samedi, septembre 05, 2009

Saigon, Vietnam

Snack vendor by the road

I caught the Miss Saigon musical in London nearly 2 decades ago and have nurtured a certain fascination for Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Then I met Hub who was among the 1st tourists to visit the city when Vietnam opened up to the outside world in the early 1990s. Finally, One Wheel bought me an ao dai from his trip to Hanoi a few years ago and of course I had to grow too fat for it since. I needed to go there for another one.

I didn't need a visa for Vietnam but the Hub yes. It was honestly a waste to just go there for 4 days, but he didn't have the heart to leave the kids (whom he had not seen for a month before that) for longer than that. Plus my mom's blood pressure probably would suffer from our prolonged absence, so we made the most of it with a 2-night stay in Ho Chi Minh and a 2D1N trip to the Mekong Delta in-between. On our last day, we also managed to squeeze in a half-day excursion within the city.

Scooter paradise (and if you need air for the tyres, they sell it on the pavements)

I was picturing rickshaws for some reason and got the shock of my life to find hundreds of scooters (some with up to a family of 5 on each scooter!) in the streets when I arrived. God they honk for no rhyme or reason all day long and could be found in every nook and corner. There are often no traffic lights for pedestrians and when there was any most of them wouldn't respect it anyway. Crossing the road was like playing Russian roulette - you just keep praying that it wouldn't be this time that you would get knocked down. And the pollution (both noise and air)...I was getting a headache within hours of my arrival.

The airport however looked newly built and was more interesting than the one at Bologna, for example. We stayed at the Metropole Saigon in District 1 and it was probably the only mid-price hotel with a swimming pool in the city. We paid for a deluxe room with airport transfers (I'm past the age of bargaining for a taxi) and had the pleasure of being upgraded each time we checked in (1st Senior Deluxe and then Suite). The rooms were clean and comfortable and came with a hot buffet breakfast which was quite good.

View of pool and streets from our room in Metropole Saigon

The pool was small but deep and tend to run out of clean towels, but it was a luxury to be able to take a dip especially in the evening (you'll need it). There was a gym next to it and a bar manned by slim and sexy Vietnamese beauties. Hub said that when he was in Vietnam 20 years ago, single men travelling on their own usually got prostitutes literally knocking on their doors when they arrived in their rooms.

We could walk to De Tham street where most of the backpacker hotels and travel agencies are. We booked our tours with the famous Sinh Café and they were really cheap making our nice hotel look too expensive all of a sudden. You do not really need alot of Vietnamese Dongs in Saigon if you do not eat too much in the streets or in cheap restaurants. The travel agency had a change bureau (they could even return your change in USD if you paid them in USD) and we withdrew a one-shot amount from the ATM machine located in our hotel lobby with our credit card - and used these Dongs to pay for our meals and small purchases.

Fruit stall in Ben Thanh Market

From our hotel we could also walk to the famous Ben Thanh market popular with tourists seeking local handicrafts, textiles, souvenirs and local cuisine. At 6 in the evening, the market closes its doors and the streets outside transform themselves into a night food market with many stalls selling grilled seafood. We chose to be taken in by this chain of Pho restaurants (Pho 2000) calling itself the "President's Pho" with photos of a visiting Bill Clinton hanging all over on its walls. I've eaten better Pho but we were really happy to have the soup plus the Cha Gio (fried spring rolls) and even returned a few times to try the rest of the limited menu (e.g. curry with baguette, seafood soup...). Guess we didn't have the courage to try street food and didn't feel like eating in chic restaurants either and just wanted to play safe and eat in a decent place filled with both locals and tourists.

Beef Pho in Pho 2000

Cha Gio Bun

Hub said that when he was last here, he really thought that the country would be developing very rapidly and was therefore surprised to see that except for more scooters and cars on the roads, things didn't seem too different from 20 years ago. But it mustn't be true since we did see huge new housing and retail developments in parts of Saigon a little further out when we were on my way to the Mekong Delta. I suspect that the country would be changing very quickly from now on. Singapore, according to our Vietnamese tour guide, is currently Vietnam's Number 1 foreign investor. But for the moment, one thing is sure, like in most developing countries, the women are the ones hard at work, the men usually hang around some form of transportation waiting for clients.

Lovely façade in Saigon

Heavenly Mother Temple, Saigon

During our half-day Saigon excursion, we visited a few temples, the wholesale market with its stalls selling sharksfin, birdnest etc in Chinatown (Cholon), drove past majestic colonial-style buildings and toured a crafts-making factory employing mainly Vietnamese suffering handicap related to gas poisoning that dates back to the Vietnam war. We didn't plan to buy anything but after seeing them painstakingly sticking tiny bits of egg shell to make vases or scrubbing wood till it shined (lacquering), we ended up spending nearly 100 USD on 2 objects.

Making lacquerware

If Hub weren't around I probably would have shopped, but as it was, not much hope of doing so. Every time you touched something he would ask if I really needed it. I may not need it indeed, but I may need to buy it. Why couldn't he understand the difference? Only managed to grab a little ao dai for Baby Girl and have one tailor-made for me but it was such a rush job it wasn't properly done.

Eating out in Saigon

It was an interesting first visit to the country for me, though I suspect that I didn't look at things with as great a fascination as Hub did - because while most Europeans have probably never known similar poverty, most Singaporeans my age could possibly still remember what it was like using dirty toilets and eating in the streets about 25 to 30 years ago. As such, it was like a bad memory for me and I didn't find it so funny seeing that they are still living like us a few decades ago.

At the airport in Ho Chi Minh, we had dinner at...Prima Taste. 8USD Ba Kut Teh and Fried Sambal Kangkong and 3USD cans of Yeo's soy bean milk. That was expensive but I was really quite happy not to have to eat another Pho. But I'll be back in Vietnam. I was told that the centre and northern parts of the country are lovely and very different from one another. And I still need at least another ao dai.

1 commentaire:

Anonyme a dit…

The PRC prostitutes & call girls in big China cities like Shanghai also do that in 3 to 5 star hotels by knocking on the doors occupied by single men. They also station themselves in hotel bars. Which means they have insiders working as hotel employees who get a cut of their dealings.

I would love to go to Hanoi where Halong Bay is several km away. Seen pics of it on several blogs & its breathtaking.