Blog #5 - We Will Miss Saigon, Pho Sure!

We left off last week after we had crossed the Vietnam border from Phnom Penh in true gangsta style - by speed boat. 

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When we entered Vietnam, we were very excited to immerse ourselves with Vietnamese culture and food - Cambodia was great for scenery, but not so much in the kitchen, and we both knew we loved ourselves a good bowl of Beef Pho.  We had heard the best things about the cuisine in Vietnam, and we were also looking forward to being in a single country for a long stretch of time, in order to absorb every essence of what makes the place tick.  Until now we had been jumping around a little too quickly.

As we got closer to landing in Vietnam, we began to pass more and more fisheries along the Mekong River.  And alas, to little surprise, the main food in town: fish!  (Basa fish, in fact – a major export of the area and available at a fish stick near you. ;) 

We floated into our new home for two days, Chau Doc. 

Chau Doc is a small, busy little town with hardly any English and very few tourists, however for a night it served as a great little first introduction to Vietnam – in particular the food, the people, the traffic.  Arrgh, the traffic.  More to come about that.

But the highlight of our short stay in Chau Doc was the “cyclo” ride we both took (in a single cyclo), to “Sam Mountain”, only five (long) kilometers from Chau Doc.   We looked ridiculous.  And it was clearly too much weight for our cyclo driver to handle.

Oh well – the experience was worth the humiliation -- the views from the top of the mountain, across the misty rice paddies and waterways at sunset, were gorgeous. 

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Chao Doc was the perfect send-off before we braved the big bad Ho Chi Minh City.

Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) is a land of scooters, and it is busy and bustling all the time.  And if we thought we understood Vietnamese traffic from our two days in Chau Doc, um, well, this was boot camp.  Simply put, scooters are everywhere (alleys and sidewalks included) – the population of 8 million apparently gets by on 5 million scooters.  

The trick to negotiating the traffic in Saigon (or anywhere in Vietnam for that matter) is to pick a ‘soft spot’ in the stream of traffic blasting past you and walk slowly, straight into traffic, at a steady, even pace.  This way, each bee in the swarm can see you, size you up, and judge whether to pass in front of you, or behind you.  And they do.

What you don’t want to do is try to avoid each scooter you see, in a bunch of jumpy stop-and-go movements (like in Frogger).  If you avoid one, you’ll probably just step in the way of another.

In many ways Vietnam traffic is the opposite of football: if you move slowly in a predictable path, you won’t get tackled. 

There really is no other way to cross the road in Vietnam.  Traffic lights are only at the very biggest intersections.  And even if you were to wait for a break in traffic, you’re more likely to have a friendly local take you by the arm into the mayhem before you have the chance.  :)

By the end of our time in Saigon we got very comfortable with this concept and we began crossing zen-like through some seriously thick traffic.  Always steady and slowly, and after a day or two, fearlessly and as part of the entire organic mess.  Check it out - http://youtu.be/ZAIICXo5KjQ

Our little hotel in Saigon was located near Pham Ngu Lao street in District 1, and even though we had no windows (let me see that brochure again…) it was perfect and just what we needed – reliable, clean and comfortable.

Pham Ngu Lao is basically the backpackers’ district.  One could guess this is what Bangkok’s Khao San Road might have looked like maybe ten or twenty years ago, before Burger King showed up.  There are tons of travelers and locals out on the street, all simultaneously checking out and creating the scene. 

On our first day in Saigon we did a full city tour that included stops at the War Remnants Museum (which documents the “American” war, as it is called here), and Notre Dame cathedral and the old post office. 

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During the day, and perhaps because the cost of the trip was so little ($7 each!), we were taken to a lacquer art showroom for a lengthy stop, and also to a coffee shop.  At the coffee shop we both sampled the famed “Weasel” coffee (named after animal used in its production…;).

While in Saigon we also did a day-trip to the nearby Cu Chi tunnels.  This was an enormous eye opener.  Neither of us suffers from claustrophobia, however, walking  folded over at the hips, knees bent, in a a dark hot tunnel that is only about three feet high (and only as wide as your shoulders) will test anyone’s limits.  We couldn’t believe North Vietnam soldiers lived in these tunnels during most of the war.  We could only make it through a forty meter section before we had to take an escape port (…and the section we walked through had been enlarged for tourists!).

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Of all our stops thus far, Saigon was our favorite.  It was certainly the most walkable (once you got to know the traffic ;).  We even discovered a little-known travel secret: some of the ritzier hotels offer day passes to their facilities, for a small fee (compared to the price of the room!).  So we took some money and had a 5-star afternoon and enjoyed a resort’s pool and gym.   Overall, it was a great, reasonably cheap way to get away from the mayhem on the streets.

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Now we are all about trying new things and new experiences, so after we said goodbye to Saigon, we boarded our first overnight sleeper bus to Nha Trang and its lovely beaches (several hundred kilometers north).  The “seats” on these sleeper buses are double-high and recline to a near-horizontal position.  It’s a great way to travel if you’re a deep sleeper (and if you traveling with a light sleeper who can watch your stuff ;), because after you’ve slumbered, you wake up at your new destination in the morning, ready for breakfast!  No need to pay for a hotel.  And you meet a ton of other travelers, too, which is great.  Compared to the train, the bus is not luxury travel, but you can’t beat the value ($7 bucks each, for a 10 hour ride!).  And we made a new friend along the way, Kleber, who was holiday from his English teaching gig in China.

So after 10 hours in the bus, we rolled in to what we can only describe as Southeast Asia’s version of Hawaii: Nha Trang is gorgeous, with a beautiful 20 km beach spanning across the whole town, and a backdrop of mountains in the distance and rocky islands across the bay. 

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 We jumped off the bus, checked-in, rented bicycles and immediately went to explore the glorious surf. 

Neither of us had heard of this city until recently, however, the secret is quickly getting out.  The entire place is under construction, and it is booming.  Also, English is the third language here, after Russian -- Steph was approached in Russian several times, and handed a Russian menu a few times while we were in Nha Trang.  Awkward!

As we finish writing this week's blog, we are still in Nha Trang, after having finished a fun boat cruise to a few of the islands in the area, and we're just about to board another sleeper bus northward to Hanoi.  We hear Hanoi is quite different and that the weather is a lot cooler up north.  So far we already miss Nha Trang and Saigon!

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