The hustle and bustle of Saigon city

Trip Start Aug 26, 2012
Trip End Dec 22, 2013

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Friday, August 16, 2013

I knew the journey to Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon as most of the locals call it, was going to be a long tiring one and likely eventful and it didn't disappoint. First off, based on all my travel thus far in SE Asia I should have not been so naïve as to assume that I would be on one bus for the entire journey, even when the lady selling me the ticket confirmed the same.  Essentially a ticket assures that you will get from A to B but it’s at their digression as to how and when.  Getting to the border was pretty uneventful in that after picking me up first in a minivan, we collected a few more tourists on the way to town.  After stopping at the travel agency to swap people and bags we were off again and picked up a few more tourists on the way out of town.  Then it as a two hour drive to the boarder taking short cuts through the rice fields to avoid the bad roads.  I’m not convinced the roads we took were any better.  At the boarder we had to get out of the van with our luggage and hand our passports over to this guy that meet us and were instructed to walk across to the Vietnamese border.  In between was about 200m of what seemed to be no man’s land.  In the immigration office we were handed entry forms to fill out, and just as I started filling mine out, I heard "Canada" and being the only one in the group looked up to see “passport guy” waving my passport with my form already filled out by him and I just had to sign it.  Not sure why I was the only one with special treatment, but didn’t inquire.  After signing I was simultaneously asked to have my temperature read and pay $1 USD.  I asked a couple of times what the money was for, knowing full well it was a bribe and true to form I never got an answer except “pay”.  So after paying my dollar within minutes I had my passport stamped and back in my hand and sat waiting for the others wondering what would have happened if I had a fever?  Once we were all through immigration we had to walk another 50m to have our passports checked and then ushered to a taxi van.  Not all of us and our luggage would fit so one guy and some luggage travelled with the “passport guy” on a moto to our destination a couple of kilometers away, the Ha Tien bus station.  Unloading everything once again we parted with most of the people we had crossed the border with and three of us travelling to Saigon were told we would have to wait 2 hours until we departed which was an unexpected lengthy delay.  Not too much of a big deal except for the fact that I only had US dollars and Andy and Rachel had no money between then and there was neither a bank machine or a money exchange facilities anywhere around us.  Thankfully we all had water and they had some snacks which they graciously shared with me.  While sitting on the street corner where we were dumped, passing time with the locals trying Andy’s juggling pins and scrutinizing his unicycle (he’s a circus performer),  without fail it began to rain and one of the locals escorted us to a little restaurant just inside the bus station that had cover.  The owner was gracious enough for us to sit there for an hour and a half but I think would have been happier if we bought some food.  I think I made her further unhappy when a woman selling fried dough snacks came up and showed her a US dollar not thinking she would take it but did; a sale is a sale.  So for a dollar I got seven larger pieces of fried dough and shared with Andy and Rachel for the remainder of our journey.  However we saved face with the restaurant lady when Andy gave her one of their sweet crackers after she was eyeing the package, so much so that she even let me use her squat toilet in the back of the restaurant which had no door and a shower curtain to block another doorway facing the street.  Finally 2pm arrived and a lady who we would learn to be the bus boss of our journey, gestured to board the bus.  It was a mini bus and had no room for our luggage except under the seats or on the roof.  My bag thankfully was squished under a seat but most of Andy’s circus gear had to be strapped on the roof.  Once we piled in with a few locals off we went with the boss lady manning the door, enlightening us to the fact that we were on a local bus.  For the next 3 hrs on our journey to the town of Cha Doc it was a process of stopping to pick up either more passengers and their luggage including at one point a live chicken, and a child’s bike, or just parcels and at times envelopes of money.  As we got closer to Cha Doc we then started dropping off said passengers, parcels and money.  The whole time the boss lady was in total command of the situation, taking fares, onboarding and off boarding of people and parcels and telling people where to sit.  My explanation doesn’t do the experience justice.  Happy to arrive in Cha Doc, I had a chance to use the toilet which of course you had to pay for and they begrudgingly accepted a US dollar for which I got $75,000 VND in return.  This currency is hard to get used to but learning to just drop the zeros and it gets much easier to figure out.  Quickly our bags were transferred onto a minivan and we were commanded to “Sit”.  I think we were behind schedule causing the new driver and a new boss lady to be late starting their journey to Saigon which is supposed to take 5 hrs. Thankfully this route didn’t have as many stops to pick up passengers but we still stopped until all the seats were filled.  About 2 hrs in, we pulled up into a queue and realized that it was the queue for a ferry crossing on one of the arms of the Mekong River.  We had to get out of the van and walk onto the ferry for the very short 5 minute crossing.  We were stalled though near the dock on the other side for a further 5 minutes waiting for another ferry to load and leave.  That ferry was no sooner pulling away from the dock as we were pulling up beside it getting so close to the other ferry I probably could have reached out and touched it.  It was like magic watching us slide right in.  Expecting to walk off as we walked on, confusion ensued when the boss lady was trying to round us up and ordered us in the van, while still on the ferry.     Most of us were nearby and did just that but Andy and Rachel had made their way to the top of the ferry so we had no choice but to drive off and they had to meet us further up road away from the dock area.  After another 2 hrs we stopped for dinner at what seemed like a truck stop. Again there were no ATM’s and I had no small US bills so myself, Andy and Rachel were SOL. Through broken English with one of the locals we explained we weren’t eating because we had no money.   He thought this was hilarious and every local that came back in the van he told our story to in Vietnamese but always the English words of “no money” to which they would turn around to look at us and start laughing.  I’m glad we can amuse.  Driving another 2 hrs we had to stop for gas and while I thought we were close we were actually still another hour away.  Finally after a total of 7 hrs cramped in a minivan with the constant drone of Vietnamese pop music we arrived at the bus station about 10kms outside the city center.  Andy, Rachel and I negotiated a taxi to get into the city making sure they would stop at an ATM.  After securing some Dong from the ATM we thought the end was near but we thought too soon.  Mere minutes after the ATM, our driver in attempt to go around some construction on the street went over a curb blowing out the right rear tire and doing some damage to the body.  Thankfully he had a spare and after unloading all our luggage onto the street so he could get it, within 5 minutes the tire was changed had we were back in the car.  With no more drama, Andy and Rachel got dropped off in an area where they hopefully found a place to stay and I made it to the Townhouse 50 hostel minutes later.  All in all it was a 14hr day of traveling and all I could think of was “bed”. However despite my tiredness from the journey, Johnny who checked me in insisted that I plan my three days and before I knew it I had signed up for two tours for the first two days. 
So early the following day I found myself back on bus, a nice one thankfully, and got a tour of the city as we picked up more passengers before heading out of town, the exact same way I came in to get to the Mekong Delta area which is about 2.5 hrs away.  Our young guides name was Viet and was a bit of a budding comedian in that he had good material but his delivery needed some work, but still made for interesting commentary throughout the day.  His best delivery was the introduction of our driver who spoke no English whatsoever and became apparent when Viet introduced him as Stifler (of American Pie fame) and the entire bus broke into laughter but the driver didn’t even crack a smile.  Once we arrived in the town of MyTho, the gateway to the Mekong Delta we were whisked on to a boat for a quick 15 minute journey across one of the many branches of the Mekong River to reach the largest of the five islands in the delta area called Unicorn Island. Steps from the pier where we landed we were in a honey bee farm and shown a board of honeycomb covered with bees and even able to hold it if so inclined which I did as the bees were very tame and busy making honey.  Then we were whisked into the restaurant area and told to sit down for some honey tea; a combination of honey, tea and bee pollen.  It wasn’t actually that sweet and tasted a bit fishy to me to be honest.  Then out came all the products for sale from honey to royal jelly to snacks such as dried bananas, and crystalized ginger which we got to try.  Nobody went for the honey or royal jelly but a few of us bought some snacks.  Then it was back on the boat for another short ride to a pier further down the island.  Here we got off and walked a short distance to another restaurant to taste some of the local fresh fruits and to hear some of the locals sing some traditional Southern Vietnam folk songs for all of about 5 minutes after which the tip baskets came out.  If you are starting to get the impression that this seems like a very touristy tour then your impressions are correct and was definitely solidified for me over the next two stops. First was a coconut candy making factory where we were showed the process of making the candy (which having an inkling for candy making was quite interesting).  Then after a taste lead to the counter with the expectation to buy some along with a variety of other souvenirs.  Next we were rushed down a path of about 100m and whisked on to a bunch of “row boats” as they call them for a trip through the tiny little canals.  With no less than 100 boats going in one direction or another it felt more like a Disney ride then a peaceful serene trip through the canals of the Mekong that I had long pictured in my head.  At the end of this ride we met up with our original boat again and had a quick transit to another drop off where we were loaded onto smaller motorized boats to go back through a slightly larger canal to our lunch destination.  A very small pre-set lunch of rice, stir-fried veggies and a couple of spring rolls was included with the tour but of course we were encouraged to order off the special menu that ranged from the expected prawns and fish to the extreme including Squirrel, Turtle  and Iguana.   I opted to try a King Prawn steamed in coconut juice.  After lunch we had some time to grab a bike and cycle around the community which I enjoyed as I got a chance to see some of the rural Mekong life without a throng of tourists around and everyone was so friendly saying hello as I rode by.  After that it was back in the small motor boat to take us back to our big boat for the journey back to My Tho and then back on our bus for the 2.5 hr ride back to Saigon.  All in all a very rushed and touristy day and wouldn’t have been as enjoyable had it not been for Kallie from Tasmania, another solo female traveller on the tour who I spent most of the day with as all the others were in couples.   She was good fun and we had some good conversation and agreed to meet up for drinks in the evening the next day.  Kallie had recommended that I go to the “Saigon Skydeck” located on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower ( , inspired by the lotus, Vietnam’s national flower and the tallest building in Saigon and Vietnams first and only International Class A building.  International meaning it’s ranked within the top 10 in the world.  So after returning from the tour I quickly changed clothes and made my way over to try and catch the sunset/twilight hours.  With the building standing at 262 meters tall it made for an ear popping elevator ride.  The views from the sky deck definitely didn’t disappoint but unfortunately my pictures do not do it justice; the neon lighting on the floor reflected on the glass made it hard to get a decent shot.  I also took in Kallie’s tip about the bar, which is on the 52’nd floor, which is also the floor of an amazing helicopter pad which apparently has never been used according to the locals I asked, and I asked a few .  Over a couple of G&T’s I watched day turn into night before my eyes and could have easily made for a really romantic moment with a significant other and whilst alone I still cherished the moment by posting it on Facebook!  And I’m so happy I did because from that I learned about an awesome Vespa tour through the city from my friend Tony and after my drinks made my way to Café Zoom and booked myself up.  But before that I had another long day of another rather touristy tour to Tay Ninh’s Cao Dai Holy See complex, headquarters of one of Vietnam’s indigenous religions, Cao Dai (founded in the 1920’s and combines both secular and religious philosophies from the East and West) and then to Cu Chi ( ), home to the famous tunnel system built and used from 1960 to 1975 by the Liberation (Vietcong not being politically correct) army in the fight against both the French but mostly American army.   It was a bum-numbing total of 6 hrs on the bus (return) and had I known that I probably would not have signed up for the full day tour but alias here I was.  So after 3 hours on the bus we arrived at the Cao Dai temple in time to watch there noon day service which I hate to say was interesting for all of about 5 minutes.  The followers of this religion were all wearing robes sitting cross legged on the floor, women separated from men and further separated by “rank” for lack of a better word visible by the different colored robes they wore.   Throughout the service there was a group singing and playing instruments from a vestibule on the upper level and periodically at the sound of the gong, the followers would gesture with their hands and bow forward laying their hands on the ground.   Our movements around the outside of the temple were restricted during the service out of respect and to prevent disruption I presume.  After this we stopped at a nearby Vietnamese style restaurant for a pre-set menu lunch of about five different courses.  The female owner of this establishment we learned was a “hero” within the Liberation army and had pictures on the wall with her in her uniform with all her medals, shaking hands with the king and other dignitaries.  We also learned she had travelled at some point to Cuba as part of her army life and the best part of this lunch stop was to see how proud she was of her accomplishments.  Back on the bus we made our way back towards Saigon but in the direction of the Cu Chi tunnels, a journey of about 1.5 hours.  Our tour guide with the western name of Mike gave a description that we would be walking in the “jungle” for about an hour, which to me translated as walking in the jungle to get to the tunnels.  He was also very adamant about dosing ourselves with mosquito repellent which few of us had.  It turns out that the hour jungle walk was really a walk around the tunnel complex and despite the heavy downpour at the start of our tour; there were no mosquitoes to be found thankfully.   Considering this was supposed to be the highlight of the tour I was disappointed that we spent now more than an hour here. In that hour after being lead down and up a tunnel to reach the tunnel area we were given an overview of the tunnel system and learned that the first level built during the war with French consisted of store rooms, living areas, kitchen and the room by the river being the shooting room ambushing the enemy on the river.  The second and third levels were built during the war with the Americans with the second level being mostly traps in case they were compromised and a special re-enforced room for dignitaries, pregnant women and women with young children.  The third level was a means of escape towards the river where boats in disguise were at the ready if needed to escape.  Both the second and third levels were even equipped with oxygen tunnels made with bamboo and at ground level just looked like large termite mounds.  Really an amazing feat of engineering considering they only used natural materials.  After being shown  what I can only describe as a badly done propaganda film, but still delivered the message, we were then shown a couple of tunnel entry points, which a few in our group opted to climb into followed by a few craters created by B-52 bombs.  Continuing on we passed by a US army tank, captured or left behind followed by a gallery of the different types of traps the Liberation army used.   Next up was the shooting range, my least favourite part of the whole experience, where if you were so inclined for a price, have a chance at shooting from a wide range of weapons, the most popular being the AK-47 and the M-60.  The sound was deafening and for me not in any way enjoyable and I honestly felt it was wrong, but that was mine opinion and few others on my tour; others gobbled the opportunity up.  Finally it was time to have a chance to enter the tunnels and experience what crawling through them would have been liked.  Out of the 200kms of tunnels, they have Westernize 200m of tunnels, meaning they’ve widened them so that our body types can fit through them.  All the same it was still a tight squeeze in the shoulder area while constantly walking in a crouched position.  We had a guide to take us down into the tunnels but he was pretty much useless as he ran through the first 40 metres leaving us in the dust while we figured out the depth of the initial drop and getting our eyes used to the dark.  I was first in line and approaching our guide after sometime; he motioned for us to go up an exit point and confirmed that was the end when I asked.   I admit I was a bit disoriented and feeling the heat of the closed space but was doubtful we had finished the full 200 metres. And sure enough Mike  was there waiting for us and confirmed that this was only the 40m mark and when we explained the guides actions he replied “he’s lazy and it’s almost closing time’.  Not one to be deterred and wanting to get my money’s worth, as this was the best part of the tour, I made my way back down followed by a hand full of others and we told the guide I wanted to “go”.  Clearly not happy he turned around and took off leaving us to figure out the remaining 160 metres on our own.  During this experience we went down to the third level which was unbearable hot and at one point was so tiny that I had to sit down on my bum and inch my way through.  I can’t imagine living most of your days and nights in such environs.  At this point it was after 5:00pm and we had clearly out stayed our welcome at Cu Chi Tunnels and Mike was on a mission to get back to Saigon so it was a rush onto the bus for the reminder 1.5 hour journey back.  Again not the best tour I’ve had but glad I did it all the same.  Getting back just after 7:00pm it was another rush in changing clothes and slapping on some deodorant to go meet Kallie for dinner and drinks in Pham Ngu Lao area which is very similar to the Khao San Rd in Bangkok but not as crazy.  Travelling alone, the days are easy to pass but the nights can be a bit lonesome so it was nice to have some company, especially with someone who enjoys people watching as much as I do.  The following morning was the much anticipated Vespa tour ( ) and it definitely didn’t disappoint and was such a good way to see the city sights.  After being picked up by my Vespa driver and taken back to Café Zoom to collect another couple, the three of us were off, each with our driver, one being our charming and knowledgeable guide, Kit.  Our first stop was a small park not far from the city centre where men bring their pet birds in cages (a recognized status symbol I learned), mostly via moto, for I guess a bit of fresh air for the birds and a reason to be proud for the men.  Literally there were about 50+ men of various ages sitting in groups taking and enjoying tea or coffee, surrounded by just as many bird cages either placed on tables or hanging from permanent fixtures.  Finding our own table, the guide ordered us ice coffees and we sat down amongst the men and their birds and had a good chat about what we were witnessing and so many other things.  Typically the men arrive around 7am in the morning and after a couple of hours they head for home with their birds.  Those retired would continue their day as a retiree would, those working would then head for work after securing their birds in their home.  After this we made our way to a busy intersection to see a monument dedicated to Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in 1963 in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.  Then we had a quick stop to walk briefly through the flower market before making our way to Chinatown in the area of Cholon for a visit to the Thien Hau Pagoda, a Chinese temple dedicated to the goddess of the sea of the same name who is the protector of fisherfolk, sailors, merchants and travellers of the sea.  This was followed by a short visit to a Chinese Catholic church.  In the short time we were in the church, the nearby school had let out for the day and it was madness with parents on bikes and motos coming to pick up their children.  Interesting that even though this school was beside the church and at one time it was a Catholic school, it is no longer.  There is no such thing as Catholic schools in Vietnam; a first I’ve come across in my travels to date.  Then we head off to the other edge of town and went through a tunnel under the Saigon River to get across to the “island” to take in the views of the city.  The island is currently being slated for major development in both commercial and residential as there is nowhere else for the city to grow.  First step of course was removing the slums, though there were still a few communities around.  Then we headed back to the city via a bridge a little further along the island and took in the sites of the main post office, and Notre Dame Cathedral which has the architecture of the one in Paris but at a much smaller scale and made out of red brick.  Our last stop was the Reunification Palace, built in 1966 (and certainly looks it) to serve as the presidential palace for South Vietnam but most famous as this is where the first Communist tanks in Saigon crashed into the gates of the building on April 30, 1975 when Saigon surrendered to the North.  The building looks just as it did that day and now serves as a museum.  Then it was back to Café Zoom for lunch.  I was sad to see it end has I had so much fun riding on the back of the Vespa and being a part of the crazy traffic but knowing I was in safe hands with my driver.  There are 9 million people in the city and 6 million motos/scooters all following traffic rules to a degree but if everyone did there would surely be traffic jams.  But the way everyone maneuvers though an intersection getting to where they want to go is just pure magic.  In the afternoon I made my way over to the Ben Thanh market, the nicest market I’ve seen in SE Asia to date and is full of your typical souvenirs and clothing but also had some really interesting bulk food stalls and lots of different types of coffee.  Once through the market, purchpical souvenirs and clothing but also had some really interesting bulk food stalls ane manuvers asing another pair of flip flops, I made my way to the War Remnants museum which was equally as heart-breaking to endure as the similar sights in Phnom Penh.  Outside is a series of retired US artillery pieces from tanks to planes and helicopters and a replica of a tiger cage used to house the prisoners.  Inside over three floors are 8 galleries focusing on different aspects of the Vietnam war mostly all in the form of pictures, many taken by the war photo journalists of the time of the war itself, and the victims both during the war and since then as suffers of horrific birth defects caused by the use of the likes of Agent Orange.  The most recent documented case at the museum was a little girl born in 2008 with no legs and arms.   This museum is not for the faint at heart as many of the pictures are downright graphic and gruesome and I left the building shaking my head and a very heavy heart.  It’s a testament to the Vietnamese people on their willingness to move on from this (I can’t presume to say “forgive”) and embrace America and Americans as I have witnessed many times so far.  Deep in thought and perspective as I made my way back to my hostel, I was brought back to the real world when Johnny who has taken such good care of during my stay, came in much earlier than his shift to bring me some sweet bread for my overnight train trip and even called a taxi for me and escorted me to the taxi all with a smile, genuine concern and an overall happiness.  
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