8 September – ho chi minh city
Thursday 8 September
Our Mai Linh driver pulls up at the airport exit toll booth, hands over the toll of 10 000 Dong, and we’re quickly out in the ‘real world’.
The traffic, the chaos, the tooting, the rapid-fire gear changes, the everything. It’s all so familiar, and in some strange way, comforting.
I take so much notice of what’s going on around me, I’ve now completely lost my bearings. Not that that bothers me, as our driver now seems to know exactly where he needs to take us.
We eventually pull up near a petrol station, which brings a faint memory back from something I read, or saw, while researching LeBlanc Saigon all those months ago.
We’re not in District one this time, but rather District three, but I know we’re also not that far from Tao Dan Park. The driver helps to retrieve our bags, and having looked before I got out, I know that the meter said 140 000 Dong. I give him 150 000, knowing that it cost him 10 000 to get out of the airport. He seems a bit surprised, but I think is also appreciative that I’d noticed.
We head towards a narrow hem (lane), and then as we turn in, we notice the LeBlanc sign hanging on a wall.
I was prepared for it to be a little hidden, so I certainly wasn’t concerned, but it was comforting to know we were heading in the right direction.
Around the corner, there it is, and already after just mere seconds, I love the location. It’s not yet 9.30am, and all things considered, we’ve made pretty good time. We head inside, and as suspected, our room is not yet ready. I’m not surprised, but at the same time, I’d be a little surprised if someone actually stayed in it last night. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter anyway.
We do the check in thing, minus the actual checking in, leave them to look after our bags, and then head back out to explore.
But not before a quick question on where to find a sim card. The young girl has some English, but not a lot. She makes a phone call, and apparently we’ll find places down to the right, along the main road. No problem.
Out onto that main road, and yep, like most of them, it’s madness. The sim card can wait, so we disappear down another hem. Like my initial thoughts when we first arrived a few minutes ago, I absolutely love where we are.
But apart from having just a very vague idea of where that awful area; that is Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao streets is, with regards to where we are now, I don’t really know exactly where we are.
And then the realisation dawns on me, that apart from the quick look I had when I came across LeBlanc back in June, I never really had a chance to look at what was around this area, after April Saigon Homestay cancelled on us.
I knew what was around there, as we’d been there three years ago, but this particular area was all very much new.
We soon find a small café, and since it’s been three years since the last one, a real Vietnamese caphe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) is long overdue.
We get a couple of chairs outside, and our coffees, along with complimentary tra da’s (iced tea), quickly arrive.
It’s been a long time between drinks!
The tiredness, the drained feeling, and the heat and humidity shock, disappears after the first sip. Oh, how I have missed this!
Coffees done, at 19 000 Dong each, we begin some aimless walking of our hems. It’s like a rabbit warren, and it doesn’t take long to lose all sense of direction on which way you’re actually walking.
In that sense, it’s a little bit like Hanoi’s Old Quarter, but in reality, that’s where the similarities end.
But it’s by no means less fun, or more fun, for that matter, it’s just different. And without wanting to sound like a certain cheap supermarket television commercial, it’s good different! Like really good!
The getting lost thing continues, and without internet, the ability to text, or a map, it does present a little bit of a concern.
We push on, finding a great local market, a hospital, heaps of friendly locals, and just generally, what seems to be a really friendly, closeknit community. One that, if you stuck to the main streets, you would have no idea that it existed.
Managing to find our way back to the main road that our accommodation is close to, we walk down it on the hunt for a place selling sim cards. We have no luck.
Back up again, and this time we cross said busy road. Down some hems on the other side, bit of a small market on one, and it’s just as good over here, as it is on our side. The more I see, the more I love it.
Hem follows hem, and then over on the other side of another main road, I spot a phone shop.
Hmmm, surely I’ll be able to get one of those little plastic thingys that actually makes a phone a phone?
We head down to find out, and we’re served by a very helpful young guy who confirms we can.
He explains the deal, and it turns out for 290 000 Dong, I can get a Viettel sim card that comes with 50 minutes worth of calls, as well as unlimited data for a month, which is 4GB a day. Which therefore isn’t really unlimited, even though he keeps telling me it is.
Doesn’t matter, I struggle to go through 2GB a month back home.
The only thing that the card won’t allow, apart from true unlimited data, is the ability to text.
I really don’t understand why, and he, although it probably isn’t his fault, can’t explain to me why not.
In the end I suspect it doesn’t matter anyway, as my ‘unlimited’ data should suffice with WhatsApp, Facebook messenger etc.
Deal done, money handed over, plastic thing put in (how good is it having a dual sim phone!) and we walk back out into the heat, knowing we will no longer get lost.
Although really, that should probably read, ‘knowing that when we DO get lost, we should be able to find our way back, now that my phone is just that little bit smarter…..’
Back over the busy road, and back to our hems. It’s 12.00pm, and it’s probably time we did something about lunch.
Although 12.00pm still feels too early for lunch, but it’s actually really 3.00pm for us, and it has been a good five hours since that expensive toasted cheese, whatever it was.
Down into the maze of our hems, and onto one that we’ve walked a bit already. At the moment they all look the same to me, but this one stands out a little. And there’s two reasons for that. First, it feels like it runs off at a bit of an angle, and as such, I name it ‘diagonal street’, mainly to give Lisa a reference point.
But the second thing that makes it more recognisable, is a sign hanging outside a house / restaurant. It’s a simple white sign, with bold blue letters spelling out Bún Bò.
It’s probably the first thing that I notice when we enter this lane, and it’s partly because it stands out a little, but also because I know what it means. Although, it would make a bit more sense, to me anyway, if Huế was also there.
We walk towards it, still with no real idea of what we want, and while I’ve never really had a craving for a bowl of hot noodle and beef soup when it’s so bloody hot, I have this desire to try and be more like a local this trip.
While the desire is there, it’s still going to take some willpower.
We get to the sign, and slow to have a look. First observation is that yes, it’s a lunch place. I know this because there’s a couple of people in there eating. I can also see a large pot simmering away, as well as various meats and herbs on plates.
I’m very observant, like that. I also know that it’s unlikely to be a dinner place, but that, right now, is of no real importance.
I look at the intrepid one, and she doesn’t screw up her nose, or give me that look. In fact the look she does give, is one of mild interest.
The guy sees us, and all of a sudden, we’re sitting at a table inside.
“What would we like?”, with a bit of help from his son, who has a little more English.
“Whatever it is that you do, please”, is the response, and we quickly have a bowl each in front of us.
And yep, it’s soup, it has noodles, along with a few different ‘meats’, and some herbs.
It’s good! But the broth is beautiful!
Our guy, who does have some English, comes over to make sure we’re happy.
“Absolutely, it’s really good!”, we tell him.
He’s very happy about that, but I suspect he’s even happier about the fact that he has two western tourists in his restaurant.
There’s not a lot of people in with us, but he’s got plenty going on, with a stream of Grab Food, and the like, bikes turning up to collect people’s orders.
It’s a strange practice, that I still struggle to understand, but being the wrong side of 50, I suspect no one really cares what I think.
He returns a few more times; he really does seem excited; and I suspect he would have loved to sit down with us to chat, but he lets us do our thing.
We finish; and yeah, this soup thing in hot and humid weather is actually alright; and we sit for a minute to rest.
He returns, asking again if we’re happy – yes, we still are – and then asks for a favour.
“Can I have a photo with you?”, said with a nervous smile on his face.
“Of course you can”, is the immediate reply, but along with, “Only if we can have a photo with you!”
Bill of just under 100 000 Dong is fixed up, and then we do the photo thing at the front of the shop.
I love it, but I love it more that he’s so excited about it. It means a lot.
Our lunch guy.
We head back to the room to do some of that rest and recovery thing. It’s been a long night / day, and I’m still knackered.
But before going upstairs, we have to program our fingerprints onto the fingerprint scanning thing on the front door, which eliminates the need for a key. It’s a little temperamental, or maybe I just don’t possess good fingerprints, but we eventually get there.
Finally upstairs, I manage to achieve a little sleep, and then, feeling much better for it, we head back out about an hour later. Out into the hems, still not completely sure where we are at any given point in time, but slowly getting at least a bit of an idea.
We find a nuoc mia da (sugarcane juice with ice) woman, and seeing as we’ve only had one of my favourite three drinks in Vietnam so far, we decide adding the second is a pretty good idea.
And it was. Cold and refreshing, it’s a great way to help deal with the heat and humidity. And at just 10 000 Dong each, you can’t complain about the price.
More aimless walking, more getting lost and confused, but more just taking in the sights and our surroundings. The more I walk it, the more I love it.
We somehow end up back on ‘diagonal’ street, not far from the room. Lisa’s struggling a bit, and in the interests of marriage harmony, I suggest she might be better off struggling alone.
And anyway, I have a job to do.
I point out the lane we’re in, with a reference to our Bun Bo place, which is just down a little further, and explain it’s merely a case of walking to the end, cross at the lights, and then turn left into our hem.
She heads off, looking a little nervous, and I turn around and head up towards our Bun Bo place, thinking surely she won’t have any issue getting back, but suspecting that somehow, she probably will.
I see our Bun Bo guy on the way, and seeing as I haven’t seen any local beer places on our travels, I ask him if he can point me in the right direction.
He thinks for a minute, and then it hits him; down to the end of the lane, turn right, and up the end, and over the road.
Done! And cam on (thank you) very much!
I head up the slightly busier road, the one where our café from this morning is, and sure enough, up the end and over a much busier road, is what looks like some sort of bar. A bit bigger, and a bit more ‘inside’ than is my preference, but the lack of other possibilities found, means it will be the one.
Back down towards the hotel, and next job is to find some takeaway beers for later. Shop found, beers purchased, along with a Coke to keep someone happy, and then back to the room to drop them off.
Lisa is actually there, which is a little surprising, but I guess also good. But, she did actually manage to get lost by missing the turn off to our hem, and thus walking too far up the busy road. There was, apparently, some resulting panic, but she was able to compose herself, and find her way back.
She makes me so proud…..
Hearing the beer place calling, and knowing she’s unlikely to get lost in the room, I head off.
Rather than walking all the way back up the street I just did, I take the first hem near the market, which I believe, will also get me to the main road where the bar is.
It does, and it’s a far more interesting street. And that just helps to confirm how I feel about this area. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the authenticity of it all. Roosters crowing, free roaming chickens intermingling with the dogs and the cats. And kids. Kids just being kids, with not an electronic game in sight.
A couple of them are kicking a soccer ball, and as I walk past, one kicks it in my direction. I kick it back, rather neatly and accurately I might add, and he smiles and gives me the thumbs up.
I love it, you can’t wipe the smile off my face, and I feel a little sorry for all those down around Bui Vien Street, who know nothing about what’s hidden right under their noses.
But again, and not for the first time today, I’m still struggling to believe I’m actually here, and still trying to understand just how this all happened.
Realising I need to do less thinking, I continue on my mission. Up to the main road, and turn left. And yep, over the road on the right, my beer place. Well, at least for tonight.
Standing opposite, the time has come to tackle the road. Well, more accurately, the traffic. I mentioned earlier it was busy. That was probably a bit of an understatement. It’s absolute madness, with a continual stream of bikes, cars, trucks and buses.
Holding my breath, plucking up the courage, and waiting for either a slight lull, or at least a patch of traffic that contains predominately scooters / motorbikes.
Always live by the mantra, that you never step out in front of anything bigger than a bike.
Leap of faith taken, and I edge across the road finding small gaps with the help of the riders.
I make it, and head in.
There’s only three or four in there, and they’re outnumbered by the staff, which seems to consist of a main guy, a slightly older, but younger than me, girl, and then three or four young guys.
They look a little surprised, shocked even, to see me, and no one seems to know how to deal with this strange looking westerner.
That’s alright, I’ve done this once or twice before, so I hold up one finger as I say, “Mot bia, please”, using two languages for three words, just because I think I’m clever enough to do so.
The apprehensive looks ease a little, and the main guy gets me a table, as well as a doubled set of small red plastic stools that have been cabled tied together, purely for largely proportioned, and flexibility challenged westerners, like me.
I’m both appreciative, and insulted, at the same time, but I’m about to get beer, so I have no doubt I will move on quickly.
My ice-cold looking Tiger beer arrives, which is never my first choice (will be sure to rectify that next time), along with a straw.
I can deal with the Tiger, but I’m really struggling with the straw. But the straw intrigues me, as it’s not actually one straw. It’s two! Someone has cut roughly a third off a second straw, and on an angle, and pushed it into the other straw. The reason for the angle cut is now apparent.
I look over to one of the other occupied tables, and yep, both guys are drinking their beers with a straw.
After however many weeks in total we have spent in Vietnam, I have never seen this. The ice in warm beer thing, yes, and while I thought I would have trouble with that prior to our first trip, I quickly learnt to embrace that particular little custom.
But, I’m afraid I am going to have to draw the line at this straw one, so it is placed on the table, while beer bottle continues to come into contact with lips.
And that first mouthful is good, and it’s nice to have been able to achieve the third of my three favourite drinks in Vietnam, on our first day.
Never my first choice, but it was still much enjoyed. And no, that straw was never used.
I sit, while looking out on the busy road I just crossed to get here, and just generally watch the world do its thing. I’m back doing my most favourite thing in Vietnam, and again, it’s hard to believe it’s happening.
The traffic is endless, and I watch several people navigate the chaos to get to the other side. One of those to do that, was the guy, who I’d had noticed earlier, who ran a restaurant opposite the bar.
He crossed the road and went directly towards an older woman who was standing beside the road. I’d seen her before, but hadn’t really taken that much notice of her. I just assumed she was waiting for someone.
Anyway, the guy from across the road has a brief conversation with her, takes her arm, waits for a small break in the traffic, and then helps her across the road, while keeping one hand up in the air to warn the drivers.
They get to the other side, another brief conversation is had, and while I have absolutely no idea about what was said, I’ve got a fair idea simply from the look of gratitude on the woman’s face.
That scene, for some reason, absolutely blew me away, and I lost it. Salty discharge from my eyes made seeing difficult, and it was lucky I had no one to talk to, as that annoying throat lump would have impacted conversing.
I’d like to blame lack of sleep and general tiredness, but I don’t think I can. Perhaps there was a bit of emotion from actually being back here, but it was more than that. Their kindness, their willingness to help, their compassion; it’s all those things, and it’s an example of the sort of stuff that makes me keep wanting to return to this amazing country.
Ability to communicate, and see, returns, and I order another beer. This time the Tiger issue is rectified, and I now have a Saigon bia. A second straw is offered, but is politely declined, and I go back to the world unfolding in front of me, out on the street.
A guy on a motorbike, with a fairly large square steel bin attached, pulls up. He’s clearly the rubbish collection guy, and he proceeds to empty polystyrene boxes and plastic bags full of rubbish, into his bin. His speed at sorting bottles, cans, plastic cups, and anything else recyclable, from the general rubbish, is exceptional. But, as you would expect, it’s a dirty job, and the way he deals with that, surprises, and somewhat shocks, me.
When he comes across a plastic cup that has a clear, or mostly clear, liquid still in it, he uses it to wash his hands, before drying them on the dirtiest looking towel hanging on his handle bars.
Yep, not the most hygienic of ways to deal with it, but I admire the way he goes about what would be a pretty thankless job.
He’s quickly on his way to his next customer, and no doubt his next hand cleaner, whatever that is made of.
It’s a dirty job.
Have a third beer, and then decide to do the right thing and head back, as we have an appointment with XO Tours.
A quick, but much enjoyed shower, and then downstairs by 6.00pm. Well, we would have been, had the room door key not been misplaced. Pretty sure Lisa was in charge of that, whereas Lisa’s recollection was the opposite.
Bags upended, clothes shaken down, it’s gone. Well, not gone, as we know it’s in the room, but just temporarily mislaid.
Downstairs, a quick chat to the young guy, a second key found, and outside where the girls are already there.
Straight away, Nhi and Trang make us feel so welcome, and like all the people we’ve met through XO, they are so incredibly friendly, and so easy to talk to.
While introductions are going on, I notice an unknown item in my pocket. It’s the missing key, and without a plausible way to divert blame, I wait until we’re about to head off on the bikes, to let Lisa know that the key has been found, so we can’t really have a conversation about it.
Out onto the streets of Saigon, and I’d almost forgotten about how much fun it is to do it on the back of bikes. It’s truly a fantastic experience, to be right in amongst it. Tonight’s tour is Saigon by Night, which is less about food like the Foodie Tour, and more just about the city, and life in the city.
We head into China Town, and then to the market, which is always a good thing. Then across to see the celebrations of the Autumn Full Moon festival, which is far bigger, and seems far more significant, than I thought it would be.
There are thousands about, and the colour and the vibrancy is incredible!
Colours of the Autumn Full Moon festival!
Back on the bikes, and we pull over a short time later outside an apartment block. Well, several to be exact.
The girls explain a bit about the history of the place, as well as a bit about the people who live here. It’s interesting, and it really makes you stop and think about things.
We have something to eat while we’re there, and it’s essentially street food cooked by some of the residents who actually live in this particular apartment block.
The food is good, and so too is the opportunity to just sit and chat for a bit. And again, the girls are just so easy to talk to.
Dinner with Nhi and Trang.
We head over to another nearby block, and the girls tell us a bit about someone we’re about to meet. Up the stairs, and we soon find ourselves in the apartment of Aunty Mai, who is a relative of one of the original XO girls. With the help of the girls translating, we hear a little about her life, and how long she’s lived there for. She is absolutely lovely, so welcoming, and she really does seem genuinely happy to have us there.
We do the photo thing, and then bid farewell.
With Aunty Mai and Trang.
Back on the bikes, and we’re soon traversing hems much narrower, and far more rabbit warren-ish than our own hems.
I have no idea where we are, and if I was to be dropped off somewhere on my own, I’m not sure I’d make it back to a main road, anytime soon. But I absolutely love it.
We pull up again, and now it’s time for dessert. Lisa, who lives for dessert, goes with a dessert looking type dish, while I, considering dessert is just something that makes beer taste bad, go with a fruity type of drink.
Once again, it’s nice to sit and chat, and the time just flies.
Dessert and chatting done, the girls take us back to LeBlanc. It’s been a great night, and it’s been nice to learn a little about the lives of some of the people who call Saigon home.
The Saigon by Night tour is very different to the Foodie Tour, but like the Foodie Tour, it is just so well done. Which, being an XO Tour, isn’t surprising at all.
We say goodbye to the girls, and attempt the fingerprint thing on the door. The door doesn’t like my finger, but fortunately someone was inside to let us in.
Upstairs around 9.30pm, and on to the bed to do the usual beers, Trip Advisor and a few notes so I hopefully don’t forget stuff.
It’s been a long day, and not surprisingly, I’m knackered. But it’s been a great day, and while we’ve now been here for more than 12 hours, it still feels surreal that we’re actually here.