Goooood Morning Vietnam! These words scream in my head as soon as I think about my next destination. Who can forget Robin William’s performance in this brilliantly done film. Movies about Vietnam were a huge part of my childhood, from the realistic Platoon to ridiculous Rambo. These left a negative feel towards the country and its people. Plus growing up with the after effects of the war, being told as a child not to ask this uncle about it, or cousin Johnny died there, or he has mental problems from agent orange. It was always around but never directly talked about. These were some of the negative impressions I gained, but even in the movies you could see how beautiful the country was, and the war was thirty years ago. Then there is the positive; the food. I have been going to Vietnam Restaurant in China Town and the new Vietnam Café in West Philly for over a decade, and to say it was one of my favorite restaurants in Philly would be an understatement. The atmosphere and food have always been outstanding, and their vegetarian spring rolls are to die for. I don’t even want to get into their drinks, the Volcano is as deadly as its name, with a flaming top and 151 interior its sure to put you on your back. So I was very excited to educate my self more on this war that was such a large part of my childhood and sample the fabulous cuisine for myself.
We arrived at the terminal three hours early with bagged fried rice to eat for lunch. When we got up to the desk the agent looked at our tickets and said we couldn’t go, that we needed a Visa Approval letter, which simple states we are pre-approved for a visa. I had checked online and it said you could get your visa on arrival at the airport, but we were being told we were not going to be allowed on the plane. Asking if there was anyway around it she said we could try to get a rush one but we needed a print out. I quickly asked where the airport hotel was and we went on a mad dash to find their business office. I hopped online at their terminal and searched for visa companies. We found one that would get the approval letter in a half hour, but would cost us about $164 bucks each. We did not really have a choice though, and to not do it would have cost us more money in taxis, change of flight, and accommodation. So I ran the credit card. We had our approval in ten minutes, what a scam. It’s a hidden tax by the Vietnam government, which these visa companies all work for. We met a German guy whose entire two-week trip was delayed because he did not know about this hidden visa scam, and cost him tons of money to sort it out. At the counter we got our boarding passes, but there was another passenger that was not able to go. The flight was uneventful, and when we got there we had to go through customs. It was the worst set up I had seen, we sat there for an hour waiting for them to ok us, even with the pre-approval letter. We had to pay an additional hundred bucks too for the actual visa. I asked why we had to pay twice and I thought I was going to end up being detained, so I shut my mouth and waited. What can I say, welcome to Vietnam. A great country but one with so many police state rules that you better be careful.
We got a cab from the airport, and first thing you notice is thousands of scooters. It was night-time, but the streets were filled with them everywhere. I know I mention this all the time about the scooters, but this made Yogyakarta look like Sunday traffic. You could not even cross the street there were so many of them. If you have ever looked at an ant farm from above, and imagined those ants were bikes, then you have an aerial view of Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. No where was safe either, they rode on sidewalks evan faster than the street.
We originally were thinking of spending the holidays on a beach, but because we did not expect to be in Vietnam, most everything was booked. By time we sorted out buses, accommodation, and added up travel time, we realised we were going to be on a bus on Christmas Eve or day, and not even guaranteed accommodation. We had a really nice hotel in Saigon that was cheap, a great roof deck, cable TV, in a fun neighborhood. So we decided instead of risking a bad Christmas, we would just celebrate in Saigon.
It took a bit of getting used to the crazy traffic, and every time we crossed a road we risked our lives. Our neighborhood, District One, was the craziest, but as you move towards the wealthier part of the city there were actual wide pedestrian pathways and tree-lined streets. We quickly found a cinema and saw the Life of Pi, a gorgeously filmed movie that I highly recommend. Our neighborhood was filled with bars, restaurants, and hostess bars. It was fun, and there was always something going on. There were hawkers out everywhere, selling pirated books, dvds, CDs, massages, marijuana, and lots of snails. Everything was negotiable.
The pirated books were all copies of popular books, from The Beach to Game Of Thrones. whatever was hot in the the backpacker community they had. You had to be careful though because they old often have missing pages, French maps in English books, or a bad copy on an angle. The most pirated books though were Lonely Planet. You could get them on anywhere in the world, from Tibet to New York. You have to negotiate though, or you might end up paying same price you would get them in the states.
In the nicer district here were all the colonial hotels that have become famous hangouts for the news teams through all the wars, from the French Indochina to the American war. They have a gorgeous opera house, and quite a few old historic mansions, some are now museums while others are random government offices. I love strolling through these French era buildings.
It’s really hard to talk about Saigon and not go into the war, but I will do an entire blog on the Vietnam/American war at the end of the trip, to connect my entire experience. So if it seems like I am not going into too much detail it’s because I will address it later. On Christmas Eve I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a huge labyrinth of tunnels that the VietCong used to evade the Americans. This is a great experience and I highly recommend visiting it. They give you an option after visiting the tunnels to take a boat back to Saigon, this was awesome. I could not believe that so few people did it. I met one other American on the boat, and the next thing I know he is bringing out ten beers to share. Well the party started then. The boat actually stopped at a floating market to pick up more beer. It’s impromptu parties like this that are so much fun.
When I got back to our hotel Yvonne surprised me with Christmas decorations and a small tree. It was awesome! Her families tradition is to get together on Christmas eve and all hang out so we headed out and had a great time. you could tell it was Christmas with all the Santa hats and Bermuda shorts out there. We opened our presents in the morning after Santa came. I must have been a good boy because I got everything I wanted. It’s hard on both of us to be away from our families on Christmas, but the spirit was still with us.
On Christmas day we splurged on ourselves and went to the Majestic Hotel for cocktails. Built in 1925 in a French Colonial style. Siting on the roof terrace it’s fun to imagine how it was back in the thirties. There were gorgeous views of the Saigon River. Then we had a great lunch at a German restaurant. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching movies on cable, what more could you ask for.
During the next few days the city was preparing for their New Year’s Eve celebration. The long park in the center of the city had a dozen stages with everything from water puppetry to rock shows. There we’re all kinds of venders lining the square with delicious foods. I got a hot-pot with a mix of mushrooms, herbs, chicken, snails, shrimps, and mussels. The hot pot is a boiling broth that you cook all these ingredients in yourself. The broth had just enough flavor to tie all the ingredients together, with out over powering any of them. The staff was helping me put it all together. To say I pigged out would be an understatement, I am pretty sure it was meant for two people, not one. After that meal we watched a water puppet show. For the show there is a pool of water with a curtain dropping down to the water hiding the puppeteer. The puppets are in front of the curtain at the end of long rods under the water controlled by the puppeteer. They have clowns, demons, elephants and even fire-breathing dragons. A traditional band plays music while it goes on. I was a little sad to not stay for New Year’s Eve, but I think all this pageantry was a great good-bye to Saigon.