Saturday, June 21, 2014

Holiday Pt 1: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam ...

(WARNING: Picture-Heavy post! And I might bore you, so read at your own risk...)

We shall not sit too long on it otherwise it shall become another untold story. So here goes some unfiltered version of the Vietnam holiday experience, although not much of an audacious exploratory  recount, but adventurous all the same. Kinda like going on a second honeymoon really, but with baby otter and two other young adults on tow. :-)

#TrippinAsean14 buddies + baby otter...

Planning in advance is crucial because it saves a lot of money. A group of four of us bought our flight tickets 5 months in advance, which cost like nearly RM1,500 per person for 2 countries, 4 cities (including KL) and 6 stops in between, and that's not even on no-frill flights. A few days before we flew off, the flight cost soared to 50% per person, so yeah, I'd say it was a pretty good deal. Accommodation was cost-shared as well and since none of were fans of backpacking, we tried to squeeze in as much comfort and luxury in between wherever we can. Tips: Always book in advance. MAS offers price-slash flights these days so why not take advantage of that? Air Asia is not bad either, except less comfort. Hotels are cheaper if you book direct, but Booking.com is also good alternative although you might pay a little bit more for convenience (and you can review them later if you don't feel they meet your expectation. Hehe).

Meanwhile, the three nights we spent in Ho Chi Minh City went by pretty quickly. HCMC or also locally fondly known as Saigon, is pretty hot this time of year. They literally call it 'summer' by the way. I could feel myself browning by the seconds every time I went out for a walk around the city. But then again, that's the whole point of a vacation isn't it, to get a tan? So-called lah.

 Blue blue sky... and hot hot summer weeks...

Contrary to popular belief, HCMC is a small city with a lot of small well-run boutique hotels in the popular tourist spot, District 1. If you're looking for hotels with pools in this area, go for the 4 star and above, although they would be a bit far from the main attractions.

We stayed at Bali Boutique Hotel, as per recommended by a friend who ever stayed there before. It was a risk, but it had a very strategic location, near to restaurants and night spots and within walking distance to most tourist attractions. They had the full hotel service that I found very convenient especially the airport transfer. Tips: If you're traveling in a group to all these tourist spots, it's better to pre-book the airport transfer service because you know exactly what you will be paying for and you know they will standby for your arrival. You don't want to be harassed by the many cabbies offering some other deals waiting outside the arrival hall. Saves you the headache too. Plus I like seeing my name on a placard, like a scene from a movie. Haha. 

 I think he was expecting a dude, but what the heck...

The girl at the reception, Ms Nguyen whom I've been emailing for the past months prior to our arrival, were very helpful, pretty and soft spoken... although for the life of me, I could not decipher most of the English she spoke. Maybe it's the tongue... they all sound a bit French. Very romantic sound really, but it was of no help most of the time. We had to go by hand signals to get our meaning across. Imagine that.

I kept calling her Ms Nguyen, but then after staying here for 2 days, I noticed most of the people there had a Nguyen somewhere in their name... and also on the buildings, and road names. So I did a quick Wiki-check, and voila! The name is quite prominent. An estimated 40 percent of Vietnamese is surnamed Nguyen, wow.. special indeed. And as per Wikipedia ..."The Nguyễn Dynasty awarded many people the surname Nguyễn during their rule, and many criminals also changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid prosecution. As with other common surnames, people having this surname are not necessarily related..."  Ah...

Anyway... the first thing I noticed about Saigon -- and it's a really in-your-face kinda experience -- was the death-wish traffic condition. They drive on the right side by the way, like the Americans do. There were more motorbikes and scooters on the road than there were cars or public transport. And everybody is his/her own master on the road. And everybody drives below 50kmph. And everybody uses his/her honks to the best of their abilities at all times. And if you want to cross the road, the hell with it. Go on and cross at any time you please, hold hands and walk slowly, some motorist will surely give you way or they will honk their way to mean 'Let me pass through first'. Here in Malaysia, people honk each other when they are pissed at another driver (and it usually follows with a cuss), or when they want to attract attention. You don't do that in Vietnam okay. Having a honk saves life. 


Saigon road rule no. 1: Drive slowly and turn when there's no approaching vehicles...

You know, funny thing, you don't really read about road accidents in Saigon. But you do everyday in Malaysia. Hmm...

Saigon's hospitality is astounding. The locals everywhere makes me feel like I'm back in my kampung, where everybody minds their own business and yet still take good care of each other. They don't scowl at strangers, they smile and make you feel like you're part of them, and they don't bother you much, especially us who looks like (thank God for that) Vietnamese too. The only problem I have with them is like I said, the language barrier. Tips: Remember to speak slowly and make hand gestures. Most don't speak English but they understand basic words and signals, and I don't  blame them. Years of trying to get rid of the Western influence after the tragic war, now they have to play host in order to support the tourism industry.

But you know, although I said they were a hospitable lot, please don't fall prey to their easy money-making tricks. For example, some traders acted really really kind and generous to volunteer to help you with something, for example, take pictures, and lots of lots of them... and then request for tips. Keyword: Volunteer. Well, I don't mind as long as I get my couple pictures taken. Most of them don't mind how much tips you give them either. So that's fine. Another one is, there will be some traders on the street balancing items on their shoulders which could be fruits, food etc. Then they will smile at you and just thrust that thing on your shoulder, gesturing if you want your pictures taken with it. You know, part of the Vietnam experience. Then they will tell you to buy whatever is on the basket, or ask for tips because you those in pictures.

Yeah, that happened to Don and Joseph when the two of us were away on a tricycle ride. He got duped of course, hahaha... but he managed to talk his way out of it, poor thing. Conveniently all his cash were with us (for safekeeping purposes of course) so he showed his empty wallet to the coconut trader. If not... habislah. Tips: You can be kind and generous once, but you know, they seem to have some sort of networking going on among themselves, like an sms blast or something informing you as an easy target. If you do it once, 10 others will suddenly appear! So when some unsuspecting old lady thrust that thing on your shoulder with a cheerful face, shake your head and run far far away.

Duped: Don balancing coconuts...

While that was going on, the two of us were on a terror ride of our lives! We thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go on the Tricycle ride across the terrifying traffic, and I must say, I was on the edge on my seat the whole time! Sheesh... I think the baby otters enjoyed it though. He was squirming with excitement a lot giving me that bloated feeling. Traitor...

Uncle tu nampak termengah-mengah pulak... haha

Hah...When we got to our destination, which was the Notre Dame Cathedral, we wanted to take pictures with our drivers. At first they happily obliged, and then one of the uncle insisted he took our shots together. I wanted to teach him how to use the camera, but he waved me off cheerfully, and started snapping away at us like a pro. And then he happily asked for tips (for being our photographer, on top of what we already paid him which was 150,000VND one way per person anywhere standard ride -- do the maths yourself)... Turns out the pictures he took was well... as seen below...

 At least I got my head in the frame ...
 
... and we only checked after we paid the tips. Oh well. After witnessing how the ruthless uncles maneuvered the traffic with us as their burdens, I supposed, we don't mind tipping them a little extra. Tips: If you want your holiday pictures taken, folks, find another tourist who will gladly do it for you for free, and only ask that you take their pictures on their cameras in return. Otherwise, take pictures yourself people, buy a monopod or bring a tripod if you don't want to have to spend tip on the locals. Not that I'm saying it's bad, but you know, you do need the spare dongs for your other ventures. If you're well off, well, why not right? Help the locals. 

As for the tourist spots around HCMC, we didn't go to many places especially one that cost a day ride like the cruises. *mommy cannot stand sitting too long in a car ride, tummy gets uncomfy. Cruises also specifically mentioned they do not cover insurance for pregnant ladies, so yeah, no go.* So we mainly just stayed around town and checking out the city tour on foot. Thankfully, most of the hotspots were within walking distance.

 
Outside the War Remnant Museum... with the many US tanks...

The War Memorial or Remnant Museum is a good place to learn the war history of Vietnam. Gruesome violent pictures, heroic acts, names of every American soldiers and leaders who were involved in the war, names of every Vietnamese leaders who were implicated or otherwise massacred in the war, civilians and etc... Personally, I found the visuals and captions very depressing and if you were an American, you would stay out of this place because even I could feel the hostility and hatred stemming from every word.

Seen inside...

Despite that, the museum still gets hundreds of visitors per day. Entrance fee is 15,000 VND (equals to RM3) and they close during lunch break. I found myself repeating the war history of Vietnam again and again to fellow travelers, as best as I remembered, so they won't confuse it with Cambodia or their neighboring countries. Whatever you watched on movies about this war, is usually told from a US-perspective. If you want to know more, come to Vietnam and experience it yourself. Not that I am pro-anything, but I supposed all those stories I watched -- Platoon, NAM Tour of Duty, Heaven & Earth... -- doesn't tell the whole story.

Cho Ben Thanh Market is 15 mins walk from our hotel. Despite the hot sun, we managed to GPSed our way to there, after ensuring we got the compass right from Ms Nguyen. The place is a shoppers paradise really, for those who live for hard-bargained items, i.e. If you've shopped at Petaling Street, or Pasar Besar Payang in Terengganu, or the Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu, then you can visualize Ben Thanh perfectly, except twice the size, and triple everything else.

Bargaining for souvenirs to bring home...

They have everything you can possible imagine, even a food court, and very packed although very well organized. Best of all, some of the traders can speak Bahasa Malaysia! Shows just how many Malaysian visitors they get in a day huh. I'm not a fan of bargaining, particularly because I'm not really good at it and I use my emotion/heart most of the time than I do use my head. That's a bad thing in this market you know, because they can easily spot an easy prey like me and bank on my feelings. Which is why among the four of us, Donovan was the most ruthless when it comes to bargaining, and we tend to let him do the talking while I hide. Haha. Tips: Learn how to bargain, and yes you must bargain here. Don't easily fold, wait for them to crack, but don't be hardheaded. They have mouths to feed too. Everybody has a price, so do they. Be kind and yet firm.

Refuelling at Ben Thanh food corner before the next round...

Oh we went to a few more places, but I think I have already put up a LOT of pictures in here. If you noticed, am trying very hard to squeeze everything in one post. Haha. And I haven't even reach the best part yet, the food!! Shall we go there?

Before we came here, I asked my good Vietnamese friend about the food I should try. She gave me lots of names (which I had to do Google Image on  just to make sure) and some must-trys. She told me to eat carefully and try to stick to restaurant/cafes because being pregnant, the last thing we want on a holiday trip, is a stomach upset. A few months ago, I would've ventured on street food -- which is highly recommended for the adventurous -- but I must always remember to not indulge and that I am now eating for two.

 Rice paper rolls with lotsa raw veges. Very healthy...

Do you know that the Vietnamese, particularly in Saigon, makes the best ice lemon tea? They use Lipton tea of the best kind in most places we dined in. Tea is also the safest to drink because they use boiling water to sip the tea in. The ice however, is a risk. But so far, I had no trouble. Tips: Careful though about what you drink. They don't have the best water filtration system in the world and it doesn't hurt to check whatever you drink. Hot drinks are the safest like tea and coffee because they need to use boiling water to sip them. If you must, order canned or bottled drinks. Even TripAdvisor would advise you on this.

A class of its own. Best ice-lemon-tea ever...

The first meal we had clearly gave us a view on how the locals fare everyday. They feast a lot on greens, herbs and those are best eaten raw. In fact, the greens come with every pho dish. I rejoice on this fact because it gives me the opportunity to dine on healthy stuff, however my companions aren't so thrilled about it. Haha. It's any wonder you don't find any fat let alone obese people in Vietnam!

Greens... greens... and lots of greens...

This fried mini vege pancake below (I forgot what it's called) has so much bean sprouts in it it's practically covered! I've never eaten this much taugeh in my entire life than I did when I was in Saigon. Not complaining though... no no.

Mini fried vege pancake...

I tried some of the food I was recommended, but mostly I forgot to take pictures. However the ones I did snap were pretty much a revelation by itself. Every dining experience is a gamble for us. You never know when you will be served nice foods or when you will be served foods you think aren't what you expect. Even the noodle pho is often a hit and miss. Sometimes they're really nice, sometimes they're just too bland, and sometimes they taste funny. Well, trust your gut instinct and be open to anything. Tips: It's important to ensure the noodle soup you eat are steaming hot, no harm to be careful at all times. Be adventurous, but be open to any possibility as well. Tips 2: When venturing into street food, observe locals. If you see many locals flock to the area or to the stall, chances are the food is nice and safe to eat. However, like I said, it's a gamble.

This is Banh Zeo... crispy pancake. Awesomeness!

So I think that wraps up the Ho Chi Minh 4-days-3-nights trip! There is a lot more to write about but I think my travel companion has covered it too. As a bonus, you can also read a different review about this awesome place from my partner in crime HERE!!

We left the city for the next stop -- Capital City, Hanoi -- with a somewhat sad but a happy feeling that we made it all the way here. Would I return to HCMC? Maybe 10 years from now just for comparison.

Contemplated to actually take the night train to Hanoi, but the long journey plus we might miss a lot along the way changed our minds. It is a 48 hour ride with a night spent on board. And so we boarded the Vietnam Airlines instead, just for the experience. I'll tell you all about that later...

 2 hours flight from HCMC - Hanoi. A little sustenance on air...

Meanwhile, don't stay away! NEXT UP... Holiday Pt 2: Hanoi City, Vietnam!! Have an awesome weekend people!