs traffic lights. The motorists here are definitely more responsible drivers that look out for pedestrians vehicles. We only need to confidently walk across the streets and the motorists would automatically take proper evasive manoeuvres to avoid us.

Plenty of art galleries like these all over Ho Chi Minh City selling quality art work and replicas of the masters.
Plenty of art galleries like these all over Ho Chi Minh City selling quality art work and replicas of the masters.

Lots of art galleries and artists are available in Ho Chi Minh City. You can find plenty of quality art works at relatively low prices here. So artists might even be foreigners here for their own artistic inspirations, so you will never know if you might bump into the next master or even buy his or her early original works.

Yet another art gallery with plenty of creations on sale.
Yet another art gallery with plenty of creations on sale.

Along the street, we saw many ladies in Vietnam’s national costume, the Ao Dai. An Ao Dai is made to flaunt the Vietnamese ladies svelte figures. What we noticed as well was that quite a number of Ao Dais worn by ladies on the streets were rather translucent, leaving little to imagine what goes underneath. The conspiracy theory we shared was that it is probably one of the reasons why some Singaporean men took Vietnamese brides. Other draw factors possibly included are virtuousness, entrepreneurial spirit, hardworking, independent and persistent nature.

Ladies wearing the Ao Dai, Vietnam's national costume.
Ladies wearing the Ao Dai, Vietnam’s national costume.

We decided to stop for lunch as we didn’t know how far off our first destination would be. Being from wonderfully sanitised Singapore, we opted for a clean looking place and decided on Bun Bo Hue. I guess it is only wiser to dine at a cleaner looking place while traveling as we never know how clean the road side stalls can be. Anyway, eating in Ho Chi Minh City usually doesn’t cost an arm or a leg, paying slightly more in a restaurant can be considered a form of insurance.

The 2nd floor interior of Bun Bo Hue
The 2nd floor interior of Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo Hue serves up a slightly different variation of Vietnamese cuisine. Specifically, it serves up Hue cuisine. They don’t serve pho here, but a thick noodle variety similar to that found in Penang laksa.

Hue noodles - comes in a spicy broth with a layer of oil
Hue noodles – comes in a spicy broth with a layer of spicy oil

The texture of the meat might take a little getting used to as it is relatively tougher than what we usually have in Singapore. Personally I am okay with the additional chewing, but some might not take to it positively.

Combination Rice Cakes
Combination Rice Cakes

Everyone loved this dish for the lovely, chewy rice cakes with a myriad of toppings. The simple fish sauce served as a Mida’s touch. Plus, it comes with a handful of pork skin that are fried till crispy.

Deep fried spring rolls
Deep fried spring rolls

Sink your teeth into the nice crunchy skin to release the fragrance of the meat fillings. The accompanying sweet chili is a must to complete enjoy this dish. Or wrap a spring roll with the greens for an additional dimension of freshness.

With full stomachs, we carried on our walk to Ben Thanh Market. While searching for it at a junction, a helpful American on a motorbike stopped by to help us find our way and dispense travel advice. The gluttons in us had to ask, “Where’s a good place for pho?”

To which he suggested Pho Hoa tucked in a far off corner of the city. He spoke in fluent Mandarin in between sentences, he had picked it up in his years working in China. We thanked him as he rode off to his next destination.

Round about with monument
Round about with monument

We arrived at Ben Thanh Market shortly after. While not as massive and comprehensive as Chatuchak in Thailand, this is still a great place to shop for clothes, bags, accessories, foodstuffs and souvenirs.

Ben Thanh Market

The price of a typical “branded” t-shirt here is about US$3.50, so make sure you don’t end up paying too much. To get a good price, one good trick is to walk away when their initial asking price isn’t ideal. Almost all the time, they will respond with an intermediate price. State your final price and be ready to walk away if the price is not agreeable. Of course, don’t be a jerk and state unreasonable prices or bargain for the fun of it. Bargain only if you genuinely want to buy the item.

Plenty of trinkets and bling
Plenty of trinkets and bling

With our first round of shopping done, we proceeded to the War Remnants Museum for a visit. I have to say that it was a very informative trip. Even more so if one is a military history buff.

Pudgy me at the War Remnants Museum
Pudgy me at the War Remnants Museum

Vietnam War was probably one of the most badly fought wars by the United States. The atrocities that they committed in Vietnam are well-documented here. One of the most appalling things I saw here was the American propaganda that was related through the pictures. There were tons of pro-America shots of soldiers in extreme conditions and their operations in Vietnam. Even the use of Agent Orange was drummed up as an awesome American thing to be proud about.

Next was the section that included the photographs and documentation coming from the Vietnamese point of view. People suffering from napalm burns. Children crying in the streets. Farmers executed based on suspicions of being a communist. Vietnamese men and women staring death in the face with dignity as they were tortured or awaiting their impending deaths. Mass burial grounds with bodies piled up.

Then there was the section where the effects of Agent Orange was displayed. Plenty of the people in the pictures suffered extreme deformations. Preserved still births with deformations were also displayed.

Also on display was a replica of the prison which the US troops housed the prisoners-of-war. Torture chambers housed a myriad of apparatus designed to prolong suffering and trauma. From extremely confined cells to highly experimental torture procedures, the US Troops weren’t short of ideas.

But probably the worst of all is what happens today. Many Americans still think that they did the right thing during the Vietnam War and unapologetically glamourised it in many recent films. I find this appalling.

Plenty of Americans left apologies in the guest book after touring the museum. They never knew what their troops did in Vietnam until their visit here.
Plenty of Americans left apologies in the guest book after touring the museum.
They never knew what their troops did in Vietnam until their visit here.

We left the museum to continue our tour around the city and bumped into the friendly Chinese-speaking American who shared yet another place for good pho. We had spotted him riding along the streets and he decided to stop by to see if we were doing okay. So nice hor?

The Chinese-speaking American on a bike
The friendly Chinese-speaking American on a bike

The next thing we knew, we got caught in the rain. One observation: the locals prefer ponchos and their conical hats to umbrellas. Anyway, it was also time to meet up with Lifen’s friends who have arrived on a later flight.

We linked up at the Notre Dame Cathedral to take shelter, but we couldn’t get in for a look because they had started their service.

The Notre Dame Cathedral
The Notre Dame Cathedral

After the rain subsided, we decided to go find the Pho Hoa that the friendly Chinese-speaking American on bike had been raving about. He kept mentioning about the dough fritters that was served with the food. And we also decided to get there by foot.

Unfortunately, the directions given were rather iffy and we almost gave up just steps away from the eatery! We had walked along Pasteur Road for the longest time, and luckily the signboard was spotted just before we abandoned the mission. I guess it was nice to know that we burned a good amount of calories to find the place too.

Eating pho at Pho Hoa
Eating pho at Pho Hoa

Pho Hoa is pretty much like the old kopi tiams we have in Singapore. It has got lots of the local charm and character that a traveler should immerse himself/herself in. The place is packed with locals, so it has got to be good in a way. And it was so. It turns out that this eatery is featured on the Lonely Planet guide book for Vietnam. Predictably, the people at my table gorged ourselves silly with the food. Oh yeah, the beef could a little too tough for your liking. Nevertheless a great place for great local food.

With our meal settled, the unanimous decision was to hop on a taxi to get back to Ben Thanh Market for another look-see. The market enroaches into the adjacent streets in the evening as stalls are set up for business. However, the stalls inside the market would close for the day.

Street food at Ben Thanh Market
Street food at Ben Thanh Market

Pretty oramental shoes
Pretty oramental shoes

Only to be attempted by strong stomaches
Only to be attempted by strong stomaches

Hmm...
Hmm…

We decided to return to the hotel on foot. Along the way, we walked through a park where many motorbikes were parked. On a closer look, couples were seated either on the bikes or on benches. It was a sight to behold, the park was dotted with couples in embrace all over. The Girlfriend suggested that they probably don’t have many places to pak-tor in Ho Chi Minh, that’s wny they congregate here.

Couples spending time at the park at night
Couples spending time at the park at night

As it was Lifen’s birthday, the rest of us decided to spring a surprise mini celebration for her. We went to a nearby hotel for some drinks and snacks and order cakes, one had a candle…

Lifen the birthday girl in Vietnam
Lifen the birthday girl in Vietnam

By the time we were done at the cafe in the hotel, every one was pretty zoned out. It had been a long day. So we returned to our hostel for the night.

Unfortunately, most of us had been allocated the rooms at the top floor and the water pressure there was absolutely miserable. The ladies had a really hard time showering, especially when they were shampooing their hair. Oh well, it was budget lodging, we will think of something tomorrow.

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