Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon (and other stories in Viet Nam – 1st of 4 parts)

Favorable economic conditions and occasional promo fares have certainly allowed most Filipinos travel to places within and outside the country. It was February 2015, and the lunar new year in Viet Nam is set to be on the late night of the 18th (that was Wednesday going to Thursday). Lunar new year celebration in this country is very lovely as almost everywhere are flowers of various colors, sizes and arrangements, making even the most manly of men (like me *cough*) feel a little bit flowery inside. I’d say that one of the best times to visit Ho Chi Minh (HCM) is during this lunar new year season.

Two days earlier, we arrived in HCM, having been fetched from the Tan Son Nhat International Airport by a not-good-English versed, 40-something man. He wore a collared shirt, wore slacks and leather shoes, and walked in a bandy-like manner (medyo sakang ba). Around 5’2″ and a thinning hair line, he held a placard bearing my friend’s name. We approached him with a “hi, that’s me…” (while pointing at the name written on the poster) and without further ado, or even checking for our passports, led us straight to a white car. A friend did all the tour and hotel booking mostly through Agoda, and the hotel we stayed in provided an airport transport service. Although the car did not bear the hotel’s name, we put our luggage in the trunk nonetheless (while I secretly took note of the plate number), communicated further with gestures to the driver, and vroomed through the Philippine-like streets of Ho Chi Minh, feeling “is this the right transport service or not?” Oh yeah!

I wanted to interview the driver but unfortunately I can’t speak Vietnamese. I stared at the empty shops instead, a big “Fifty Shades of Grey” advertisement, litter (mostly plastic packaging), a group of drunk men walking away from a still open establishment, and dark street scenery typical at 2 am. Around 20 minutes later, the driver says “here.”

My friend wondered if we were at the right place, since the hotel entrance we were looking at did not match the pictures shown in the internet. Again with not much ado, the driver got some of our bags, walked away from the parked car and led us into a dimly-lit alley. Images from the movie “Taken” flashed in my mind, so I kept my guard up and passport ready, in case we will be trafficked to Paris. But my friend recognized the hotel’s name, so we will not be kidnapped, and we were in the right place. We stood in front Mai Vy Hotel, only that it was closed.

The driver pushed the doorbell button, and a young man, obviously just woken up, opened the collapsible metal doors. The two talked for about 6 sentences, and we entered the hotel. The driver went his way, and I said my first Vietnamese word for the day, “kamm uhn” to him. The young man also does not speak English, and we just communicated with gestures. There were a lot of slippers, shoes and sandals before the main entrance, and in this sense you would recognize a customary law of leaving your footwear outside before entering. My friend showed a print-out of the reservation for a room for three, and the young man led us to the 4th floor.

The room was ok, small but good enough for three backpackers. There were three large beds, a small fridge, some beer (YAY!) and three bottles of water. The TV showed mostly Vietnamese speaking dialogue, even foreign shows were voiced over in Vietnamese. Although I found it funny at first, it was a very cheap and efficient way for citizens to access foreign content. There was a single voice actor translating all the dialogue, for example, the video shows a female character speaking but a delayed male voice will say the dialogue in Vietnamese. We unpacked, washed ourselves, and caught some zzzzzzs.

If you booked a tour in HCM, you would surely go to the War Remnants Museum and be exposed to the horrors of war and the ease that peace and reconciliation brings; Ben Thanh Market and HCM’s personality; Handicapped Handicrafts and the ways victims of war strive for a better life; the Independence Palace or the Reunification Palace and too many to mention sights and sounds; the Saigon Central Post Office; and the Notre Dame Cathedral (Roman Catholic). All these places and more, we visited with other tourists from all over, although our group mostly came from Chile and the Philippines. (Shout out to the three recent medical doctors from Davao City who we met during the tour. I hope for the best in your careers and future travels, Alexa, Pat and Jeb! Siya nga pala ah, crush kita, *toooot*. Ah, kapag nagkasakit ako at ikaw doctor ko, tingin mo pa lang, gagaling na ako ah! *badum tsss*).

There is a lot to see in HCM, it was just that if you are on a group tour, you all have the same schedule, with a lot of places packed in the itinerary that it is not enough to appreciate and read all the exhibits, smell all the aromas, and internalize the curves, arrangements and movements of all the places. I definitely would have spent more time in the Museum, Palace, and the Post Office. Probably next time. Soon.

The tour finished around 3 in the afternoon, and we went back to our hotel for some rest. There was still sunlight so we decided to stroll around, exchanged some of our limited-edition, hard to earn US dollars (we changed our peso into USD back home) in the hotel for 21,000 Dong to a dollar. We walked out the hotel almost millionaires and visited the nearby park, (our hotel, which was in District 1 was near a park), saw more flowers, and hiked a few minutes more to a local market. A place where you can see a lot of Deuters, Jansports, North Faces and other famous brands like they were the real thing. They looked authentic indeed, but cost much less. There were also souvenirs like key chains and ref magnets, coffee and more coffee and lots of cheap stuff. But it’s wise to budget and canvass the best price, and so that we did, and walked from stall to stall.

You can haggle by the way, but only for the next lowest price. If you lower your price further, all you’ll be hearing is Vietnamese. It’s wise to have visited all the shops you can, find the best price available, go back to your choice stall, and then buy your item of interest right away. Or just ask for the next lowest price for the item you like in the first stall you visit.

While non-food stuff are cheap, the food was just a bit expensive relative here in the Philippines. That’s okay though, since the food we had was great! And to cap the whole day off, a bottle of beer! Beer is cheap in HCM!

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It was a fun-filled 1st day indeed, until I found out that I lost around 560,000 Dong (around 25 USD or P1,100). We still have 3 days left, and of course I travel with low budget. Will I survive the next three days without beer? I just gave my kamm uhn to God because I had a great day! (Interested to know what happened next? Check: https://makkosadventures.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/hcm-2nd-of-4-parts/)

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