Dear Joyce // VIETNAM: Ho Chi Minh City Charms & The Quaint But Also Unlikely Surprises

Joyce is another one of my three roommates during university. We met in freshman English class, which is curious, because Joyce and I like to pore over ideas, people, and personal experiences like we do novels and short stories.

After all that has passed — throughout college, my stint in advertising, and her impending home run in law school (I only keep empowered, go-getter friends, if that’s not already obvious) — I say with certainty that Joyce remains one of my most genuine friends. We lead the typical millennial busy life (Joyce and her sister are two of my most jet-setter friends, no doubt), so I always look forward to our fruitful yet random (and sadly, less frequent) adventures. Joyce and I make for a rather uptight, über-prudent (We like to use the term “prissy”) pair, but frankly, I’ve had more spontaneous activities with Joyce than any other.

Someone asked me how I choose the people I write to for this blog project. I would like to be hippie and say it’s completely random. But the truth is, my travels often remind me of my relationships with people and the common thread of experience we’ve shared. The bus ride to Sorsogon reminded me of Mara’s spunk, Hong Kong reminded me of my dad and how we talk of globalization, Bangkok was a jam-packed itinerary as is my friendship with Christina. It’s not science, it’s literature. I see cities and places like characters, like themes from the books I read, like feeding off a story’s energy as you consume chapter after chapter.

I write to Joyce now not because she reminds me of Vietnam, but because Vietnam is a piece of literature, an old soul on-the-rise. She has been to Vietnam already many years ago, but still, I can think of no one better but her to share my story to.

Dear Joyce,

Vietnam is the timid cousin you never really spoke to during fam hangs™ (I’m coining it). She has soft features; is wide-eyed and naturally observant. You don’t know why, but every time you see her, you imagine her set against a peaceful baby blue (or maybe a mint green) background with lush purple or hot pink accents. You wonder if she is, to quote Jane Austen, plain.

One day you find yourself cornered with her. Both of you look around and realize that there are no grown-ups to oversee this encounter. You strike a conversation.

And there she is — a charming girl with an odd vivacity, as if beneath the calm and patient almost listless nature is a highly intelligent creature biding her time, waiting to strike Life at the most opportune moment. She was … a curious thing.

Style #interiors #vietnam #hochiminh #saigon #saigonstyle

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We arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from Bangkok a little past 9:00 am. Outside, the throngs of personal and public drivers and hotel concierge were standing behind metal bars, holding up signs of names and traveling groups they needed to chauffeur. I looked down at my Uber app and breathed a sigh of relief over the message that said our driver had just arrived. I got into the front seat (I was the self-appointed travel planner), showed our Airbnb address on a crumpled piece of paper, saw him give a small nod, and then we were on our way.

Our quaint Aribnb at Lê Thị Riêng in District 1 was absolutely IG-worthy (and affordable). Check out BnW Homestay. We booked a room for four with two very spacious double beds. Book it here or you may check out their Facebook and Booking.com pages for more room choices.

Our #Airbnb in Lê Thi Riêng in District 1 is such a charmer #bnb #hochiminh #saigon #vietnam #backpacking #backpackingasia

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This was all our first time in Vietnam (and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon). And after the grueling three days in Bangkok (Read here and here), we decided to skip venturing out to the provinces (Originally, we thought of heading to Phú Quốc Island for a day trip) and instead bask in the cultural and historical sites of the city.

City sites

Admittedly, I have always been a fan of colonial architecture in Asia — a stark difference in aesthetic versus the Chinese and Malay influences present all over the continent. Vietnam was colonized by the French in the mid 1800s and was part of the Indochine française (or the French Indochina in the late 1880s that comprised of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

The Notre-Dame Basilica in Saigon stands proud right smack in the middle of the city. Some renovations were on-going when we arrived (July 2017) but it was magnificent all the same.

Right beside the cathedral is the huge facade of the Saigon Central Post Office where I sent out three postcards — two to the Philippines (both of which haven’t arrived yet … It’s already September) and one to Holland.

Mail is so underrated — that was the risk I took when I started this project — so this grand structure is especially a treat to my old soul sensibilities as I’m sure you understand.

If you walk past the McDonald’s beside the post office you will come across a row of café bookshops selling both new and pre-loved pages of magic (and coffee, obviously).

The Fine Arts Museum (located across Bến Thành Market) is a compound with preserved old houses in the French colonial style (It comes with a courtyard and a now-antique elevator) that have been transformed into museums and an art gallery at the back. They were once owned by one of Vietnam’s richest families (I also read an article that said the main house is haunted by the owner’s daughter … This is why I love writing my blogs/letters; I learn so much from the Internet as I do my research).

HISTORICAL SITES

Vietnam is rife with history. After all, arguably its worst war ended only 40 years ago.

The Independence Palace (or Reunification Palace) is a domineering structure in the city. It is a landmark that witnessed the Fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War in 1975 (literally by its gates, when a tank crashed onto the site’s grounds). It now acts as a museum (only open until 5:00 pm, if I remember correctly) and occasionally used for official global gatherings. We didn’t go in, mind you, but proceeded instead to the War Remnants Museum.

The War Remnants Museum is a depressing place. Literally a lady had been crying beside us in one of the three floors of exhibits. It is a reminder of the devastation of war and a condemnation of America’s hand in blowing everything out of proportion (No pun intended). In fact, the Vietnamese do not call it the Vietnam War, but rather the American War.

There is an installation outside the main building of prisoner of war (POW) conditions during the war. This is a photo of us not capturing any of it …

MISSING: We skipped the Cu Chi tunnels tour. Why? Claustrophobia. However, what’s interesting about the Cu Chi tunnels is that these tunnels were dug up by the Vietnamese as a means to avoid detection from American soldiers. They did this by digging entrances and pathways too small for anyone with an American build to pass through. The tunnels are long and elaborate and allowed the Viets to move undetected as they set traps and land mines for the enemy. This, among other things (Asian climate and Vietnamese terrain) not only made America lose the war, but ultimately lost them more troops than they should have.

SHOPPING

As I am currently “freelancing” (or truthfully, “freeloading“) through my adulthood, I have made small sacrifices in lieu of a refusal to take a proper 9:00-5:00 job. So, aside from saying no to paid coffee and alcohol, limiting Uber rides and eating out (I swear, a “home-cooked diet” does wonders … to your wallet), I have also given up shopping. It’s not that big a sacrifice, to be honest, but it nonetheless requires a conscious effort. I avoid malls, never shop online, and only use my credit card for the grocery (and even then I’m still incurring more than I should).

Traveling poses a bit of a challenge. I no longer buy pasalubong as much as I used to (sorry fam) with the exception of odd but cheap nicknacks for my 3-year old niece. However, after a tiny taste in Bangkok, I thought why not shop a bit more in Vietnam.

The Bến Thành Market is a landmark in Saigon and the go-to for all local handicrafts, dry spices, and the famous Vietnamese coffee (The Blue Mountain variety smells heavenly).

TIP: Haggle! I don’t know if I was just being a cheapskate, but I found the stuff we bought a tad bit expensive (in comparison, Bangkok markets are cheaper) — then again I did buy silk robes and wooden masks for my collection. Regardless, let me state for the record that the Vietnamese vendors are excellent sales-talkers. I sized them up, and while I don’t scare easy, I was actually worried they might outwit me.

REGRET: I should have bought a Vietnamese áo dài (traditional dress), because you never know when you need to pretend to be Vietnamese.

More masks for my collection! These are among the many faces of the Vietnamese Buddha (if I heard the lady vendor correctly). My mom keeps on complaining I tend to pick dour-looking masks. Maybe she’s right.

A block away is the Bến Thành Street Food Market, a food hall filled with local cuisine well-adapted for foreign tastes. It is frequented by young tourists (Translation: eye-candy for all my single ladies out there).

TIP: Do drop by local Vietnamese “fashion stores”. I’m such a fan of their style and silhouettes — unique but simple (not as quirky and cute-sy as Korean fashion) but made with more earthy but comfortable materials.

Water Puppet Show

As much as I can, I make it a point to watch a show on stage (traditional or otherwise) in every country I go to. I’ve seen Miso and Nanta in South Korea, Siam Niramit in Bangkok, and now the Water Dragon Puppet Show in Vietnam.

If you want a grander show, you may check out the Saigon Opera House. We almost ended up watching a play there, but realized we were out of VND. If shows aren’t your thing, the Saigon Opera House in beige is still worth a visit if you want to see more colonial architecture in the city.

The Continental across the Opera House

Food

I never thought I’d enjoy Vietnamese food so much I’d miss it. I did not care for pho until I got there. I thought banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches made with French baguettes) was good but not something to fawn over.

Today, I reminisce fondly at every bite and bowl of refreshing dishes, food made from fresh and healthy ingredients, a palette cleanser from the usually oily Filipino(-fusion) food.

They say Pho 24  is worth the visit; we never tried it though. My friend also recommends Pho 99 in District 1.

Our Airbnb served free breakfast — a choice of delicious Vietnamese noodles or banh mi. I really do highly recommend this place.

I don’t know what we ate exactly because this nice lady couldn’t speak a word of English. We got a salty snack (kropek-like) and a crunchy one with a sweet filling (coconut, I presume).

The best Banh Mi in HO CHI MINH CITY

I try not to throw around too many superlatives because the internet is chock-full of opinions that are beginning to sound like noise, but I will write this anyway because this was an unlikely recommendation from our taxi driver!

Story time — The Vietnamese locals are a docile people, those who will only talk to you when they absolutely have to (I suppose you can also blame this on the fact that they speak very little English). I find that when they do, make sure to listen.

We were on our way home talking excitedly (read: obnoxiously) in the taxi, when our middle-aged cabbie said, quite clearly and purposefully, “Banh mi is good here” as he pointed at a nondescript shop we were passing a few meters away from our Airbnb. So, for dinner, we decided to venture to this place our driver was willing to break his silence over.

It was beginning to get packed as we approached. This was a take-out only establishment. The customers, mostly locals, were half perched on their motorbikes as they waited for their orders. We decided to consume our huge, fat sandwiches across the street, in a tea and coffee shop, where we had full view of the crowd thicken from across the street (I would later learn this to be the norm in Vietnam. Most local restaurants are three-walled and outside-facing, that is, the tables and chairs are arranged such that they are facing the street, with no door nor wall to obstruct the view).

Packed with assorted meats and a mean liver spread (I cannot stress the liver spread enough; I don’t even like liver spread normally), the banh mi comes either “SPICY” or “NO SPICY“. It was one of the heartiest meals we’ve had and was just full of flavor and an A+ for meat lovers. No banh mi will ever compare. How’s that for a superlative, Internet!

Visit Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa along Lê Thị Riêng in District 1

TIP: You can actually do a  banh mi run in the area. Nearby are two more well-recommended banh mi stalls: Bánh Mì Hồng Hoa and Bánh Mì 37 Nguyen Trai

CafÉs

Vietnamese coffee is addicting (The only time I take my coffee with milk is if it’s Vietnamese and with condensed milk). It is, admittedly, the highlight of my visit (and surprisingly did not trigger my acid reflux insert somersaults here!!!). Naturally, they put a lot of effort in their cafés here. From the few that we visited, I must say that I am so appreciative of this country’s charming style, nothing too stylish or forced, but everything just the right amount of quaint.

Pham Ngu Lao

Where there is Khao San Road in Bangkok and Pub Street in Siem Reap, there is Phạm Ngũ Lão in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon.

Facing the street (show)

The place is abuzz well into the night as bars blast music from five years ago (I am  sure I heard an “apple bottom jeans boots with the fur” as we walked by). The hot July nights were made better by bottles of beer and the night’s pulutan (A Filipino term that refers to the food best paired with local brews) of Vietnamese grill.

Money Changer

Traveling often doesn’t necessarily make you an expert. I would argue it only makes you complacent. My friends had been badgering me about whether or not I was going to have my PHP converted to USD, but I brushed them off like the proud idiot that I am. I would later realize that converting from USD to VND yields far more than from PHP to VND (A loss equivalent to a few meals, which bothers me because, I must confess, I’ve got Scrooge genes in my veins).

VERY USEFUL TIP: Change your money here, especially if you did not carry USD. Best (USD and PHP) rates so far!

Taxis

I will end with another story, something I am proud of despite the gross inconvenience it caused.

I will start by saying that the cab drivers in Saigon are far more  easy to interact with versus those in Bangkok. The latter (along with some tuktuk drivers) always seem to want to rip you off (thus we Uber-ed our way across Bangkok). VinSun and Mai Linh are the trusted taxi services in Saigon. You go in and then they turn on the meter without you needing to ask. We used the cab to go around a lot as we were an even four. It was far more practical (and cheaper) to go around the city this way, especially since we did not know how to drive a motorbike.

It was on our last day, and we had walked around for a second time around the cathedral and decided to take a cab to a nearby mall. I had mentioned before that I always take the front seat as designated travel planner and “money holder”. The driver was a young man with a plain demeanor. He greeted us, and made small talk. How nice!

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He was so engrossed in making conversation that he did not immediately turn on the meter. No matter, I reminded him. After a few clicks, he said that he couldn’t seem to turn it on. He shot an embarrassed smile at my direction as  I rolled my eyes internally, knowing that he simply wanted us to pay a fixed rate for the ride. Typical tactic, one that isn’t uncommon (I live in the Philippines; I am very familiar).

“How much to the mall?” (I had assumed it would be around 15,000-20,000 VND)

We were still in a moving vehicle, just a few paces from the Notre Dame Basilica where we got on. He took his wad of bills and lifted a 20,000 bill (In non-English-speaking communities, this is the usual way vendors communicate price, aside from typing numbers down a calculator).

I said, “Okay.”

He didn’t seem convinced. In fact, he seemed to insist on being paid immediately (He did this all with a pleasant smile on his face which threw me off). Already irate but not in the mood to ruin our trip, I took out our common fund/wallet and fished out a 20,000 bill from our wad of bills. He had already halted the car by the park. When I lifted the bill up, he continued to shake his head — What did he want?

Annoyed out of my mind, I took out a 2,000 bill thinking he must have meant 22,000. But again a look of disagreement from his end.

And then everything flashed before my eyes!

He grabbed the wad of money (probably more than 500,000 VND; it was all of our money) from my hands! Instinct made me grab the money back; we did a mini tug-of-war inside his cab as I gave hurried instructions to my friends in the backseat to get out of the bloody car now.

I snatched the money back and stuffed them all in my purse, and kicked the door open. I looked back in disbelief as I got off. He was muttering apologies, and for a split second I thought I overreacted. My heart was racing and my head was ticking like a clock. We walked away furiously fast (and somehow ended up in the mall we were originally headed to) as we re-played the events out loud. Everything about that transaction was S H A D Y and that guy was S H A D Y.

It was broad daylight in the middle of a busy, tourist-laden complex!

LESSON: Never let your guard down. Never shrink in fear. Trust your instincts!

I’m not going to take this one incident against Vietnam. If I’m being candid, Vietnam now has so much character. I mean, the guy really went for it and I am considerably impressed. Too bad for him, my momma didn’t raise a loser.

Some adventure, huh? It’s so difficult to be a strong independent woman, wouldn’t you agree? Yet here we are regardless! Haha!

I will end here. I hope reading this counts as a break from your studying. I miss you! It feels like an age since we caught up (I mean, I saw you two weeks ago, but screaming in the middle of the dance floor just wasn’t enough time).

 

I’ll see you quite soon,

P.S. Remember this? You were in Germany when you sent me this postcard, and I had just come back from Baler … Hahaha!

“Women Want Adventure”

I’ll mail your letter soon; expect it in a month (Seriously, Philippine mail really puts the snail on it).

To all my readers (Hi mom and big brother), I do solemnly swear to get better at churning out these letters faster. Taipei, Taiwan and Iloilo City, Philippines coming right up!

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