Shopping Saigon

Today I have no plans but to explore the bustling city of Saigon.  I have no idea where I am going or what I will see, I merely pop in and out of shops as they call to me and explore what’s inside.  The only thing I know I must do is to try Avocado Coffee, so I head towards Shelter Coffee & Tea’s tiny little shop at 13 Lê Thánh Tôn, with little detours along the way.

The busy streets give way to a quieter area in District 1, which contains Japantown.  Here is where you’ll find this little green monster.  Sinh To Bo.

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I place my order at the cash register and then head up the narrowest little staircase to a seating area upstairs.  I am the only one here so I take the opportunity to spread my arms above my head and try and fan my armpits under the aircon.  It’s so hot outside that I am sweating rivers.  I’ve just about run out of tissues to mop myself up with.

In no hurry, my coffee arrives.  It looks like a cup of vomit, I won’t lie and it takes a few deep breaths and a stern talking to, to actually lift the cup to my mouth and drink.  But when I do, I am pleasantly surprised.  It’s a thick, rich texture almost as though it has icecream in it and it tastes sweet, I’m assuming from condensed milk.  It really is very yummy in actual fact and I pat myself on the back for being such a brave girl.

After a bit more wandering I come across a modern looking mall – it happens to be Parkson.  The blasting aircon inside makes me decide that this is where I’ll find lunch today.  Whatever it is, I will eat it in the icy cold aircon, so my pants will have a chance to unstick themselves from my legs.

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On a food floor of the mall, I come by a restaurant serving local dishes and decide that’s fine by me.  I still haven’t tried banh xeo and lucky for me, it’s on the menu.  What I’m not expecting is such a massive crispy pancake that could actually feed two people.  It looks absolutely delicious though, with a scattering of perfectly fresh herbs and salad leaves that I give it a really good go.  Banh xeo is made of a rice batter, which is then stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp and green onions, along with the herbs and salad greens that have accompanied it.  Somehow you tear some off and incorporate the herbs while trying to dip it into a beautiful light dressing and trying not to let the whole thing crumble in a mess before it gets to your mouth.  But when you do finally get it there, it’s a true taste explosion.  I love this lunch.  I later find out it’s meant to feed a family.  Oops.

Probably because of the huge amount of food I’ve just eaten, I suddenly feel quite tired and weary and could quite easily head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.  But I spy a nail salon and looking down at my poor feet, I decide I will treat myself.  You know who won’t be getting a treat?  The poor girl that has to repair these wrecks.  The weeks of trudging along dirty, rain-soaked streets and lack of scrubbing brush or proper soaking facilities means that they look absolutely filthy, my toenails are caked with dirt and my heels are cracking.  But she does a hell of a job and in no time at all, they almost look amazing.  The pedicure takes around an hour and only costs me around AUD$30.  I pay her quite a tip in compensation for the possibility that she will never be able to unsee my feet in her nightmares and head towards the hotel for cocktail hour.

Tomorrow, I depart Vietnam for a few days of unwinding in that good old second home of mine.  Reflecting, I now feel like I’ve seen enough of Saigon and I’m happy to leave her behind for greener pastures, but I’m glad I came back to see her on my own terms.

Return to the Mekong

Thought I’d finished with the Mekong on this trip?  Well, not quite.  I’m about to board a bus to visit the Mekong Delta with Urban Adventures doing all the hard work.  The meeting point for today is outside the stunning Saigon Opera House, so I get a glimpse of some of Saigon’s beautiful french colonial style buildings while I wait.

My guide for the day is Thanh and he seems like a great guy.  Jumping on a minibus, we head off for the village of My Tho, about 2.5 hours away from Saigon.  I love getting out of the city.  These days always end up the best, so I can’t wait to see what today has in store for me.  I watch the streetscape change and flash glimpses of everyday life at me through the bus window as we move further and further away from the city.

Once we reach My Tho, it’s a short boat ride to the start of our journey through the Mekong Delta.  The Mekong Delta consists of many islands Today, we will visit two – Con Phung (or Phoenix) and Thoi Son (or Unicorn).

Exotic fruit abounds when we enter the clearing on Thoi Son.  Hot pink dragonfruit, spikey pineapples and ripening bananas great our eyes and after Thanh shows us how to carry a traditional bamboo pole basket across his shoulders, we take a seat to enjoy some tea and a plate of beautiful tropical fruit which includes dragonfruit, pineapple, mango and pawpaw.  Nearby a small group of musicians perform traditional songs.

Cacao tasting is also on the agenda as we pass by a fallen fruit.  Thanh breaks it open and we get to pull off one of the seeds and suck off the white pulp covering the seed, which tastes kind of tangy.

Wandering over the rough pathways of the village gives us a good glimpse of life on the island.

Honey awaits us at our next stop.  Here, we are given nut snacks and a taste of local honey liquor which tastes amazing.  Strong, but amazing.  This is one of many cottage industries that help sustain life in the Mekong Delta.

Our visit to Phoenix Island starts with a Cotton Candy making business.  We are shown how the coconuts are shredded by machine and heated to become toffee-like before being sliced and wrapped and eventually sold to a customer.  The cotton candy comes in a bunch of different flavours including ginger and coffee and tastes yummy.  The process was really interesting to watch.

Xe Loi are a kind of motorised cart.  We are handed out helmets…very sexy helmets…

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…and climb aboard for our next stop.  It’s such a fascinating ride and a great way to see the island, even if the ride is a little bumpy at times.

We head through the end of town and out on to some even smaller, more rural roads.  It feels like we are speeding along due to the bumpy ride and the tiny pathways we are travelling on.  We dodge tree branches (hence the helmets) and narrowly miss crumbled pathways.  And then all of a sudden, there are three xe lois.  What happens now?

So much fun!!  We do safely arrive at our lunch destination though and dish after amazing dish of food is bought out for us to enjoy, along with nice cold beers.  The restaurant is a couple of large outdoor pavillions with tables and chairs so can still enjoy the outdoors, with chickens running amok nearby.  The rain has started, but we have plastic raincoats and full bellies and we are having an awesome day.

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Leaving the restaurant behind – I could have sat there for much longer – but our time is coming to an end.  We walk down narrow concrete steps to some wooden sampans lined up against the dock and begin our paddle down the Mekong towards the bigger boat.  I’m not going to lie, getting from the sampan to the boat was a little nervewracking, but we all managed just fine.

With everyone safely back on the ferry to My Tho, Thanh hands out fresh coconuts, shell partially removed, straws inserted, for us to sip.

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And with that, the day is over, and we are back on the minibus and heading back to Saigon.  This has been the best.day.ever.  Well, not quite, but close.  Very close.

Cảm O’n Vung Tau

Emboldened by the lack of illness from the Ca Phe Den with ice that I had for breakfast yesterday, and despite the constant drizzle of rain today, I head back to Bistro 9 to try the Ca Pha Sua Da – Vietnamese coffee with milk (and ice) and am rewarded with yet another delicious cup of wake-me-up.

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Watching the construction work take place at the Rex Hotel across the road, I sit in stunned contemplation.  Safety is certainly not a priority here as the helmetless foreman, cigarette in hand, leans over a window opening (no safety harness) to direct a truck that is back up below.  Another helmetless worker dumps wheelbarrows full of concrete rubble over a similar window opening (again no harness) into the truck, three stories below, rubble and dust freefalling down the front of the construction.

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Back home, that job would have been stopped – or rather, it wouldn’t have even started when the workers rocked up sans safety boots.  A harness carrying sacks of cemet is pulled up to another window, swaying madly and on an angle.

The rain seems to have settled in, and with nothing much more I want to do out in the heat, I people watch from my hotel window, watching people go about their Monday morning.

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I bid farewell to Moon and Uncle G at the dock, having had a really nice time, and board the ancient Russian ferry back to Saigon.

My next hotel is a cute little place called Townhouse 50, not far from the Ben Thahn Markets, which I have no intention of visiting.  My last trip here consisted of a t-shirt and knickers hunt after my luggaged failed to arrive in Vietnam at the same time as I did, so I consider my trip to the markets done.

What I didn’t get to see was the War Remnants Museum and that is particularly what I wanted to visit this time around.  There’s plenty of time to do that this afternoon, so I take  a deep breath and head out onto the crazy streets of Saigon.  Its quite the journey trying to find my way amongst the maze of streets, dodging scooters that have decided to ride on the footpath and trying not to stack it on broken, upended bits of concrete, but I finally make it.

Four floors of exhibitions relating to what the Vietnamese refer to as the “American War”, and all of them packed with tourists.  Tourists going the wrong way around the exhibition, tourists standing in front of exhibits for way too long while bigger and bigger groups of tourists cluster around them…I should have known better.  Normally, I would grin and bear it but for some reason today, it is really grating on me.  I just can’t make the most of my time here and I’m annoyed (in hindsight, I should have returned early one morning before everyone else like I normally do instead of braving the afternoon session).

So I return to the hotel area instead and make it in time for happy hour at the MZ Wine Restaurant.  I’ll start exploring tomorrow.

Welcome to the Seaside

I am embarking on my first ever taxi ride in Vietnam and although the hotel called the taxi, panic was simmering below the surface.  When the driver starts asking questions that I don’t understand, I thrust the piece of paper with the hydrofoil ferry address on it at him, hoping that he’s asking for the address.  Seems he was and a short while later we arrive at the street, but where number 5 should be, there is nothing but corrugated iron fences surrounding what used to be a row of shopfronts.  The driver perseveres and a few numbers along, we appear to have arrived at the docks or at least a driveway with a sign that has a picture of a boat on it.  I pay the driver 51,000 dong and grab my bags.  Common sense leads me to walk straight ahead towards the water and I finally see a red sign with Vina Express written on it.  I follow the signs like a breadcrumb trail until I come to a small box office next to a cafe. I am in the right place.  Now I wait.

There are other people here, a couple with an unmistakeable Aussie accent, feeding and cuddling a stray cat, a can of Tiger beer at his elbow (it’s 9.30am), a couple of cyclists and other assorted couples.

HCMC’s hydrofoils have been shut down for years after a space of at sea mishaps which included numerous fires.  They have only just been relaunched, but this is possibly not a longterm plan.  My uncle usually takes the bus.  So I hope this trip is all good.

The hydrofoil hums away dockside, and I’ve gotta be honest, it looks a bit dodgy.  At least there seems to be plenty of lifejackets.

 

Being a Thursday, the ferry to Vung Tau is not busy.  Vung Tau is a seaside destination for HCMC locals you see and most visitors are day-trippers.  Apart from that its populated by ex-pats, Vietnam vets and oil-rig workers.

I pop down a Kwell and pray to the seagods to give me a smooth ride.  The boat takes off pretty much dead on 10am.  Being such an old beast, the boat is incredibly noisy and I found my earphones to be a blessing.  I look around the boat, noting the brocaded turquoise curtains which would have been fresh and new at one stage but like a 70 year old man who struggles to maintain and repair everything himself with whatever he can find around the house rather than pay to get it fixed properly, they have been left out of the maintenance schedule.  And there’ll be no good photos out of these plastic scratched plastic view holes.  The trip is smooth and uneventful though and in just 1 hour and 20 minutes, my first glimpse of Vung Tau appeared through the grotty, scratched windows.

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My uncle is waiting at the end of the jetty with his girlfriend, Moon, and after hugs and hellos, we sit down at the dockside restaurant for some beers and lunch.  I find out that the ferries are 20 year old Russian things.

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After lunch, we catch a taxi to the apartments where I will be spending the next few nights.  The grounds of the Sunshine Residences are lovely with flowering frangipani flowers and a sparkling blue swimming pool.  The room is simply furnished but contains most of what I’ll need, the rest we take care of at a local department-style supermarket.

 

I have the afternoon to relax and unpack my desperately dirty clothes which I put aside for the washing service tomorrow.  Dinner is at Gahn Hao, a seafood restaurant set overlooking the beach.  The food, which Moon selects for us, is simple and tasty, not to mention extremely well valued compared to Australian prices.  Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos (extremely unlike me!) so here’s one I stole ‘borrowed’ off Gahn Hao’s website…

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Courtesy of Nhà hàng Gành Hào

As you can see, it’s quite the pretty little setting.  I like what I’ve seen of Vung Tau so far and wonder what this quiet little island has to offer.  Tomorrow I’ll will find out.

Note:  subsequent to this trip, the old Russian hydrofoil ferries were removed from service and replaced with new Pacific Express boats.

Stepping up the Pace

Right, so back on the solo travel path and I’m heading back to one of the first cities I ever visited.  I wanted to come back here for a few reasons.  One was because I’d only spent a day or two here last time on a group tour and didn’t feel confident enough to go out and do my own thing, which meant I didn’t really see or do anything other than walk around the streets getting gawked at.  Another is that my uncle in now living closeby to this city for part of the year and I thought it would make a good opportunity to visit him.  So after I leave Laos this morning, I’ll be arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon for a re-do visit.

My transfer to the airport is nice and early – just the way I like it – but it can’t be said that there’s a lot to keep you entertained at Wattay International Airport.  You must wait to go through to the customs area and trust me when I say that the “10 minutes” that the guard indicates to you, will in fact be more like half an hour.  My first flight is to Phnom Penh – if only I had not had two months of unemployment and I could have stopped in Cambodia for a few days.  The landing is rough and the plane swerves a lot on the runway as it lands.  Off the plane, through the x-ray machine and back onto the plane 15 minutes later, though it took what seemed to be a good 45 minutes before everyone boarded the plane in a painfully slowly manner.  The plane was half full of advanced age travellers, perfectly pressed and ready for their ‘sanitary experience of Asia’ and the other half with what can only be described as excesses of luggage that should really have been checked in but currently being shoved into every nook and cranny on the plane.

An uneventful 1/2 hour later during which the hosties unbelievably pulled out their service troller and delivered the quickest run of drinks I’ve ever experienced on a plane – almost throwing bottles of water at slow and unsuspecting passengers.

We are back down on the tarmac but after an hour, my transfer is still nowhere to be seen.  I’m on the brink of booking a deluxe room at the Sheraton just to be eligible for their hotel transfer when he finally arrives.  The drive to the hotel is interesting, mainly because its unbelieve to see just what the Vietnamese can and will load onto a scooter.  Suitcases, bottled water and even a ladder.  It all fits somehow.

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Tonight I am staying at the Hong Vina hotel, mainly for its close proximity to the dock that I will be using to get to Vung Tau tomorrow.  The hotel is comfy enough, even without the musty smell.  Staff are super friendly and the best bit – a wonderful hot shower, with good water pressure, fully enclosed so my clothes don’t get wet, which has not been the case for the last two weeks.

Feeling fresh, a quick walk around the streets reveals an up and coming cool scene with old cement lined, roller-door shops being replaced by trendy little cafes.  It also unveils a brand new restaurant called Nha Hang Di Mai where I am taught (no doubt after much dread at watching my feeble attempts) to use chopsticks properly.  I ordered a very extravagant meal of Bia Ha Noi, Hanoi Spring Rolls and a Chicken Salad with Banana shoots.  The food was amazing, the service impeccable and the surroundings achingly cool.  Go there.

On the way back to my hotel, I stop at a little all-purpose store to grab some water and beer and am delighted to find myself having a short conversation with the owners about kangaroos and Australia.  The kangaroos can wait though cause I’ve got a ferry to catch tomorrow.

Going Back

In just three weeks I’ll be off again – and though that seems the story of my life, it will be the last trip on the cards for at least a year.  Money making beckons.

So where am I off to?  Somewhere I feel most alive – Asia.  After my mega, sight-seeing laden trip to Europe in May, I am craving a trip where I can just experience the life and the culture rather than lining up for sights.  I’ll be starting in Thailand, heading through Laos, staying in Vietnam and ending, of course, in Singapore.

The bit I am most nervous about is going back to Ho Chi Minh City.  And I’m not really sure why.  I last visited in 2008, still a relative newbie to travelling – and certainly not solo travelling.  I think that my first memory of Ho Chi Minh – where I found myself standing at a five way roundabout with no traffic lights and what seemed like a million scooters coming at me – is some thing that will never leave me.  And although I’ve been back to Vietnam, Hanoi’s traffic is nothing compared to the sheer panic-inducing volumes that I will be encountering in HCM.