After spending about 10 days learning how to not get scammed in Hanoi, Sapa, and Halong Bay, we headed south to Hoi An for a few nights, and ended our Vietnamese Adventure in Ho Chi Minh. And, thankfully, the farther south we got, the more we actually liked being in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was actually quite delightful, and made up for all of the crap we put up with before arriving there (ok well maybe not all of it). In any case, we sure are happy that we ended our exploration of the country on a high note!
In Europe, taking night trains was a big cost savings - we didn't have to spend money on lodging for the night, and we didn't have to buy expensive plane tickets to get from place to place. So we didn't think to look up how much flights from Hanoi to Da Nang would be and assumed that Vietnam would work the same way. Well if there's anything we've learned since being in Vietnam it's that this country does not work like any other place we know. So, when we were buying our train tickets for our journey to from Hanoi to Hoi An and then Hoi An down to Ho Chi Minh City, we didn't know that we were spending twice as much as we would have had we decided to fly, and the rides were LONG. More expensive, 14 hour train rides, and not very comfortable sleeping arrangements when we could have flown in an hour. Dang it.
Thankfully, our first train wasn't too bad. It was clean and well lit. In the morning, we were even served breakfast in bed! There are no dining cars, so they bring beef pho to you! We arrived at Da Nang station around noon and started looking for people to share a taxi with down to Hoi An, a 45 minute drive from the station. Our favorite travel agent back in Hanoi, Lily, had recommended that we split a cab rather than find one ourselves. So we approached a little family to see if they would be interested in sharing a cab. "Are you guys going to Hoi An?" Jake asked. "Yes, we have a car coming to meet us. Would you like to come with us?" They asked us before we could even get the question out! So we rode with Benjamin (a French man), his wife Voung (a Vietnamese lady), and their cute four year old daughter down to Hoi An. Turns out, we'd met Benjamin before - they live in Sapa and own a bar called H'mong Sisters - Jake and I had a few beers there with Nathan and Laura, and we had chatted very briefly with Benjamin that night! What a small world! They were visiting Hoi An because they will be moving there in a few weeks from Sapa - they mentioned that Sapa is getting too expensive (people from Hanoi are buying all the property, she says), it's overdeveloped, and the schools are not very good. We can understand all of that now having been there ourselves. Voung is a tour guide in Sapa and loves interactive with travelers, which explains her quick offer to give us a ride, and plans to continue to do tours in Hoi An with the same company. We gave her our two cents on the matter, "You are very kind and trustworthy, and we appreciate that the most when looking for guides and help here in Vietnam. We think that you will be very successful here, especially if word gets out to other travelers that they can find honest information and nice service!"
We dropped off Benjamin, Voung, and their little girl first at An Bang Beach. "We agreed to 300,000 for the car, so you pay 150K and we'll pay 150K," Voung told us. Sounded good to us! We waived goodbye and our driver got back in the car. "Um sorry," he said…oh great. Here we go. "Sorry I need to charge you more to take you to your hotel. You pay 200,000, not 150,000." He gestured to the meter that had been running, "The meter already say 411 and is much more than 300." So, even though the agreed price was 300,000 and the meter shouldn't matter, he was asking for more money to take us five km down the road. We didn't argue with him - in the original agreement he also wasn't going to make two stops, so it didn't bother us that he asked for more money. At least it wasn't a LOT more!
We arrived at our home for the next two nights, Ki No Homestay. For those unfamiliar with a homestay, it's where we actually stay with a family. It's typically a rather large building with multiple rooms and functions just like a hotel or guesthouse, but the family lives there too (like Airbnb). It was clean and airy and big and close to the beach, and the family was really nice! They made us breakfast each morning and even prepared a big dinner for all 14 of the guests in the building one night - fried spring rolls, shrimp, fried rice, and coconut cream popsicles. It was delightful!
We used the bikes at the homestay to head 5km back down the road to An Bang Beach since our beach, Cau Dai, had basically been washed away in a storm a few years ago (unbeknownst to me when I booked our location). The ride was flat and the traffic was light - good thing, too, since these bikes weren't exactly Cannondales! They were rusty and big and the front brakes didn't work, and the tires weren't quite flat but certainly on their way…but they were a free mode of transportation, so we were happy to have them! And, of course, there were locals ready to capitalize on the bike scene with bicycle parking lots. As we pedaled down the main cul-de-sac at An Bang, a dozen people stepped out onto the road in front of us, directing us into their "parking lot". Each one we passed continued to yell out to us, "Here! You park here!". Our favorite experience was the parking lot closest to the beach, right next to a security guard whose job it was to keep people from bringing their bikes on the beach. No bikes were permitted past that point and he had a whistle to stop people in their tracks in case they didn’t see the sign. The parking lot people also had whistles. And as we came riding up with the intent to stop near the security guard and have a look around, they yelled at us, "Park here!", and literally started running after us, waving their arms, and blowing their whistles. We simply said "No thank you" and kept going. When we did stop in our intended spot, they came right up to us and badgered us for a few minutes, no amount of telling them, "No thanks" or "One minute please" or even a cold "Go away" would calm them down. We did not park our bikes there. We did park our bikes a few stalls back with a nice lady who liked my owl on my shirt - she made claws with her hands and growling noises, then pointed at his talons on my shirt, and then laughed. We liked her.
The beach was pretty, the water was clear, and I was excited to take a dip and lounge on one of the many chairs set up all along the beach. But of course, those chairs aren't free! We walked along the beach for half an hour looking around, and were approached or yelled at by another dozen people to to get us to rent chairs from them. We ended up eating lunch at Chien Restaurant and using their lounge chairs - buy lunch, lounge for free. We learned quickly that we're not free from peddlers even when eating at a restaurant - people selling sun glasses, newspapers, bracelets, and toys approached the table as we ate. And they all came back again as we lounged in our coveted chairs. "No thank you," we told every merchant. "Everyone say no today. Please help me." This was the schtick we'd heard a few times in this area - "No one is buying. Can you help me?". It's a good strategy, but it didn't work on us. Are we becoming cold-hearted bastards like I mentioned in my Hanoi post? Eh, maybe. Oh well.
We left the beach just before a big storm rolled in and poured on the area for a few hours. Despite the ever changing weather, it doesn't seem like Vietnam is really set up well to handle power surges caused by these storms, because the power went out for a few hours. Power was restored just before dinner time with the other guests - eight Aussies in their 60s/70s, and a couple from the States. We enjoyed the delicious dinner our hosts had prepared and the talkative company.
The next day we headed inland to the Old Town of Hoi An, situated on the Thu Bon River. It's true what the locals had told us - it was HOT in town! It was hot everywhere, don't get me wrong, but oh boy was it hot away from the beach! We checked into our next spot, Ngo Homestay, and immediately liked our hosts. They were friendly, welcoming, and helpful. And the breakfast they cooked us each morning was SO GOOD - we fell in love with their version of the local specialty, Cau Lau noodles, and the scrambled eggs with fresh baguettes (the baguettes, by the way, are probably the best we've had on this trip, WAY better than France!), and the adorable pancakes we got as breakfast dessert.
Our first order of business was to find another Anthony Bourdain, "No Reservations", recommendation, Banh Mi Phoung. On his show, he said this was the "best sandwich in the whole world", and it looked incredible. After a difficult time searching (there is no real address for the stand and it seems to have moved around a few times), we finally found it! The #9, Pork, Pate, and Ham with fresh herbs, cucumbers, tomato, dressing, and hot sauce on a perfectly soft, perfectly crispy baguette did not disappoint. If you're in the area, I suggest tracking down this place - it's the best 20,000 dong you'll spend!
The Old Town was rather adorable. Light yellow buildings adorned with vines, flowers, and lanterns lined the streets. The cracked walls and small streets were charming, and the shade provided by the many trees on the sidewalks was greatly appreciated in the heat of the day. Most of the businesses seemed to be restaurants or tailors, both trying, tirelessly, to get us to come inside. To access the Old Town we had to buy tickets - $6 each that were good for 10 days. Since I had read an article about this practice, I trusted that it was not a scam and we handed over our money willingly (not happily, but willingly). As we did so, though, we took note that the ticket booth wasn’t checking anyone else's tickets. And over the few days that we were there, no one asked to see our tickets even once. The rule was never enforced and made us think that this was another foreigner charge, a "hey that's a foreigner, let's see how much money we can get from them" charge. Ugh, frustrating! Oh well.
We had arrived on August 27 in order to catch the Lantern Festival- a special celebration that happens on the full moon. We'd read that the Old Town turns off all of the electric lights and is lit only by lantern, and that it was a beautiful sight to see. While the event was rather pretty and quite interesting, it wasn’t quite the magical, sparkling thing we imagined it would be. Still, I'm glad we were there to catch the energy of the celebration! Thousands of people descended upon the Old Town to watch the partake- there was live traditional music and dancing, a short parade of monks, and tons of merchants selling lanterns to make a wish on and place in the river. All night people were trying to sell us lanterns, "5000 dong for 1 lantern" people yelled at us over and over again. As the night wore on and the place got more crowded, that price started to go up. When I finally decided I wanted to make a wish, I approached a woman holding a tray of lanterns and asked how much. "20,000 dong for 1." I started laughing - there was no way I was going to pay four times as much as I'd heard earlier that night. "Nevermind," I told her, "I only want to pay 5000." "Oh I am just kidding! For you 10,000 for 1," she countered. "No thanks, I only want to pay 5000." Just as we were about to walk away she countered again, "two for 10,000." Ok fine, now Jake can make a wish, too. We dropped our flickering lanterns into the water using one of the many 12 foot wooden poles with baskets nailed to the bottom and went to meet up with some friends.
Sandra and Mada, our cabin mates from the sleeper train from Sapa back to Hanoi, were in Hoi An for one more night before going home to Barcelona and we made plans to meet up over some beers. They brought along two more friends, Laura and Rob, who they met on their trip to
Halong Bay. The six of us had a nice time sharing stories about our travels and our shared feelings about Vietnam - so many people have told us all 'Vietnam is AMAZING, you HAVE to go there. The people are WONDERFUL." All six of us don't understand where these people went, or how much money they spent to have these remarkable experiences in this country. We all agreed that we're happy to be here and be having these experiences, but that we wouldn't particularly recommend Vietnam as a destination to anyone. Mada and Sandra also shared some of their horror stories from their few weeks of travel in the country - the one that scared me the most was about the cockroach infested night train they were on. They said they saw no less than 10 big cockroaches scatter from under one of the mattresses and into the wall of the train. Since Jake and I had a night train to take, our last one in Vietnam, in two days, I started to panic. Sure, the three overnight trains we'd been on so far had been totally fine, and clean enough. No signs of bugs yet. But, as Jake knows, one of my biggest fears is cockroaches (I usually have cockroach nightmares at least once in every place we've stayed at in Southeast Asia - I don't know why. We've only encountered one in our room in Laos! We've actually been really lucky!), and I was not going to be ok trapped in a bug infested cabin for our 18 hour train ride. I tried to think happy thoughts. We all laughed and joked over another round of beers before calling it a night and saying goodbye to our new friends.
We spent the next morning exploring the small town of Hoi An by bicycle. We rode around in the hot sun on largely deserted roads for a few hours, riding past palm tree forests growing in shallow water, recently harvested rice paddies, and people desperate for our business. "Hello! Hello! Come inside for lunch! You are the first people we've seen today!" many people yelled as we rode by. Slow season. The most interesting thing we saw on our pedaling adventure was a, seemingly, new bridge, a big one, that spanned the wide river. Considering we only saw a few motorbikes on it, we couldn't figure out why this giant, modern bridge was built. Frankly, it looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie - the brick work was perfect, the lights shiny and new, and the random large piles of dirt and brick were out of place, the overturned helmet on the side of the road foreboding. I was expecting the zombies to appear from the other side at any moment.
For dinner, we had a proper celebration for our first anniversary at Lanterns Restaurant at the beautiful Anatara Resort! We even got relatively dressed up (I even put on make up!) for the occasion! The restaurant was fantastic - our incredibly nice and polite waitress, Kyieu, was lovely to chat with (she learned English just by talking to guests at the resort over five years), and she made sure we had everything we needed. Dinner was relaxing and quiet, a wonderful change from the chaos of Hoi An and Hanoi, and the food was so good! The best part, other than the cold bottle of Viognier (it had been so long since we'd had wine!), were the hundreds of lanterns that floated past us out on the water. Someone spent about an hour dropping the flickering, colorful lanterns into the water, creating a beautiful and peaceful setting for our celebration. We reflected on our first year of marriage and, for the first time in Vietnam, I was exactly where I wanted to be. It was our first magical experience in the country. The fullmoon glowing behind a thin vail of clouds, the blue and red and green and yellow lanterns sparkling on the water, the faint glow of the candle lit tables…it was perfect.
Just when I was actually starting to like Hoi An, just when I realized that I was actually enjoying myself in Vietnam, my enjoyment was crushed by the way we were treated at a restaurant. We had one last day to spend in town before heading to Da Nang to catch our long train to Ho Chi Minh City, and since we had to check out of our guesthouse by noon, we went to find a coffee shop or restaurant to hang out and work in for the majority of the day. We soon found ourselves at a place called Before and Now, a restaurant with free wifi, AC, good food, and decent prices. It seemed like a great spot to post up for a few hours, so in we went! We grabbed a table in the back, right in front of the AC unit, and ordered lunch. After our plates were cleared we pulled out our computers and started working. After two hours, the AC stopped working as well and it was getting pretty stuffy back there. When we looked at the setting on the AC unit, it seemed that the staff had turned up temperature. Looking around, we noticed we were the only people in the back. Ok, so maybe they didn't want us to sit back there. That's fine, but they could have just asked us to move to the front. So we moved to the front room, to a table next to another AC unit. Within moments of sitting down, the cold air stopped. This machine had been turned off. Not just up, off. This can't be a coincidence. All the while, the servers had been trying to get us to buy more drinks or food, dropping off menus, scoffing, and rolling their eyes when we politely declined. Every so often a large group of servers (there were way too many people working there, by the way) would look at us occasionally and giggle. The AC remained off. Finally, when we were hungry for dinner, we paid our bill and left. Don't worry, I used their free WiFi to leave them a scathing review on Trip Advisor.
Thankfully, that is not how we ended our visit to Hoi An. We ended on a surprising high note - we went back to Banh Mi Phoung for more delicious sandwiches and capped off our culinary exploration with two rounds of ice cream at Café Kem Khong Do. And the people in the ice cream place have got to be some of the nicest we've met so far in this country. We got genuine smiles, looks of gratitude, even a pot of water when we said we were hot (we didn't even ask for it)! We were blindsided by this unexpected niceness and went back to our homestay to pick up our stuff and hop in our car with smiles on our faces. Then our host really showed us kindness - as a mother, she wouldn't let us go to the train station for a very long journey empty handed or with empty bellies, and she handed us two banh mi and water bottles. Confused by her generosity and thoughtfulness, I gave her a hug before getting in the car. I think I even told her, "we will come back to see you!" in my haste and excitement, which we all know is a lie. We won't be back, but we sure appreciated her kindness!
Of to the train station we went, in Da Nang. As we approached the station, we drove through the bustling city, all of the bridges lit up, a ferris wheel blinking and flashing in the distance, people laughing and smiling everywhere. This city looked like fun! Had we known that Da Nang was such a hotspot at night, we probably would have stayed a night there to check it out. Alas, we didn't look into Da Nang, and we'll probably never experience it. Oh well.
So there we were, sitting in the train station, starting out 18+ hour journey down south to Ho Chi Minh City. The room was about 95* and packed with people. "I really hope the AC works on the train," Jake said. "I really hope there aren't any cockroaches on the train," I said, thinking about Mada and Sandra's terrifying story from the other. We boarded at 10:45pm and got settled. The AC was pumping out cool air quite nicely, and I couldn't see any bugs of any kind. We weren't hungry since we had huge sandwiches and two rounds of ice cream before being handed the banh mi from our host, but we certainly didn't want sandwiches sitting out all night, attracting any potential critters! So we stuffed ourselves with the delicious sandwiches, careful not to drop any crumbs, before laying down to get some sleep.
Seven hours later I woke up to laughter and yelling. It was 7am, and the people in the bunks below us and their friends were playing a raucous game of cards. Though I wasn't thrilled that they woke me up, I was happy that I did sleep through the night without any bug nightmares! Jake and I both rolled over a bit longer before waking up for good. We kept waiting for someone to come by the cabin selling food, but it never happened. When our bunkmates jumped off the train at one of the stops and came back minutes later with food we realized it - they don't serve food on this train. And all we had to eat were the raw almonds in my backpack, my emergency snack, and we weren't due in to HCMC until 4pm. This was going to be a very, very long day. We were too nervous to try to get food at a stop - what if the train didn't stop for very long and we got left there? So we nibbled on almonds and took naps to ignore our growing appetites. My favorite part of the journey was when I had to use the bathroom. To get to it, I had to step over a cage with a chicken in it. When I opened the door, I saw disaster waiting to happen - a squatty potty. On a seriously swaying train. Great. With careful precision and focus, I was successful (meaning I didn't pee on my feet or the floor, or slip into the basin), and stepped back over my chicken friend to make my way back to our cabin. Only in Vietnam.
HO CHI MINH CITY
After the longest day ever (holy crap we were starving), we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City! We stepped off the train and onto the platform and immediately noticed the difference in temperature - sure, it was still hot, but it was about 10* cooler than Hoi An and Hanoi, a very welcome change! When we walked out of the station to the main road, we girded ourselves for the throngs of cab drivers eagerly awaiting fresh meat, I mean passengers. We were ready to beat them off with sticks, as we'd been conditioned to do in the rest of Vietnam, but were surprised when they smiled and left us alone after one round of "No, thank you." This place, we could already tell, was different from the rest of Vietnam, and we were hopeful!
We checked into our guest house for the night and immediately went to get dinner. We couldn't wait any longer! First up - southern style pho, just like I know from home but way better! As we were staying in the backpacker district of the city, overpriced and westernized bars and restaurants were everywhere, all with someone standing outside trying to get your attention and entice you to go inside. In our experience in Vietnam up to this point, those people have been pushy and annoying, and we've largely just ignored them as we've walked by. And since we were so hungry, we were on autopilot as we searched for a place to eat nearby. One guy, though, stuck in our minds - a short guy with a big smile saluted Jake as we approached and said a big, enthusiastic, "Hi sir!". We both said "No thank you" quickly, as we'd been trained to do in the north, and kept going, but something about how jolly he was made us think about him later. We eventually found an overpriced place with pho bo on the menu, and stuffed ourselves with delicious broth, beef, noodles, and a big plate of greens and bean sprouts. Southern Pho wins the pho war in my mind. Another plus to Ho Chi Minh!
After dinner we went searching for another guesthouse for the rest of our stay (as usual, we had only booked one night with the intent to bargain for a cheap price for the remaining days). It didn't take long for us to find the Y Nhi Guesthouse, run by a very nice husband and wife who cooked us breakfast each morning. When Luan (the wife) showed us a room, our jaws hit the floor - it was big and clean and even kind of pretty, it looked like a total steal at $13 per night! She told us that our room would be "exactly the same, but no extra bed" (that room was for three people, not two). We agreed to book immediately, knowing we wouldn't find a better deal than this for the quality of the room! Unfortunately, when we checked into our room the next day, it was definitely not as nice or big or clean. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. But it was big enough, and clean enough, and the bed was comfy enough (almost), so we stayed. At least the AC worked! The difference between having this experience in Ho Chi Minh and potentially having it in Hanoi is that we don't think Luan was trying to trick or screw us; we were, overall, happy with the outcome.
We explored quite a bit in Ho Chi Minh City, starting with the War Remnants Museum that educates visitors on the Vietnam War with special attention given to the use of Agent Orange. While we had seen pictures of families who were victims of UXO explosions all over Laos and Vietnam, we hadn't heard much about the effects of this horrible toxin. Seeing the pictures of deformed adults and babies of all ages, learning that women who were exposed to the chemical at 12 years old give birth to seriously deformed children, and seeing how the use of Agent Orange still affects the country to this day, was devastatingly hard to see. We took our time wandering around the exhibits and looking at the US tanks, airplanes, and guns on the main yard of the museum. Lastly, we took in the replica of Phu Quoc Prison, originally built by the French and then used by the US during the war, and the horrific torture tactics that went on there. If everything the museum showed us is true, then holy crap, the US did some horrible things to the Vietnamese, really horrible things.
We also took a half day trip out to Cu Chi to see the tunnels that the Viet Cong lived and fought in during the Vietnam war, changing the way the US had to fight. After seeing the tunnels and thick forest beneath which they were dug, we could understand why the US would resort to things like napalm, Agent Orange, and constant bombing to try to find them - these tunnels are tiny, the structures intricately connected, and the forest was so thick with trees, shrubs and ground cover that you wouldn't be able to see someone crouching 10 feet in front of you. The Viet Cong of Cu Chi did everything underground, even cooking. One of the most interesting sites was the underground kitchen. There was no smoke stack, no chimney, as the smoke would give away their position. Instead, the kitchen was built several meter into the ground and a ventilation system was dug into the ceiling, allowing smoke to be released just inches from the ground only to disappear seconds later. Other scarily fascinating things were all of the hidden traps set around the forest. We got to see what it was like, first hand, crawling through the tunnels - it was HARD. And, the tunnel for tourists to duck walk through was even widened - the originals were much smaller. I got a little claustrophobic down there as the walls got closer and the darkness started to really sink in. I can't imagine carrying guns, ammo, supplies, everything that soldiers would need, through there. I can't imagine how terrified soldiers must have been when they did get in. This place must have been absolute hell. For our last activity of the tour, we had to watch an old video, documenting the life of the Viet Cong and commemorating their fighting. Something that stuck out to me was the discussion of awards given to Viet Cong by the government, specifically the "American Killer Hero" award. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I don't think the US government bestows awards for killing X number of enemy soldiers, like tackle stickers to put on your football helmet, when handing out Medals of Valor, Bravery, and Purple Hearts. The "American Killer Hero" award seemed so strange to me, so strange for the government to officially recognize. It seemed like bad form, to officially commemorate killing and certain number of people. I'd kind of expect something like that among fellow soldiers, within their platoons perhaps, but not officially dispensed by the leaders. It was weird to me.
Our guide, Dong, was a funny fellow and we enjoyed chatting with him. He is originally from the north near Hanoi and has lived in Ho Chi Minh for about 10 years. When showing us around the Cu Chi tunnels, he would sometimes refer to the US as "the enemy", and then would quickly say, "I mean foreign soldiers". We didn't take offense to his use of "American enemy" or any other similar phrase - to much of Vietnam, we were the enemy (and perhaps we still are!). It reminded me of when we were in Krakow and our guide used the term "Germans" when talking about the Nazis, and a member of our tour group was offended. Sure, not every person was associated with the movement, but the Nazis were German, and the people who bombed the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War were Americans. Anyway.
On our drive back to the city from the tunnels, we asked Dong what he thought of Communism. Before he answered, he asked us, "Where are you from again?" When we told him we're American, he chuckled a bit, as if to say, "Good, you'll agree with what I'm about to say." "I don't like Communism. It's not good." he told us. He thinks nothing gets done and the government does not help the people. He asked us how we like Vietnam, and we told him that our experience in the south is MUCH better than the north, and that Hanoi was a very difficult place for us. "People constantly tried to take advantage of us, it was exhausting." And then I remembered something he told us on our tour, "To the north, the US was the enemy. To the south, the US was the hero." We told Dong that we feel those sentiments might still ring true today - that the north doesn't like American visitors, while the south is very welcoming and warm towards them. He nodded his head, "Maybe."
We spent a few hours wandering around the city, stopping in to see the Central Post Office (the biggest post office in Vietnam in a pretty old French building, sure, but why it's a tourist destination I still don't know), the Notre Dame (not nearly as beautiful as the real deal in Paris, and the inside was so bare that it even looked a little depressing), and the Opera House (just the outside, and just another pretty building, but nothing spectacular). These buildings created by the French were nothing like the opulent, detailed beauties of Europe, but they were fun to see anyway as they are so important to the people of Ho Chi Minh City. We also spent some time shopping in the lion's den that is the Ben Thanh Market. As we walked past stalls of t-shirts saying "I <3 Vietnam" and elephants, we were constantly yelled at, "You want to buy t-shirt lady? Special price for you!". Women would reach out and grab my arm in an attempt to get me to stop and look around. But we were on a mission - Jake needed shorts! We happened upon a stall that had tons of knockoff Superdry shorts hanging and checked out the inventory. The salesman had tons of them, in all different colors. Jake picked out two that he liked and the negotiating began. "For you, I think you know the real price, so I won't charge you this price," he says as he points at his sign, "I charge you just 700,000 for two," he said. "No way, 700 is too much. I'll give you 450,000," Jake countered. "ok, 650," the guy said. "That is still too much", Jake said, "I can give you 500." The guy looked sad and tried to explain that he cannot go any lower. Considering we only had 550,000 in our wallet, we couldn't go much higher! "Ok, well we will keep looking around the market and maybe come back." As we were about to walk away he gave us some instructions, "Wait! We only did two rounds of bargain. It's your turn. Try one more time!" he said with a smile. Oh, I get it- you give it three tries and see where you end up! Fun! So Jake bit, "Ok, I can do 550!" The salesman looked sad again and was about to ask for more when Jake explained that we literally didn't have any more money on us. Finally, he agreed to the price, and Jake got his shorts. Good times!
Before arriving in HCMH, we had decided that we were going to go see a movie - they were supposed to be super cheap compared to US prices, and a great way to escape the heat. We were hoping to catch Mission Impossible 5, but had unfortunately missed its limited three week showing in Vietnam. The only other movie that caught our eye was Disney/Pixar's "Inside Out". Since I'm never one to complain about watching animated Disney movies, I was all in! If you haven't seen this move yet, do go see it- it's super cute! Our whole movie experience was interesting - it was so different than going to the movies at home, or even in Budapest (where we saw Mad Max). To start, the listed time of the movie is not when it actually starts, it's when they let you into the theater. So when we arrived 15 minutes before the listed time and were denied entry, we were really confused! Also, they don't sell very much candy at the counter, certainly nothing like the plethora of brightly colored options at home! We had a choice of kit kat bars, things that looked like wasabi-peas, seaweed packs, and pocky. I was a bit bummed that I couldn't satisfy my craving for gummi bears or sour patch kids. And then, the biggest conundrum of them all - the popcorn! There's only one size. Yup, one. And there are four flavors - cheese, salt, sweet (like kettle corn, I think), and caramel. What?? No butter?? What is this, a communist country?…oh wait. Since we couldn't indulge in a blissfully giant bag of artery-clogging buttered popcorn, we ordered the small bag of salt popcorn. "We're out of salt." How can you be out of salt? Just make more regular and put salt on it. "Ok, then caramel, please." It was good, but it was certainly no American buttered popcorn. It was a fun experience that made me remember that I must always balance my expectations - even something as simple as a going to a movie will be different than what I'm used to. And this is exactly why we're traveling - to see the differences in the ways of life and common activities around the world!
"But what about the food?" I'm sure you're asking by now. Don't worry, I'm getting to that! In short, we loved the food in Ho Chi Minh. Most of the restaurants around our neighborhood were western friendly and a bit too safe for us (not very authentic flavors), so we were mainly in search of street dishes I'd read about. Up first, bun thit nuong from the food section of the Ben Thanh Market. This perfect bowl of cool vermicelli rice noodles, BBQ pork, greens, and tangy fish sauce was so good, we ate it twice in our short visit, both times crowding around tiny tables on tiny stools in the middle of the very busy market. Our second favorite street dish was bo la lop, a bowl of wrapped, minced pork covered in mayo, that we wrapped into spring rolls we made ourselves from the platter of fresh greens, herbs, rice paper, and noodles in front of us. Our whole experience with the bo la lop was really great - we'd asked Dong, our Cu Chi tunnels guide, where to find some around us. When we realized that we were heading in the exact opposite direction of all of the western tourists, we knew we were in for a treat! We found the spot, where the only English words we heard were "thank you", and grabbed a spot on more tiny stools at a tiny table. A woman approached us, smiled, and held up two fingers - they only served one thing, and yes, we wanted two servings! Everyone that brought us our food gave us the biggest smiles; they seemed genuinely thrilled that we were there, trying their food. We were the only white people we could see for blocks, and it was pretty awesome. As we were about to pay, our conditioning from the north kicked on, "How much do you think they're going to charge us?" Jake asked. "Who knows, the foreigner charge?" I responded. We were ready to be taken advantage of a little bit, to fork over the extra cost for being foreigners, when we were pleasantly surprised - there was no premium fee, no extra charge. The meal cost the same as everyone else's meal, 40,000 dong just like the sign out front indicated. We were blown away, and felt silly for even thinking that these lovely people would try to take advantage of us. We beamed back at them as we left, and they all waved goodbye. It felt like we were back in Chiang Mai and it felt wonderful. A few doors down was a street cart full of bo bia, another street food on my list of things to try - little spring rolls filled with I don't know what, that were supposed to be really, really good. As we approached the cart, I let out an "Oooo! Bo bia!" The owner heard me and smiled. He didn't speak much English either, but understood me when I asked "How much?". He pulled out a 20,000 note from his wallet and held up five fingers - 20,000 dong for five rolls, sounds like a great deal to me! "Yes! Good!" I said to him. He beamed back at me and prepared our street side snack, complete with individual sauces with customized spiciness levels. Our whole culinary adventure that evening was just wonderful, and we walked back to our guesthouse happy, smiling as we walked down the busy streets. It was the first time since we landed in Vietnam that we were truly filled with joy.
Remember that one guy I told you about who saluted Jake as we walked past on our first night as he tried to get us to go into his restaurant? I told you we'd be back to see him! We walked by him on our second night there, too, on our way to bo la lop and bo bia, but felt so bad for shrugging him off the night before that we stopped to take a look at the menu. As we perused it, he asked if we'd like any suggestions. "Yes, please! Tell us what's good!" we said to him. He turned to the one Vietnamese food page (like I said, these places were more western friendly and had lots of pizza, pasta, burgers, and the familiar noodle dishes), and started pointing to things. "This one, the pho, f***ing soup," I'm sorry, what did he just say? I'm pretty sure he just said the F word, but maybe he was saying "Pho- something or other"…"This one, f***ing noodles. This one, f***ing crispy." He was pointing at the various dishes, pho, stir fried noodles, and crispy spring rolls, and speaking in a serious, businesslike voice. I couldn't help but burst out laughing, "This one's f***ing crispy?" I asked him, dying. "Yes! It's very delicious!" he said to me. His energy and hilarious descriptions were too much for us, he'd won us over. Jake explained to him that we had plans that night, but that we'd be back the following night. We introduced ourselves and asked for his name, "I'm Bruce!" he said. As we looked at him sideways, he followed up with, "But my Vietnamese name is Hai."
As promised, we went back to see Hai the next night and had a good but not great dinner, as expected, and chatted with our buddy a bit. "Did you think we would come back?" Jake asked? "Yes," he said, "because I looked into your eyes and you're f***ing honest. You are the best man," he said, in the same serious tone he used the night before. "How long have you been doing this job?" we asked. "Six days," he responded. What? Only six days? He's amazing! We watched him work for awhile, watched him approach people and try to persuade them into at least checking out the menu. He made every single person he talked to smile. He made each one interact with him and chuckle. He was actually really good at his job. Even though we usually hate these guys that try to sell their restaurant like a used car salesman, we really liked our buddy Bruce/Hai. After our meal, we exchanged emails. We'll definitely have to keep in touch with this one! F***ing crispy. Hilarious!
On Vietnam's National Day (when, oddly not much happened in HCMC), we decided to take a long walk through the city to find another one of Anthony Bourdain's favorite spots, "The Lunch Lady" noodle stop called Nguyen Thi Thanh. The spot is tucked away on a quiet street in the far north corner of District 1, near the zoo. On "No Reservations", Anthony raved about the food cooked by the Lunch Lady and we were really excited to try it! After our hour long walk, we were ready to sit down to an amazing bowl of whatever she was cooking that day. And it was good! But it wasn't great. It certainly wasn't the most amazing meal we'd had. For the first time, we were a little disappointed in Tony's recommendations. But we were happy to have walked around the city, seen the holiday chaos around the zoo (apparently the only place that was celebrating the holiday), and enjoyed the company of a nice man sitting next to us at our tiny table (with tiny stools, of course). He told us about his life, how he lived for many years in France and speaks fluent French, how he is a tour guide in HCMC, and how is son and daughter are in working in finance, his son in Switzerland, his daughter in New Jersey. He was thrilled that we loved our experience in HCMC and understood why we had a hard time in Hanoi. While his accent was a bit hard to understand, it sure was nice chatting with a local who was jolly and kind, especially after experience weeks of the opposite.
On our last afternoon, just before heading to the airport, we made one last important stop at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a small, American style craft brewery tucked away in an alley. I had randomly come across this place when I was searching for something else on the map, the name caught my eye. Immediately I decided we had to try it out, and I'm so glad we did! While it certainly wasn't a cheap activity (sharing a 5 beer tasting flight and 3 400ml glasses of beer was over $25), the beer tasting was great fun, as was our conversation with the bartender, Van. Oh, and the beer was delicious! It had been a really long time since we'd had American style brews, or anything heavier than a Tiger Beer, and they all tasted so good. Shockingly, our favorites were the IPA, Saison, and the Stout! We sat for about two hours, chatting with Van about our experience in Vietnam over the last three weeks, and how we much prefer the south to the north. "Everyone just tried to take advantage of us all the time in Hanoi. It felt like we were constantly getting screwed," we told him. "But not here. Here in HCMC we've felt taken care of, respected, wanted. We love it here." Van explained to us that he gets screwed over in Hanoi, too. "I am from there, but lived in Europe for 10 years, and now I live here, so my accent is a little different now. Even though I speak native Vietnamese, they still think I am foreign and charge me different prices than a local." Well, at least we're not the only ones getting screwed! It was certainly interesting to hear Van talk about his interaction with the northerners, there were many similarities to our own experiences. Overall, Pasteur Street Brewing Company is awesome. If you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, I highly recommend you check it out!
The last three weeks in Vietnam have been incredibly interesting. This was the most difficult place we've traveled to so far. It's the first place we didn't really fall in love with. It's the first place where we didn’t feel welcome. It's the first place that has truly tested our patience. It's also the place where we've learned the most. Not every experience on this adventure has been awesome, not everything is glowing and bright. Sometimes we deal with not-so-nice people and it's not fun. But, despite the disappointments and let downs that we experienced in Vietnam, are we glad that we came here? Definitely. As they say in "Vanilla Sky", "The sweet is never as sweet without the sour." We're lucky to have had so many wonderful experiences in so many different countries, and now we're smarter thanks to the experiences we had here. Had it not been for the great time we had in Ho Chi Minh City we would not recommend Vietnam to anyone. But now, having been treated so nicely by the people of HCMC, we would tell people to come here in a heartbeat. Come to HCMC, spend a few days, then travel north to see the difference, and then spend a few more days in HCMC to really understand how special it is. Thanks, HCMC, for saving our Vietnamese adventure. I dare say we might be back.
HIGHLIGHTS: Banh Mi Phoung, anniversary dinner, cau lau noodles, bo la lop, bun thit nuong, Cu Chi Tunnels, interacting with Bruce, the overall feeling of welcomeness in Ho Chi Minh City
LOWLIGHTS: Before & Now Restaurant turning off the AC, people chasing us down the street in Hoi An for bicycle parking, no buttered popcorn at the movies
BEST USE OF THE F WORD: "F***ing crispy", Bruce/Hai
BOTTOM LINE: Ho Chi Minh City saved our entire Vietnamese trip - the people there are wonderfully kind and honest, and the food was fantastic; had we not gone there, we would have been terribly disappointed in our time in Vietnam. For the adventurous traveler, here's what we recommend - spend a few days in HMCM to get acclimated to Vietnam, fly north to Hanoi to see how very different it is and make your way back south again, then spend a few more days in HCMC to really appreciate how special it is.