Tue Jan 31 2023: Stuffing Our Faces in Ho Chi Minh!
Hello from Ho Chi Minh City!
We've traded in the cold Canadian winter for the hot and muggy tropical climate in Southern Vietnam.
It's an early morning arrival at Tan Son Nhat International Airport and we're totally jet lagged due to the 15-hour difference between (PST) Pacific Standard Time and (ICT) IndoChina Time, but we dive straight into action like seasoned, well-oiled traveling machines.
First thing we do is hit the ATM and stock up on the local currency called Dong - not going to make the obvious joke here. The exchange rate is 1 CAD to 17,600 VND, but we round it up to 1:20,000 for simplicity's sake. The denominations are mind-blowing! We're instant multi-millionaires as the machine spits out 2,000,000 VND in colourful 500,000 bills.
I was never that good at math, so it's going to take some major processing power to perform this insane currency conversion. Hopefully I don't inadvertantly short-change someone or worse: get short-changed myself, because all those 000s look the same to my sleep-deprived eyes.
"Can of Diet Coke costs 200,000 VND? Uh... Sounds right... I think..."
The Asian Colonel Sanders on the face of all these notes is laughing at me because I've just bought the waiter a villa in the countryside.
At some point in history, runaway inflation must have greatly devalued the currency. This is all way too familiar, because we're currently experiencing the same thing in our home country. We've recently discontinued the worthless Canadian penny and there's talk of replacing the $5 note with a coin. It makes me wonder: at what point does a country's central bank just throw in the towel and say, "This is ridiculous, let's just re-issue a v2.0 of the currency and divide everything by 10,000!" I'm still talking about Canada, BTW...
Anyway, enough pontifi-griping about monetary policy, we're on a mission here! Next, we purchase a couple of SIM cards for our smartphones. All the mobile vendors have booths at the airport which makes it dead simple for visitors. We opt for Viettel because we've heard they have the best coverage in the country. This is pretty important to us, because we plan to be roaming everywhere in Vietnam. I'm blown away by how cheap the mobile plans are here: 6GB a day at 4G/LTE speeds for 30 days costs us $16 CDN ($12 USD). Holy crap, back in Canada, we have to search hard to find a 5GB plan for $40 CDN... per month!
When the Viettel rep gives us the pricing with all those 000s on that piece of paper, I have to break out the calculator to double-check that it really is $16 CDN and not $160 CDN... which would still be totally worth it...!
Grab is the big Uber-like player in Vietnam, offering car and scooter transportation services.
They also offer an UberEats-like service as well, called GrabFood. The name just makes me want to order some food! :D
Grab's green-jacketed scooter riders swarm all over the city like an uber-nimble army. Meanwhile, cars with Grab-stickers on their windows provide 4-wheeled backup like tanks lumbering slowly through heavy traffic. Two wheels is definitely the quickest way to get anywhere in Vietnam. However, with all our luggage and bags, we Grab their on-line app and order us a car to take us to our apartment.
While we're in HCM, we are staying in the Backpacker District right downtown. As convenient as it is, hopefully, once we leave Ho Chi Minh, we won't have to use Grab again since we'll have our own wheels!
Once we pick up our motorbikes, I am so going to steal one of those Grab jackets, ride on over to the airport and find a newbie tourist so I can charge them 40,000,000 VND for a ride to their hotel! I can totally sell it, with my Vietnamese good-looks and everything...
Gojek is a competing service to Grab, like Lyft is to Uber. They even have the same green jackets as Grab.
Gojek is named after a Vietnamese television detective. He's bald and sucks on lollypops. His first case was tracking down a missing waiter who absconded with a tourist's lifes savings and bought a villa in the countryside.
OMG, I think I need some sleep.
HCM scrolls past us through the car window, like we're watching a television show (no, not Gojek). The icy blast of the Air-Conditioning further separates us from the outside environment and I feel interested in, yet slightly detached from everything on the other side of the glass. This is exactly why we prefer riding motorcycles over traveling by car or bus. It's just so much more engaging when you feel like you're in the TV show rather than just watching it!
Our apartment is right across the street from Công viên 23 tháng 9 (September 23rd Park)
The park used to be the old Saigon train station and is named for the date of a battle fought by Vietnamese rebels against French occupation in this very city after WWII. On the Grab ride over, we passed by quite a few parks in Ho Chi Minh, which is quite unusual for a large SE Asian city. Not many people hanging out at the parks during the day because it's so hot! 32°C!
Saigon was the city's pre-Vietnam War name, and after 1975, it was changed to Ho Chi Minh, named after a very famous local restauranteer who popularized Vietnamese Fried Chicken, and whose smiling face adorns all the currency in Vietnam.
There doesn't seem to be any ill-will towards referencing the pre-war name - both locals and tourists still refer to HCM as Saigon without any animosity or distaste, and many businesses still have "Saigon" on their signage. It's like when the stadium in Toronto changed their name from SkyDome to the Rogers Centre. Some (ex)locals like me still refer to it as SkyDome. The only difference is that I do so with plenty of animosity and distaste for their new corporate telecom overlords, because they gouge Canadians by forcing them to pay 5,0000,000 VND for 1GB of data per year.
Each morning, we'd see all the vendors burn offerings out on the street in front of their stores to honor the dead
One time, I was alarmed when I saw a stack of $50 US dollar bills being burned in a large metal can! Turns out, they sell phony US dollar bills in stores to set alight as joss paper. I guess they do have money to burn here!
There's a pho restaurant just next door to our apartment. The lady who runs it doesn't speak any English, but tries to educate us about the difference between Saigon Pho and Hanoi Pho by performing the Sesame Street "Near... Far..." skit.
Pho for breakfast. We miss good Vietnamese food!
She snatches the plate of fresh basil leaves off the table while exclaiming "Ha Noi!" and then puts the plate back on the table and saying, "Saigon".
Takes the plate away: "Ha Noi!"
Puts the plate on the table: "Saigon"
Takes the plate away again: "Ha Noi!"
At first, we didn't understand what she was trying to tell us, so every time she took the plate away, we were like: "awwww... but we like basil!" and then when she sets the plate back down: "ohhhh! Thank you for the basil"... "awww..." "ohhhh..." "awww..." "ohhhh..." "near..." "far..."
Then we finally clued in: Pho in Southern Vietnam is eaten with a lot of condiments, like basil, green onions, sauces, etc. Pho in the north is eaten more plain.
Thank you Sesame Street, for teaching us how to communicate in different languages!
After breakfast, we Assemble to go on a walking tour of the city
Not many people are aware that after the Avengers Tower was destroyed in the Battle of New York, Tony Stark built a second building here in Ho Chi Minh.
It's disguised as the Bitexco Financial Building, but Iron Man ain't foolin' nobody..
Some of you might have thought I was making a dumb joke above,
but every bit of information on this blog has been researched for painstaking accuracy
Ladies walking around the city in traditional garb, a silk tunic called Ao Dai.
They were being followed by a couple of photographers, so I suspect they were out for a bridal shower or something similar.
On the streets of Vietnam, scooters outnumber every other kind of vehicle 100 to 1. We are brand new to the country, so we're taking this first day off the bikes not just to acclimatize to the time zone, but also to get a better sense of how traffic works around here.
Traffic in SE Asia is often described as "organized chaos". If you are on two-wheels, stoplights are merely suggestions (they are "Stop-tional") and lane markings are a punchline to a joke that everyone's heard a million times. That said, everyone is hyper-aware of what everyone else is doing. Just like we learned in India, horns are used to let the people in front of you know you are there, so there's a symphony of beeps, honks and blares cutting through the air. It's the sonic version of 360 degree awareness.
As a pedestrian, crossing the street may look like you are about to play that old video game, Frogger. But the difference is that to get to the other side alive, you merely have to demonstrate three things: Intent, Trajectory and Predictability. Once you step out onto the street, scooters calculate in real-time a) where you are and b) your direction and velocity and c) where you'll be by the time they get to you, and they all flow around you as if you were Moses parting the Red Sea.
Hesitating or turning back while in the middle of the road trifles with this beautiful trigonometry of traffic and will earn you a tire sandwich for lunch - which tastes way less delicious than Colonel Minh's Vietnamese Fried Chicken!
So many scooters, they have their own special parking lot
We visited a Hindu temple
Despite Vietnam being a communist country and therefore, a secular state, quite a lot of world religions are practiced here. I thought Buddhism would be the only religion to take foot, but this was a very large and very popular Hindu temple, right in the middle of downtown Ho Chi Minh.
We're unsure about the rules surrounding modesty, so Neda brings a shawl to cover her shoulders, just in case
Just a little something that we've learned through our travels through some of the more conservative countries like India, Morocco, Thailand and even Greece!.
A pujari (Hindu priest) performs a ceremony in the temple
This temple is dedicated to the goddess, Mariamman. All around us are beautiful paintings, sculptures and carvings in celebration and reverence of her.
Mariamman sitting with her right-hand man, Ganesh.
When we were in India, we were big fans of Ganesh, who is revered as the remover of obstacles and bringer of good luck. Mariamman is the goddess of rain. Seeing as how we're about to embark on a motorcycle journey, we did not pray to Mariamman.
Captured US Tank at the War Remnants Museum
We did our compulsory visit to the War Remnants Museum and got a taste of what the American War (because it's not called the Vietnam War in Vietnam) was like for the Vietnamese. We learned about the devastating effects of the defoliation chemical that the US sprayed in the jungles, called Agent Orange. It's effects are still being felt, three generations later through birth defects and still-born deaths.
The US invasion was a violation of International Law as well as a affront to world-wide public opinion. Eerily similar to what is happening with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in current news.
We reluctantly visited the War Museum because I didn't want our trip to be focused on the Vietnam War.
To me, Vietnam is one of those countries that continues to be defined by books and movies about a war fought over half a century ago, similar to Croatia. But traveling with Neda through her home country and seeing how it was so much more than just being a war-torn nation, I wanted to experience Vietnam for what it is today... a land of super-friendly people and amazing, delicious food!
We walked out of the war museum in a somber mood, so for a change-up, we visited a Buddhist temple, where they are just completing their Lunar New Year festivities.
Emperor Jade Pagoda
We were originally going to come to Vietnam in January, but we were told that most things would be closed because of Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year vacation. The whole country takes up to two weeks off, similar to the Italian holiday, Ferragosto. We traveled through Italy during Ferragosto and it was not fun facing all the "Chiuso" signs (which, roughly translated, means "Go away, annoying tourists" in Italian) on all the stores and restaurants, so we've delayed our Vietnam travels till now.
I like taking pictures of votive candles
Pouring oil onto Jade Emperor's body
Along with bringing gifts of apples to the temple, devotees can purchase a bottle of oil and pour it over an altar. This is an important ritual in the prayer for good blessings.
Harley-Davidson owners have a similar ritual, where their motorcycles leak engine oil onto the pavement beneath them. However, this is not necessarily a good blessing...
Another pho variation: Phở Đặc Biệt for dinner - and coconuts!
When we ordered coconut drinks, we didn't know they would come in its original packaging! :D
Phở Đặc Biệt translate to Special Pho, it comes with all sorts of beef variations: raw sliced steak, beef tripe, brisket, tendons, and beef meatballs. Basically, it's loaded pho. Southern Style! I could hear this morning's Pho Lady's voice in my head... "near..." "far..." "Ha Noi!" "Saigon..."
Just so that we're clear: we came to Vietnam primarily to eat.
Our neighbourhood comes alive at night!
Bùi Viện Walking Street
Flashing neon lights and vendors try to lure us into their bars and massage parlours. It reminds me of a mix of Bangkok and Las Vegas.
Oh look, they are playing Miss Saigon, the Broadway musical here... How classy!
On our way back to our apartment, we cut through 23-9 (Sept 23) park again. To our surprise, it's packed full of people exercising and playing sports now that the weather has cooled down after dusk.
We heard a clacking sound and thought these people were playing hacky sack
It's actually a shuttlecock that they're kicking back and forth, a game of foot badminton that's played all over Asia. In Vietnam, it's called đá cầu. It's very popular - a lot of people in the park were playing.
We're feeling a little peckish, so we go hunting for some street food to bring back to the apartment. Throughout all our travels, we've learned an important lesson:
To get good food, look for the place with the longest line-up! This was just around the corner from our apartment
The best food in Vietnam is not found in restaurants.
The best way to eat Vietnamese food is not under a roof.
Besides Pho, Bánh mì is probably the most popular food in Vietnam. Quick and easy, and available just about anywhere from street vendors to restaurants, it's a French baguette (from the time France occupied Vietnam) filled with all sorts of meats and vegetables. I find it funny that a meal that's so popular here, is basically unheard of outside of Vietnam!
This is why we love traveling: to experience all the sights, sounds and food that never get exported out of the country.
The lady who runs this food stall gets a fresh supply of buns delivered to her every 15 minutes, she does a lot of business! She's grilling some tasty pork and serving it with cilantro and chili sauce. Yummy!
I did mention we came to Vietnam to eat, didn't I?
What a great first day in Ho Chi Minh! Can't wait to see more!
Just like old times on the road: at the end of the day Neda is reading in bed while I blog the day's entry next to her
Tomorrow, we pick up our bikes! So excited!