Sunday, December 23, 2012

SAIGON: Exploring the City, It's Culture, and Food

“Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for maneuvering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way--insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forwards, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will. Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity and surrenders.” 
(Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam)

What are the things that come to your mind when you hear Saigon? For Filipinos, it will be Miss Saigon thanks to Ms. Lea Salonga who played a significant role to this famous musical-theater show. For the Westerners, it cannot be denied that the Vietnam war will come into mind. For travelers & backpackers alike, Saigon is very known as the motorcycle city and for it's traffic. If Saigon is just known for it's traffic; then, this is certainly nothing new in the Philippines. 

Why did my travel party ever consider of going there? Admittedly, Saigon or now known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was the first leg to the ultimate agenda in the trip and that was Siem Reap, Cambodia. When we booked the flight, we did not have any idea what to do and where to go in HCMC. I realized I was in deep trouble when I drafted the itinerary, I got a lot of travel information of the nice places to see in the other parts of Vietnam. I had a hard time moving on from the attractions I wanted to visit in Halong and Hue. Alas, I told myself that the HCMC trip would not be one to visit the natural wonders and the UNESCO heritage attractions of Vietnam, but rather it would be to explore the city, to get a taste of the famous Vietnamese food, and to experience its culture. 

In a series of Vietnam travel post, I will share with you our itinerary and tips, starting with... LANGUAGE - It's nice to know the most common and basic Vietnamese words and phrases. As a back-up plan though, it's important to bring a map or a pen & paper to use when asking for directions or informing the cab drivers where to go. CURRENCY - The Vietnam Dong is the country's economic currency. It's in big denominations so don't be surprised to be carrying millions worth of Vietnam Dong in your wallet. They don't have coins as well so oftentimes when you pay for something the cost is rounded up to a whole number so change will not be difficult. ARRIVING at the AIRPORT - Tan Son Nhat International Airport in HCMC is where you will disembark. There is no immigration or customs card to be filled in so don't be surprised. The immigration officer will only look at your passport and stamp it for the allowed duration of your stay. For nationals of ASEAN member countries, VISA is not a requirement. TRANSPORTATION - We took a cab most of the time to transport us from one place to another; except of course for those of walking distance only. The reason was to avoid the hassle and trouble of finding the bus stop and which bus would go to where. As per advise by most travelers, we took the Mai Linh taxi so as to eliminate a bad taxi experience. Getting a taxi at the airport though was a long queue & confusing; that was because we were partial to the Mai Linh taxi. Be sure to approach a Mai Linh employee (you will know because he is wearing a uniform with Mai Linh name) and register your name with him so he will list you up as a waiting passenger. We incurred approximately $15.00 each (for a party of 4) in transportation within the city and to/from the airport. ACCOMODATION - We booked the Saigon Mini Hotel 6. We got the top floor and Suite room. At a room price of $130 for 3 nights/2days - we had a deal. The room is very spacious, there are 2 queen beds & a twin size, it is clean, and as an added bonus it is overlooking the Bui Vien street in District 1. Bui Vien is a backpacker's street and it is teeming with tourists. The street comes to so much life at night where all the restaurants are full of patrons. One thing to be aware of is that most patrons are dining or drinking alfresco and are mostly facing the streets. It's a bit disconcerting for passersby who are new in town. After the first night, curiosity may win over and you may just be one of those who will be at the side-street enjoying the busy street life. 

Herewith are some shots at the streets in HCMC, Vietnam. Up next will be the Walking Tour. 

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