Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
It’s difficult to know where to begin to describe this place! It seems that each country I’ve been lucky enough to visit has been mind-blowing in its own way.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at around midnight on Friday night, the 11th. I had booked a transfer to my hotel in advance as it was my first time really travelling alone and I was a teensy bit apprehensive. There was a man waiting for me with my name on a sign and he drove me to my hotel in about 20 minutes. The roads are sheer madness, moreso even than Bangkok! (Is that possible?!) And their way of letting people know they’re approaching or planning on driving through an intersection, without stopping, is by hooting. Incessantly.
We arrived at the small, crowded alleyway that my hotel was down. If I hadn’t seen it on the Internet and read the good reviews beforehand I would’ve thought it was extremely dodgy. Outside were tons of food stalls and the smell of cooking pork, deep-frying chicken, scooter exhaust fumes and people all looking at me with interest as I followed my taxi driver with my big backpack on my back. (It was too narrow to drive down in a car.)
The hotel was called Saigon Zoom Hotel and had a flashy neon sign outside buzzing “VACANCY”. Again, if I hadn’t seen the reviews on the Internet…
Inside the hotel was very simple, but clean and quiet. My room was small but perfect. The bed was comfy and the aircon worked like a charm. I instantly forgot about the sub-zero temperatures I’d left behind in Korea. According to my body clock (Korean time) it was about 3:30am by the time I got to sleep and I slept like a baby!
Breakfast was included in my hotel price ($22 per night) and I went down in the morning for my breakfast. There were 3 options: bread & eggs, cornflakes or Vietnamese Pho. I chose scrambled eggs with “bread” instead of the “sandwich” option. What I got was a HUGE baguette – fresh, crispy and still warm, all for me! It was absolutely divine to eat “real” bread again. I’m drooling just thinking about it.
After breakfast I went and chatted to the hotel manager, Mark, who gave me a map and showed me where things were. He also gave me a rough idea of how much things should cost, like taxis. Luckily Shaun & Robert in Korea had also given me expert advice before I left on some important things like which taxis to take. There are only 2 good types of taxis that always use a meter and are reliable: Mailinh & Vinasun.
So off I went on my first day in HCMC, pale as a ghost from the subzero temperatures in Korea. I walked with my map and, looking very confused I’m sure, managed to find the big market called Ben Tanh Market. Horror of horrors, when I arrived I realised I didn’t feel like buying anything! There was so much to see and such an overload on the senses that I was quite dumbfounded by it all. The only thing I did end up buying were two pairs of shoes made especially for me in about 10 minutes. I happened to find a tiny, wrinkly old lady with an array of shoe soles and other shoe-related paraphernalia. She happened to have my size in a flat, wooden sole. She made me try 3 sizes to my foot to ensure the best fit. Then I chose a strap to go across the top and she put a few nails in, fit it again onto my foot to check the fit and then hammered in some more nails, trimmed off the edges of the fabric and voila! Shoes made just for me! I’d read that whatever price someone quotes you in the market, to bargain for half price, but she was so sweet AND the shoes were so ridiculously cheap, that I didn’t even bother. One pair cost me 150,000VND which is about ₩7,500 or R60. Plus, I can never find shoes to fit my feet in Korea so I was even more grateful.
After the market I decided to find somewhere for a bit of a spoil. I had looked on the Internet beforehand and found a highly recommended spa not too far from the market. I walked there with my map, but by the time I found it my feet were sore, I was hot and I was tired! Opening the door I was greeted by about 5 Vietnamese ladies neatly dressed in their spa uniforms. They offered me tea (hot or iced) and sat me down to wait my turn. The spa is called “My Spa” and inside is extremely peaceful with wafty music, lush purple silk couches, hanging drapes and dimmed lighting. Flowers are everywhere and incense is burning. ‘Twas heaven.
A tiny lady took me upstairs to where I would have my massage. 60 minutes of relaxation! A full body massage, peels of cucumber layered on my face and hot stones too. At the end she even used her knees to massage my back and did this weird contortionist thing where my whole body was lying in an arc, backwards, on top of her. In the room/part next to me, seperated by purple curtains, I could hear the man who’d arrived after me snoring his head off!
After that treat I was taken downstairs for my manicure and pedicure and offered more tea. I emerged from there feeling all wafty myself, and it’d only cost me 540,000VND, about ₩27,000 or R200. The spa lady put me in a Vinasun taxi and sent me on my merry way.
Back at the hotel, I had a shower and headed out to try find some dinner. I was directed to a place that sold Pho of all kinds and was filled with Vietnamese and a few westerners. They seated people wherever there was a spot, so I got placed across from an old American guy. Unfortunately he was eating some kind of beef pho stew and told me it was good, so I dumbly felt obliged to try it. I’ve been abstaining from meat as much as I can for the last few months and to be honest, I’ve gone off it completely. So, sadly, my first dinner in Vietnam wasn’t that enjoyable, with big chunks of stewed beef and an extra greasy broth. However, I did have my first Vietnamese beer there, an aptly named “Saigon” (the first of many). After eating a little beef and then eating mostly around it, I left hungry. I found a tiny convenience store and bought a Cornetto ice-cream, 2-fingered Kit-Kat and a Milo drink – all of which we get in South Africa but not Korea. Happy days!
I managed to find my way home, although I did get lost along the way. My first day in Vietnam, done and dusted!