Sunday, December 22, 2013

Seeing Vietnam by Train: First Impressions of Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Hello, Vietnam! Welcome to our first communist country! It still feels surreal that we were just in Thailand this morning, and then, a couple of hours later, we were in Vietnam. We keep forgetting where we are, so my husband keeps speaking what little Thai he knows with the Vietnamese people, and I keep telling them that I don't know Thai.

The way we travel has changed so much since arriving in Thailand. It used to be that we would have all travel arrangements and reservations made months ahead of time, all the things we wanted to do and all the places we wanted to see planned and plotted on maps, all the restaurants we wanted to try pinpointed, all the do's and don't's learned and memorized, all the important parts of travel guides marked, all our bags packed days ahead of time, and if going to a foreign country, have enough of a grasp of the language to get by. When we went to Italy, my husband studied Italian on his own for at least a month and learned enough of it to converse with the locals!

These days, the organization has completely gone out the window. I finally booked and reserved our flights less than a month ago, and our hotels and trains about two weeks ago. We had no idea what to see, what to do, or where things are. We didn't know a word of Vietnamese. What we've learned are little bits of information pieced together from the internet. My husband and I were "cramming" on the internet last night, trying to learn a little more about this country. As a result, what happened to us first thing after getting out of the airport? We were scammed. Well, as scams go, at least it was a "small" scam -- we were merely charged too much for the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. I had completely forgotten that the prices quoted here are in thousands of dongs, so when the taxi driver quoted us "800," we thought that was super cheap! Turns out it was 800,000 dongs, which is probably at least seven or eight times what we should've paid. Oh well, you live and learn, right?

After being here for only a few hours, I have to say I love this city. First of all, it's a city, so everything is close by, but it's not as crazy as downtown Bangkok is. The driving here is the same pattern and on the same side of the street as in the U.S. (though my brain could not register this at first), and people drive slower here, though they honk a whole lot more! There are also many times more scooters here than cars compared to Bangkok. I also love that Vietnam has its own culture, but the city also is infused with western influences. There are coffeehouses, bakeries, and other western shops on every block. I just love it. There also are parks and green space throughout the city, unlike in Bangkok. Most people here also speak some English, and there are a lot of westerners here. And I also enjoy Vietnamese food a lot more than Thai food -- I just realized within the last week or so that, of all the Asian cuisines, I really enjoy the Thai flavorings the least. Yeah, and I live in Thailand now.

A few more observations about Ho Chi Minh City: there are so many smokers everywhere, something that I'm not used to anymore after being in close to non-smoking environments back in the U.S. and in Thailand for so long. The three of us, as a family, and my son alone, also get more curious glances from the Vietnamese people than from the Thai people. There are guards everywhere, carrying semi-automatic guns and rifles.

While walking around the area outside our hotel, we saw a sign that said "Times Square." We figured it was like in Thailand, where people will just take some western/foreign cultural or pop icon or name, put it on a sign, and use it to promote their own shop or products. Well, it turned out that this area probably is really the "Times Square of Vietnam," with its shopping district lined with fancy stores (Chanel, Tiffany, Gucci, Cartier, etc.) and holiday lights and decorations up and down the busy streets. The streets are packed with shoppers and sight-seers. It seems that dressing up and going out to take pictures with friends and family in front of store fronts -- whether it's a fancy boutique or a drugstore -- is the thing to do here. Everyone, including the locals, walks around with a big camera hanging from the neck. Very amusing.

Oh, and for about a five-block radius of our hotel in all directions, including the center of the city with the busiest traffic circles and the most complicated traffic patterns, there is not a single traffic light in sight. Everyone -- cars, motorcycles, buses, pedestrians -- just...all go at once. In every direction. We actually got used to it pretty quickly, and began weaving in and out of the throngs of motorcycles like everyone else. At one point, this man began walking next to us to help us cross the street, telling us when to go and when to stop amidst the traffic. We thought he was crossing the street as well and helping us along the way. But when we crossed over, he turned right around and crossed the street to return to where he came from. What a kind thing to do for complete strangers.
Statues depicting the story of Vishnu at the Bangkok airport.

More Vishnu. So beautiful.
Descending to the gate of our flight.
Waiting for our tourist visas in Vietnam. We had applied for our visas online prior to our departure from Bangkok.
Millionaires! Ha.
Our hotel room. Look, there's carpeting! Never thought I'd say this, but I miss carpeting....
View from our hotel window.
Sights from outside our hotel.
An interesting triangular building.
Yankee Candles in Saigon!
Check out this motorcyclist, with a baby in the front. So far, we've seen kids lying on scooters sleeping, babies sitting up front with no support, and families of four or five on one scooter. Just like in Thailand!
Ho Chi Minh Park.
A statue of Ho Chi Minh.
The city hall is behind the statue of Ho Chi Minh.
Holy mass of wires!
One of many cute coffee shops. How I've missed them (and no, Starbucks doesn't count).
We hung out at this park for a while. I've missed being able to do that too.
The afternoon sun on a block of apartments.
Holiday lights at the cafe where we had our first meal in Vietnam.
My first meal in Vietnam! Vegetable soup, fried egg, and fried rice (no, not fried rice, but literally rice fried in sauce and oils) with chicken, veggies, mushroom, tofu, and bamboo shoots. OMG, it was so good! All for about $5!
An attack of scooters!
Holiday lights.
Everyone lined up to get their pictures taken in front of Yankee Candles!
More beautiful lights. We didn't dare cross the streets at this point due to all the scooters.
More lights
Yeah, yeah, more of the same.
All wrapped up with a pretty bow for the holidays.
It's hard to see,but there is a big arch all lit up across the street.
Pretty columns.
Lanterns in trees.
This is the outside of our hotel, all lit up, with everyone crowding for a picture.
There was apparently a wedding reception at our hotel tonight.
What a view to fall asleep to! Good night!

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