So, I arranged my Viet Nam visa through a travel agency in Kep, Cambodia. Don’t do this. Arrange it in Phnom Penh, or Sihanoukville, but not in a backwater ‘burb. It’ll take three times as long, and cost twice as much. I meant to leave on Tuesday, but the travel agency called in the morning telling me my visa hadn’t arrived yet and that we would go tomorrow. Wednesday morning arrived, and I set off on my journey. Easy enough, though cramped, in the minivan I took to Ha Tien–the border city of Viet Nam and Cambodia. The border crossing itself was a breeze, and I felt the $65 I’d paid for the visa might have been worth it, although it’s supposed to be $30.
The worst part of the border crossing was when I was shuttled from the first bus drop-off to the second bus pick-up, and there wasn’t enough room in the car, so my backpack was placed, PLACED, on the roof. And so it traveled to the bus station, with me praying the entire time for restraint and control on the part of the driver.
The bus itself was quite unusual–passengers were required to remove their shoes after climbing the stairs, and were assigned either an upper or a lower berth in a Space Age-type recliner chaise longue. It was rather too short for my legs, but not horribly uncomfortable.
I arrived in Sai Gon around 9 in the evening, and then was shuttled to the center of the city in a free bus nearby. The middle of the city meant nothing to me, as I hadn’t pre-booked a hostel, assuming the bus got in earlier so I could scout for a hostel on my own. I wandered the streets, looking for the tell-tale “Nha Nghi” sign that signified a guesthouse. None to be found, spotted pounding the pavement by an old Vietnamese man, I was coerced onto the back of his motorbike and led from hotel to hotel until one was found with vacancy. I told him I had no money, and he gave the (I now know) ubiquitous Vietnamese sideways hand flutter.
The Vietnamese Hand Flutter: This means anything from “It doesn’t matter” to “I don’t know/understand what you’re trying to tell me” to “Don’t have it”. It’s essentially “Jazz Hands” with just one hand. Practice accordingly. It saves time and energy in staving off taxi drivers and street hawkers.
I ended up in a pay-by-the-hour hotel, at VND 240,000, about $12. It was clean, tidy, came with free soaps and combs, hot water, fast wi-fi, and A/C. Completely worth it. By the way, the D in VND stands for Dong (pronounced “dawm”), the Vietnamese currency standard. It’s roughly 21,000 VND to the dollar, but I usually just cover the last four zeroes in any price and divide by two.
The next day, after some strenuous research, I headed over to the Budget Hostel–about a mile or so away. Naturally, I walked, to save on cash. Naturally, I got lost. I staggered into a cafe to ask for directions, and immediately a young woman stood up, left her friend sitting at the table, and offered to escort me via motorbike to my hostel. I was also offered a seat and a place to put my pack by the security guard outside, and a cold glass of tea by the waiter. Of course I accepted her offer with alacrity.
It turns out I’d taken the wrong Cong Quynh. It’s broken (irritatingly similar to many streets in Long Beach) into two segments, and I’d taken the first one I came to. Arriving at the Budget Hostel at last, I was somewhat dismayed. It was literally a door in the wall of an alley, and stepping inside was like stepping into a closet after someone had a steamy 7 minutes in it. The cost was ~$5 per night and included free breakfast (of baguette and margarine). Miraculously, the dorm room was air-conditioned to a pleasingly frigid temperature, and each bed was replete with one electric fan. Ahhhh heaven, in high-90’s Saigon.
I had heard from many travelers that Viet Nam was the least favorite part of their trip, that the people weren’t friendly, that the country wasn’t beautiful; all of that is complete tripe. People are constantly trying to talk to you and to help you, or just to smile at you and show you how their baby can say “Hello”. Children, and adults, call to you day and night, with grins and waves. The country is beautiful–I don’t know how anyone could say it isn’t: fresh, green, and watery. Saigon is crammed with beautiful, old trees; it’s like the Stockholm of South East Asia.
Even the architecture is soothing. Almost every edifice is painted in a hue of blue or green, ranging from citron to sage to jade to sea foam to turquoise to true blue. The doors and windows are barred with metal, but metal of such fanciful design I’ve never seen elsewhere. Dainty patterns, birds, and starbursts cover windows and bar gateways. Airy bamboo birdcages hang everywhere, and the twittering of birds is omnipresent.
I didn’t feel secure transporting myself via motorbike, and I couldn’t find a bike rental, so I walked everywhere. From my hostel, I could easily reach the Notre Dame, the Ben Thanh market, a small local market, and plenty of food, food, food. I ate every Vietnamese dish I knew from home, and found others I loved even more, such as Banh Bot Chien–thick, stir-fried chunks of rice dumpling in an omelette, with pickled daikon and carrot slaw, and no’u’c cha’m on the side. 20,000 VND. As usual, I had to face that some meals are only available at certain times, such as the above, which came out after the market closed, and the doughnut man, who rolled up after the fruit lady left in the morning (get out of here, healthy!).
My friend and savior, Nga, escorted me to the Independence Palace of an afternoon via motorbike; with an admission price of just 30,000 VND, it was well worth it. I thought the place looked ugly on the outside, just like some of our post-Modern architectural eyesores at home, but on the inside it was delightfully Chinoise. My favorite part was actually the interior of an architectural detail I thought ugly from outside–the huge, stylized bamboo, concrete window shades. Across from the palace is a French-influenced park, with soaring trees (sycamores? do those grow here?), and well-tended, geometric walkways and well-placed benches.
In this park, an old man sits with his violin, a microphone, and an amp. He plays popular songs and traditional Vietnamese songs, and young people cluster around him to sing into his microphone. It’s charming that the youth, instead of skulking around smoking, come to sit beside this aged performer, who speaks English as well as Vietnamese, and knows songs from both cultures.
One thing I absolutely love about Viet Nam is the lack of trash. Here, trash is collected. Regularly. If you put something down for a second, you’d better keep an eye on it if it looks like you’re done with it, or it’ll be gone before you know it! The streets are free of green debris, as well as trash of any kind, and the sidewalks and walkways are well-swept by hoards of women bundled in what look like parti-colored HazMat uniforms. Throughout the city, these (almost always) women can be seen sweeping, and grabbing trash to place into rolling mini-dumpsters they push in front of themselves. They also care not a whit for your personal needs, so don’t expect them to stay their sweeping if you want to get by.
Just like in Cambodia, the streets here are terrifying. Crossing the street feels like a Leap of Faith, like the one Indiana Jones had to make in I forget which movie, that ended up being glass or something, but he thought he had to step out onto nothingness. Only here, the assumption is not that you won’t fall into a bottomless chasm, but that you won’t be run down by the myriad of motorbikes, trucks, taxis, and cyclists. Press on slowly, but determinedly, and you’ll make it. The press of traffic parts around you in a way that encourages the idea of a forcefield that you half believe in. Honking is continuous, and like the Peace-cry of the women in Flatland (yes, I just finished that book) signals to others that you exist in space.
The Ben Thanh market is unexceptional, just like every other market I’ve seen, so don’t waste time going there. Also, the shoes won’t fit you. Just to let you know. They say 39, but they mean 34.
I was dying for another massage, so I went to one that said it was 100,000 VND. It was in an alley, but what else is new in Saigon? The best coffee I had was at a child-sized table behind some ladies’ house in an alley. Anyhow, the massage was good, but not great, and at the end the price was quoted at 120,000; an extra dollar. Then, I was presented with a tip card. Whoa, whoa, whoa, girls–high prices, and then a tip?! But I tipped 50,000 VND, making my grand total about $9. I know it isn’t much, but similar to how I feel in America (and everywhere else), it’s annoying when hidden costs arise. Also, the girl chatted with me the whole time, which made me feel like she was just trying to cadge a higher tip (duh, Kate). I thought she really liked my dorky tour hair!
Coffee here is easy to find and every present. Ca Phe Su’a Da is iced coffee with condensed milk. It costs between 10 and 15,000 VND. It’s easy to order, even I can’t mess it up.
It is exceptionally hard to make myself understood here, but I try my hardest. Six tones, with three of them interrupted somehow, make it nigh on impossible for a random foreigner to pick up the tongue in a few weeks. Ordering and money aren’t too hard, except for certain inconsistancies, such as how the word for “fifteen” instead of being mu’o’i nam is instead mu’o’i lam; I believe for phonetic reasons. Other words are met with a blank stare, no matter how I many ways I try to say them, like the word for train station. It should be simple! Ga + City You Are In. It just never works.