Good Morning, Vietnam!

I’m back from five days in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon with Ashley.
Let’s begin:
The visa process was heinous. We had submitted our documents to the company we’d booked two tours with (TNK, otherwise fabulous) and they emailed us a paper that we thought would make obtaining the visa upon arrival a breeze. Wrong. The paper meant nothing. At the airport we were each given a form to fill out that required a 2×2 photo that, miraculously, Ashley and I both had in our wallets since we need photos for almost everything in the UAE. A 30-day visa costs $45US or $1,000,000VND, which we didn’t have and couldn’t get because the currency exchange and ATMs are all on the other side of passport clearance, which you’re unable to cross unless you have the visa. Hmmm. After being yelled at twice by the meanest man in Vietnam, Ashley eventually asked a pilot from Emirates Airlines to exchange our dirhams after he went through the passport line, and he obliged. Unfortunately, the currency exchange didn’t accept dirhams even though they have flights arriving from the UAE multiple times daily. Fortunately for us, this guy made a trip into the Emirates office and came out with Vietnamese money. Our savior. Still, not a good start to the trip. Welcome to Vietnam.
We checked into the Saigon Europe Hotel to discover our $19/night “double twin” room was one double bed with room to walk past it- sideways. It was a cozy first night. But since we liked the hotel, the free breakfast, and its location in the backpacker area, we opted to stay there and upgraded from our 12×12 closet-without-a-closet to the “4-person” $49 room next door. All of a sudden we had that coveted closet along with two beds, two towels, a fridge, a hair dryer, and some fruit. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Unable to get money the previous night, we bee-lined to the ATM in the morning for some Vietnamese dong. Yes, that’s correct, the currency is the dong. I won’t bore you with our jokes because I’m sure you’re capable of thinking up your own. There are many.

All bills; no coins!

All bills; no coins!

One of the first things we learned is that crossing the street should be an Olympic event. In the beginning, it’s a good idea to glue yourself to people who look like they know the ropes. The motorbikes outnumber the cars tenfold (at least) but most drivers are in complete control. The largest number of people a bike seems to acceptably hold is five– two adults and three kids. What can you transport on a motorbike? ANYTHING from 300 lbs of rice to multiple bags of garbage/recycling, to fruit, fish or even a 50” flat screen tv. Whatever you can hold onto. Makes for great people-watching that never gets old.
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Mekong Delta Tour
The Mekong Delta covers an area of approximately 15,000 square miles to the west of Ho Chi Minh City. It took us just under two hours to get there by bus, passing through the city, rice fields, houses, etc.
rice field
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Not a bad drive. We began our tour with a sampling of various fruits and tea while we listened to some local musicians and singers.
Vietnam musicians

We boarded Vietnamese sampans in groups of four and were rowed down the Mekong River to a family coconut candy/ honey/ tea-making business. Here we were given the opportunity to hold a python- not scary but it was strong and had a mind of its own.
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Next, everyone boarded a larger boat and headed to another family compound for lunch. Our tour company had automatically booked us for the “upgraded” lunch that was very well-executed, especially when compared to reports by others in our group that the standard lunch was basically a of bowl rice accompanied by more fruit (yes, they separated us so the others wouldn’t be jealous, but we spilled the beans and showed photos when we re-grouped after eating).
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Post-lunch we cruised down the river for about twenty minutes, then bused back to our starting point, stopping at the Vinh Trang Buddhist temple.
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Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are series of connecting tunnels that were used as a base for the Viet Cong. We were able to glimpse what life was like for the soldiers and locals as they hid during the Vietnam War. Narrow, dark, musty, and claustrophobic, the Vietnamese used them as hospitals, kitchens, and hideouts.
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We also viewed traps, restored tanks, and land mines. An interesting bit of history but also a place where you don’t brag about being American.
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Bike Ride:
“Mr. Miyagi,” a Vietnam vet, approached us while we were having lunch at a café across the street from our hotel.
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He and his friend took Ashley and me on a two-hour bike tour of the city. We were able to see some sites that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to on foot. The sun was blazing so we felt guilty letting them pedal us around as we sipped iced coffee drinks, but we did it anyway.
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They eventually dropped us as the market so we could shop for souvenirs. It was hot, hot, hot to the point of passing out but we scored some good stuff.
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At night, we stopped at a few of the local watering holes. For the most part we’d sit right near the street so we could marvel at the traffic and subject ourselves to endless vendor harassment while downing our fifty-cent beer. If you ever need a lighter or a knock-off pair of Ray-Bans, this is the place to be. What began as mildly annoying quickly became exasperating. Instead of being rude to them, as many rightfully are, I invented a game where we had to buy something from everyone who approached us within a 15-minute time block. Ashley, ever-agreeable, obliged. After we bought a wide selection of useless items, the vendors continued to walk past and laugh when they recognized us, still trying to peddle their wares while knowing their chances of making another sale were slim; we had already bought just about everything but nail clippers. Here’s a sampling of our haul:

bracelets

bracelets


more bracelets

more bracelets


prayer beads

prayer beads


travel guide

travel guide


squid "jerky" cooked to order

squid “jerky” cooked to order


squid up close

squid up close

On our last night, what started out as our version of an “adult” evening ended up as a lesson in a REAL adult evening. We opted to have dinner at the Refinery, an upscale restaurant that reflects the heavy French influence in Vietnam. Our awesome meal of salmon and filet, along with our first and only bottle of wine in Vietnam, was well worth the 1.6 million dong (under $75).
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Afterwards, we opted to walk around the neighborhood; while it was within the district in which we stayed (District 1), it was much different than where we were housed. At one point, I commented, “Hey, look at all the traffic going down this street (more of an alley). Let’s see what’s here.” And we turned the corner and landed smack-dab in the middle of the Red Light District. It’s one thing to be aware of it but another to actually see it- I had my eyes wide open the entire time. First of all, half the businesses have some type of reference to a cat, to which I take offense.
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Second, you can see in the ground-floor windows of each place; women waiting for men, women with men, etc. I was totally expecting someone to profess, “Me love you long time.” Yikes (insert your own dong joke).
Winding our way to an area with taxis, we walked across the street from the Saigon River, which is a hot makeout spot for the younger set. Hundreds upon hundreds of motorbikes line the edge of the water at night, each holding couples that can’t keep their hands off each other. The brown water is apparently some sort of aphrodisiac.
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The rest of our time was spent relaxing, with a few inexpensive spa treatments thrown in. Our flight home was good, re-entry into the UAE was painless and we made it back to Abu Dhabi with a few hours to spare before the workday began. Although it’s good to be back in our own beds it’s disappointing to switch back to the dirham, which doesn’t buy nearly as much as its equivalent in dongs. Dirham jokes don’t roll off the tongue, either. As an official welcome back, we’re having a sandstorm today.
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But Spring Break began a few hours ago and my friend Jennifer will be flying here from Chicago on Easter Sunday, so that’s a recipe for more good stories to report next week.
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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Deb Mech
    Apr 05, 2015 @ 22:36:16

    Happy Easter, Sue! Have fun with Jennifer!

    Like

    Reply

  2. Marina
    Apr 06, 2015 @ 04:42:23

    Sue, next time I want to go on an adventure, I’m bringing you with!

    Like

    Reply

  3. Karen Buckheit
    Apr 07, 2015 @ 00:07:11

    I love reading your posts. It’s like I’m right there with you.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

    Reply

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