22 September – Soc Trang – Saigon
Awake around 7.00am, and I feel good. Well, health wise good, but not overly good knowing that we have one of those dreaded goodbyes that needs to be done, this morning.
Not to mention that five hour bus trip, as well…..
And just like the night before, I slept really well. The Soc Trang air perhaps? Or maybe it’s the beer?
It probably is the beer, seeing as beer makes everything better. Including being married…..
Out of our room, and Quang is in the kitchen cooking up a storm. Fried garlic bread with some of the left over baguettes from yesterday.
Gee, we’re going to be real popular on the bus today…..
We sit down to eat, and Quang has excelled himself. My first time for garlic bread in Vietnam, and it’s very good.
Unfortunately though, Quang is not feeling that well, so he passes on his creation. While I feel sorry for him, it is kind of reassuring that the locals also get sick.
Then again, maybe he knows something about the garlic bread that we don’t….
We sit and chat for a bit, and then he says something about getting the bus with us back up to Saigon.
“Hey, you’re coming with us?”, we both say, more than just a little surprised.
And it turns out he is, which is really good, as it puts off one of the goodbyes just that little bit longer.
Although, the fact that he’s not feeling well ahead of a long bus trip, does concern me slightly. A mental note is made to make sure Lisa sits / lays closer to him than I do.
I can be quite the sympathetic chucker…..
Breakfast done, final pack up complete, followed by aimless wandering around the house and out the front, trying to put off the inevitable.
It all too quickly becomes time, and we jump on the back of both Quang’s and his dad’s bikes. Out on to the main road, and we’re soon at the spot where our Soc Trang adventure began less than 48 hours earlier.
We head in to the Futa Busline’s office to pay for our tickets, which work out to be 145 000 Dong each. Quang and his dad then head back to the house to drop Quang’s bike off, so his dad can then bring him back bike-less. We’ll do that goodbye when they return.
Lisa and I head into the bus office to sit and wait. A large bustling bus interchange, it is not, but that’s okay, as the stuff going on around us outside is far more interesting.
The lone female vendor selling boxes of ‘pia cake’, which, judging by the picture on the box, seems to have something to do with durian. I think I’ll pass….
A local food / café place, out the front doing a roaring trade, along with the many interesting things being carted up and down the main road of Soc Trang. Unfortunately, also on that main road, far too many examples of arrogant bus and truck driving, than I care to see. Especially seeing as we’re about to board one.
Quang soon returns, but minus his dad.
“Where is your dad?”, I ask, a little worried.
“He had to drop me and run, as he is meeting some workers helping him on the farm”, is the reply.
That goodbye that I was dreading so much, I now can’t do. You’d think that I’d be happy about that, but I’m not. I’m shattered. Actually, devastated.
I’m not sure what I was going to try and say to him, and in the end it may not have been much more than just a handshake and a hug. But I just hope he knows what he and his family mean to me. Their hospitality, their genuineness, their generosity, their friendship.
It means the world to me.
Quang then informs us that he left his phone at home when he dropped off the bike, so he heads back outside to find a xe om to take him home again.
Lisa and I go back to watching the world go by through the window, while, and I suspect Lisa was thinking the same thing, contemplating that missed goodbye.
It was a quiet few minutes…..
Quang, cutting it fine, finally returns just before 10.00am – travelling between home and bus station five times will do that – but as it turns out, the bus is running a little late. It finally pulls up a bit before 10.15am, and after the usual shoe removal thing, we make our way to our ‘beds’, which are right up the back.
Contorting and maneuvering of body complete, and I’m in. Once again, we’re all in the bottom bunks, and while it’s all very similar to the previous sleeper bus, this one does have a little more room.
Well, sideways room, but not so much length ways.
I should be okay as long as I don’t get a cramp…..
But it’s all pretty comfortable, and so long as you’re not looking at the standard of driving on the road, or thinking about the possibility of Quang’s unwellness feeling impacting the ambience and aroma of the bus, it’s a rather relaxed and pleasant experience.
And it must have been alright, because before we know it, we’re heading into Can Tho. Through the city, and then somewhere on the outskirts, we pull over for a snacks and toilet break.
I contemplate just laying there and waiting for everyone else to do their thing, but seeing as we still have around four more hours of just laying there, I head out for a look. I haven’t actually seen one of these comfort break / tourist traps since we caught the bus to and from Can Tho five years ago.
I slip on a pair of the communal thongs the bus supplies, and being that they’re made for the standard sized Vietnamese foot, my heal is not going to get too much support.
Outside, and while I found the experience reasonably interesting five years ago, it’s all a bit ho hum, now.
Several choices of food, which being not much after 11.00am, I’m not really interested in. But there are lots of packaged snacks available, so I try and decipher the pictures on the packets.
Most of it appears to be sweet, and while there are a few that look more savoury, knowing the way the Vietnamese go about producing savoury snacks, I know they’re likely to be almost as sweet as the sweet stuff.
Decision is eventually made on a packet that contains small fish shaped biscuit type things, (35 000 Dong) with the thinking being, that apart from Nemo, fish are never sweet.
Back onto the bus, and Lisa is rather excited to see my purchase. But because we still have a long way to go, I refrain from opening them.
I’ll wait until she begins to get restless, at which point I’ll then use them to placate her, before she starts with ‘Are we there yet?’, over and over again…..
We’re soon on our way, and I actually doze off for a little while, until the bus stops once again. Looking out the window, there’s a couple of guys working on a bus we’ve pulled up next to. Seems we’re at some kind of repair place.
This worries me somewhat, as I suspect that our long bus trip is about to become longer.
We sit there for a few minutes, and as far as I can tell, no one works on our bus.
This now worries me almost as much as thinking our trip was about to become longer…..
None the wiser, we’re then on our way again.
Deciding to placate her before she becomes a problem, I open our fish snacks. And yep, they’re rather sweet, as I expected them to be. They’re kind of more-ish, but probably only because it’s hard to work out why they made a fish shaped biscuit sweet.
The drive continues on, with not much to do but watch the countryside go by. It’s all very relaxing, and there’s usually something interesting to see.
Well, it’s relaxing until it comes time to drive over one of those bridges.
Yep, that initial bump that heralds the beginning of some kind of waterway crossing.
Bump hit, feeling of weightlessness kicks in as your body leaves the ‘bed’, and then the return, thanks to gravity, as you become reacquainted with your ‘bed’.
It’s all rather unexpected, and it’s all over pretty quickly, and if you’re lucky, you won’t hit your head on the bottom of the bunk above, in the process.
Unfortunately, I was unlucky three times over the journey.
I did, however, manage not to cry, unlike the poor kid in one of the upper bunks who hit the ceiling on one occasion.
Being in the rear bunks, may have possibly had something to do with it all.
We’re soon onto a toll road, and for the first time, there’s a familiarity about it. I remember this road, and the sights, from 2014.
A little more dozing, and a lot more watching, until all of a sudden, there’s so many more around, and it’s far more built up. We’re almost there.
Into Saigon, and it’s nice to be back. I think I’ve missed it.
We start to get ourselves organised, and Quang wants to order us a Grab car. I’d be more than happy with getting a taxi – I’m much smarter and more confident; actually, scratch smarter; when it comes to such things after our previous trips – but Quang is playing the caring mother type, and won’t hear of us running the gauntlet of the taxi option.
I meekly surrender…..
At around 2.45pm, (yep, made real good time) the bus pulls into the station and we disembark, which is a bigger and smarter sounding word than I should be using.
Bag retrieved, and the taxi scrum becomes just that. Taxi!?, Taxi!?, is the constant call, which is replied to with repeated, ‘No thank yous’.
It is rather full on, and it certainly takes me back to 2014.
We get to the gates of the bus station, and our Grab car is already there. The time has now arrived for that dreaded goodbye, that got delayed when we found out Quang was coming back to Saigon with us.
For what he has done for us, and for what he has shown us, over the last few days, we will forever be in his debt. We owe him heaps, and he is a true friend, and a great mate.
We reluctantly say goodbye, but more, ‘see you later’, and get in our car.
We begin the journey towards the Thien Hai Hotel, and Saigon is still the same as it was two years ago. It’s crowded, busy, congested, and noisy. At the moment, I like it. But I also know that it doesn’t take too long for it to become annoying and frustrating.
But at the moment, it’s good to be back.
The only problem, however, is the number of tourists. In just 20 minutes, I’ve now seen more of them than I have in the last week.
Yep, it’s not a case of will it wear thin, but more, when it will.
Our world has certainly changed….
About 3.15pm we pull up outside a familiar looking hotel, and it’s nice to see it again.
130 000 Dong Grab fair paid, along with a cam on, and we head up the stairs and into the airconditioned comfort of the foyer.
The guy at the desk quickly checks us in with the efficiency of someone who has checked a lot of people in over his time, and while we’re standing there, the breakfast / door guy from our previous two visits walks by.
“Welcome back!”, he happily exclaims, followed by, “It’s been a while.”
“Yes, yes it has”, I stammer back. “Almost two years.”
To say I am stunned, is an understatement.
A 24 hour overnight visit in May 2016, where I felt so ordinary I could only stomach a piece of toast on the morning we left for home, then followed by a something like a 20 hour solo stay in October 2017, while on my way to Hanoi to begin my week long tour of the far North.
I, or we, either somehow left an indelible mark on him, which I can’t help thinking surely wouldn’t be a positive thing, or he just has the most amazing memory, and is just incredibly good at his job.
I really don’t know, but I do know he has certainly left a mark on me.
Shaking, and scratching, my head, we make our way towards the lift, and eventually into our window lacking room.
It’s pretty much the same as the window ones we’ve stayed in previously, but just a little smaller, as well as viewless.
But that’s okay, a view at the moment is not important.
A quick unpack, and seeing as it’s after 3.00pm, we head off for a late lunch of banh mi, around the corner, at supposedly, one of the most famous banh mi places in all of Saigon.
Out the hotel, and turn right towards that big scary roundabout. Manage to get across unscathed, and using my memory powers, pick the correct street to walk down. Seeing a crowd of people lined up on the right, helped with my remembering.
Yep, famous they must be.
I’d come here in 2017, but Lisa hadn’t seen it yet.
“What sort do you get?”, she asked.
“The only sort they do”, is my response. “Although you can specify chilli or no chilli.”
“It’s all run like a well oiled machine, and they don’t seem to like people holding up the queue. It’s a bit ‘Soup Nazi-ish’, a la Seinfeld”, I explain.
We eventually get to the front of the queue and I carefully, some might say meekly, order two banh mi’s. And yes, with chilli.
42 000 Dong each, banh mi’s handed over, shuffle right avoiding eye contact, and then slink away out of eyesight to begin enjoyment of said banh mi’s.
All very easy….., sort of….., and the banh mi is very good, while we begin some aimless walking.
Well, it is good, until you get one of those evil little pieces of chilli, that inflicts both horrible pain and burning to your tongue, as well as causing profuse sweating to your forehead.
It quickly becomes a love hate relationship, similar to the one I have with my in laws. Although, to be fair, there isn’t a great deal of love in that particular relationship…..
It’s also really filling, and that coupled with one too many chilli experiences, quickly puts an end to the conquest of eating it all.
Not finishing food normally worries me, but not today.
Our walk continues, and we eventually get to my favourite street in all of Saigon, Bui Vien Street.
Five years ago, on the day we arrived, it was busy and noisy. But it did have a little character with small Mum and Pop type stores.
Two years ago, some of those Mum and Pop stores were still there, and it was still busy and noisy.
But there was also an element of sleaze.
Well, I can’t see any more Mum and Pop stores. It now seems to be all large, and expensive looking, bars. Lots of lights, and no doubt ear drum damaging music, later on when it gets dark.
And yep, even though it is relatively quiet at the moment, and of course will be very different in a few hours’ time, I really don’t like the place.
Getting close to beer o’clock, but refusing to patronise one of these big bar monstrosities, we keep walking. Noticed a sign out the front of a tour place advertising 14 000 Dong to $1 Australian Dollar, when the official rate was up around 15 700 Dong, and wondered how many gullible people would be prepared to do business with them.
Especially when, just around the corner, another place is offering 15 800 Dong.
Yep, certainly pays to have a bit of an understanding about exchange rates.
Head back in the direction of the hotel, and as we walk through a park, we get the opportunity to practice some English, which is always nice. It’s something that has never happened to us in Saigon, whereas it’s happened quite often in Hanoi, as well as various other places. I suspect though, that it might have more to do with where we’ve been staying, and as such, not really being in areas that are frequented by students.
English lesson complete, we get back to the Thien Hai to drop Lisa off, while I go in search of my usual afternoon ritual.
Around the block and up near Tao Dan Park, but don’t have much luck. Further on I see four guys sitting on the footpath, beers in hand. I think I’ve found what I’m looking for, until I see a large speaker sitting on the ground next to them, and notice one also holding a microphone.
Karaoke is not my thing, either doing it or listening to it, so I keep walking.
Around the corner, and I’m back on the road that the hotel is on. Not prepared to give up just yet, I turn left and continue walking away from the hotel.
A guy pulls up next to me on a motorbike, and my first assumption is that whatever he is about to offer me, is either going to be no good for me, or going to cost me considerable money. Or perhaps both.
It turns out it’s sex. But not with him.
But he can arrange it all for me, and apparently, she is “very young, and very beautiful”.
“I’m sure she is, but I don’t think my wife would be too happy”, I reply.
He doesn’t seem overly concerned about that, and waits a few seconds to see if I’ll change my mind.
I don’t, and he reluctantly heads off in search of another ‘customer’.
A bit further up at the next intersection, and off to the right, I find something that I’d read about, but never seen. The Ben Thanh Street Food Market.
Probably not exactly what I’m looking for, but not having too many other options at the moment, I head over for a look.
Yep, full of people that look like me, and all sitting around in a type of food court set up.
But, they do have beer.
A quick walk around to see what the deal is, and yep, it’s not a place I would come to eat at. But I do kind of understand why people would.
Picked a place, ordered a Saigon Special can for 25 000 Dong, and went and sat down with everyone else. People watching is always good, but sometimes it’s gooder than others.
This wasn’t one of those times, though….
It was all just a bit too sterile and a bit too western food court-ish.
First beer done, and I try another place. This time it’s the standard Green Saigon Lager, but in the larger bottle, and at 20 000 Dong, it was more beer for less money, which really is win, win.
More people watching, and it doesn’t really get any better. In fact, if not for the signs on the shops over the road, it almost feels like I’m not actually in Vietnam.
Beer finished, I head back to the hotel to get cleaned up for dinner. Back out a bit after 7.00pm, and we don’t really have any plans. Other than we will not be eating in Bui Vien street.
We find ourselves on Pham Ngu Lao street, and because I went there last time in 2017, and because it was good, we make an easy decision and go to Pho Quynh.
Manage to get an outside table, which is always desirable, and a couple of bowls of pho, along with two beers, is soon in front of us.
And like 2017, it is really good. At 74 000 Dong each, it is a little expensive, but we are pretty much right in the heart of tourist central.
Interestingly, the beers at 17 000 Dong each, are slightly cheaper than at the Ben Thanh Street Food Market.
Dinner done, we head down to Bui Vien street. And yep, just as I thought it would be, it is absolutely full on.
People everywhere, along with various street performers. Including a fire breathing one, which, considering the number of people around, perhaps isn’t a great idea.
That earlier suspicion that the music volume may be at the upper end, is quickly confirmed. Oh my, is it loud!!!!
We walk the length of it, dealing with the crowd, the noise, and the touts trying to get people into the bars.
Interestingly, not one of them tries to persuade us inside, which I guess just confirms that we are now officially old.
Hmmm, seems there are advantages to getting old….
Round onto Pham Ngu Lao again, and then we turn down the street that the restaurant is on the corner of. While not an ideal street, it is better than Bui Vien, and we pick one of the many bars. Much quieter than around the corner, it’s always nice when you can hear yourself think.
Couple of beers ordered, and we do that people watching thing while sitting on the footpath.
It’s rather interesting, but also a little sad at the same time.
The bar across the road seems to be some kind of brothel or prostitute hang out place. Yep, all rather interesting.
An English girl sits next to Lisa, so Lisa tries to strike up a conversation. It gets as far as finding out that she’s been here for four weeks, before her body language makes it clear that she’s not interested in exchanging pleasantries anymore.
The spring rolls that she’s ordered soon arrive, and I’ve never seen anyone study and sniff food for as long as her.
Would have thought after being here for four weeks, that the whole food thing would be all rather easy by now.
But apparently not….
Four beers between us, (60 000 Dong) drunk guy with the prostitutes over the road having disappeared to do what drunk guys do with said prostitutes, and rude English girl, no doubt still wondering what the spring rolls are going to do to her, it’s now time to call it a night.
While it’s fair to say that I’m not a fan of the area, it’s always good to return occasionally, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of just how awful it is.
Yep, I’m getting old…..
Back up to Pham Ngu Lao, and we happen to come across a Citibank ATM. Having a Citibank card, we take the opportunity. Slightly nervously, seeing as where we are, and what time it actually is.
8 000 000 Dong withdrawn, which is the limit, and the exchange rate used is 15 697 Dong, which is pretty good considering the current rate.
And there’s also no ATM fee, so that’s a bonus, too.
Back to the Thien Hai, stopping to pick up a few beers on the way, and then it’s the usual on the bed, until the urge to sleep becomes too strong.
It’s nice to be back in Saigon, and I kind of wish we had some more time here at the Thien Hai, but this whole main tourist area of District one tends to wear you out pretty quick.
Not really wanting to leave after one night, is probably better than wanting to leave after two nights.
Tomorrow we get to see another part of Saigon, and while it’s still in District one, I’m really looking forward to exploring a new area.
And maybe, just maybe, getting a better understanding of this city, and perhaps even taking a step or two towards loving this place like we love Hanoi, and not just liking it.
We’ll see how that pans out….