Ho Chi Minh City
Up nice and early……umm no……
Awake….., nice and early.
But not through choice.
That was one of the things that reminded me that we were back in Vietnam. Yep, it really ain’t a quiet country.
Well, not in the morning…..
And the other thing that reminded me was my body.
This time I was prepared and knew what to expect. But I still noticed it as soon as I was awake.
Yep, the beds, like their seats, are on the slightly hard side…..
Managed to get a couple more hours, which we desperately needed after the previous day, before I forced myself, and Lisa, to actually get up.
“Come on, the street food won’t be getting any fresher”.
In far more time than it should have taken, we were back down ‘those’ stairs.
Out the door, turn right, then turn right again, down that narrow, but now not so dark, alley.
It was easy last night. Following someone…..
This morning, however….
“You sure we’re going the right way?”, comes the voice of the intrepid explorer of all things ‘supposedly less safe’, than the standard type streets that everyone walks along.
“Yes, of course”, I say, with no great confidence. Actually half expecting to walk into someone’s lounge room any second, by mistake….
Finally, we reach the street that we walked down last night. But this morning, it had a completely different feel to it.
Which I knew it would. It’s something that I learned from last time; the street you walked down at 7.00am yesterday, can be almost unrecognisable at 2.00pm today. And it can be different again at 5.00pm. And it’s not just the number of people there at a given time.
The quiet empty street from last night was now, well, nothing like that at all.
People selling fruit, fresh meats, clothes, packaged goods, even underwear, and just about anything else you can think of. Either on the edge of the street, in front of their ‘house’, or from the actual front room of their ‘house’. I find that whole ‘house’ and ‘shop’ thing over there, fascinating.
And then there were the people buying. Either walking, pushing bikes, or riding motorbikes. It was, at times, difficult to make forward progress.
But I loved it.
And one of the best bits?
Apart from Lisa, who was somewhere behind me, and to be honest, I wasn’t really that concerned about where exactly, I couldn’t see anyone else that looked like me.
So local. So authentic. So real.
I felt like I was in some sort of National Geographic documentary.
I just loved it!
We eventually came across the place that DP had recommended we go to for breakfast. It was an undercover area with various vendors selling even more various things.
We walked in, along a couple of isles, and found a lady selling banh mi.
A quick scan of her ‘menu’, see the word ‘opla’; gee, almost becoming a native; and then give her a “Banh mi opla’, please!”
She in turn gives me a bit of a confused look.
I then revert to pointing…..
In less time than it takes me to cook an egg at home, she has cooked two, added them to the rolls, along with pork, some sliced carrot and cucumber, a little chilli sauce, wrapped some paper around them with a rubber band and placed them in a plastic bag.
All for something like 40 000 dong for the two of them.
A ‘cam on’, and we’re off to eat breakfast while we walk through the rest of the market.
“Oooohh, this is nice!”, Lisa says, as she takes her first bite.
“And you were expecting it to be otherwise?”, I respond, while I may, or may not, have been rolling my eyes.
Need to remember; gentle nudges….., gentle nudges….. She’ll get it eventually…… Maybe…..
We continue out of ‘market street’ and out onto the main road that goes over the canal. We’re now at the other end of the block to our hotel.
That’s ok, I still know where we are.
We don’t have a map.
That’s……kind of ok……, we’ll worry about that later…..
The next hour goes something like this –
We walk, along the canal, but on the other side. We quickly become aware of how hot and humid it is, even at 9.00am. We pass people who seem surprised to see us. We get inquisitive looks, a few smiles and the occasional ‘hello’.
We walk away from the canal (hmmm, the no map thing….) and walk down some side streets. We wonder why our t-shirts are stuck to our bodies and again remark how hot it already is. We stop at a convenience store to buy a large water and a cold drink and shed a tear as we exit the air conditioned comfort of the said store.
We continue walking and remark how hot it already is. Two minutes later the sun breaks through the clouds.
We then realise that it actually wasn’t that ‘hot’ before. But, oh my, it is now……!!!!
Seem to be acclimatising well….
We, sorry, I, get adventurous and direct my intrepid explorer down one of those narrow alleys that we always walk past.
We get even more smiles and quite a few ‘hellos’, and one person actually tries to have a conversation with us. Unfortunately, that was never going to work.
“See, this is what it’s all about!”, I say.
Then we get to the end of the alley way. It’s a dead end.
We then turn around and walk back where we’ve just come from.
I suspect that ‘conversation’ may have had something to do with what we just discovered……
Back around to the canal (who needs a map) and we walk along a path with the canal on one side and a grassed area on the other. They have sprinklers going and the area feels ‘reasonably’ cool. Or at least cooler….
I then notice a couple of guys sitting next to the grassed area. I think they were looking after the sprinklers.
But it’s what’s near them that intrigues me more.
On the grassed area there is a small pedestal, a perch, if you like, with something sitting on top of it. There is also something sitting on the grass beside the ‘perch’.
As we get closer, it becomes clearer. Not understandable. But clearer.
On the perch is a large eagle. Yes, of the bird variety.
On the ground is a rabbit. Yes, of the……. rabbit variety….
Both are ‘leashed’ to the pedestal.
And both seem happy.
Though I’m not sure for how long…..
It was one of those moments that just didn’t seem to make sense. Getting closer, and taking several photos, didn’t seem to help either.
Even now, I don’t really ‘get it’.
Just one of those ‘Vietnam’ moments, I suppose.
Scratching our heads, we continue.
Shortly after, we bump into a Dutch woman out walking with her parents. This wouldn’t normally be unusual, but due to the lack of tourists in this area, it stands out like the ‘proverbial’.
We stop, chat and learn three things. Her and her husband will be living in HCMC for the next 7 years because of work, her parents are just visiting at the moment, and she has no idea why there is an eagle and a rabbit chained together over on the grass.
We continue on our way and remark how hot it already is.
We come along a café with locals sitting out the front enjoying a coffee.
Hmmm, I think……
“How about we get a coffee?”
“It’s too hot for coffee”, is the response. Which I knew it would be.
“No, an iced coffee”, I reply.
“Umm, no thanks”.
Which is the answer I expected….. Hasn’t taken too long to forget about the, surprisingly, much enjoyed banh mi experience.
Little nudges…….. Little nudges……
We walk on.
“Is it just me, or does it seem hotter now?”, I rhetorically ask…..
Eventually, we make it back to the hotel for a well needed respite. The air conditioner being asked to work like it’s never worked before.
An hour or two later and DP is at the door with some plans for the afternoon.
First stop, for the four of us, including Annette, is the phone place / sim card shop.
This exercise took a little longer than it should have. Partly because of me, partly because of Lisa’s phone and partly because the two girls in the shop are Vietnamese, and we are not.
No problem, they have good air conditioning.
While DP is sorting things out with one of the girls, a local guy walks in and asks the other girl a question. I have no idea what the question was; it doesn’t really matter.
Anyway, as he was asking his question, he realises that he has something in his nose. And the removal of this ‘something’, is obviously a real priority.
Because while he is asking his question of the attractive, and very helpful young girl behind the counter, most, if not all, of his right index finger is firmly entrenched in his right nostril.
So, question answered, and object removed, he leaves to go about the rest of his day.
While Lisa and I are left to look at each other with a look of……, I don’t know….., something similar to when we saw the bird and the bunny, I suppose.
Another of those Vietnam moments…..???
Phone issue sorted, it was across the road to a gold shop to exchange a couple of notes into a much bigger pile of notes.
Exchange rate checked on phone as we walk in (ahhh, where would we be without TA), and the question asked. Rate is good. Better than expected, in fact.
Notes counted out on the counter in front of me. Concentrate….. Concentrate…..
Count with him. Watch for any sleight of hand. Don’t talk to me now, Lisa!!!!!
But all good! Same amount of money, but wallet much fatter. Must be right.
Second ‘job’ done, it’s decided that a massage is in order.
A quick taxi ride. Hahaha……..yeah right, we’re in HCMC, remember, but that’s alright, the air conditioning is working a treat. Eventually we’re there and DP is sorting out the details.
At this point I’m happy with whatever DP recommends.
Massage places are like churches to me. Neither are ever really graced by my presence.
Upstairs and into a darkened ‘communal’ massage room the four of us go and the girls begin their work.
As I said, being a bit of a novice at the massage thing, I found the whole experience…… interesting.
Having……, whatever rubbed on me which helped to both relax, and hurt me, at the same time, enjoying an ice cold lemon drink throughout the process, and having the opportunity to wear cucumber on my face.
Yep, an interesting, but fun, experience.
And I think my girl really liked me, too…..
Relaxed, and more worldly, it was time for lunch.
Back into a taxi and off……somewhere. No idea, completely and utterly lost by this stage. But DP knows and we eventually find the BBQ chicken place. Apparently it has a very good reputation.
Ooooooh yeah! It’s a reputation that is well deserved. Absolutely beautiful, but we were careful not to have too much. We had our XO tour later that night, so just a bit of a snack to keep us going.
That done, we headed off to find a cold drink. Again, a place that DP goes to a bit. A café boat moored on the canal.
I already know what I’m having. Caphe Sua Da!
“Ummm……., okaaay……”, she says with that air of trepidation.
Little nudges…….. Little nudges…….
“Oh, Wow! This is really nice”, says the intrepid explorer.
Geez, she’s finally coming around…….
Still feel like finding a brick wall though. And trying very hard not to make that next ‘little nudge’ straight into the canal.
Maybe the kids really did have an excuse…..
Watched the world go by for an hour or so, which included all manner of things being carried on the back of motorbikes. House doors, metal poles being dragged along the road, large panes of glass, you name it. What could possibly go wrong…..
It’s one of the things I love about Vietnam.
A check of the time and we realise we don’t have that much of it. We need to get back to the hotel for a quick change and then head back into District 1 to meet up with XO.
Not without a little panic, we eventually make it to the Opera House which is where we are to meet our Guide and the girls. In fact, we’re about 20 minutes early.
Rather than just sit there and watch all the rich people walk in and out of the really expensive hotels that rich people stay in; so quintessentially Vietnam…….; we decide to go for a bit of a walk.
Behind the Opera House we grab a cold drink from a convenience store and once again force ourselves to relinquish use of their air conditioning.
Outside we come across a couple of places selling very large, and very intricate, model timber ships.
Taking a closer look, we over hear a conversation between an American tourist couple and the owner of the shop. Mr and Mrs America had obviously ordered a boat and had now returned to collect and pay for said, now all packaged up in boxes, boat.
The ordering, I would have imagined, would have been the more difficult of the two visits required; what, with the deciding of the size wanted, the design of the boat, and then settling on a price.
While the paying component, I would have thought, would have been the easier of the two.
Here is boat.
Here is money.
I suspect that during the first visit, when the money part of it was being discussed, the currency used was US dollars.
So?, I hear you say. Why would that matter?……
Oh, it matters.
And it matters because Mr America is not actually paying for the boat with US dollars.
He’s paying in Dong. As you do when you are in Vietnam.
Yes, hard to believe that you would use the currency of the country that you are visiting. But there you go….
So, now what is the issue Mr America is having?
Mr Boat shop man is converting the agreed upon US dollar amount, into Dong.
And yes, at his exchange rate.
Mr America is now a little confused.
He’s now unsure what the exchange rate should actually be, and he’s trying to do sums in his head as to what that rate actually converts to, in Dong.
And with all those zeros, he’s finding things just a little bit difficult.
Oh well, hopefully lesson learned. But probably not…..
As much fun as it would have been to watch US and Vietnamese relations become strained, it was time to head back to the Opera House.
And good timing it was. Just as we arrived the XO girls in their distinctive Ao dais rode up on their bikes.
Last time we were here we did the standard group XO Foodie Tour. There were about eight in the group including the four of us. And it was fantastic. It really was one of the highlights of our trip.
This time however, we were given the opportunity to do a private tour. Just the two of us, our two girls, Thao and Tho, (I really hope I’ve spelt their names correctly) and our guide, Tai.
Introductions done and we were off.
Seriously, sitting on the back of a bike, negotiating the mayhem, that is the traffic of HCMC, is just…….
It’s just so much fun!
And such a great way to get about and see the sights.
First stop was a restaurant in District ‘I can’t remember’. Important details, like people’s names, I often struggle with. Unimportant stuff……; no problem.
Anyway, I do remember it was considered a ‘middle class’ area and the restaurant was opposite a Burger King or some other multinational abomination of a food chain.
Didn’t matter, we were most definitely on the right side of the street. Kids may have felt differently.
That’s why they weren’t with us this time.
The food? Noodle soup with seafood. There was crab in there, maybe squid, some other thing that used to swim. Again, important, but unimportant, details.
For me, it’s never really about the food. It’s the experience.
And while the food was beautiful, it was the fact that I was sitting on small plastic chairs on the footpath in HCMC, talking, and learning, and getting to know three locals.
That was what was special about it all.
Back on the bikes, and back into the traffic. Next stop, a market in Chinatown.
Have I mentioned I like markets?
I do. Walking around, taking in the sights, the smells. I love it.
Tai bought some fruits that I had never seen and taught us some things about local life along the way.
First meal, kind of walked off, we were back on the bikes for our next stop. An open air restaurant that we’d been to last time. Which was good, as it was the pick of the restaurants from the last tour.
Little bit different this time though. You now pick the food you would like to eat before it’s been cooked.
And let me tell you, there were some interesting looking choices.
Not too many parts, of various animals, get wasted in Vietnam. One man’s rubbish is most certainly another man’s meal.
The girls then cooked up the selections on the small BBQ on the table. I gotta say, I was pretty pleased with my chicken hearts choice.
Tai then cut up the fruit that he’d purchased at the market and we then went from being comfortably full, to not so comfortably full….
Time for our next destination. Please don’t let it be more food…… Please don’t let it be more food…..
A street food cart down a very narrow street.
That was only found after going down 15 other narrow streets and lanes. I have absolutely no idea where it was, and I reckon there’d be quite a few locals that would have no idea about this street.
The food? A rice paper thing with various types of pickled vegetable type things along with herbs and other condiment type things.
Interesting, but also nice. Very, very different to anything else we’d ever had, too.
We ended up sharing that as stomach room was now at a premium. And I didn’t want to risk suddenly having an excess of stomach room…..
We walked along the street, which really was very local, and just took it all in. Not sure there’d have been too many tourists down this way over the years.
Tai wanted to organize some desserts for us. Tai really didn’t understand how dangerous that could potentially be. However, Tai is very persuasive.
Eventually I compromised, and agreed to a fruit smoothie. And very glad I did. Sublime, it was. As fruit smoothies in Vietnam generally are.
And it was a great way to finish our night. The five of us sitting on the side of the road, not only enjoying smoothies and ice cream, but also enjoying each other’s company and learning about each other’s lives.
We learnt a little about Tung, the guy who originally started XO Tours six years ago, and heard how the business has evolved. It really is a wonderful concept, and I’ve said before, it is a fantastic introduction to, not only HCMC, but also to Vietnam. And a more professionally and well run tour company in Vietnam, you would struggle to find.
Anyway, by the time it was time to leave, we felt like we’d known them for years, rather than just hours.
It was hard to say goodbye.
The girls and Tai dropped us back at the Opera House where they even arranged a taxi for us. Yes, one of the two recommended ones.
Farewells done, we, and they, disappeared off into the night.
It had been a big day.
And it had been a great day.