Vietnam | Ho Chi Minh City: November 1-8, 2008

November 1st, 2008

We got here today, and waited for about half an hour or so at the airport to get our visa. The "line up", (there was no line...but there was a herd), was longer than we expected. After getting into the taxi, who pulled a fast one on us in terms of using the meter, drove us through the incredibly busy streets to our "boutique" hotel. This place was not a "boutique" hotel... it was more like a Bed and Breakfast. But it was clean enough for us to simply stay here. Besides we were way too tired, not having slept the night before, to be bothered to hunt for another hotel. While we were still filling out the paper work, the phone rang in the lobby, and the owner answered, not understanding what the man on the other side was saying in English, she handed it to us to figure it out. It turned out, this man speaking English was Pa! That was quite the coincidence. We talked to him, finished the paperwork, and headed up in the tiny lift to our floor. After settling in, we realized that the only two things we had asked the owner to confirm before we committed to his place were not working. The two being: the WiFi, and CNN. We had been looking forward for so long for the upcoming US Election results, that we actually based our hotel stay on these two factors. So quite disappointed and extremely tired, we called reception to find out what was going on.

The conversation was quite confusing as the receptionist did not speak a word of English. Actually, correction. She did. She knew how to say "No" and "OK". So to everything we said, she randomly responded with an "OK" or "No". Finally, we got a call from the owner who made us some story for why these two things weren't working, and told us that they would fix the TV and the WiFi for us. We decided to not let all this bother us for now, and hit the sack to take a nap.

After waking up, we went over to the grocery store nearby and got our essentials (as always). As we returned, a techie looking guy came up and fixed the Wifi. CNN would be on by Monday we were told. We told her how important it was that we got that channel and she seemed to understand. After doing some work and having some instant noodles, we decided to sleep early.

November 3rd, 2008

We didn't do much yesterday...just figured out all there was to do here, and also planned out our next two destinations. Today, we mostly did work and caught up on the news via Youtube, CNN videos and Fox online. We watch Fox news to rile us up, and boy does it work! Those fools are crazy!! So no go on the CNN channel today either. The owner made up some other bogus story about why they couldn't "fix" it. This time we weren't tired enough to let it go. So she heard it from us. We were doing research on other hotels to move to... so that we can watch CNN's live coverage on the Election day, and also the pre-coverage. Then came the knock...another nerdie looking guy, along with the first nerdie looking guy were at our door, coming in to figure out what was going on. We found it strange that they had to come to our room to "fix" the channel, when clearly it wasn't showing because they hadn't subscribed to it. So the guys fiddled around with our TV, and when nothing happened they left. After about half an hour, they came back, put on the channel, and voila...it was there. We were excited. We planned to finish up our work for today and tomorrow within the next couple of hours, and then remain glued to CNN.

November 4th, 2008

So it's the 4th here...but it's still the 3rd in North America! Darn!! But the election coverage on CNN International started today, and were right on top of it. So here we were, all day, with CNN on TV, our laptops in front of us, working, downloading news shows, buffering Youtube videos, and turning to each other once in a while to comment on this and that. Oh, and also we did break to use the bathroom here and there and to order Indian food from a restaurant. Other than that... we were all ready.

It was strange that Skype blocked us off from making calls to land lines or cell phones since we were in Vietnam. We could only make Skype to Skype calls. Then, a website that we subscribe to for art work downloads wouldn't let us download. We contacted them and found out that since we were in Vietnam, we were blocked from downloading anything from the site (since each download was paid for through our account with them). After advising them that it was important for us to have access (and it was for Penny to finish the project she was working on for a client) we were given access. But yeah... strange to experience "restrictions" on things that we take for granted back home. Just as in Beijing we couldn't access our FTP server.

We will be going to sleep late tonight, with our alarm on to wake up early in the morning to catch all the action. Can't wait. What will happen? Will the American people buy the crap that McCain's selling? Will they listen to that crazy Palin? Will they fall in the "fear" trap again? Will they finally see the light? Will they dare to hope? Will they see beyond skin colour and a name? Will they finally want a President who is not someone they would hang out with, but someone they can look up to? Will they see that the entire world is counting on America's leadership to take it out of the mess it's in? Will they do the right thing? Oh we can't wait. Can't wait at all!!

November 5th, 2008

We woke up early this morning. Actually it was hard to sleep. Just like it's hard to sleep the night before the day one has to set off on a journey, or has an exam, or a big interview, or a date, or a wedding, etc. The funny thing was that we weren't even tired. Karthik made coffee, Penny checked email and logged onto Skype, and we started watching CNN. The votes were coming in. The commentary was going on. People were being "teleported" to their studio. Man...technology! We wondered if CNN can do something like this, imagine what the US military is capable of!

More votes came in. More commentary went on. More excitement built up. What will happen? But now, it was becoming a little clearer that Obama has a chance. But wait... the Republicans could have something up their sleeves, as they did in 2000. Can't be too sure, until it's for sure. So when Wolf Blitzer announced "We're confident in announcing..." (can't remember the exact words he used)...but when he announced that Barack Obama was the President Elect...man... we experienced the chills, we felt the smiles reaching our ears, we let the tears roll down our cheeks...and...we hi-fived!

It was an once-in-a-lifetime moment for us; the climax reaching its highest point. The words ‘President-elect’ joined to the name of Barack Obama were one that generated both disbelief and awe at the same time. We were waiting so long for this day and all our hopes seemed to have borne fruit. It was just an amazing feeling! Then Barack Obama came on stage to address the nation with his victory speech. We watched the speech without so much as saying a word and the reactions of the crowds reflected our own. Here was an intelligent man, possibly the most America has known in a very long time, about to take the position of leader of the free world… and oh yes, he’s Black. To us, that part mattered little but we knew it was a historic moment nonetheless.YES WE CAN!

We knew the Republicans and all those supporting them, including FOX News and Sean Hannity, were quite upset, however they just had to suck it up and accept what the rest of America and the world wanted so badly. We were especially moved by how the ENTIRE world cheered and celebrated this victory! It was just completely unprecedented! So many people watching an American presidential election… c’mon! It’s just never happened before.

We felt like celebrating ourselves and head out to explore Saigon in the bargain. First thing to mention about Saigon is that it is EXTREMELY CHAOTIC! We’ve never encountered this much traffic, especially of the two-wheeler kind, anywhere in the world! Imagine a massive herd of goats among which cars, like cows, try to weave through with gentle difficulty. It was just insane… even Karthik’s efforts to cross the street in front of our hotel was an ordeal every time. There’s just no pedestrian crossing nor do any of the motorists stop for you. You just have to move across the street carefully and they just drive around you. Crazy!!

So yeah, the sheer volume of traffic is quite the sight – an army of scooters, mopeds, and motorcycles somehow flowing along the streets without any accidents seemed like a miracle in itself. So, taking our cab to the centre of Saigon’s District 1, where we were, took MUCH longer than expected. Along the way, we saw many parks and colonial buildings reminiscent of its French past, including a large Gothic cathedral – Saigon’s own Notre Dame Cathedral. Penny also saw a large department store on the way and made a note to check it out later. We finally arrived at the top of Dong Khoi street, the main shopping centre of Saigon. Fashionable brand names, art galleries, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and massage parlors – this was what every tourist would seek going to any city. And of course, tourists were everywhere! We didn’t care to really explore this street much today, although one store caught Karthik’s eye. It was an art store that had paintings of Tintin comics. These were comic books that Karthik had read growing up and were among his favourite. It was cool to see paintings with the covers of the Tintin comic series. It was too expensive here, but we would definitely find it elsewhere.

We were hungry, so our first stop would be to find a fast food joint. We also scoured some of the local tour operators to book a Mekong River Delta trip, however they were all quite expensive! Over $100 per person! So we left that aside for now and thought of food instead. Nearby Le Loi Street, another main thoroughfare, we came across a large open square – a good atmosphere surrounded by large shopping malls and tree-lined streets and hotels. There was a park with the statue of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam sitting with a child – this was the ‘Uncle Ho’ statue. This was all in front of the classical building that was the Saigon City Hall – an impressive structure. We saw a sign for KFC and thought, “Woo hoo!” We weren’t all that keen on trying Vietnamese food, which was mostly “Pho” – a beef-based soup or other seafood dishes. So KFC it was.

However, the KFC was actually in a food court, so we thought of giving local food a shot first. Karthik ordered some rice dish that was served in a hot clay pot while Penny ordered another rice dish with an omelette. Karthik really enjoyed this ‘ginger-y’ rice dish while Penny wasn’t all that keen on what she ordered. So she got some popcorn chicken. Yum, as usual! Bellies full, we wandered around the mall that contained the food court. We were already a bit tired, so we started to walk it back and of course, Karthik had a craving for coffee at this point. Vietnam, by the way, is second only to Brazil for its coffee exports, so there! We stopped by a café on Dong Khoi Street and ordered some desserts and Karthik ordered his Vietnamese coffee (which used condensed milk instead of milk and sugar).

We sat and people-watched for a bit – mostly older white folk (we presume some may be veterans of the Vietnam war back with their wives and families) walking around. We walked back and saw some shops selling old relics from that war, including zippo lighters and watches, which may very well have been fakes.

Caught a taxi and made it back to our hotel, only to put CNN back on and watched it for as long as we could remain awake ��� all the post-election coverage we could soak in. We were still quite in amazement over what happened and this time, no uncertainty over who won. It seemed like real change was about to come!

November 6th, 2008

Woke up at a good time and made some coffee. Karthik found these 3-in-1 coffee packets that just taste wicked! Possibly some of the best coffee ever – go Vit-nam! Otherwise, our hotel wasn’t all that and we were both a bit miffed about the ‘grunginess’ of it all. It wasn’t a boutique hotel by any means, but it certainly was cheap. Plus we weren’t going to be here for that much longer, so we thought we grit it through.

Today was another day of R&R and staying glued to CNN. But most of the news cycles kept repeating themselves and Obama had disappeared from the media spotlight – he just wasn’t giving any interviews. Being Obamaholics by this time, we weren’t too pleased with this turn of events. So we headed out to check out the night market near the famous Ben Thanh market. The cab dropped us off near an alley lined up with vendors selling everything from trinkets and souvenirs to clothes and other jazzmatazz.

Penny liked a uniquely Vietnamese soup bowl that had a hole to place your chopsticks. It was cool, but we thought we’d check out better prices when we visit the actual Ben Thanh market during the day. Nothing much else stood out, and as the alleyway opened up to a larger street, it was lined with clothing shops on one side and open-air seafood restaurants. Seafood was the key, so nothing appetizing leapt out; not even the live prawns, shrimp, and crabs in makeshift aquariums. We then walked over to the big square in front of the market where lots of people had come out to play games, do exercises, and hang out on this chill Saigon evening. There were several people playing ‘hackeysack’ with shuttlecocks in a circle, which seemed to be a ‘thing’ here. After a while, we got a bit bored and Penny thought we’d check out the large department store she’d seen yesterday.

So we hailed a cab and directed him to take us to the church, right across from the store. It was evening, and the traffic was quite jammed. But of most interest and annoyance was that this cabby thought he’d speed-up his meter to clock the rate 3 times as fast as normal. Immediately upon noticing this crazy scam, we confronted him but he just pretended to not understand. We approached our destination and asked him to just stop. We told him again he was scamming us and the fare was 3 times as much as it should’ve been. He just kept pointing to the meter and demanded his money. Frustrated and upset, we just threw the money at him and left, not wanting any further trouble.

We entered the large gleaming department store – the aptly named Diamond Store – and it was like any other large Sears or Eaton’s back home. We walked around rather aimlessly and were stunned by the cheeky prices. We saw they had a grocery section and here too everything was super-priced. So we just bought some baguettes and left. Outside, we weren’t able to find a cab, so we walked along the street towards the Reunification Palace – another major attraction in Saigon. There was a small park along the way and it seemed like all of Saigon’s young couples were here to demonstrate their affection for each other. It was interesting and strange at the same time. The Palace wasn’t all that; just a large building but apparently had a rich past involving the unification of North and South Vietnam after the war. Meh! We made it back home and now plan on getting some rest for our early rise tomorrow, to check out the Mekong River delta.

November 7th, 2008

Woke up damn early for our 7 AM departure to the Mekong River delta. Our van picked us up and drove us out of Saigon towards Cai Be – a smaller city at the mouth of Vietnam’s most important river – the Mekong. Good weather and other than being somewhat sleepy, our spirits were high. The traffic out of the city was horrendous, which was expected. We noticed no real infrastructure here and the country’s main North-South highway was, more or less, just any other road. Our guide spoke fair English and told us some tidbits here and there about Saigon and Vietnam, but nothing too memorable. Except there’s a ‘cool’ religion here called Caodaism – a unique blend of Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism. We saw some strange looking ‘temples’ that didn’t resemble anything we’ve known.

Then, there was some confusion along the way about what we were to see. It looked like the guide made up his mind to just take us to a Floating Market and then head back, even though we were hoping to take a smaller boat and explore some canals and streams – which was part of our trip! He had to call the office and confirm that. So all in all, we were good. We finally arrived in a small village and parked in an alley by a boat pier. It was all fairly low-key as there was a humble snack shop near the pier where we bought some drinks for our trip. We got into a long motorized canoe with seats and a canopy and set off on the Mekong! It was nice and cool in the boat and the breeze felt really nice… and the river was ringed by quaint houses and makeshift piers. And our canoe felt quite spacious since it was just us, our guide, and the boat driver in it.

The river was wide enough for several boats at once, and we saw a lot of small, ‘personal’ canoes passing by laden with groceries and other miscellaneous items – manned (and “womanned”) by locals, some with those traditional conical Vietnamese hats. We then pulled into a small pier that bordered a riverside settlement. Our guide took us to a shack in which they were seemingly making a lot of different things – a local cottage industry. He first showed us a rack of bottles in which… get this… were cobra snakes and scorpions! It was a bottle of rice wine that locals consume, especially older men for virility and strength. He also showed us how they ferment the rice and distill it to make the wine.

Another item being made here was coconut candy! He took us to the ‘station’ where some women were cutting off pieces from a long ‘taffy-like’ lump of coconut candy and then wrapping it up. It seemed like a fairly low-key process how they combined shredded coconut and sugar to boil it, mix it, and knead it to create the taffy mixture. We tasted it and it was awesome! It was rolled up in rice paper to prevent it from sticking it to the wrapper, which was also edible.

Our guide then took us to another station where they were making rice paper; it was quite fascinating since the pieces were so thin. There was this nice old woman taking boiled rice and spreading it on bamboo rattan to dry it outside under the sun. It was neat to witness these traditional items being made; possibly in the same way they’ve been for a long time. We then went over to a larger rack with the rice wine bottles filled with snakes and scorpions. It was a crazy sight, especially one HUGE bottle filled with at least 9 cobras, some scorpions, and even a dead bird!! This bird apparently was one that was a snake-eater, preying on snakes. He even pulled the darn bird out of the bottle and showed it to us. So here’s what happened – our guide asked Karthik to take a ‘shot’ of this here snake juice. And the surprising thing was Karthik said, “Why not?!” So the guide dipped a shot glass and scooped up some of this scary wine. Karthik just downed it quickly and made a face that belied both a bit of pride as well as disbelief in having done it. He thought it was quite ‘hot’ going down, but tolerable over all! Penny thinks it’s one of the craziest things he’s ever done.

Then we all sat down to have some local tea and sample the goodies they’d been making here. There was also banana candy in addition to the coconut candy – we also sampled some rice cakes that tasted awesome. It was cool to just sit and talk with our guide and get some insight into the local culture. After our tea, we stepped out and walked along the riverbank to another local cottage industry. We walked past kids playing around and people fishing by the banks of the river. Our guide also pointed out some water coconut plants, which bore some cool fruits! The place he took us was making popcorn rice and candy. We went to a station where this guy was putting puffed rice flakes onto a huge ‘wok’ and added some black sand. The sand was added to promote even heat distribution and prevent the rice from clumping. In a few seconds, the puffed rice was ‘popping’ all over and expanding like popcorn! It was a cool sight to behold. The guy then sifted the sand out and voila! You have popcorn rice. They were taking this popcorn rice and making candy by cooking it with sugar in another station. We walked around for some time, exploring the surrounding area and checking out some of the local handicrafts. We then headed back to our boat to make our way to the Cai Be Floating Market.

Our boat sped past more riverfront houses and piers to the market area, where a brisk trade was being done on boats laden with fruits, vegetables, and other household items. There was no central building or any ‘land-based’ market area – it was all done on boats! What’s more, each boat had a stick atop the boat with a ‘sample’ of what they were selling hanging off of it, from yams to bananas. It was a cool way of advertising one’s wares. Apparently, the market is a lot busier in the wee hours of the morning – lots of early risers here! Not us! So it was still cool to check out the market, busy as it was.

Lots of vendors were holding up their ‘goods’ and smiling at us, beckoning us to buy some from them. Not really having planned for that, we sped ahead up the river and into some smaller canals. This was probably the coolest part of our journey yet! It was like entering another world entirely – surrounded by vines extending into the water, trees growing by the bank, small houses and tiny paths being travelled on by two-wheelers and pedestrians. The stream wound round bends and at times was wide and other times narrow, and makeshift bridges crossed it here and there. Small boats and canoes passed us by, when we noticed this small boat with a man and women on it just ahead of us. It seemed like a couple making their way from the market back home; it was neat because the woman was wearing a typical conical hat and it just looked too ‘authentic’ so we went picture-crazy! We also saw smaller little “river-lets” to our left and right where people had ‘parked’ their boats – it all just looked too wicked!

These small streams then made way to a huge opening where the river was at one of its widest spots. It seemed almost as wide as the Amazon River, however nothing beats the Amazon! It took a while to cross this part of the river before we made way to another little set of streams to our rest stop for lunch. It was a ‘stream-side’ restaurant that promised us some non-seafood since we were quite hungry by this point. The boat docked and we got off to walk along some tiny tree-shaded path and over a puny bridge to get to the restaurant. It was hidden inside a large compound fronted by huge numbers of bonsai trees and small rock sculptures. Our guide told us that these bonsai trees were in fact as expensive as cars!! Hard to believe but all true – apparently these bonsai trees are well tended and manicured to the point of becoming priceless (well… as priceless as cars). They looked impressive enough, but we wouldn’t pay THAT much for it.

The restaurant was part of a large area that included a farm with several animals, including a large cage containing… a huge python! People love their snakes here it would seem. Penny wasn’t impressed so Karthik skipped the ‘let the python wind itself around your neck’ bit and we pressed on to get some seats. It was quite empty and aside from a couple of cats, we were the only ones sitting down to eat. It was hot and humid; the fans didn’t work; mosquitoes were buzzing around; and the waitress didn’t know what ‘vegetarian’ food meant. After explaining we couldn’t really much of what was being offered, she brought us some spring rolls and a bowl of bland vegetable soup, along with rice. Karthik added the usual round of chili sauce, but still didn’t improve on things much. We inhaled the spring rolls which were surprisingly good. After lunch, and having had our fill, we walked around the garden. We even saw a guy thumping live fish so it was… well, no longer live and carrying them off elsewhere. There were chickens running wild and free and open gardens of hanging plants as well. We walked around taking pictures of cool flowers (mostly Penny) and Karthik wandered off into their ‘lounge’ area which had some cool artifacts and tourist-donated memorabilia like business cards, photos, currency, coins, and even a couple of Passports!

All the same, it was time to leave, so we walked back to the boat which sped us out of the streams and back into the wide, open river. We were now making our way to Vinh Dong, a larger town on the banks of the Mekong where our van was waiting to take us back to Saigon. It was a long and relaxing ride, passing by more of the Vietnamese semi-rural landscape. Then, the river started getting more violent and our boat bobbed around like a toy, more than we would have liked! Since it was getting windier, the river was getting a lot choppier. We finally reached our destination in time, and after passing a local Vietnamese wedding taking place (apparently today was a great day for weddings all around the area), we made our way back to the van.

We passed what was the ‘pride’ of the locals here – a new bridge that was donated by the Australian government. It’s sad that such a bridge wouldn’t have drawn much attention elsewhere in the developed world, but is considered a marvel of architecture here in impoverished Vietnam. We fell asleep along the way and woke up closer to Saigon proper. A LOT more traffic this time as we were swarmed and surrounded by more two-wheelers than we could imagine being manufactured anywhere, but finally we made it back to the hotel. Phew – what a day! We ordered some Indian food (not bad, as far as Vietnamese standards went) and are now off to bed.

November8th, 2008

Having been tired from our day trip yesterday, we were still looking forward to doing some shopping in Saigon. We went to the Ben Thanh market – the most famous day market in Saigon. It was set up in a large colonial building and must have housed a few hundred independent vendors and stalls, selling everything from souvenirs and handicrafts to clothing and food stuffs. As soon as we walked in, these vendors were grabbing us and getting our attention to buy their things. It was quite ‘hands-on’ that way! So we wandered about checking out various clothing shops and most were just selling T-shirts, jeans, and the usual mish-mash of apparel. Nothing really jumped out at us, except some of the Tintin (comic) shirts, and for the first time, we bought a shirt for our yet-to-be-born baby! It felt good, as if we were already beginning to think along those lines – just hope the baby doesn’t resent us for buying stuff at bargain prices! All in all, we found some other shirts, including a cool traditional Vietnamese shirt for Karthik and a nice blue top for Penny sold by a happy-go-lucky old woman.

It became overwhelming after that, since there were SO many shops so we abandoned our hunt for more clothes and moved on to the handicrafts stores. There was a lot of cool stuff for sale from local lacquerware and beautiful paintings to traditional carvings and more Tintin stuff. Karthik started checking out what Tintin covers to get, which were the original comicbook covers in a frame for hanging. Penny was taking a look at all the neat handicrafts and we finally picked out some stuff including a pair of statues resembling the traditional Vietnamese women wearing the conical hats and the long coats. As well, we got a neat model replica of a “cyclo” – a kind of rickshaw mode of transportation here. We then wandered around some more and saw their food court was packed with a lot of seafood items, and the smell drove us off from there!

Having had our fill with this market, packed with tourists and tourist-oriented stuff, we wanted to go check out the centre of Saigon some more. But first, we had to drop off the purchases since they were quite heavy and bulky. So we took a cab and Karthik ran up to drop off the stuff and we then made our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral – an impressive colonial building we had passed by the other day. It was an odd sight indeed in the middle of a Vietnamese city and looked like it belonged somewhere in Europe. We expected the inside to be more of the gaudy and ostentatious décor we’ve come to see in churches on our trip so far, so we skipped that. We just started walking along the streets towards the Dong Khoi area we were at a few days back. We went back to the square in front of the city hall and had some food at the same food court we went to earlier. Karthik again ordered his ginger-ey rice while Penny got some KFC. We walked out and saw a lady selling some neat pancake/waffle-type sweet snack this lady was making on the sidewalk. Grabbing quite a bit from her, we started walking down the street while munching away. We didn’t really stop anywhere, other than check out some art galleries. We really wanted to go to the waterfront by the Saigon River and hang out for a while.

When we got there, we were a bit disappointed. It wasn’t really all that tourist-friendly as perhaps we’d imagined. The waterfront was actually quite filthy, with garbage accumulating and stinking to high heaven. Aside from some boats doubling as restaurants (who’d eat here?!), there really wasn’t much to do or see. We just grabbed some cold drinks and grabbed a cab back to our hotel. Now that we bought all this stuff, we had to pack everything well for our trip onward to Cambodia. We don’t really trust the mail service here in Vietnam or for that matter, in Cambodia, so we'll be hauling this stuff with us till we reach Bangkok! But for now, we head off tomorrow to Siem Reap, Cambodia!

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