Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Pho (Vietnamese noodles) and Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) kept me alive and nourished throughout my college days and gave me something to look forward to every lunchtime when I was working at my first job (which is a depressing story best saved for another day). Last weekend I was able to visit the birthplace of Pho Tai Chi Nam Bo Vien Sach Gao (probably inaccurately spelled) and try authentic Vietnamese food straight from the source.

We totally didn't try to hide the fact that we were tourists (although maybe I should have tried harder). The way I was clutching my backpack to my chest for fear of pickpockets and the way I was wielding my huge DSLR camera and city map didn't help either. We went on the river tour, ate at touristy and safe restaurants/cafe, and rode around trishaws (more on that later) but we had a great time anyway.

Day 1  

Airport - We arrived in Ho Chi Minh (or the city formerly known as Saigon) at around 9:30am and before passing through immigration I had to wait for a while to get my landing visa (which US citizens need to apply for in advance--got mine from here The lady passing out the visas was completely unable to pronounce anyone's name so there were a bunch of us foreigners  standing around looking confused, wondering if she had called our names yet). After getting my visa and passing through customs, we were ready for some breakfast. Even though we were starving, there was no way we were going to eat Burger King as our first meal in Vietnam, so we decided to eat after checking into our hotel. There were a bunch of taxis in front of the airport but I was told only go with Vina Sun or Mai Linh, which apparently are the more respectable cab companies in Ho Chi Minh. The rest will probably try to rip you off with a rigged meter. It took a while to find a cab from one of those companies but in 30 minutes we were at our hotel. (The taxi ride was about 150k VND or less than SG$10. Pay with smaller bills and exact change if possible and check your change when they hand it to you)

Thien Xuan Hotel - Clean rooms, good service, free wifi, and great location right next to Ben Tanh market. (~US$36 per night)

Pho 24 - We were still starving so we went for the nearest Pho place we could find after we left the hotel. Luckily there was a Pho 24 right next to the Ben Tanh market.

It has good pho, good service, a clean environment and gave us our first taste of Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk to energize us for the rest of the day.

Ben Tanh Market - Didn't stay here too long since I don't like bargaining but we did pick up a few gifts to take back. Some people enjoy the thrill of haggling but I'm tired of "the game" and just want to buy something at a reasonable price and get out. You can get some good souvenirs here as well as the ever popular civet coffee (labeled as weasel coffee here) which comes from coffee beans which have been partially digested and defecated then collected by hand.

Saigon Square - A nice air-conditioned market. There was free wifi in the building so I was able to check out our next destination while Carissa shopped for clothes. For a moment there I felt like I was back in Singapore.

L'Usine - A nice little cafe with a nice environment for brunch or a late lunch. Slightly overpriced with small portions but the food was good and I'm a sucker for pancakes. Btw, the orange juice in Vietnam seems pretty watered down. We ordered fresh orange juice from L'Usine and one other place but from both places we got something which was similar to orange juice but very watery with a lot of sugar. Maybe it's just the types of oranges they use here are different?

Saigon River Cruise - We had dinner and a short cruise up and down the river for about 2 hours. The food was great and a lot more than the two of us could finish. Definitely a super touristy thing to do but it was a quiet and relaxing way to spend our first evening in Ho Chi Minh. (Only 630k VND (~SG$40))

Bach Dang Ice Cream - On the way back to our hotel we stopped here for some good coffee ice cream. We had a great view of a crazy intersection  (Le Pasteur & Le Loi) where people, mopeds, cars, vans, and carts miraculously all zoomed by and crisscrossed past each other without anyone getting into an accident.

Day 2

Trung Nguyen Coffee - The equivalent of Starbucks in Vietnam? Maybe real coffee connoisseurs would scoff at a mainstream establishment such as this but Carissa and I had a great experience and really enjoyed the coffee here. The coffee tasted excellent and the breakfast was surprisingly good too. I am now firmly convinced that Vietnamese coffee is on a totally different level from all the other coffee drinks that I've had. I don't even really like coffee that much but this stuff made me a believer. We bought some coffee and a coffee drip to take back home. It might have cost more than the Ben Tanh Market coffee but at least I didn't have to haggle and knew I was getting something good.
***UPDATE*** I just discovered the Vietnamese coffee shop in the basement of Changi Point Mall is actually owned by Trung Nguyen and they sell the same coffee and filters (and there are other branches in Singapore--see the link above for Trung Nguyen). Definitely was good but still doesn't quite match up to the coffee in Vietnam though.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Our shady tour guides/trishaw drivers took us to this little temple where a bunch of other tourists were. It actually was pretty interesting. There are lots of turtles in a pond outside, as well as a cage with a couple of really large turtles. I hope they take the poor guy back to the ocean where he belongs.

Inside are a bunch of statues which make for some pretty good photo opportunities.

Quan Ang Ngon

My friend Phil recommended this place because you can taste some of the most popular Vietnamese dishes all in one location. We ordered the Bo Luc Lac (beef cubes), the fried spring rolls, some meatloaf-like dish and the Che Suong Xa Hot Luu for dessert. It resembles Singapore's Chendol or the Philippine's Halo Halo, and it contains jelly, water chestnut, coconut, nata de coco, I think. It tasted really, really good. There were lots of other items on the menu I would have liked to order but unfortunately, the two of us wouldn't have been able to finish all of it.

War Remnants Museum - While the whole museum is pretty one-sided (it only focuses on American war crimes while conveniently not mentioning war crimes of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong), it was shocking to see what human beings are capable of doing to one another. It was also the first time I've ever heard about Agent Orange, its victims, and how much damage the war did to Vietnam's people and its environment, with effects lasting to this day. War sucks.

White House - Great place to stop for some tea and ice cream on a hot day. Reasonable prices, decent ice cream, and a good environment to chill out. Right around the corner from the Thich Quang Duc Shrine (below).

Thich Quang Duc Shrine - We passed by the intersection where the monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in protest of the persecution of Buddhists in South Vietnam. They say he didn't move a muscle as his body burned. Later they re-cremated his body and discovered his heart was still intact. Hardcore.

Trishaw Scam
Don't trust this guy
This is when the trip got really interesting. The trishaw drivers offered to take us to the Jade Emperor Pagoda mentioned above and back to the War Remnants Museum for 250k VND (SG$15) for the two of us. They continued taking us around for the whole day and were extremely nice tour guides, so I was even thinking of giving them a big tip at the end. Around lunch time one of the guys asked for the full payment so he could "buy lunch" so we gave him the 250k VND to split with his friend. That should have raised a red flag in my mind but I don't know what I was thinking at the time. Five minutes later he was back and showing us around the temple while I was wondering (what happened to food you were supposedly going to get?) Later they offered to take us to a message place far away from our hotel and other tourists (even though we were insisting on going to one that we knew of closer to our hotel). They said it would be cheaper but when we got there the message parlor ladies told us that we would have to pay way, way more than we were expecting. When we left the parlor, the trishaw drivers started asking us for payment and I reminded them that I already paid them back at the pagoda. Then we discovered they wanted not just 250k VND, but 500k VND PER HOUR (4 hours) and not for the whole day as we agreed upon. We didn't have 2 million VND (SG$120) in cash and demanded for them to take us back to the hotel. Then they started saying they're not allowed to go back into that part of the city after 5pm and demanded that we go to the ATM to withdraw money for them. We asked them to take us to any hotel or a police station to sort it out and that's when they started saying the infamous Vietnamese curse DUMAAAAA!!!!!! over and over. I wish Steve and Jonathan Tzu could've been there to hear it. It was hilarious except for the fact that we were vulnerable and in an unfamiliar place and I was worried for our safety. Then, Carissa started yelling at them and demanded to go to the police station. They could sense right away that she was not someone to mess with, so they grudgingly agreed. They thought we were bluffing about going to the police but when they saw we weren't going to change our minds, they stopped and tried to get us to pay them 2 million VND again. In the end we gave them 500k VND (750k VND in total or SG$45) and walked/ran away while they kept screaming DUMAAA!! and disappeared into the traffic. SG$45 may be more than they deserved but at the same time, they did take us to a lot of places and were good tour guides (until they turned on us at the end) so I think it was a fair amount.

Trishaw scams are nothing new to Ho Chi Minh, which I found out too late, unfortunately. Luckily for us, our drivers weren't violent and didn't try to mug or threaten us like in some other tourists' horror stories. It's a shame that I can't recommend taking trishaws because honestly it was a nice way to see the city and get around easily. If they stuck to reasonable prices and didn't try to deceive customers, it would be a win-win situation for both the drivers and the tourists. Unfortunately they can't be trusted and are ruining business for themselves, especially now that anyone with an internet connection can quickly find out that most of the trishaw drivers are scammers.

If you aren't afraid of dealing with these guys, have a death wish, or simply insist on taking the trishaw just for the insane and unique experience of having to arguing with the locals, here are some things we learned after our experience that may help you:
  • Don't let them know where you're from if possible. They're just trying to size you up and see how much money they can scam you for. 
  • Don't let them know you're alone/don't know anyone else in Vietnam
  • Don't let them know about your hotel or when you're leaving the city/country. Basically the less they know about you the better.
  • Decide on the price beforehand. Make sure you know whether the price is per hour or for the whole day (which it probably isn't). Record the conversation or write it down so you have evidence to back you up in case they try to change the price on you, otherwise it's your word against theirs if you need to go to the authorities. 
  • Be wary if they start asking for early payment before you're done with your tour.
  • Don't let them take you to unfamiliar places or tourist spots you've never heard of. You should know and plan out which places you want to visit in advance. 
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, don't let them separate your group, and keep track of where you are with a map or with GPS.
  • Get a local sim card for your phone and know the number of the police and your hotel in case things get ugly. They don't want to deal with the police so use that to your advantage, since threatening to go to the police seems to work.
  • If all else fails, remember this useful Vietnamese phrase: DUMAAAA
Even if you follow every precaution, you'll still probably end up with an unpleasant argument when it's time to pay up and they may still find some other way to scam you. Be careful and stay safe.

Highlands Coffee - After our harrowing experience with the unscrupulous trishaw drivers, we decided to hang out at a cafe near our hotel to chill out until heading back to the airport. Highlands Coffee is slightly pricier but had a good atmosphere for relaxing, decent pho and one last iced coffee with condensed milk.

Even Mos Burger thinks it's tiny
Airport - We ate at a restaurant in the airport that was home (unintentionally) to the world's smallest rice burger. (30k vnd or <SG$2). It was our last meal before leaving Vietnam. 

Despite some bad experiences with the trishaw drivers and the extremely tiny and unsatisfying rice burger from the airport, everything else in Ho Chi Minh was excellent and we heartily recommend you go visit someday, even if just for the food and the coffee.

Click here to see the rest of our pictures from Ho Chi Minh

Nexus 7 Review Continued - I already reviewed the Google Nexus 7 Tablet in a previous post, but I think it's worth discussing how well it performed during an actual vacation (our "field test"). Having a tablet with us during our trip was extremely helpful, especially in a city like Ho Chi Minh where there is literally wifi in almost every shop, cafe, and restaurant (just ask nicely for the password). In many ways it was even better than bringing a laptop with us because of its portability and because of how quickly it can be turned on and connected to a hotspot in a matter of seconds.
  • The Nexus 7 (or any other 7-inch tablet for that matter) is extremely light, portable, and more inconspicuous than an iPad.
  • Long battery life - A single charge lasted us more than a whole day, with pretty liberal usage of wifi and GPS features.
  • GPS combined with Google Maps Offline Map feature was extremely handy for getting your bearings and doesn't require a wifi connection. Just save the area you're interested in for offline viewing when you're connected to a hotspot, then you're good to go... unless the country whose maps you want to download aren't "available" for offline usage, which is just Google's way of telling you to go grope yourself.
  • Easily look up reviews for restaurants or attractions, as well as prices in order to avoid getting ripped off.
Thanks for everyone who suggested places and things for us to do on our trip (Marie, Phil, Bridgette, Nelson). We didn't get to do everything you guys suggested in our short time there but thanks to your input we had a great time and always had something fun and interesting do.

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