Somewhere above the Gulf of Thailand, I’m finally getting the chance to really think about my trip to Saigon. Outside my window are hundreds of tiny dots spread out evenly, which I can only imagine are fishing boats, but there’s real no way of knowing.
The last 48 hours have been a whirlwind. After a (delayed) eight hour flight fro Sydney to Singapore, I spent the night at Changi, Singapore’s world famous airport. What might have been a really enjoyable eight hour layover filled with Changi’s swimming pool, movie theatre, and indoor gardens turned into a bit of a nightmare when I wasn’t allowed to check in for my flight. Normally I’d carry-on for a trip like this, but I was bringing a shaving kit over for someone at the Singapore office, and razer blades aren’t totally welcome at the security counter. So once I collected my bag I found myself on the less friendly side of Changi: the public side. Tiger Air had just closed its check-in desks, so I found a semi-comfortable position on the floor between my suitcase and a large pillar to wait the next few hours out.
This was my first time staying overnight in an airport, but after some impressive battles with fatigue, Tiger Air come to my rescue and started welcoming guests to check-in at around 4am. And before I knew it, I was climbing on board my discount flight to Ho Chi Minh City.
Canadians require visas to enter Vietnam, so that was a bit of an ordeal once we landed in Ho Chi Minh City, but it wasn’t long before I was walking into the heat and bustle. My hostel had offered to have someone pick me up from the airport for pretty cheap, and I was worried they might have left because my visa had taken longer than expected, so I was definitely happy to see my name on a little cardboard sign as I was leaving the airport.
I always love the journey from the airport in a new city, and Saigon did not disappoint. The first thing noticed is probably what the city is most well known for: its bikes. The roads were completely packed with motor bikes, and I couldn’t believe at first how they managed to navigate the roads and avoid hitting one another. The route from the airport into the city got steadily busier and more and more bikes dominated the road. Some bikes held entire families on board, and others had massive boxes and bags piled on the back. I think I een saw a fridge on the back of one.
My hostel was called Ngoc Thao Guest House, and it was hidden down a tiny alley in the middle of backpacker central. It was immediately clear that this area was a bit more touristy than the other neighbourhoods we’d driven through just by nature of seeing more tourists, but there were also all sorts of shops set up selling day trips to the Mekong Delta or Cu Chi tunnels (both trips I’d love to do but couldn’t manage on a weekend trip).
Ngoc Thao Guest House is my idea of a perfect hostel. The staff were incredible and it catored to backpackers which means the atmosphere was great for meeting other like-minded travelers. I was too early for check-in, so they let me store my bag in the back. I grabbed my camera and a map and a map, and headed out.
At this point I’d already been warned twice the keep a good hold onto my camera because it would make me a target for pick-pockets; in fact, my driver actually called a friend in order to get an English translation after unsuccessfully trying to warn me in the few English words he knew; so I took extra care as I wandered down the alley in the opposite direction I’d come from. It lead me to a bigger street lined with stalls selling everything from Banh Mi Rolls to knock-off Rolex watches. At this point I was starving, not having eaten since early into my layover in Singapore, but I wanted to get out of the tourist area before experiencing my first meal in Vietnam.
Once I’d gone what I felt was a sufficient distance, I found myself in a tiny restaurant called Mr. Tung’s with only two tables. One of them was a table meant for two packed full with five vietnamese men and he other was soon occupied by me after being ushered in my a man I can only assume was Mr. Tung. There were a few things on the menu, but Mr. Tung didn’t give me any choice in the matter. After hearing it was my first meal, he insisted I try his Pho, a vietnamese classic.
I ordered my soup along with an iced vietnamese coffee, which has a stronger flavour than the coffee I’m used to, and is served with condensed milk. Both were delicious. I know Pho best as a Canadian drunk food after frequenting a 24hour joint in Ottawa called Pho By Night, but in Vietnam it was a thousand times better.
After ticking Pho off my list of dishes to try, I ventured back out to the crazy Saigon streets. The city is officially called Ho Chi Minh City, a name adopted after the Vietnam War (or War of American Aggression) in honour of the North Korean leader Ho Chi Minh, but the majority of locals still refer to it in its original name: Saigon. I was calling it that too by the end of my stay, but that could be because it’s so much easier to say.
My next stop was Ben Thanh Market, the biggest in Saigon. This was a definite tourist destination, but it’s one of those places that you want to visit anyways. It’s a covered market, and there are so many stalls crammed in there it’s a wonder anyone can navigate through the aisles. There were stalls for everything. Women grabbed at my arms as I walked by, trying to entice visitors with their silk pillow cases, leather bags, and comedic t-shirts. One side of the market was dedicated to those sorts of products, but as you go along you start to see the more interesting stuff: scorpions in glass bottles, frogs on skewers, and all other sorts of animal products I couldn’t identify. Eventually I got to the fresh food area, packed with stalls selling all sorts of amazing-smelling vietnamese specials. Some of them had more identifiable dishes with noodles or eggs, but others were completely unrecognizable; I still don’t know what I was looking at.
At this point it was past time to check into my hostel, so I wandered back that way. I’m usually pretty good with directions, but I got myself completely lost. I eventually got myself back on track, and finally got to see my room. It was air conditioned. It felt so good to be back in a cool room after being sticky and hot in Saigon’s extreme humidity. I was tempted to lie down and nap, but with such a short time in the city, it didn’t feel like a reasonable option. Before I could think about it too much, two of my roommates wandered in, and that was enough of a distraction to keep me awake.
Conversations with other backpackers always start off the same way – where are you from, how long have you been traveling, where have you been – but I had particular interest because I’m still looking for inspiration for my other weekend trips from Singapore. I got some great ideas from these two, and we shared travel stories for the next little while.
My original plan was to sneak in a short nap before a big evening out on the town, but it’s easy to get carried away talking about travel, and before I knew it it was time to go!