Jul 31, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City, Day One

it is slightly nerve-wracking to go someplace unprepared, yet it can also be wonderfully rewarding. i'm not sure what i expected from Vietnam. sudah lupa semua. maybe more palm trees like malaysia? i loved geography in school. Don't ask me what happened since then. 

however, i am, once and for all, grateful to siauli for booking a window seat for me! i began googling wikitravel ho chi minh and stuff at 12am, realized the extent of my non-preparation, went to sleep at 2am, woke up at 3am to go to KLIA 2. dozing on and off during the turbulent ride (mostly bulldozing on pretending that no flight nightmares will happen) to ho chi minh, but boy, was i glad that i woke up in time to catch my first sight of this beautiful country. 

how could i forget my geography lessons? it's the Mekong River! 

lazily snaking its way through the dark green flat expanse of land, it's impossible to see where it began and where it ends from my tiny plane window. the gigantic network of rivers connect in sinuous twists and turns; no wonder legends say dragons live in these waters. 
reluctantly, we left the rivers behind and cruised over carpet-like paddy fields. gradually, this happened. 
THIS REMINDS ME OF RIO. *cue Fast & Furious sound track* 

the buildings are overwhelmingly squished up against one another in a riot of colours and there's so little trees! blinking rapidly, we got off the plane, found the bus (bus number 152!) into town opposite the airport burger king with no problem at all, and waited to pay our tickets. 

here's where Money Issue 1 took place: 
the bus driver muttered something like "ten thousand dong" so we proceeded to cough up twenty thousand dong (10k per person mah!) for him. 

he took a look, then took the money. 

moments later, the vietnamese girl sitting in front of us saw the whole thing and began trying to tell us in her very limited English (and sign language!) that we had overpaid by five thousand. it's supposed to be ten thousand for two! 

i didn't think too much of it, but siauli was all for fighting for every last dong, (and luckily the amount is clearly printed on the ticket) so we asked our driver for our money, and he yielded. all thanks to the really sweet girl who helped us out! :D
famous road crossing by Ben Thanh Market (watch this gorgeous video please) where we got our first taste of Ho Chi Minh traffic! 

"just cross!!!! oh shit oh shit oh shit @#$%."


in our experience, these saigon motorcyclists are very reliable. they won't hit you. 

(in a day, apparently there  are 30 traffic-related deaths in Saigon alone)

from the bus terminal at Ben Thanh market, it was a ten minute walk to our hotel in Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker district in District 1. we were hopelessly lost and thank goodness a really nice girl came over to help us out! she speaks really good English and gave us instructions and all and even walked part of the way with us :')  

we weren't exactly slumming it at this highly rated backpacker hotel called Duc Vuong hotel. Don't judge. Tripadvisor recommended it. it's actually rather atas, and has incredibly good wifi and this very smiley receptionist that siauli felt a bit creeped out over.

we dumped our bags at the lobby, settled our tours to Cu Chi Tunnels for the next day, had our very first pho lunch at an excellent pho joint next to the hotel (more on that in upcoming posts), bought bus tickets to Mui Ne for the third day, exchanged some dong for siauli (whew!) and finally, began our trek across the city to take in the sights! 

ho chi minh is a city suitable for walking. there's so much to see. we got our map from the hotel lobby. heh. 
delicate paper art on every other corner stall. pretty much sums the city up. 
my first impression of hcm: beautiful, beautiful architecture! and it's so ... livable. 
i just thought he looked like he's taking a selfie. 
second impression: food is everywhere. i'm not misusing the word. 

these street food vendors randomly set up stall on every other corner, unfolding their little tables and chairs, or carrying their kitchens with  them on a pole. like this lady.

we bought these fluffy vietnamese kuih bahulu from her. freshly browned from her portable kitchen! heh.
continued to wander the pretty tree-lined streets. spot the adorable mom-daughter duo rocking denim shirts!
Ho Chi Minh City Hall! 

here is where siauli recognized that flag and realized that Vietnam is actually under communist rule. 
more touristy shots: the classy Opera House!

(i also wanted to photograph the small traffic lights. presumably for motorists.)

How To Werk the Streets of Saigon: Local Edition. 

surprisingly, ho chi minh has a disproportionately high amount of book stores on the streets carrying English titles and artsy items! our jaunt from pham ngu lao district to the opera house saw more than three really cool bookstores. granted, most of them seem to be from the same supplier but i have to say, i'm slightly jealous. where's the reading culture in kl?
this TRI on dong khoi street is also connected to a juice bar. BOOKS & JUICE. GIVE ME SOME. 

siauli began hankering for some Vietnamese coffee, but the street vendors don't seem to fancy this area all that much.

to distract her, here's the impressive notre dame cathedral! 
Conrad, a really nice PR guy who visited HCM during his uni days at ucsi for a CLASS ASSIGNMENT ON BACKPACKING CULTURE COME ON HOW COOL IS THAT gave me some hcm tips, including that if i ever find myself there on a Sunday, i must attend Mass at Notre Dame for their famous choir.

we arrived on a Sunday. but it was already three or four in the afternoon by then.

so. we missed it.


and it's closed! but, not all is lost.

for one, here's a very cute couple having their wedding photo shoot. they are so cute. she's in the traditional vietnamese ao dai and they even had motorcycle poses and all that. aww.

then siauli proceeded to her ‘红砖墙系列’ mission! we were supposed to be taking ootds.
then i peeked in. 
ooooooooooh. spent painstaking minutes zooming in through the holes in the brick walls. 

moving on. this is the insanely beautiful post office. who on earth designs their post office like this and then proceeds to paint it in pale salmon pink and emerald green accents? 
the former French-colonized Vietnamese, that's who.
a closer look. i don't think the clock is working. 
here's the interiors. the wooden thing showing different time zones is also a romantic phone booth-like thing. with velvet carpets, wooden chairs, wooden tables, and a table telephone. sorry no photos. haha.
it's not air-conditioned. the leisurely ceiling fans and vaulted ceilings did a good job keeping us cool, though.
tiles. they fascinate me. 
communist newspapers. they fascinate her. 

ok lah they also interest me but it's too much chinese words to focus on :( 

(seriously i went to the bookfest klcc over the weekend and the chinese section looked AMAZING but i daren't fork out the money for those books because i know i won't be able to focus after a page. the last time i read chinese literature was like, five years ago. gah.)

the table that siauli is reading on is actually a space for people to write their postcards. i wanted to do so too but they've run out of free postcards and the remaining designs for sale are (pardon) very ugly hahaha. so i decided not to follow the masses (hmmph).

moving on. we passed by this cosplay school fair or something. it's pretty big. good looking vietnamese teenagers cosplaying everywhere and some are selling vaguely japanese items at their booths.

the vietnamese are very into their face masks. and sunglasses. asian sun-fearing mentality is my best guess.

after food, the second most popular item touted on the streets is sunglasses.

me fiddling with the humongous dong. 
this, one of the rare long-legged canines in town. everywhere else, you see pompous short legged dogs trotting around. 
and i got my first banh mi! whee hee hee.

soft cream cheese slathered baguette with pork pate, ham slices, coriander, tomatoes, cucumbers, a sprinkling of crushed peanuts, chili sauce, and some other assorted magic ingredients i couldn't identify.


sitting with my legs awkwardly folded on the teensy chairs, munching on crunchy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside banh mi, sipping on impossibly rich ice cold coffee, watching the traffic (and people. we saw a bunch of otaku band members presumably heading towards the cosplay event) go by, and best of all, a constant polite breeze sending the tree's shadows dancing.

what a city.

i'm already in love. 

however, it's time to take some things in context. and we're hoping War Remnants Museum will give us some background info before we go gallivanting off into the country.  

these are items used by the French army in the battle of Dien Bien Phu (奠邊府之役! my history knowledge is still intact!). bottom row, centre is a mess kit. i've always wondered what a mess kit looked like while reading all those American war literature. 

War Remnants Museum is a humbling experience. True, the ground floor exhibit wasn't properly air-conditioned so the stuffy crowd in the heat can get to you, but otherwise, i have to say it's a must visit. 

room after room of war crimes, battles, the glorious vietnamese underdog-like victory in the dien bien phu battle... i felt overwhelmed by this city of stories. it says so much about the resilience of the Vietnamese, amongst other things. in the face of such cruelty and inhumanity, entering battles they do not understand, losing all sense of dignity and pride, yet this very same people have rebuilt their city today. 
left: an image i took from the plane. on right: bomb craters in rice fields in western part of saigon, ploughed up by B-52 bombers. (Henri Huet, 1968).

the horrors of war is so real. the nightmare Vietnam went through just ended some years ago. 

walking slowly, absorbing the exhibits, and putting them in contrast with recent events, it's just heartbreaking. 

how can world leaders callously repeat their terrible blunders committed mere decades ago? 

we had to take a breather in between exhibits to dry our eyes and gather our thoughts. 

i sat on the bench with a heavy heart and watched as the other visitors wandered around with sombre expressions, some with hands clasped together, some looking at the ceiling.  

there's an "Agent Orange Exhibit". i was particularly dreading this one because i don't think i could take this pointless suffering. however, this was actually much more positive than the other exhibitions. 

Agent Orange, poisonous dioxin in the herbicide poured on Vietnamese soil by the US, is still rearing its ugly head in the generations of Vietnamese today. Placards described how Agent Orange sufferers were affected, yet strive to lead normal lives to contribute to society. There is a lady who even went on to become a teacher.

This story also touched me deeply:
SHE WAS A BATTLEFIELD NURSE. now she's a bottle reseller. i have no words.

the chemical companies have not been brought to justice.

Read her words here. President Obama has yet to reply.

there's also a beautiful war journalism exhibit called titled Requiem on the third floor of the musuem. i'm saving my thoughts on that for another day. 


the musuem was already near closing time by then, and we walked on to the Reunification Palace (only to be told that it's closed). we decided to head back to the hotel since our feet is killing us but luckily this Com Tam stall stopped us in our tracks. 
initially, the reason i bought tickets to hcm is largely due to Robyn Eckhardt's incredible writing. however, my fellow Eating Asia-admiring colleague told me that she went to hcm with the same plan as me to eat her way through Robyn's recommendations. but sadly the list wasn't quite updated and many of the places were no longer open. 

hence i decided to just go with the flow and eat where the crowds go. 

that, as i found, is a tough move as the crowds seem to eat everywhere and the stalls flow here and there. 

all is well! we had pho and banh mi, it's time to try new things.
from what i could see, com tam is a grilled pork dish, served over broken rice with a side of cucumbers and tomato slices. 

these juicy pork slabs are grilled on the street and they smell reaaally good. 
we're seated on a busy street corner, where the traffic never ends, there's never ending aggressive honks, and cyclo drivers pedal by.

remember what i mentioned earlier about it being a livable city? it's not.... comfortably livable, per se, but seated there on the bustling corner, you look up and you see residents above these shop lots going about their lives, hanging up washing while a crusty old dog surveys the din below... 
ordered this eggy quiche-like item. had no idea what it's called. i love the salty pork bits and some flaky duck yolk sprinkled in to balance out the flavours.  
this vendor came by, carrying her colourful displays of mango and condiments. i wanted to buy some of the salad-y items from her, but when i finished up my meal, she's upped and left! 

Lesson 1: you have to grab your chances with these vendors.

the cyclo's seat is only meant for one. poor dude has to push the cyclo uphill for some momentum.
we overheard the dude in the green shirt asking for some tiger beer, and (top marks for service!) the stall owner's son went to a convenience store across the street to buy some tiger for him. whoa.

we headed in the general direction of the hotel to give our poor feet a rest. before that happens, it's time to brave some rush hour saigon traffic. 

we saw kids hanging out in the parks, and even a bunch was playing football by a bustling street! i bet you won't see anyone playing football by bukit bintang during evenings. heh. 

come nighttime, pham ngu lao fills up with backpackers downing cheap pints (beer is amazingly cheap in vietnam) in those signature little plastic chairs by the road. we had some really good pork noodles and thick chocolatey coffee for dinner. 

after the meal, luckily siauli spotted this little cafe called Bookworms Coffee a few steps away from our hotel. 

books! coffee! and i even spotted shelves of boardgames! how can we resist la. so we headed in, i ordered green tea (was really full at that time) while siauli decided to try the banana custard.

Bookworms Coffee is opened by a friendly Englishman who had been in vietnam for more than nine years. his book collection started growing (swelled by backpackers looking to exchange their reads) and he decided that the nightlife scene in saigon lacked a little something. 

boy, are we glad that there's a Bookworms here. 

we proceeded to spend the night poring over shelves of second-hand books and leafing through anything that catches the eye. 

i think buying books on travels will become my new obsession.

T-Shirt & Genes is siauli's purchase while the other two are mine. Red Lights describes the adventure of an English couple who were retired doctors and decided to spend two years working in Cambodia a few years after Khmer Rouge fell. very beautiful writing. 

books are a pain when it comes to packing, though. 

i think Bookworms set the tone for the rest of the trip. ultimately, i had been so caught up with work and other commitments, my mind feels like an echoing shell of nothingness. it's high time to sit down and just ... drink in the words.  

what a city.