Well it was the last chapter of my first ever trip to Vietnam as my visa only had a few days remaining and I was on my way to Saigon (I will call it Saigon during this post as everyone else in Vietnam still seems to call it that).
Just in case anybody isn’t aware, like I wasn’t, Saigon is the former name of Ho Chi Minh City, to which it was re-named after the Vietnam War. As it turns out, many Vietnamese and travellers still prefer to call it Saigon although for Vietnamese this name refers mainly to the central, urban area of HCMC. The reason I am mentioning this is to help anyone avoid my mistake, when planning for this trip, of searching for Saigon on a map and wondering where the heck it was! I am afraid to admit that I didn’t realise they were one and the same city. That being said, I didn’t know very much at all about Vietnam before I arrived here which is one of the reasons I wanted to visit
After staying in cheap, basic hostel accommodation during my trip through Vietnam, I had decided in advance to splurge a little in Saigon and treat myself to a hotel so that I could get cleaned up, have some decent rest and prepare for my trip to Cambodia. There were lots of cheap options around for hotels anyway. Also, after my few drinking nights out in Dalat I thought it would be a good idea to have a few days off the sauce and generally speaking, staying in hostels means sauce. By “sauce” I mean copious amounts of alcohol including rice wine and cheap beer. It really did seem to be quite hard to stay off the sauce when travelling hence the reason I had decided to seclude myself in a cushty, yet lonely, hotel.
Next I made my way down to Backpackers Street or Bui Vien as is it’s official name. Now I have had some pretty good holidays in my time and been around to a few party places (not Ibiza granted!) but on the face of it this was hands down for me the most buzzing party street I had ever seen in my life. There must be about 200 pubs and clubs on this road and about 10,000 people partying from all sorts of different nationalities. It was also called Walking Street, although I have no idea why as bikes and cars still plummeted down here with their usual homicidal intent.
The next day, I woke up and I had told a mate of mine from back home, who had spent some time in Vietnam teaching English, that I had arrived in Saigon. This friend had already given me some pretty good tips during my travels and very helpfully put me in touch with an expat he knew who had lived here in Saigon for 8 years. Unfortunately, his friend wasn’t available to meet for a beer that day but he gave me some great tips on some restaurants and other local haunts that you wont find in your usual travel guides, which I did check out during the day including the best chocolate brownie I have ever tasted! He also said he might be available to meet for lunch the next day.
The first full day in the city I did what any self respecting tourist does when you arrive at a new city for the first time – I pounded the pavements like a deranged lemming searching for sights and collecting photos as if everything was only here for one day and would soon vanish forever; walking until I could barely walk any longer and all the muscles, bones and organs in my body ached and screamed at me to give them some mercy. Here is what I saw that day; a day in which I clocked up 28,206 steps – my personal Vietnam record beating my previous day record of 20,152 quite significantly.
Firstly, I was walking past a bank and I saw this – I asked a local what was happening and they said this was how the bank opened every day; not quite sure if they were winding me up or not but it was about 9AM.
After all the sights, I finished up that day with one of the nicest chicken curries I have ever had. I know I keep making these dramatic, over the top exclamations about food but it really is that good here. I am afraid I have forgotten the name of the restaurant but it was in Bui Vien.
The next day – a Saturday – turned out to be a very good day.
I had done all the main city sights and had decided to skip one of the biggest and most important sights here known as the Cu Chi Tunnels which are tunnels from the war. I am probably one of the few people who has visited Saigon and not gone to see them but for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I just didn’t fancy it and I had also spoken to a couple in Hoi An who said they didn’t enjoy it which put me off slightly – they said it was just like being on a tourist conveyor belt. I think the reason is that I didn’t have the appetite for another bus based tour. If I come back here again, I will make the effort but for now I just wanted to enjoy the city as there was enough to do and see where I was.
Instead, I woke up and took an Uber motorbike across the city and back again to a few different spots in the city just to experience what it was like to be in the madness, rather then just watching it from the pavement. My mate who had lived here recommended this and it didn’t disappoint, was a bit of an adrenalin rush. Next, I went to a place called Café Tram which was recommended by the expat which I mentioned earlier in the post for breakfast and a coffee. It has got a sort of forest theme and ponds etc. Lovely place and one of the most unique coffee shops I have ever seen – staff weren’t too friendly though for some reason and wouldn’t let me sit where I wanted and seemed to get annoyed when I asked for the WIFI code but it was a nice oasis from the city.
I had been talking to the expat I mentioned earlier over Facebook and we arranged to meet for lunch that day. I met him at the spot we had arranged and he took me on the back of his motorbike to a local restaurant. He was from my home town and had been living in Saigon for 8 years doing pretty well for himself teaching English. During that time, he had married a Vietnamese woman and he told me an interesting story about their wedding and some of the customs in Vietnam, the wedding took place in her local village and first he had to travel all the way there to formally ask the parents permission to marry their daughter – although this tends to be a courtesy in the west, this is an essential custom over here and must be done in person. His wife also then turned up at the restaurant and joined us for lunch. It is always great to meet someone from home and was nice to meet his wife too as I love meeting locals – we had a good chat about his life in Vietnam and I told him about my travel plans. I am always listening out for travel tips and one thing I picked up on was that he wasn’t too keen on Laos which is the second or third person I have heard say that, however, on the other side of the coin I have also heard a lot of people say they loved it, it seems to be a love or hate place. I will have to see for myself I guess.
Next, from all the heat and dust in the city I felt like I needed a swim. I got back to my room and did some research and discovered there was a large, fancy hotel near my hostel called New World. I thought I would try my luck and walked into the hotel, followed the signs to the pool, took a seat confidently as if I was a guest and ordered a lemonade. So far, so good.
I took a long swim which felt fantastic and by the time beer o’clock had arrived………….
…………..I was feeling pretty smug about myself and like a proper rebel – nobody knew there was an intruding budget backpacker lurking among them.
I hadn’t foreseen a key thing that always happens in nice hotels when you order drinks – when it was time to leave and pay up, they asked me my room number to put the drinks on the room bill. I quickly decided to just be honest and say I wasn’t a guest but thought it was open to the public. It turns out it was open to the public before 6.00PM as long as you purchased drinks so I wasn’t such a rebel after all.
Furthermore, when they brought the bill over for one sprite and one beer it was 210,000 Vietnamese Dong. Now, anyone who has been to Vietnam will know how utterly shocking what I just said is. I mean even by English prices that is very steep coming in around £7. A sprite and beer in a normal Vietnamese pub would be around 40,000 Dong in total for both or around £1.30. I had been truly stung, my smug rebellious buzz was truly burst, and there was only one person with mug written on their forehead when I left that place. I guess this is what happens when you try and get one over on the Vietnamese, they don’t miss a trick. I did have a great swim though and eventually managed to get over what had felt like a daylight robbery, by thinking of the extra charge as an entrance fee for the pool!
During my time in Saigon, I had downloaded and set up an account and profile for the room sharing app, Couchsurfing. I think this is because I had chosen to stay in a hotel so was feeling a little secluded from the main backpacker community and this app does have a great feature, called “Hangouts” where if you activate it you can search people nearby and connect to explore the place, meet for beers, go to food, meet a local etc. During my time at the pool, I had connected with a couple of local university students, which was a very common thing to do in Saigon where you go to speak to them for an hour or so. For the traveller, they get to meet a local and learn a bit about the country and culture and for the student, the benefit for them is that it helps them practice their English. My hotel receptionist and also my travel guide had also recommended it. Later that afternoon, I met two students called Pham Xuan (Male) and Pham Thi (Female) in a coffee shop and basically just chatted to them for an hour about Saigon, my travels, their university, the food in Vietnam, the coffee in Vietnam, other people they had met, what courses they were doing etc etc. We had a decent conversation and I think it was a worthwhile experience. I always like meeting locals when I am in new places and I think I even taught them a couple of English words
I decided to go out for a few beers that night at Bui Vien, which is the buzzing party street I mentioned earlier. After sitting and watching the world go by for a while……
………..I thought I would try out the Couchsurfing App again and it worked! There was a group who had arranged to meet for beers. I met them in a small local bar and the group consisted of an American couple who told me they were digital nomads which means they seem to be permanently travelling and they work online (I was pretty impressed by this and have made it my new ambition in life!), one Spanish lady, and a Fillipino Lady. It was getting quite late by this point but I had a good chat with them for about an hour or so, enjoyed a couple of beers with and then we went to get some street food before heading home. If I am totally honest, even though it does seem to be a great way to meet people, the experience did feel a little random and forced to me – I think I prefer meeting people naturally as you encounter them in a bar, hostel, tour etc but I may use it again if I am staying in a hotel or non-social hostel. Maybe it just felt a bit awkward for me as it was my first time doing such a thing! They were all nice people though and was good to meet them.
Weird moment – while I was on the way home, there was a rude Vietnamese kid who came up and swore at me in an aggressive manner telling me to “F” off basically and a few other words for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It is the only negative encounter I had with the Vietnamese during my month here apart from some of the pushy street hustlers but they were just doing business. Most of them have been warm and friendly. I have no idea what his issue was and I definitely didn’t do anything to provoke it but at the end of the day he was only a kid, about 12 – 13, so I just ignored him and he carried on walking. Ironically, the kid was going to get his wish as it was my last day in Vietnam and I was off to Cambodia the next day on the bus, Phnom Penh being my first stop.
Next Stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia