ho chi minh city, vietnam.
(this one’s for you dad :))
ho chi minh city, vietnam.
(this one’s for you dad :))
It’s been far too long since our last blog post, and a lot has happened. As I type this Lindsay and I are once again on a bus, once again leaving a place we’ve had the pleasure of calling home the past 13 days.
13 days ago we left the Kingdom of Cambodia and entered Vietnam and passed through imigration without (much) issue. Lindsay’s passport and VN Visa somehow ended up being stamped for entry on the third, as apposed to the second which was when we actually were entering Vietnam so we had to pay an extra 10 USD to get in. After passing through imivration we had a humorous customs experience. Everybody was supposed to pass their bags through a metal detector but lots of people just walked right past the inspection station. The gaurds were somewhat more adiment with Lindsay and I so we put our luggage through, but not before taking out a large bag that contained my film and other electronic gear. The guards didn’t even bother looking through the stuff I took out, so the moral of the story was to make sure you take out your bombs, guns, and drugs before giving your bags over for customs inspection. Maybe you had to be there to enjoy the humor of the situation.
I’m no writer so I’ll switch between describing things and telling about what we actually did. Sorry.
After crossing the border things changed quite rapidly in the road quality department. To be honest Cambodia was wonderful but also fairly impoverished and the roads seemed to be a good indicator of this. For some reason I FEEL a lot about where I am based on the roads I’m driving/walking on (maybe because Michigan has such distinctly bad roads) and Vietnam felt great. It’s a bit hard to explain but as we approached Ho Chi Minh City things just picked up and somehow felt a lot more inviting. I never got that feeling in Phenom Penh or Siem Reap. Ho Chi Minh streets are incredible and so full of life it’s really something to experience. Here the streets are basically comprised of small shop after small shop after small shop, and everything can be found in these shops. You might have a trendy coffee shop next to a motor bike repair place blackened with grease with somebody welding on the sidewalk next to a stall with a 90 year old woman selling dog. It’s wonderful to stand on the sidewalk and look up because the buildings themselves are often times beautiful and unique. Many French styled buildings whose designs, heights, and colors are as varied as the shops housed in their base. 99% of the buildings here are tall and skinny but unlike in the US each building looks and feels unique to itself and as though how the building would look next to it’s neighbors was never considered. Hopefully a picture will go here to make this point.
After getting off at the bus station in HCMC it was getting late and dark (it gets dark around 6:30 here) and although we had great intentions of finding one of a few specific guesthouses we ended up just walking into the nearest hotels and asking about room rates. This seems to work well for us most times and this was no exception. We landed at the “Freedom Hotel” at 12 USD a night, down from the 15 originally quoted to us. This included AC and TV and fridge which is nice. After unloading our ever expanding load of gear we went next door to get some food.
We went to Pho 24, a popular cheapishish chain in HCMC. I knew I was going to fall in love with Vietnam and HCMC as soon as we walked in and sat down (spoiler: I’ve fallen in love and honestly want to move here and work for a year). The restaurant was cheap and wonderful and had iced coffee AND flan. The Pho (popular rice noodle soup dish here) was incredible and served with a plate of fresh bean sprouts and other greens. Here you are also normally give a cold wet towel that smells of eucalyptus. And the iced tea! Almost Everywhere you eat you’ll be provided with a cup of iced tea like nothing I’ve ever had in the States. The tea is very mild and has a slightly sweet aftertaste, not at all bitter or harsh like the iced tea I generally drink in the US. The whole meal with huge bowls of Pho, iced coffee, iced tea, flan, a whole fresh young coconut, and napkins-touched-by-god was maybe 6 bucks USD.
Prior to eating we actually made a quick run to an ATM which is semi note worthy. Here the currency is the Dong and the exchange rate is something like 1 USD = 16585 Dong. In order to cut down on the number of ATM fees we pay we generally try to take out large sums of money and here the most you can take out at once is around 120 dollars – around two MILLION Dong. It was a very strange feeling the first time I payed for lunch with a 100000 bill.
Anyway our after our first night in HCMC was our first day, and most of it was spent trying to get our barings on the city. This in the long run turned out to be difficult as the city is very large with something like 8 million people living in it and in the days to come we’d learn that HCMC was split up into a bunch of different districts and that we were in district one. District 1 is very large itself and has the “backpacker area” (which thankfully bares little resemblance to Ko Sanh road in Bangkok) as well as a lot of the more Western stores and prices. It was not at all uncommon to see a white face when walking around. To be honest I enjoyed walking around and looking at all of the westernish stuff during the first day. Surprisingly though we ate very little western food in HCMC, in fact other than one breakfast where we ate eggs and toast we ate Vietnamese food, or middle eastern food for a few lunches. I digress. The first day we explored. Wonderful to experience but not much to write about.
The next day we went to a large market in the morning and explored more during the afternoon. In the eveningish we met up with Tri for the first time. Tri stayed with Lindsay a few years ago in Jenison, for a year. He is Vietnamese but speaks English incredibly well and has a vocabulary better than most native English speakers. You’d have a hard time finding a contact better than Tri. We met up with Tri and his (our) American friend Sarah at a coffee shop called Sozo before heading to Bobby Brewers, a Western style chain complete with AC and free wifi. It was great to see Tri after 2 years and obviously a window into the Vietnamese world (albeit the germ free version ;)). Sarah was also a wonderful friend to have as she herself has a lot of Vietnamese experience. After dinner we went back to Sozo for “English corner” or something like that. Basically Vietnamese tweens (18ish-22ish) get together and practice their English. If a foreigner shows up they mob them and drag them to a table to practice talking English. I sat with a 20 year old girl and a few 18idh year old guys and talked. They want to know about where I went to school, how much it cost, if I have a job, etc. Lindsay sat at a different table and talked about who knows what. It was a lot of fun and was the first real time in Vietnam I experienced feeling like a celebrity.
***FYI I have now been typing this for two hours***
The next day or so was more exploring, more Pho, more flan, and more iced coffee. The next “big event” was lunch at Tri’s Grandma’s house. The lunch deserves it’s own post in order for justice to be done but Lindsay doesn’t seem on the writing mood and I don’t want this segment of our trip to pass unmarked before details fade so I’ll give a condensed version. The house was in a nicer section of HCMC and getting there required a 30 minute taxi then a walk with Tri through some backstreets. As I mentioned earlier houses here tend to be tall and narrow and his grandmas house is a perfect example. I think it had four or five floors and there were quite a few relatives stating there. An uncle and an aunt and another uncle and a cousin, etc. This was the first time we met Tri’s sisters as well, whose names I would probably misspell but are something like Tam and Trang (who we love). Lunch was a feast and consisted of lotus stem salad, beef, rice, whole coconut, coke, battered shrimp, other shrimp, and maybe a few dishes I’m not remembering. The food was served family style, which means everybody gets a small bowl (empty) and chopsticks, and the food is placed on dishes in the center of the table. Then everybody takes a little bit and puts it into their bowl and eats it, rinse and repeat. I was not sure if I should eat a lot to demonstrate my loving of the cooking, or a little to show that I wasn’t a pig/selfish/etc. In the end I ate a bit more then average but didn’t exactly gorge myself. Conversation before during and after lunch was limited as only Tri and his uncle (and cousin and sister) spoke English, and everybody other than Tri was a bit shy I’d say. Still everybody was extremely doting and wonderful and I wouldn’t say the experience was awkward. It was pretty great actually and the first time on this trip we ate dinner with a family. After lunch Tri’s aunt took Lindsay to get a face massage and her nails done. Lindsay claimed the facial was amazing and incredible, etc, and I tend to believe it. Keep in mind this facial was at a Vietnamese hair saloon in the back streets far away from the foreigner areas – I wouldn’t be surprised if Lindsay was the first American customer this place ever saw. But as with most places we’ve been here it had a great vibe and wonderful people. So much nicer then a hair place in the US, there really isn’t a door to the place it’s just a building with an open wall and steps leading into the shop – you just sort of walk down and sit down – Tri and I for instance just walked in and sat on the floor/chairs and chatted, no big deal. There isn’t a waiting area or places you don’t go, you just kinda become a resident of the hair saloon when you come in. After the hair place we walked a bit more and went to a restaurant and had some flan. Great flan, similar to what I might make in the US but with better sugar carmelization and with a twist: a bit of ice cold strong coffee on top plus crushed ice covering the flan. Great, great stuff.
An unrelated side note; people burn stuff in the streets and side walks here. Whether it’s a bust street with lots of traffic or a narrow back alley it’s not uncommon to have to step around somebody on the sidewalk or street squat down with a little pile of flames, burning something. Honestly I’m not sure what it is that is burned, but something is.
I’m not exactly sure what we did after lunch and facial and flan but eventually we worked our way into a taxi – I just remembered, we went to a new mallish plaza and had sugar cane juice – we worked our way into a taxi and went to meet Tri’s parents at a fancy Vietnamese restaurant.
This is a funny story that wasn’t funny and maybe isn’t actually funny. Lindsay and I have limited clothing items, and most of the time we have on one pair I’d shorts or another, and a t-shirt of some sort. We were hot and not exactly crisply clean after our daily cycle of sweat/cool/sweat/sort of cool/etc. Anyway we show up to meet Tri’s family for the first time at a fancy restaurant and they are dressed up, his dad has a tie on and his mom and sisters are beautiful. To make matters worse literally the second we sit down before we even finish saying hello I get “sick” and have to literally RUN to the bathroom. I felt really uncomfortable, but things quickly improved. Again (and for the rest of our meals) we ate family (or whatever you want to call it) style and had another feast. Frog legs, shrimp, other things, etc. Plus Tri’s awesome dad and I went “tit-for-tat” with Heinekens and I think each had 4 or so beers. It was a good binding experience for us I think. Luckily I wasn’t sick again and dimmer went great. I feel a bit bad as I don’t think it was cheap and Tri’s parents paid. Conversation was a bit difficult as Tri was the only one who spoke English (well, Tam speaks also but at this point she didn’t say too much!) so we spoke through Tri all meal. After dinner we parted ways and planned on going to Tri’s house the following day for dinner.
***now it’s been almost three hours and we’re listening to loud Vietnamese hiphop on the bus radio***
Before reading this, spend 5 minutes and go to http://YouTube.com and search for “ho chi minh traffic” and watch a few videos. We have plenty of our own now also but we can’t post them with this Internet connection.
The next day, after spending 300000 or so Dong on taxis, I decided to rent a motorbike. I say “I” because Lindsay wasn’t sure it was a great idea, but I love scootering so much and taxi fares were so costly and driving seemed like such a fun and doable challenge that I decided to do it. I could easily talk for 30 minutes about driving and traffic in HCMC, but if you watch a few YouTube videos you’ll start to get the idea. Traffic is pretty different here then in the US. Most of the streets are packed with motorcycles as apposed to cars. People transport all manner of things on motorbikes, from glass doors to 10 foot steel bars to bags of ice to live pigs (to dead pigs). Driving on side walks is OK, running red lights is pretty normal and I’ve more than once felt UNSAFE stopping at a red light for fear of being rear ended. Still, after the first day or so on a bike I felt pretty much totally comfortable in HCMC and after a week I feel like a pro. I will admit I’m quite proud to have conquered HCMC driving and I met more than a few Americans LIVING in the city who still hadn’t ever attempted driving. To be honest though it’s really easy – the secret is you just go and make sure you don’t hit anybody else. I have a left turn phobia in the US, but here despite the incredible throng of traffic that might be driving in the left lane turning left is no problem. You just slowly move your bike into the left lane, head on, and people just sort of swerve around you. Very cool, and surprisingly safe feeling. I LOVED our bike: a Honda Air Blade and according to Tri a more masculine version of the Honda Click I’ve been driving in Thailand. Actually I’ve driven quite a few different bikes here, a Nuovo, Click, Air Blade, and some other Yamaha bike. It’s good practice for when I buy my own scooter!
***ok 2 days have passed since I wrote the above, and once again I’m on a bus, this time a terribly bumpy bus full of foreigners making our way to Nha Trang. Da Lat is completly deserving of it’s own post, which I guess will come after this is done! Nick, I was tempted to post this ahead of completion but here I am, and there you are, and herethis blog post is, on my iPod. The point here is that I’ve lost my train of thought and who knows where this post will be going now… I’ll try to keep it on track.***
So the last few days we states in the hotel we did pretty much the same things on the mornings and afternoon. We ate at this middle eastern restaurant for breakfast (well, lunch really) called Fallalim which was incredible and had the best falafel I’ve ever had with hummus to match. Then we’d ride around the city exploring, getting lost(ish – we always had my GPS, which for the record we are BOTH happy I brought) and that sort of thing. We shopped a bit and got a few Xmas presents. We stopped and had ice coffee.
There was one notable exception to our afternoon activities and that was on the day that Tri and Sarah brought he to RMIT for “game day.”. Sarah teaches English at the university and Tri attends the school as a student. It’s one of the better universities in Vietnam because it’s actually an Australian owned and run campus. Anyway at fun day Lindsay and I played (or watched) such classics as “Pass the Parcel”, “Dance in a Circle and Freeze When the Music Stops”, and so on. I’d say the general vibe from the class was different then you’d have in an American group of Tweens. It was a great experience and once again it made me somewhat jealous to see how fun loving, generous, and easy to please this group of people were. After leaving RMIT we rode home and while driving were approached by a Vietnamese real estate agent who talked to us about property as we passed it, gave us a business card, and gave us directions to her office complete with hand motions. Keep on mind this was WHILE driving at 45 Kilometers an hour down the road. That’s something I forgot to mention in the last paragraph, it’s nice because here everybody drives scooters so when you are driving next to somebody it is like being in the car with them. More then once I’ve asked for directions from a total stranger while working my way through traffic.
Fast forward (or rewind – I don’t remember which) to the first night we ate at Tri’s house. Tri’s aunt invited us over to her house to eat crabs (seafood seems to always get an ‘s’ at the end of it, like “shrimps”) but somehow that turned into us eating crabs at Tri’s without his aunt. I’m pretty tired of typing here so I won’t give a full description of Tri’s house because sooner or later we’ll post a video of a house tour so you can see the house for yourself. A very short description might be, “a 3 story house with two rooms on each floor, and on the first floor one room is a fabric shop facing the street with a living room of sorts, tucked in the corner and the other room is the kitchen. Dinner was great and on the first night as well as the nights to come Tri’s mom cooked a Vietnamese feast. This particular night we had crabs. These are not the traditional crabs you might expect to eat in the US, but slightly smaller crabs that are served whole. You basically rip the crap open, take out the “internals” that you can (black gill things, etc) and then pick out what meat you can with your fingers, and the rest you suck out by putting the various crab parts in your mouth. To be totally honest I sometimes wondered what I was eating. But the food was great. We also had shrimp prepared two different ways (sometimes they eat the shell), dried squid, and of course I shared a few beers with Tri’s dad. Bia Saigon.
Dried squid deserves it’s own post probably but instead I’ll give it it’s own quick paragraph. In the busy streets of most of HCMC and other cities in Vietnam (and possibly/probably Thailand and Cambodia – we don’t remember) you can normally find an old bike with a vertical rack of flattened, dried squid about the size of a hand with fingers spread. The things are normally light tanish with a white powderyish surface. They ate normally attached to these vertical racks via clothes pin like devices. Also gerry rigged on the bike is normally a small stove sometimes with always burning coals, sometimes with a gas flame, that is used to roast the squid before giving to the purchaser. The squid is sometimes a bit expensive at around 10-20 thousand dong per large squid. The squid is ripped into thin strips and eaten with chili sauce (found on every table – a combination of what seems to be ketchup and mildish chilies) and beer.
END OF TANGENT
After dinner we all looked through family photo albums before Tri, T(D?)am, Trang, Lindsay, and I went to a local place to get “cocktails” – a mixture of a bunch of different things such as Durian, various jellies, nuts, fruits, etc, put into a cup, with crushed ice on top, and a ultra sweet syrup on top. T(D?)am had flan and trang had ice cream. Our cocktails were very good. We were tired and took a taxi home (at this point we actually didn’t have a bike yet, I think we got the bike the next day).
***we are driving in mountain somewhere, to the right is a sheet cliff and I can’t see over the side because of fog. I’m very nervous, this bus isn’t great and a part of it fell off a bit ago and we had to stop to pick up whatever it was and reattatch it with a wrench***
We went to a water park. Actually fairly similar to an American water park, except in the middle of HCMC, with a different food court offering, and only a few whities (we saw 2 other white people all day). There were tube slides, a few rides with inner tubes, a slide with mats, a lazy river, a wave pool, a suspended cable with handles you slide on, and maybe a few other things I’m missing. All in all a pretty normal water park. What was different is how many people openly stared at us throughout the day. Everybody actually. The only people that didn’t stare at us were the people who didn’t look in our direction (or were blind, although I suppose “didn’t look in our direction” covers them already because they wouldn’t have LOOKED, but I was trying to be funny). Lindsay was approached several times with a camera, thinking the couples wanted Lindsay to take a picture of them, only to discover the cute Asian girl with her arm around Lindsay throwing up a peace sign at her boyfriend who wanted a picture OF Lindsay. This type of thing was quote common, Lindsay has had her cheeks pinched by old woman and my arms and hands have been grabbed and held by all manner of folk. Anyway the water park was great, the water park food was not, and it only cost 80,000 dong a person (5idh USD). Oh, I almost forgot, on the water park maps (hopefully we’ll post a picture so you can see) there is an “attraction” called “sunbathing area for foreigners” – we thought this was funny. Tri said that he always tries to come to the park with foreign friends so be can use the foreign area which has nicer bathrooms I guess – he gets kicked out if he comes by himself.
***Ok, now I’m in Nha Trang – time for me to finish this!! Sorry if the detail and amount of writing takes a turn for the worse here… I’m really hoping there are enough pictures here to make up for the things I’m missing or my less than perfect writing doesn’t do justice to!***
We went to a movie, the day after the water park I think. Galaxy Cinema, and each ticket was around 60,000 dong I believe. We saw “Eagle Eye” which while the acting was surprisingly decent the imagery and general feel of the film was effective, I think it sucked thanks to a terribly overused story line, and a terrible ending (well basically the last 45 minutes of the movie). I guess I’m talking about the movie instead of the experience because it was really pretty standard. Vietnamese subtitles, and assigned seating, but other that that a pretty normal and pleasant movie watching experience.
The next big (and probably biggest) thing we did was move in with Tri. Again, we’ll post a video “walk through” of his house so I’ll leave the details out, but we lived on the second floor. I slept in a great bed, and Lindsay got a hammock. One interesting thing, although i don’t know how universally Vietnamese this is, under our sheets there were thing woodenish mats. I’m not sure what they are for, but they were really comfortable and I liked the sleeping experience. I am guessing the wood (or whatever it is) helps to keep you cool by radiating heat as opposed to the mattress which might be a bit more of an insulator. But again I digress. We feel bad (and spoiled!) because Tri’s parents went out and bought an air conditioner slash fan unit for us when they found out we were coming. And that was the story of our stay really – constant doting and feeding. Everyday when we got home there were two cups on saucers with a jug of tea. Every night Tri’s mom would bring Lindsay and I some sort of fruit smoothy. When we mentioned a certain type of food we were curious about Tri’s mom would jump on a motorbike and find whatever it was for us to try. Tri’s dad I felt very close with as I always felt that he would watch out for me as a fellow man. Things like offering me a beer at dinner, that sort of thing. Very wonderful man, and a very wonderful family. We really enjoyed Tri’s sisters as well. Very awesome girls. Tri’s older sister, T(D?)am didn’t speak much English when we first arrived but after a few forced translating sessions in Tri’s absence we found out that she actually speaks very well and her pronunciation was spot on. Sometimes you meet people with a huge vocabulary who you still can’t understand, but while her vocabulary isn’t huge (yet!) she was a pleasure to talk to because everything she said we understood perfectly.
At Tri’s house we ate a lot of stuff for the first time: whole, head-on-quail – snails-by-the-bowl, thing-we-can’t-spell-1, thing-we-can’t-spell-2, thing-we-can’t-spell-3-through-???, and so on. We had a few fruits for the first time as well. I wished I remembered the names but there was one that was an interesting cross between a tomato and a nectarine. Honestly really good. Then there were small nut looking fruits that tastes sour and great. Almost like a quickly dissolving sour patch kid that’s sour all the way through. All in all I’d say that we were incredibly well fed, stuffed in fact, for the three days we stayed at Tri’s.
***ok, almost there! I think.***
One evening T(D?)am asked us if we wanted to go with her to meet a few of her friends. We of course did and walked to a local park. The time spent with her was great and her fiends were wonderful as well. Lindsay and I could both see enjoying hanging out with them had we lived in HCMC and gone to school with them. Anyway we played a few games (a variant of freeze tag) but the real highlight of the hang session was the Ghost House. You would NOT expect it, but in the middle of this green little park was a haunted house type thing. The haunted house itself was pretty good but the thing that was an experience for me was having a group of screaming 18 year old Vietnamese girls literally shoving me in front of them to take the scary rooms head on. As I’ve said to some of you already, I have NEVER had so many girls trying to hold my hand. At one point I literally had three girls hands in my hand, one nearly pulling my arm off, and a few pulling at my shirt. At one point I almost fell over (really) because so many people were pulling at me. I was happy to see the stars again when we finally exited as I feared for my life, or more honestly I feared I would be pulled over and crush one of the girls who were trying to use me as protection. Lindsay thought the experience was great ad well, and in one of the rooms after I was nearly dragged over she was forced to the front lines and found the experience “scary” and “well done” – I concur.
So that pretty much sums up the major points that I can remember at the moment. Still there is much more to our time in HCMC that right now I’m just not feeling up to writing about. For instance a deserted 6 floor mall with zero customers and a “3D ride adventure” on the top floor that Lindsay and I experienced in an empty theatre, by ourselves, after it took 15 minutes to warm up the theatre’s projector after days of unuse. Lots of great memories and little things like this. The flan lady that had a small street stall and the best flan to date. The endless cheek pinches and arm grabs from interested Vietnamese. The interesting and wonderful coffee brewing technique. The Bia Hoi street beer vendors (ian: a draft for 3000 dong aka 20 cents). The romantic and magical (cheesy I know) arms width side streets full of sleeping Vietnamese and tiny restaurants. The roasted dogs. Shoe shopping with Tri.
Ok, then we left. To Da Lat we went, the Swiss alps of Vietnam.