Ho Chi Minh City

Day 13 Ho Chi Minh City 6 March 2010

Arrival at Ho Chi Minh was on time and we cleared immigration without a fuss. I’m not sure that the man even looked at the passport or visa properly. He seemed to be half asleep anyway. Once outside, we prepared for the onslaught of taxi touts. To my dismay, the concourse was nearly deserted. We were, however, accosted by a taxi man who demanded $US25. “No way!”, we confidently replied, and offered $US15 which he immediately accepted with a smile. (We found later the official rate is $US7). He led us out through the barriers to a car in the carpark, clearly NOT a taxi. We paid him rather than the driver and off we went. Once at the toll gate, the driver demanded more but we stood our ground. Christine’s tone suggested that she would cast an ancient Australian spell on the driver and all his family if he persisted so he paid himself and we proceeded on. The traffic was chaotic and progress was slow. The way in which cars and the thousands of motorbikes interact is beyond understanding. Buses tend to just carve through the mass but cars have a way of blending into the pack. Then again, a close inspection of most cars shows a lot of small dingles and scratches.
The hotel was the near new iPeace Hotel just off the Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker street). It is six storeys high and around 8 metres wide. Many of the hotels are like this and those with a lift are a luxury. Ours had a lift which was handy because we were on the third floor. Our room was small but very well appointed and as clean as any hotel room can be. The girl at the front desk spoke good English and was an absolute delight. What we did find, was that Asiarooms.com had let us down for the first time ever. We booked through them but paid the standard rack rate rather than the usually heavily discounted price. At least the Standard Room rate was only $US30 a night with breakfast so we couldn’t complain too much. We unpacked then went out to sit at one of the many cafes for a snack and a nightcap.

Day 14 Ho Chi Minh City 7 March 2010

Today was a very frustrating day. One of our main aims was to organise an itinerary and bookings for the next week, having run out of all levels of organisation. After a fair bit of discussion and consulting maps and calendars, a previous half-formed plan to bus it to Nha Trang ( coastal resort in the South East) was abandoned and we decided to fly to Danang, stay 30kms South in Hoi An then train it to Hanoi and on to Sa Pa. Once the plan was sorted, the implementation phase began. This was heavily reliant on two factors; Internet access and English speaking travel agents. Both were hard to locate.
Our hotel had wireless Internet. However, for some unexplained reason, it would sit and do nothing every time you tried to access a secure site to actually make a booking or pay something. You could surf around, make some decisions then try to book a flight…then nothing. We tried in the room, we tried down in the lobby. We also tried the other free wireless networks that seemed to abound. All with the same result.
We went off to see a couple of travel agents. According to the information we had, they seemed to want $US10 too much for the train tickets. Any attempt to depart from a very narrow line of conversation was met with blank looks. They did their best but we had to promise to come back later, knowing full well that we were going to cut and run.
We went around the corner to the dodgy looking Cyclo69 Bar to use their free WiFi. This meant buying a drink of course. The girl in the tight-fitting mini-dress hated Christine immediately because she suggested that $1.30 was too much to pay for a beer and ordered a water. I became her friend because I not only had a beer, but I gave the correct little flick of the finger when I had finished it and immediately got another. The place was a real dive straight out of Apocalypse Now. There were a couple of guys (a German and an American) draped over the bar having a weird conversation. Eventually, the Matron of the establishment came in with her rather obviously silicon chest and started nibbling the German’s ear lobe. By this stage, Christine almost had a plane booked and was just waiting for the confirmation of the credit card when the Internet died yet again. This time, we did not know whether it had gone through or not. We packed up and headed off on a long walk across town to find the actual office of Vietnam Airlines to sort out the mess.
It turned out we had not made a booking so we purchased a ticket the old fashioned way and left. The whole day had passed and we had only succeeded in buying one airline ticket.
The cross town walk proved what we already knew from our last visit to HCM. It is a dump. There is very little to recommend it other than some fine cuisine and that seems to be available everywhere in Vietnam anyway. The main reason for anyone coming to HCM would be that it seems to be the cheapest option for flying in to Vietnam and once here, domestic flights are well priced. The other attraction is access to the Mekong Delta, which is both exciting and picturesque.

Day 15 Ho Chi Minh 8 March 2010

The search for the train ticket recommenced today. The Internet claimed it is possible to buy tickets direct from Saigon Railway Station so we decided to walk there, a good trip of just on 3km. Given that this is through heavy traffic, across broken footpaths and having to skirt numerous open drains and sewers, the trip was heavy but we decided we needed the exercise and could always jump in a taxi if it got too much.
We relied heavily on the iPhone GPS to get us there but at the last point, it let us down. We did indeed locate the outer perimeter of the “Ga Sai Gon” but the GPS suggested we had to walk around it to the far side to enter. The suggested route took us down an ever-narrowing lane. When it got to the point where we had to walk right down the land mingling with the motorbikes and cars, we gave up and backtracked to the place where we had turned off and went the other way. Only hundred metres around the corner was the entrance to the railway station.
Our next hurdle was to purchase a ticket. There was a counter with a number issuing machine, much like the deli counter in a supermarket. Around 20 people sat in seats waiting and three service desks operated, one clearing displaying the next number, one displaying a readout that was frozen on all nines and a third that had a number that had no relationship to the ones in use. Unfortunately, the number issuing machine was broken because it was not feeding paper properly. As we stood by, trying to get someone to fix the machine, a steady stream of people arrived to push past us or reach over us to keep pressing the button. I thought of the old adage, “If you keep doing the same thing, you get the same result.”
Eventually, we were taken in tow by a young man, who having looked at our written requirements for a train from Danang to Hanoi, led us to a set of steps and pointed upwards. We felt a surge of hope as we climbed the stairs to the “real counter”. Alas, the guard who controlled access to these service desks looked at our written request for a train from Danang to Hanoi and led us to another set of steps, which went down and emerged just near the first service desk. Here we found a queue of people pressing the button on the number issuing machine but it still did not work. “If you keep doing the same thing…..”.
Another man waived us around to a service desk (probably anxious to get rid of us) and finally a girl took out written request for a train from Danang to Hanoi. She seemed to understand that we wanted the SE6, that it left at 04:48 and that we wanted air-con soft sleeper top and bottom bunk (You can see that we had done our homework). The price was mutually agreed at 1,172,000 Dong and we handed over 1,500,000 Dong. She immediately began demanding another 22,000 Dong. Thinking this was an attempt at extortion, we protested and made many hand gestures, many of which were probably offensive in Vietnamese polite society. It turns out, she was trying to make it easier to supply change. At last, we headed off, having managed to secure two tickets on the train at a saving of around $4 over what the travel agent just metres from the hotel would have charged.
On the way back, I spied a kitchen and cooking supply shop (actually, there was a whole street of them. We had been really taken with some miniature coffee filters that sat astride our coffee cups at a restaurant the day before and Christine had photographed one. We show the photo to someone on the iPhone and he waved us on down the road towards another shop. I was sure he was sending us to a Café for a cup of coffee but to our surprise, the shop did indeed sell the little devices for the princely sum of 8000 Dong each (around 50 cents) so I had a job restricting Christine to a set of 4 just to keep costs down a bit.
After mid day rest and recreation time inn the hotel, we hit the streets again to explore the many wonderful Chinese curio shops that abound in the Pham Ngu Lao area. These are wonderful little shops, filled with curios both new and old, including a great many that are made to look very old but are in fact very new. Many wonderful things are ridiculously cheap but luggage space and weight demands some restraint. Also, we have found that what looks terrific in a Chinese curio shop is often best left in its native environment, and suffers from sitting on a laminex surface surrounded by Ikea furniture. In short, we bought nothing.
While walking the streets, we saw an amazing sight (even for HCM) in the form of a guy on a scooter with a full sized fridge strapped to his back. He obviously liked his food cold and immediately to hand. We often see two adults and a child on a scooter but reading the literature, it is possible to get seven people on a motorbike.

Day 16 Ho Chi Minh 9 March 2010

We took a taxi to the airport for the trip to Danang. We made it clear that we were going domestic and the driver even checked with us as the fork in the road came up. However, the language barrier let both sides down and he took us to the International airport, an error easily corrected but costly for the taxi driver because he had to pay the toll on the way out. He looked like he was going to cry but he accepted responsibility and made no attempt to make us pay so we took pity and gave him a big enough tip to cover it and a little more. (It’s the tenth time this month that scam has worked for him).
It is with little regret that we farewell HCM City. It is too big, too crowded, too dirty and makes one realise that environmental care of our Planet goes well beyond Kevin Rudd’s posturing. On the positive side, it remains cheap and has wonderful food and some wonderful people.