A Travellerspoint blog

Saigon Saigon

We arrived here a couple of days ago, and suffice to say I hardly recognise the place at all. We arrived in by local bus from My Tho in the midst of a monsoon downpour at the Cholon bus station and then jumped on a couple of cyclos for the 30 minute ride across town to Pham Ngu Lao St -- Saigon's very own Khao San Rd. Sitting in the cyclo, whirling between the waves of motorcycles, under Saigon's towering tree-lined streets was a wonderful introduction to this fascinating town.

The backpacker's ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao centres around the stubby De Tham St -- far smaller than Khao San Rd, yet with 105 hotels (I've already drawn the map and counted them) within a couple of hundred metres of the epicentre, it is even more congested than Khao San. The range and quality of accommodation is simply amazing and the volume of rooms is making sure that the prices stay low. If you're planning on staying for more than a couple of days, be sure to say so as the rates will drop straight away.

We're staying at a mini-hotel on what is fondly known as mini-hotel alley -- an alley running parallel to De Tham St and which is so known for the 20+ mini-hotels that line its 100 metre length. For $10 you can get a spotless, often brand new room with air-con, tv, fridge and a hot water bathroom.

In fact it is difficult to see a room that doesn't have all those features.

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The area is packed with tour agencies, a bunch of small tourist knick knack shops and some truly awful restaurants, yet it has a far lower key feeling than Khao San -- locals still live on the street and not every business is given over the westerners -- or not yet anyway.

As we arrived late in the afternoon we didn't do any sight-seeing and instead did some bar research and I started the unenviable task of shifting through the many hotels. There is so little to separate one from another -- it is tempting to just say XYZ hotel has 15 hotels beside it that are all identical, save the paint job. Oh and the pastel brigade has made it here with the hotels a range of hues from ochre yellow, to purple, green and the continuing popular baby blue -- I did see my first pink one yesterday.

One of the best ways to see Saigon is by cyclo and so the other day we hired cyclos for most of the day and covered many of the key attractions -- Cholon and some of its markets and pagodas, the distant Giac Lom pagoda, what was originally the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes (now called the War Remnants Museum), the Art Museum, the History Museum and a bunch of other stuff. Travelling by cyclo is easily the best way to experience the city as you're moving slowly enough to really take in the sights, you can start and stop as you wish, and the drivers often speak very good English, so you'll get the commentary for free. Just remember to agree of a firmly fixed price before beginning.

That evening we hooked up with a ThornTree regular and headed out to of all places a Czech beer hall where we got stuck into a few too many dark beers. Before the beers we'd had an outstanding Vietnamese meal at an open air restaurant called Bao, just walking distance from Pham Ngu Lao. The steamed chicken in salt was simply amazing -- Holly reckons is was the best chicken she has had in her life. The soft shelled crabs were also delicious and the restaurant, totally packed with Vietnamese was a highlight of our food stay so far.

We're leaving Saigon for a few days today, heading up to the beach strip at Mui Ne -- looking forward to getting some sand between the toes.

Posted by travelfish 01:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

No long time in Long Xuyen

-17 °C

If you're planning on spending two to three months in the Mekong Delta, remember to set aside at least five minutes for the provincial capital of An Giang, Long Xuyen. Last time I went there we struggled to find a hotel which would accept foreigners and ended up staying in a brothel. This time around the situation isn't much better -- one place I checked, the Thai Binh 2, had a second floor karaoke bar that was going off at two in the afternoon. I braved the screeching din and peeked inside to see the place was packed with a bunch of middle-aged Vietnamese men, all with beer-goggles well fogged and women fawning all over them. And this was 2pm on a weekday!

We beat a hasty retreat out of Long Xuyen and headed to one of the Mekong Delta's largest towns, Can Tho. It's best known for a series of floating markets you can visit by boat from the capital, but more about that later.

When we arrived at the long-running and recommended-by-others Hien Guest House, the owner explained the price structure and showed me a room. It was reasonable, perhaps a little overpriced, but it would do. I went back downstairs to collect Holly and the bags and pay the motos. However before I could even get the bags up the stairs, the guesthouse owner enquired if we wanted to do a boat trip?

I made the mistake of expressing a passing interest and proceeded to get a 20-minute floorshow on why we should do a boat-trip with this guy. Consider this an annoucement to all guesthouse owners: please allow guests to get their bags to their room and wash the sweat off their bodies before trying to sell them anything.

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As his spiel wound down, he hadn't mentioned price, so I asked, well, how much is it?

"It's in The Book," he said matter-of-factly.

Now I know full well what Book he was talking about, but as I didn't have a copy with me, I asked how much again.

"The same as in the book. $3 one hour for the boat -- take a look in The Book -- it's all in there."

Novel suggestion: perhaps we should avoid interaction with people and just do what The Book says. While I've no doubt The Book does a fine job covering Vietnam (and many other countries), I prefer to ask around myself. It's a good way to find things that are not in The Book,and a great way to avoid those who have chosen to Live And Die By The Book (LADBTBites).

Perhaps this was a subtle way of him telling me his place is listed in The Book, but subtlety was not one of his major assets.

The Book Authors I know have a name for what happens with they rave about a place or, even worse, list it in their new "Author's Choice" section: "The Book Kiss Of Death". Not only will the place be flooded by LADBTB acolytes, but the prices will jack up (often doubling), the once-friendly staff will throw in the towel in the face of over-demanding and often totally irrational LADBTBites, and undergo a transformation from warm to cynical.

Anyway I digress.

Why didn't the proprietor let us take our bags into the room before laying into us with his boat-trip spiel? Because he gets a great hit rate -- we relented and did a trip through him, and to be fair, it was excellent. So what if we found out upon our return, sunburnt and sleepy, that we could have got it for a dollar an hour less by the riverfront? That's part of the game and anyway we were really happy with our guide -- a Canthonian who'd been rowing people around for seven years and spoke good English.

The trip began with a 5.30am departure (Holly was not happy) and we spent the next seven hours on our own boat, alternately motoring and paddling through the floating markets and then through the back canals to Can Tho.

The first market was Cai Rang and the second Phung Dien. Cai Rang gets bigger boats and barges, many of which hoist samples of their produce up on poles poking into the sky -- everything from pumpkin and cassava to poultry and piping hot coffee is on offer. Just as we entered the market, a small sampan came scooting over with it's pilot calling out, "Coffee, coffee!" He then threw over a rope with a hook and tied us up -- we felt like we were being trapped pirate-style -- but the coffee was great and woke Holly up.

Phung Dien is a smaller market with loads of little sampans along with the occasional barge. We spent a good hour floating around in the midst of this market and it was excellent -- I just regret not getting a bowl of noodles from the noodle-lady that floated over.

Once we finished at the markets, our motor came on and we cruised off up the back canals to Can Tho. While this portion of the trip was a bit long at around three hours, the scenery was sleepy and interesting. We saw schoolkids cycling home for lunch, younger kids jumping off the monkey bridges spanning overhead, fruit hanging heavy over the river so close we could have grabbed it, lush ferns and jungle, rice being thrashed and harvested, barges tied up under the shade of gigantic trees -- a veritable kaleidoscope of every cliche you could come up with about Vietnam's Mekong Delta, yet there was nothing cliched about it. All that was missing was an icey chardonnay and a cheese board...

My main concern before doing the trip was that the markets would be cluttered with tourists. However by doing the trip from Can Tho we beat the Saigon tourists, who arrive en masse around 8ish, and shared the market with just one other set of backpackers, who were on a similar trip to us.

So don't make the mistake of doing it from Saigon and don't be lazy, spend the money and do it yourself.

Posted by travelfish 01:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Dawn in Chau Doc

When you cross the border between Cambodia and Vietnam, an invisible line is passed and the kramas disappear only to be replaced by conical hats, flowing ao dais and mono-print pyjamas. The river's banks become more industrious, and then, as we take a right to head south from the Mekong to the Bassac River somnolent Cambodia is left behind and boisterous Vietnam arrives.

Chau Doc sits at the junction of this bridging canal and the Bassac River. A thriving trading hub, Chau Doc is incredibly brightly coloured -- as if a container-load of pastel paints were dumped on the market and the population went mad. The town is a decked out in bright hues of pink, baby blue, purple and the occasional pastel green.

Down on the ground, it has a boisterous energy that is striking after the slower pace of Cambodia, but what is most telling is the obvious affluence. It's only after walking around in Chau Doc --

hardly the apex of Vietnamese wealth, that we really just how impoverished Cambodia is, and just how acclimatised we had become to it during our two years there. From the solid pavements and clean wet markets to the standard of street side stalls and restaurants it doesn't matter where we look we're struck by how much this country appears to be going forward as Cambodia continues to slide backwards.

Holly settles down in a comfortable restaurant (the Bay Bong which is seemingly recommended in just about every guidebook on earth) while I head out to find some comfortable lodgings.

A word on Chau Doc hotels -- the standard is amazingly good and great value. For US$5 you can get a perfectly adequate fan-cooled room with tv, hot water bathroom and perhaps even a bit of a view, while for $10 you get the works -- there are a few brand-new hotels in town and they're outstanding value. While you can spend $110 a night at the Victoria Hotel, you'd be mad to particularly as you'd be sharing the terrace bar with moaning staff from the Oz embassy in Phnom Penh.

In the afternoon we did a trip out to Sam Mountain -- a small hillock loaded with pagodas and a view from the summit. Lazy that we are we opt for a motorcycle to the summit and it is money well spent -- the view is reasonable but hardly breathtaking.

One of the big attractions in Chau Doc are the floating houses that surround the area -- fish farming is a big deal and many of the raft houses maintain huge fish farms beneath their floorboards. Today I did a dawn boat trip through these floating houses and it was excellent. Dawn brought with it stunning light and fascinating life scenes -- kids getting ready for school, grandparents brushing their few remaining teeth, women selling morning snacks while in the distance, against the brilliant green of river reeds, a lone women in her shimmering white ao dai rows past. A highly recommended trip.

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By 8am, the sun is well up and the market has awoken -- stuffed baguettes, piping hot coffee with an inch of condensed milk at the base, the never ending stream of kids ... hello hello hello hello hello -- I've lost count of how many times I've said that today and it isn't even 10am.

From the decade ago I was last here the town has changed a lot -- more affluent, cleaner and far more industrious. But in many ways it hasn't changed at all. The smiling kids, the pestering motos, the smooth fruit shakes -- sometimes the best things never change.

Posted by travelfish 01:24 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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