GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM.
We have returned to SE Asia after a one year hiatus. We craved a return to the culture shock from last years journey thru exotic Southeast Asia and are excited for the bombardment of our senses – the noise, the smells, the traffic, the organized chaos and the food. All of this is exactly what we love about traveling in Asia.
After all the normalcy of our extended time spent in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, I have to admit, we were getting kinda spoiled by the ease and high level of comfort during our travels. Spoiled with achieving “good wipes” on a consistent basis. Spoiled with almost perfect health. The persistent sniffles are sure to return from staying in Asian guesthouses and hotels where the air-conditioning in these rooms all seem to have only two settings: Antarctica and Off. I can recall during last years visit to Kampot (Cambodia), the a/c in our hotel directly over our bed got so cold that small ice cubes were actually periodically dropping on our heads while we we sleeping. No Bullshit! However, you do have a choice. You can turn off the a/c and sweat your ass off or turn it on and freeze your ass off. If you choose to freeze your ass off, chances are you will awake sneezing your ass off from the AC blasting on your face because some brilliant hotel design company chose to put the fucking a/c unit directly over the bed.
One of the first things we do upon arrival in a new country is secure a SIM card for our IPhones and hit up the ATM to get local currency. It was not such an easy task at the Vietnamese ATM’s. Getting a handle on the currency on arrival was a bit trickier on the mind than any other country because $1 USD = 22,726 Dong. My $300 USD withdrawal was equivalent to $6,806,700 (Million) Vietnamese Dong. It was a pain to count when my brain is usually mush after getting off a long flight. However, I was glad to be an instantaneous Dong Millionaire and was ready to throw around a bunch of cash. I’m a dangerous man with money in my pocket. Unfortunately, with this newly found enormous wealth, I have learned there are ramifications that go along with it.
You better be on top of your game when you arrive here in Vietnam. Because if you are not, you will get your ass handed to you quite quickly as you will inevitably succumb to the Vietnamese Shuffle. The locals seemingly look at us Americans as if we are human ATM’s and the Vietnamese are experts at getting their hands on your Dong. That’s Dong the currency, not your Johnson, Dong. Although the new breed of slick, street wise Vietnamese woman are also trying to get their hands on that dong as well.
It initially felt like the locals were attempting to rip us off. The real funny thing is that these Vietnamese are not trying to con you for hundreds of dollars. Ho Chi Minh City is the city of nickel and dimming. For just about every transaction, you will find yourself doing battle over about 30 cents. By the end of the day being hustled definitely adds up and you could find yourself ripped off for about a whopping $5 bucks given the 10-20 transactions you make per day.
All of this chicanery basically stems from the confusion of the currency. These Vietnamese got the Dong calculations that are in the millions down pat on each transaction. However, unless you are real quick with math, it is a true mind fuck transaction having to add it all up and get the proper change amount. It goes something like this…..You hand over a crisp 1/2 million (500,000) Dong bill (about $20 USD) for an icy cold coconut from a street vendor that costs 27,000 Dong, and they give you 473,000 Dong change. Now you gotta do the math and count the shit in 100+ degree Southeast Asian heat, sweating and all you are thinking about is taking a sip from that straw sitting in the cold freshly cut coconut. All these daily transactions happen so quickly. The fact that the Vietnamese are so quick and sneaky, before you know it, they have ripped you off for 9,701 Dong or roughly 40 cents. I will admit, I actually loved the daily challenge of this ongoing con game and looked forward to leaving our condo we rented and ready for battle. Flashpacking Barbie did find a great deal of humor with the entire process but found it sort of irritating being the most trustworthy person on this planet. She basically took the easy way out and looked to BFD to handle most financial transactions.
The good thing about Vietnam is that everything is so inexpensive. Outside of the comical and petty nickel and dimming, you never really have to even look at the prices in restaurants or at street stalls. Simply order whatever you want and as much as you want cause it ain’t gonna cost much. For accommodation in Saigon, we wanted to rent a new condo in the heart of the city and were shocked to see how low the pricing actually was compared to Australia, New Zealand and French Polynesia. Our eyes almost popped out when we saw condos being rented for as low as $17 per night on Airbnb. We splurged for one of the newest condo buildings that all the young well healed Vietnamese live in, on the river at $62/night with a rooftop pool and gym. We took Ubers all around the city and a 3-5 mile drive to our destination would cost anywhere from 60 cents up to a buck. I wondered if the security fraud department of my credit card company was thinking I was buying loose joints all day after seeing 20 transactions all under a dollar begin rolling in? As for food, the popular streetside Banh Mi sandwich will set you back about 70 cents. Dinner at most restaurants would cost about $15 for both of us. Massages cost $10 per hour. Even prescription drugs are dirt cheap. No need for a doctors prescription here in Vietnam so you do not even have to ante up the co-payment to see a doctor to write up a script. A 30 day supply of my ‘Brand Name’ drug costs $8. In the USA the cost is $158. The other inexpensive Asian countries we visited on our travels were Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines and I can now add Vietnam to this list of places where it’s good to be the king.
HO CHI MINH CITY –
Formerly Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a common first stop in Vietnam. One of the biggest challenges a traveler will encounter in Ho Chi Minh City is simply crossing the street. It’s absolutely crazy. After learning the currency game, the next thing on your ‘to do’ list is to master the art of crossing the street before you get flattened by a motorbike. Everything seems to run in a sort of organized chaos of motorbikes and roundabouts that is sure to make your head spin. I read in the Vietnam Post that over 1,000 new scooters are registered every day in Saigon and any one of them could easily plow over you if you fail to learn the art of street crossing very quickly. Usually sidewalks are a pedestrians safe haven. Here in Ho Chi Minh City, the sidewalks are not simply for walking on. They are for eating street food, parking motorbikes and also serve as another impromptu lane for motorbikes when the regular road is in a traffic snarl.
Not only is the daytime buzzing with nonstop action, the nightlife is action galore and on a similar scale to Thailand’s famed nightlife. A walk down Bui Vien Street at night is sensory overload. We stumbled upon another area I never knew existed in Saigon following our walk after dinner. If you are in the game for the ladies of the night and the obligatory massage parlors then Ngo Van Nam & Le Thanh Ton streets will serve as your adult playground.
The best activity to do in Ho Chi Minh is simply break out your walking shoes or flip flops and get lost in all the District 1 street action. Spending time people-watching and immersing yourself in the thick of the Vietnamese city life is one of the best things to do. There are a bunch of good sites to check out such as the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace…..etc. Our main activity was to walk around, observe and eat. Our ‘go to’ signature street food dishes, are the Bahn Mi and Pho. Banh Mi, is a Vietnamese bread sandwich. One of the foods passed down from the French colonial period is the freshly baked baguette and they sure get it right in Vietnam. For some reason the baguettes sucked in French Polynesia and they mostly suck in the United States. However, they were first rate everywhere we got our hands on them in Vietnam. I since learned the secret sauce to the Vietnamese baguette is they bake them with rice flour instead of regular flour (gluten). Bahn Mi is a baguette served with various fillings like pate, cilantro, shredded daikon radish, chili peppers and Vietnamese pork. Pho is anther of Vietnam’s most popular dishes. It originated in Hanoi, and is probably the most famous dish exported to the West. It consists of flat rice noodles with beef or chicken, lots of fresh herbs and a broth. When walking the streets you can see the Vietnamese slurping this Pho basically at anytime including for breakfast. There are so many Pho joints to choose from and we selectively chose the one President Clinton slurped his noodles down at Pho 2000 adjacent to the bustling Ben Thanh Market.
Overall we thought the street food was great for a few reasons. It’s dirt cheap, fun to eat alongside the locals and It’s nowhere near as spicy hot as Thai food. And, Vietnamese food is also healthy. No wheat, no dairy, high in protein and we loved the tons of fresh herbs in the dishes.
MEKONG DELTA –
After a week in Saigon, we headed south to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is a vast and incredible place to visit and its the best place to see a way different side of Vietnam.
Life in the Mekong Delta is unlike anything in our travels. Even though it is only a few hours from the bustling Saigon, it feels a world away. There is so much to see and so many towns to visit. During our 4 nights in the Delta, we really got into the mix by booking a group tour with The SinhTourist in Ho Chi Minh City. We chose this tour company as we wanted to avoid the plush higher end tours because we wanted a more authentic experience and The SinhTourist delivered big time. We were the only Americans on a 18 person group tour that consisted of mostly Vietnamese (adults and children) who spoke little to no English. We ate together, toured together, sweated our butts off together, laughed together. The unspoken bond we created with the group was really special considering the language barrier. We were all on the same page and felt a huge connection with each other. One of the downsides of extended travel is saying goodbye to people you form a bond with. We were sad to go our separate ways at the end of the tour but what makes travel so fascinating is that we all learned so much from each other in the big game of life. We visited the towns of Cai Be, Vinh Long, Chau Doc, Me Suk Yu Long Time (paying attention?) and Can Tho, the heart of Mekong Delta and its’ largest town. After saying our goodbyes to our Sinh Cafe group, we splurged a bit and stayed on a few extra nights in bustling Can Tho at the real Vietnamese ‘old school’, Victoria Hotel. A little pampering was in order for us Flashpackers.
The innocent lifestyle in the Mekong Delta still remains relatively the same as when I last visited 20 years ago. It appeared like the local residents didn’t know or maybe just didn’t care about anything that exists outside their own insular world. The Mekong Delta really has this unique feeling like you are completely detached from the outside world. Similar to our time spent in Myanmar, Barbie and I were constantly stared at when walking the streets. I couldn’t figure out if they thought we were rock stars or aliens from outer space. Barbie was a bit embarrassed by all the staring and I was signing autographs for my many local admirers. I got a real kick out of being stopped by young Vietnamese kids on the street wanting to interview me and practice their English. I tried giving them the winner of the Preakness but they did not seem to understand.
The majority of travelers visiting Vietnam do no include the Mekong Delta into their itineraries. In my opinion, a trip to Vietnam leaving out the Mekong Delta would be a bad choice as it’s one of the most colorful areas to visit in the entire country. There are many options from Ho Chi Minh City for day and overnight tours, but to get a better sense of the Mekong Delta, it’s best to have more time and take it slowly! Life moves at a way different pace here in the Mekong Delta. There is so much going on here and the thing to do is get on the canals and explore the waterways that run throughout the delta. It’s all about the mighty Mekong River and that’s where most of the interesting day to day life occurs. It was fascinating just to sit back and observe the winding, Black Muddy River life all around us.
The floating markets in each town were an authentic experience unlike the ones you would see in Thailand set up and run for tourists. To properly see the floating markets, we needed to awake at the crack of ass, at around 6 AM. It’s the most optimal time to witness life on the river while the locals make the most of the coolest part of the day. It’s freaking hot, I mean really hot in the Mekong Delta. How hot? It’s Hot. Damn Hot. Real Hot. Sweaty Ass Hot.
LOOSE STOOLS INDEX – 7
The Stools Index is holding up fairly well, despite a debacle on arrival night. I am not certain if it was the steamed fish or the homemade chili sauce that I dipped the fish in that did me in. One of the keys to maintaining a big number on the loose stools index is trying to identify the cause of the fire in an effort to prevent future fires. I needed to investigate this further. The steamed fish was so good, I took a calculated risk of ordering the same fish but sans the homemade chili sauce three nights later. I was good to go and the stools index subsequently jumped to solid stools territory. I effectively identified the culprit and that is what every seasoned traveler must be cognizant of while trying to ward off loose stools.
THRU THE BINOCS –
Is Vietnam the new Thailand? Yes, indeed. I had been a huge fan of Thailand for so many years dating back to my first visit in 1991 and subsequent six (6) other return visits. Thailand has become so enormously popular over the years and consequently, it has been a bit spoiled in my opinion unless you get off the beaten track. Many of the crown jewel island beaches in the south have become overdeveloped and lost a great deal of their original charm. The low key beach huts, with the obligatory hammock swinging in front, were interspersed among the palm trees had a unique Southeast Asian tropical island feel. These small resorts, previously owned by Thai families fit so well into the landscape and vibe of the islands. Fast forward to today, most of these gems have been purchased by big corporations, bulldozed over and replaced by brand new 5 star resort monstrosities which lack the old authentic Thai charm.
Mass tourism has had a huge impact on the locals in most regions of Thailand. Once known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, has slowly become the ‘Land of give me your baht’. The Thais have become jaded by the influx of the mass amount of tourists that have overcrowded all of the countries major hotspots. This innocent charm I am referring to has been dissipating in Thailand but luckily, it now can now be found in Vietnam. The demeanor of the Vietnamese people is similar to the way Thais were back in the good old days. The soft spoken kindness of every single local we have come into contact with in Vietnam has left such a nice impression on us. Whereas prices have skyrocketed in Thailand, we were able to live on a fraction of the budget in Vietnam. We both loved our time here so much, we plan to revisit upon our return to Asia towards the end of the year.