Sunday, September 2, 2012

Trippin' : Saigon, Vietnam

Hello from Vietnam!

Pat and I are here for approximately 8 days for a short vacay, traversing the country north to south. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city early Saturday morning on an uneventful (and on time!) Cebu Pacific flight. Unfortunately, our first experience of the country wasn't good: we were overcharged for our short cab ride to our hotel. We ended up paying 300,000 dong for what should have been a 110,000 dong (equivalent to about $5) fare. The cab driver had the nerve to ask us for 1,000,000 dong (about $48), but Pat was insistent, refusing to pay the exorbitant amount, and managing to bring it down to 300,000. Still too much, but we were tired and grumpy and just wanted to get to bed. Lesson learned: do due research, not just on where to go, but on important, but sometimes overlooked, matters such as the cost of transport from the airport to your lodging, where to get cash, etc.

When we arrived at the hotel, the front desk insisted on keeping our passports. This is not acceptable, and Pat did read that most hotels will require you to do this, but you should always stand firm and not give your travel document. But it was so late that Pat didn't put up a fight anymore. Anyway, we were only there for a night, and we would be checking out early the following morning. 

Things were much better the following day, and I really enjoyed our short, eventful trip to HCM city. The following are snapshots from our approximately seven hour stay in Saigon.

The view from our hotel. We stayed in Hotel Thien Xuan, situated smack in the middle of the city and a short distance from the major sights we wanted to visit. I didn't take a photo of our room. Though it was clean and functional, it was nothing extraordinary. We did enjoy the free breakfast, which I think was a great introduction to Vietnamese cuisine, while still being appropriate as a first meal of the day. 

I had a siopao bun, filled with some kind of meat, a penne-ish noodle dish with shrimps which was light and refreshing, a scrumptious congee-like noodle soup that reminded me of a thicker palabok, and a piping hot bowl of pho with beef. And a fruit plate which, whenever I travel, I try to eat  before the actual breakfast meal. I liked the pale pomelo fruit as it was surprisingly sweet. All in all, a yummy meal!

I liked their chopsticks. I took home one as a souvenir!
On my must-see list is Ben Thanh market, which has pretty much everything: food stalls that serve hot meals and desserts, fruit stands, colourful flower booths selling both fresh and fake blooms, clothing stalls hawking souvenir shirts and ready to wear items, shoes,  booths selling fake branded leather goods and watches, even fabric vendors where you can also have suits made in one day. 
Pede rin mamalengke dito!


Bottled poisonous critters and creatures immersed in booze will supposedly increase male virility. Says Pat to vendor: "I don't need that!" Haha! 

This stall was selling beautiful embroidered napkins, runners and tablecloths.

I would have loved to take these home.

According to the guides we've read, bargaining is a necessary and obligatory skill when shopping the Ben Thanh market. A good trick is to start at half price and then work it from there, keeping in mind the maximum amount you're willing to pay. If they don't agree, walk away. There's a good chance they'll run after you anyway and be more willing to bargain down. 

Vietnamese vendors are aggressively makulit. They get right into your personal space, even touching you to catch your attention. They remind me of dogs corraling sheep into a pen a.k.a. their stall, and if you show even the tiniest bit of hesitation and indecisiveness, they will pounce on you and never let you go. Which is what happened to me.

The art of making tawad. Actually, it's more the stress of making tawad! I stopped to look at a pair of denim shorts in one stall, and that's when I experienced first hand making a sale, Vietnamese vendor style. This lady flattered me with compliments, even including Pat in her profuse expressions of flattery (half of which I couldn't understand). When I decided the price was too high and made to leave, she became tenacious and wouldn't let me go! She blocked my way, slightly pushing me into a corner, asking me to punch out another price in her calculator while continuously showering me with compliments to mask her predator vibe . I swear, I felt like a trapped animal, but the I have to admit, I was curious to see how far I could get the price down. 

Finally she agreed to bring down the price of shorts from 400,000 dong to P180,000 (about $9). Success!

They say you haven't experienced Vietnam if you haven't ridden a motorbike on its streets. If you're in HCM and decide to rent, Trung is a great guy. He speaks understandable English and gave us great tips on how to navigate the crazy streets. He said to never look back (most foreigners tend to do this) and just go with the revving flow of fellow motorbikers. You'll need your passport to rent a bike. 
Of course that's easier said than done. Good thing I had a driver, haha! Pat handled that motorbike like a local, while I wasn't as calm and suffered a few near heart attacks. 

As a consolation, we had a fasyon motorbike, complete with cute helmet! If I'm going to fall off that bike, might as well do so fashionably!
Second touristy stop: Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, same dude who built, you guessed it, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. 

The CPO reminds me of the train stations in Europe. 
Even the tiles are pretty.

Sending out greetings to friends all over the world. 

Outfit shot: Tank and bag, Zara; belt and shorts, Mango; shoes, Schu; necklace, bought in Manila Fame last year. 

Spotted: man in white shoes! 
The twin spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, or Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception,  situated right across  the Post Office. We didn't get to enter as it was closed. 

Around the area, there are vendors selling pretty, intricate, pop-up paper cards. 

We paid 40,000 dong for each card, but if you buy it at souvenir stores inside the Post Office, they're only 30,000 dong each. So again, haggle! Still, paying $2 for a work of art is nothing. 

I especially liked this one of the Notre Dame Cathedral. 
Next, we headed to the War Remnants Museum, which was on Pat's must-see list. 15,000 dong($0.80) to get in. Though I'm not a big fan of anything war-related, this, I believe, is one museum you should go to. It was an eye-opener, to say the least. 

They say the contents of the museum are skewed against the Americans, but looking at the photos of the war victims left me...I don't know... Horrified? Numb? Aghast? No words can perfectly describe the horror captured by those photos. I got teary-eyed at the Agent Orange Aftermath exhibit. Inside were snaps of the victims born with of Agent Orange, the dioxide poison the US Army used for its herbicidal warfare during the Vietnam War. Those exposed to the poison eventually developed deformities and sicknesses, and a lot of children were born with birth defects. Jennifer, above, is one such casualty. She grew up to be a teenager, but her dad, unable to live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and his cancer, shot himself. 

Outside the museum is a special section dedicated to prison conditions. Can you believe this barbed cage held prisoners? The smaller one contained two to three people, while the larger enclosure held about five to six. 

After such a depressing exhibit, we needed something to perk us up. A roadside eatery that beckoned to us with its delicious barbecue smells seemed like it would do the trick! 
The place seemed like a popular local joint. Maybe too local—the servers could not speak a word of English, and we had difficulty just asking for water. Needless to say, the menu did not make any sense at all to us. We had to resort to the tried and tested way of ordering: pointing at the food on the next table and hoping to God it was palatable! 

It arrived in the form of a large platter of marinated meat...

...and a tray of leafy greens, herbs and roasted nuts. I spotted kangkong, okra and sweet basil. There were also slices of something that tasted citrusy (left foreground), like kamias but sweeter. Whatever it was, I like! 

We really didn't know what we were doing, but it seemed easy enough: just put the meat and veggies on the crude tabletop grill and wait till cooked. 
Don't forget the sauce. 

And dig in!

After the first bite, I had a sinking feeling our mystery meat was some kind of innard as it was a bit chewy. Yikes! Oh well, deadma! It was delicious anyway. Total cost of meal (including two cans of 7-Up and a bottle of Heineken) : 186,000 dong, or $9. 

After our late lunch, it was time to return our rented motorbike, and head back to the hotel. While on the road, we spotted a sidewalk barber shop. Presko!

We couldn't leave the city without tasting the famed Vietnamese iced coffee. Trung, motorbike guy, recommended this coffee shop. 

We ordered their specialty iced milk coffee which only filled up half of the plastic cup. But the coffee is very strong, so the trick is to let the ice melt so you get the perfect latte with a punch. Coffee this good comes at a price: 176,000 dong for two orders, almost as expensive as our lunch! 
I'm proud to have packed light on this trip. I only have 7 kgs for my check in luggage. I brought my Cuzo Weekender too as a carry-on bag, and as a back-up plan for shopping storage. I like that it matches my purse! (Btw, you have until tomorrow to use voucher code Katdyfinds0827012 to get P100 off your Cuzo purchase.)

Weird sight inside the airport: A shop selling frozen seafood inside the departure gates. Carry-on ang isda?

I don't know what this fruit is, but they looked like giant dalandans and were the size of coconuts. 

Finally, we arrive in Dalat. Our crib for the night: the elegant Dalat Edensee resort, which we are considering as a possible wedding venue. 

The restaurant's buffet for the night featured a tasting station where you can have Vietnamese pancakes, glutinous rice rolls, rice cakes, and rice noodles prepared on the spot. Napa-buffet tuloy kami!

And this is how we cap the night—with a soothing hot bath. 

 I'll try to blog regularly on this trip, so stay tuned!

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