Saigon is an assault to the senses. There is an incessant din of honking horns, rumbling trucks, puttering motor scooters, smog thickened humidity, aromatic foods, charcoal fires, incense, and hidden garbage. The sidewalks are filled with Vendors creating and selling everything imaginable. At night the city lights up with color. One can’t help but be swept up in the energy. The city felt safe.
The architecture is hodgepodge and indicative of the city’s history. It’s not uncommon to see a row of buildings with a tall skinny house from the French occupation era beside a 70s building followed by a dilapidated brick structure. The city is divided into Districts, each sporting its own personality. It is not hard to navigate on foot, although locals far prefer the speed and efficiency of motor scooters (Motos). Many wear face masks to protect from polluted air. It is clear these masks can be used as a playful fashion statements.
There are hidden jewels in every big city. Unearthing those jewels can be an exciting part of travel adventure.
While wandering Saigon one evening, Conde noticed an innocuous building. “Let’s go in!” he declared. I followed into a greasy, dank and poorly lit Moto parking garage. After passing through we discovered an elevator along side a grungy tiled curved stairwell. A small group of well-dressed young Vietnamese was waiting for the elevator; another group filing up the stairs. We joined the elevator queue. The door slid open and a full load piled out. The operator was charging 3,000 VND (approx. 15 cents) for a ride up.
Since we had no clue where we were headed, we opted for the stairs. Each floor revealed a handful of shops, restaurants and other businesses run by enthusiastic young entrepreneurial Vietnamese. We sat down at a cute restaurant airing a fun playlist called The Maker (the restaurant, not the play list). Great salads with a nice Vietnamese twist and decent beer selection. And perfect wifi reception.
In spite of being American Geezers, we were truly welcomed. A later internet search showed the building was one of the hippest new retail spots in District 1 for upstarts.
The only way to rent a car in Vietnam is with a driver. With the crazy maniacal “flow” of traffic, this is a very logical rule. We had planned to rent a private car for travel south from Saigon to the Mekong Delta. Lonely Planet says this can be found for $75 US per day. Our search failed to unearth this option. There were cars with drivers, but at triple the cost. We decided to take the bus from Saigon to Can Tho.
Lonely Planet advises the choice for bus travel is Futa Buslines. We popped into a local travel agency to inquire. We learned buses ran every hour from Saigon to Can Tho. A 3 hour ride. The nice travel agency lady wrote down an address. We figured it was the bus station. After a leisurely breakfast the following day we took a cab to the noted destination, a Futa office. Turned out you could neither buy a bus ticket there nor could you catch a bus from that location. Never did figure out what service was provided there. The clerk instructed that we us go to the bus station. She furnished a pre-printed list of addresses with pertinent information highlighted in yellow. I asked for directions to the bus station. “Too far to walk,” she said. There was a line of Futa owned cabs outside. I handed the driver my highlighted paper. We had a fun, albeit unexpected, cab tour to the other side of town where we were delivered to a small Futa station.
I went inside and learned that for 220,000VND (approx. $10 US for both) and a 10 minutes wait we would be on our way to Can Tho. I paid up. A mini van promptly arrived. We loaded, along with 11 other passengers, for the trip to Can Tho. So we thought. It turned out this was a shuttle to the main Futa bus station. As the van unloaded I asked the driver, where to now? “Go inside,” he replied with a broad gesture toward the station. It was large adorned with multiple departure and arrival boards. Our untrained eyes couldn’t figure it out. The PA announcements didn’t help either. Not to be deterred we exited the station and marched up and down a long line of diesel huffing busses, luggage in tow. (Did I mention I failed in my resolve to pack lightly? Well, I did. Notice how I buried this confession?)
We found a bus marked Can Tho and showed an agent our tickets. He gave a perfunctory, almost imperceptible, nod. We trotted along side as the bus edged forward each time the bus at the front of the line departed. I stuck close. This geezer wasn’t getting left behind! During a brief pause in forward momentum the agent took our luggage and stowed it in the underneath compartment. He made copious notes on my ticket, so I figured all was good here. Still, we trotted along every time the bus moved forward.
When we boarded we were told to sit in 4A and 4C. Okay, got it. Just as I was turning to walk down the aisle the official firmly grabbed my wrist. I stopped. The driver was holding open a black plastic sack and the agent pointed to my feet. But of course. They need me to take off my shoes and stow them in the black bag. Done!
The bus had two tiers of seats. Much like bunk beds. Each seat resembled a soap box race car. I settled into the 4A lower tier. Nope. The official ordered me “Top! Top!” his patience clearly being tried. I smiled nicely and used my best monkey skills to climb to the top tier.
Halfway to Can Tho we stopped at a huge warehouse, clearly owned by Futa, for refreshments and a toilet break. As we filed off the bus, we were instructed to don green and orange flip flops dumped on the ground from a laundry basket. The inner child in me delighted as I slipped into a mismatched pair several sizes too big and clomped about the warehouse. I tried hard not to imagine who had proceeded me in these shoes.
We now know the system for bus travel in Vietnam. We arrived in Can Tho safe and sound. What a great city!
In the Mekong Delta Vietnam it is common to inter your dead in an above ground shrine located in your home’s rice paddy or garden area. Many are very elaborate. Birth dates in Vietnam are not important. Death date is very important. When a baby is born in Vietnam, it is automatically one year old. Each year on Tet (Vietnamese new year) another year is added. If Tet falls on February 16th and a baby is born on February 15th, the baby turns two the day after birth. Every year a large family celebration is held on the date of death of each relative. If the person was very old when they died, a bamboo stick is placed on the grave site. This can serve as a cane for the elderly dead to use for making it back to the house to join in the celebration.
Six days before leaving Portland, an unwelcome visitor took up residence in my upper respiratory system. Departure eve my phlegmatic hacking was so intense Conde’ suggested cancelling the trip. “Absolutely not!” I declared, sheepishly remembering all the barb filled vibes I’d launched toward fellow sniffling plane travelers exposing me to unwanted germs. Another life lesson in tolerance learned.
Cheapo Air business class tickets turned out to be a really good deal. No snafus on our way out. Air Canada was the carrier on the first two legs of the trip. From Vancouver to Seoul we enjoyed a brand new 787 Dreamliner with 4 primo pods per row. Perfect for bunking down for a long satisfying sleep and watching the latest release of Beauty and The Beast.
In stark contrast, the last leg of the journey was on a relic from the past. Remember the humpback whale Boeing 747-200 with access to “upstairs?” We are talking 70s retro on steroids. That was our ride from Seoul to Saigon. The multi-tiered seat adjustment switches were located on top of the armrest. Any inadvertent elbow movement would suddenly launch the seat into mechanical moaning with uninvited adjustments. Kept us giggling. True Geezer on the Go memories from days of yore.
When we deplaned in Ho Chi Minh (interchangeably – Saigon) we encountered a man holding a large placard with both our full names displayed in large bold letters. It’s good to recognized?? “Come with me!” he declared before turning and scurrying off towards the entrance to immigration. We obediently followed, speculating over who he was. My gut told me this guy was there to help I just didn’t know why.
With authority, he led us to the official Vietnam Visa area. Following a language barrier-filled exchange, we learned he was from the “Visa Company.” Remember Vietnam Visa Choice from my original Southeast Asia post? We’re still not sure, but apparently the $33 US per person we paid online was for the luxury of a fancy letter and of having an agent meet us upon flight arrival and oil the system, not for the actual Visa itself. Our guide told us we owed an extra $50 per person Multiple Visa application fee to be paid to the man behind window #2. After a short wait, our names were called. We went to window #2 and paid $50 per person to the Vietnamese official. Our passports were returned to us graced with a lovely Vietnam Visa. And we were steered us toward the correct line to pass through Immigration.
Here’s what I think. If traveling by air, you don’t need to do anything in advance for obtaining your Vietnam Visa. Just know you must find the Visa area prior to going through Immigration. Otherwise you will be sent back. Not a disaster but very time consuming. The location of the Visa area in the SGN airport is not obvious. It’s off to the the side. Your Visa applications can be filled out there but there did not appear to be much, if any, customer service. You’ll need one or two (depending upon source) passport photos. We only needed one and the standard US sized passport photos we brought were fine. You will need to be patient. The process is confusing and involves waiting. In retrospect, I’m not at all sorry we spent the extra money to Vietnam Visa Choice for being guided through the system. We were exhausted when we arrived, would probably have missed the Visa issuance area and likely would have proceeded directly to Immigration only to be sent back.
Save your used boarding passes! It is not uncommon for me to toss my used boarding pass after I’m finished with a flight. Don’t do it!!!! Twice we were asked to produce our boarding passes from completed legs of our trip. When we passed through Vietnamese immigration they required our boarding pass from the arrival flight. I had to dig through multiple pockets to find mine.
Hotel Recommendation: I highly recommend the Myst Dong Khoi Hotel in Saigon. It is in a great District 1 location. Staff is extremely accommodating and key staff members are fluent in English. There is a lovely roof top pool and a decent work-out area. It is a quiet and comfortable oasis to recuperate from a long trip and establish your travel sea legs. And, the breakfast buffet is to die for. Make sure you negotiate breakfast included in your room rate.
I’m committed to traveling light. This vow is anchored by an unwavering decision not to check any bags. I’m still queasy about Cheapo Air and its ability to deliver. And I don’t want to lug around a lot of unnecessary crap.
The challenge: Temperatures in Portland are in the 30s and 40s with low humidity. Temperatures in Southern Vietnam and Cambodia are ranging in the high 80s with lots, and lots, and lots of humidity. Temperatures in Northern Vietnam are cooler but variable.
I”ll be trekking and camping in the jungle for several days, fording rivers and swimming in caves while fully clothed. To keep the leeches off, I’ll need to tuck my long pants into boots and wear a long-sleeved shirt. (Think Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen). The temperatures in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park can range anywhere from mid-40s to mid-70s this time of year. Layers will be required. And, according to the Oxalis Travel online brochure, our guides are skilled in leech removal.
A preview of my summer clothes inventory turned up lots of sleeveless tops. I’ve read that in Vietnam it is considered indecent for women to expose their upper arms. I subscribe to the theory that one should respect the customs of one’s host. Plus, I gotta admit my upper arm wings aren’t my best asset. Might catch a heavy wind gust and who knows what could happen then.
Have you ever tried buying summer clothes in Portland during the winter? Not happening. I turned to the Internet. The UPS driver is my new best friend. And, Ari is positive she’ll prove to be a tasty meal … someday … for sure … it could happen.
I’ve managed to narrow down my outerwear choices. 5 short sleeve tops, 2 pair of shorts, 2 pair of light long pants and a skirt. A couple of light long sleeved shirts, and a sun hat round out the basics. I alway take a pareo or two when I travel. They take up little space and serve many function, including a light wrap and beach towel. Any extra space will be filled with the “to bring” list for the trek which includes knee socks and long underwear.
We’ll have to do laundry while we travel. Another fun logistic promising to challenge my known norms.
• It is 7,481 miles from Portland Oregon to Ho Chi Minh City
• Vietnamese call the “Vietnam War” the “American War”
• Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City in 1976
• Saigon was the Capital of The Republic of Vietnam until 1975 when it was relocated to Hanoi in Northern Vietnam
Thanks for joining my Southeast Asia adventure!
I’m new to blogging. When my husband and I met in 1983 we sold all our worldly possessions, quit our jobs and traveled throughout Mexico. I planned to photograph and write about the experience. But I didn’t.
Over the years I’ve continued to roam the world, but never Asia. About a year ago, right around my 60th birthday, I decided to both travel to Asia and document the adventure. Two firsts.
Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia were on the original list. After much research and contemplation, the trip was narrowed to Vietnam and Cambodia. A custom self-guided 26-day tour was born. I do love planning a trip!
In this first Blog post, I share trip planning details. As always, thanks to my sweet hubby, our research started with books. Stop number one, the travel section of Powell Books (An aside, no true Portlander can mention Powell’s without adding, the largest independent bookstore in the US). Internet searches and recommendations from fellow travelers rounded out information sources.
We’ll be starting in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and finishing up in Hanoi. After we picked travel dates we researched plane fares.
I grew up the daughter of a Delta Airlines Captain. For years, I flew first-class for free. Talk about being spoiled! I own it. I simply don’t belong in the coach class crush. Unfortunately, my pocket book is too small for first or business class air travel.
My brillant husband decided on an alternative. Buy business class through Cheapo Air. What??? A debate ensued. Cheapo Air? Who ever heard of that? I conjured visions of endless hours in airport terminals, ultimately being relegated to a gar hole middle seat in the last row beside the bathrooms. The round trip cost on Cheapo Air for business class was $2,434 per ticket. Pricey, but a great buy compared to the $7,000+ price tag of business class purchased directly through the airlines. I fantasized about being able to lie down and actually sleep during the long flight. And, reasoned the rest of the trip would be super inexpensive. So I, not so gracefully, acquiesced.
Our outbound flight connects through Vancouver and Seoul on Air Canada. Our flight home connects through Peking and Vancouver on a Vietnam Air and Air Canada combo. Once we locked in, I studied the air itinerary and discovered no seat assignments. My “gar hole” nightmare recurred on steriods. I mentioned this to Conde’ who appeared totally unconcerned. Time to take charge. I called Cheapo Air and learned seat assignments could be had for a mere $20 per person extra. I ponied up and got business class seats assigned on most, but not all legs, of the trip. I’m still working on that. About a month after our reservations were locked in, Cheapo Air emailed a daunting flight change notification instructing, “act now or you will loose all your money.” I immediately phoned Cheapo. After 3 hours on the phone chatting with six different agents, an acceptable air schedule was agreed upon, including seat assignments. Conde’ was no where to be seen through this process. I’ll let you know how this all works out.
US citizens need a Visa to enter Vietnam. Somewhere Conde’ read we could get these in advance. He emailed our personal information and credit card data for 2 visas at a cost of $30 each to Vietnam Visa Choice The next day, we received emails with PDF attachments, instructing us to print out the documents. We are to present this upon arrival along with two passport photos. The letter looks official enough. I do like the red stamp.
After multiple discussions, armed with facts and reference sources, agreement was reached on a broad trip agenda.
We start with 3 nights in HCMC. Then travel south for 3 days exploring the Mekong Delta. Next, we head west to Cambodia. The plan is to take a boat along the Mekong river to Phnom Phen where we’ll spend two days, one night. (An aside, a Visa is needed to enter Cambodia. We’re pretty sure we can get one at the river border crossing). We’re thinking bus from Phnom Phen to Seim Reap where we’ll explore the the temples of angkor for three days. From Seim Reap we fly on Cambodian Angkor Air to Da Nang Vietnam. (An aside, I encountered an interesting factoid when making the air reservations online. Apparently, citizenship matters. After poking around, I was able to reduce the cost of tickets by 50% from original quote. Something about add-on fees.) We’ll explore the area around Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue for four days then head north to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park We booked with Oxalis Adventure Tours for 3 days, 2 nights exploring amazing caves, trekking and camping in the jungle. After the park we board a train for a daylight 10 hour ride from Dong Hoi to Hanoi on Vietnam Railway (An aside, the Vietnam Railway website and online reservation system is excellent. Super easy to understand and use). To wrap up the trip, we spend a week exploring Hanoi and the surrounding area, staying at a VRBO condo in the heart of Old Town.
Departure date is right around the corner. Before we leave, I’ll post a blog about packing for the trip. Some of the journey has been reserved and paid for. Other times we plan to wing it. I’ll post when I can, sharing the ups and downs of our travels. Hope you’ll join in the adventures.