Vietnam 19032012

So on to Day 2 of our whirlwind Indochina tour (excluding Laos :D). I wrote about our hotel, Phan Lan, in a previous post. It is along an alley in Pham Ngu Lao ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. It has 15 rooms in 6 floors. Our rooms had 2 beds, a bathroom, flat screen TV, and complimentary wifi. Breakfast was also included in our booking, which was 20USD per person per night. We were not allowed to bring our shoes/slippers up the stairs, so we left them at the lobby. We were assigned rooms in the 4th and 5th floors (which were actually the 5th and 6th floors, as they start numbering floors from 0), and we had to climb several flights of stairs as there was no elevator.

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the room, already messed up

We repaired early, as our day was to start at 7am, in time to catch the 8am bus to the Cu Chi tunnels. At that time, we have not yet decided on what to do on our sole day in Ho Chi Minh, and we just thought we had to meet at 6am to think about it. But Van (the doorkeeper/night receptionist) suggested the Cu Chi tunnels tour. By the time we went to our rooms, it was almost 3am, Vietnam time.

— change topic — I was not able to sleep early, as I was really bugged with my roaming service from Globe. I already activated my roaming through text, their *143 service, and by phone. But I had no signal! I would be having this problem for 2 more days before order was restored in the universe. Not to mention haranguing Globe’s customer service every single night I was abroad. Geez, you’d think they would do something about their crappy service as the competition was consolidating, BUT NO! — end rant —

The next morning, that is to say, that very same morning, we woke up early and met for breakfast. The dining room was at the bottom floor (hmm… -1?) and it offered a very homey approach. We felt as if we were just having breakfast at a friend’s house. Breakfast was simple, but pleasant: omelette, Bahn Mi (Vietnamese baguette, very crusty but unlike Filipino pan de sal, airy and hollow), coffee, and pineapple juice (which really tasted like calamansi juice. but very yummy).

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the dining room

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breakfast

We then talked to Van to arrange for our Cu Chi tunnels tour. Thankfully, it can be arranged the morning of, so we just waited for the bus in the alley.The bus could not enter our humble eskinita (Filipino for alley), so we were expecting the bus conductor. It was the only time I got to appreciate the alley. Though very small, it certainly had character. As we were in the backpacker district, one should not really expect that much, but it was good enough. O and Y, being from Manila, were very familiar with the sights and sounds of it all. It was nice, though initially disconcerting, I have to admit. But it grew on me.

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i was trying to capture the Vietnamese hat

We then proceeded to the bus, parked along Pham Ngu Lao. The bus was not out of the ordinary, but full of tourists. There were just a handful of Asians there, though. Most of the tourists were Caucasian. We did not have time or opportunity to talk to them, as we were all in our own small groups.

We first stopped at a lacquer factory, where the workers were victims or family members of victims of agent orange. As explained by our tour guide (his name I have forgotten, or did not hear right therefore did not register in my memory), agent orange was a chemical sprayed on the fields of Vietnam by the Americans during the Vietnam War. We would be enlightened by the War Remnants Museum on the matter. Anyway, the factory showed how the lacquer was made, and it also had a gift shop. The process was impressive, and the products were amazing. It was just on the steep side and we did not buy anything. 😀

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how lacquer products were made 

 so many Tintin products!

bakya (clogs)

We then went straight to the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of tunnels used as hiding spots during combat during the Vietnam war, aiding them in communication, supply, care and other matters during that tumultuous time. We got off the bus, and proceeded to pay the entrance fee of VND90,000. To get to the Cu Chi tunnels part, we also had to walk through a tunnel, much bigger, pretty much like an underpass.

it was well-lighted, so no twilight zone moment 😀

Before we could proceed with the tour, we were first herded to an “underground bunker” (I can’t think of any other description) to watch a movie about the Cu Chi tunnels, and its role  during the Vietnam war. For all intents and purposes, it was a propaganda video, and attacked the Americans. Because we did very little background reading prior to the trip, we were initially confused as we thought that the Vietnamese welcomed the Americans during that time. We were further enlightened when we visited the War Remnants Museum, which will be featured later.

After the video, we proceeded with the tour, which entailed showing the tourists the various traps made by the Vietnamese, or other concealment devices, such as the hollow point in the ground, meant only for one person. I wanted to try it, but knew I would be trapped because of my small stature.

 it’s a trap!

it’s a tank!

The trail also showed artillery used during the war, figures showing what like was during that time, and featured a firing range, where you could fire an AK-47, M-16, carbine, M1, M30 or M60, buying only the bullets to be fired (minimum bullets: 10). We did not do this. I found it expensive (I’m a cheapskate, is it showing already?) While the other people in our group fired guns, we sat in the gift shoppe and had a snack of corn (VND15,000) and soda crackers. We were aching to go into the actual tunnels!

After about 20 minutes, we proceeded with the trail. We had to walk through a mini-juncgle throughout the whole Cu Chi tunnel tour. Trees everywhere, and the trail had a slight bump in the middle. After a short walk from the firing range, we reach the part of the tunnels open to the public for exploration. We were made to choose between 20m, 60m, 100m, and 120m, with those choosing the 20m going into the tunnel first. We chose 60m, which we figured was a good enough distance. We were right! The tunnel was hot, damp, dark, and small. I am 4’10 and I had to crouch most of the time. Definitely not for those suffering from claustrophobia!

cue twilight zone

It took a while before we got to the end. We waited for the other people of our group who opted for the 120m walk. They emerged from the tunnels all flushed and sweaty, but still in good spirits (ie, not vomiting or out of their wits), which was good. Our guide then gave us taro (kamoteng kahoy), which was used by the Vietnamese for their subsistence during that time. We were used to eating this crop, but not with sugar and peanuts, as the Vietnamese did. That ended our Cu Chi tunnels tour, this was around 1300hrs already.

The bus did not stop for lunch, instead we drove straight back to the city. I was asleep most of the time, but in the times I was awake, I noticed the style of the houses in Vietnam. Unlike in the Philippines, the doors of the houses always faced the road. This was amusing for me.

When we reached the city, we asked to be dropped off at the War Remnants Museum. We were dropped a few corners away, and that was the first time we experienced crossing the street, Vietnam style. The motorcycles made it very difficult, no one slowed down for anything! This caused fright among us, we hesitated, we couldn’t dance through the throng! We waited for other pedestrians to cross the street, as there was no regard for the pedestrian lane. Luckily, many locals were crossing the streets we also crossed, and there was even one time when a local offered to help us cross the street (even though he was not supposed to cross the street in the first place). To you, oh kind stranger, thank you.

whew!

This was also the first time we walked the streets of Saigon. O was amazed with the trees in the street! It made the city environment fresh and breezy, which is certainly lacking in our dear Manila.

After crossing 2 streets, we reach the War Remnants Museum. The entrance is VND15,000, opens at 0730hrs, closes at 1700hrs. The War Remnants Museum (sorry, I can’t find the official website, if any, of the museum) showcases exhibits culled from the American phase of the Vietnam War. It has 3 floors worth of exhibits,   showing what was used during that time, but more importantly, the effects of the war on the Vietnamese. An exhibit on the ground floor also showed the worldwide rage against the war. But for me, the exhibits on the second floor were the most striking. The exhibits recounted the effects of the war, the massacres that happened, and Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a type of chemical sprayed on the fields of Vietnam, killing crops, affecting the soil, and exposing thousands of Vietnamese to the deadly chemical. The effects to the agent were horrendous, I could not even recount them here, mainly because I cannot fully describe the physical state of the victims shown in the exhibit.

A block away from the museum was the Reunification Palace. (entranceL VND30,000 each) The Palace was known also as the Independence Palace. It was the home and workplace of the President of Southern Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the highlight of its history was when an army tank crashed through its gates.

 Reunification Palace

At this point of our trip, we were already so tired that we had to stop at the entrance first, catch our breath, and have a drink. The water in the vending machine was VND10,000 each, which is more expensive than when bought outside. However, we were left with no choice as the sun was just beating at us furiously and we were dehydrated. We entered the Palace from the side (primarily because we hugged the shade made by the trees), and so we got lost inside. We had to make our way to the front of the palace once we were inside, so we can avail of the free tour service.

one of the rooms inside.

view of the road from inside

a courtyard for the first family

the magnificent staircases

the notre dame cathedral

the post office

pho!

we were trapped here for more than 30 minutes…

fruit stand

goi cuon

ben thanh market

Vietnam 18032012

It was January 2012 when we (O, Y, T, and myself) decided to go to Vietnam and Cambodia. At that time, there were no direct flights to Siem Reap, so we had to book flights to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, or even currently but informally, Saigon). We were supposed to book right after it was decided, but thought of waiting a week, as the prices of the airfare were not to our liking at that time. After a week, Cebu Pacific published promo fares for Saigon, and I booked our tickets right away. I also booked tickets for cousins A and C, but they were unable to come with use because of exams. Because what we had were promo tickets, they were unable to refund. Rebooking was very expensive, so it was decided to just let go of the tickets. 😦

Our flight was to leave from NAIA Terminal 3 on 18 March 2012 at 2250hrs. We were at NAIA at around 2030hrs, fearing the lines at the travel tax and immigration stations, even as we have already checked in online. At the check in counter, we saw Mayor Alfredo Lim of Manila. The Cebu Pacific personnel at the counter even asked us “Ma’am, gusto nyo syang makatabi?” Apparently, Mayor Lim was also flying to Saigon! O and Y are Manila residents, but as Y quipped “Shucks di ko ata sya binoto,” so we were content in shooting him from afar.

ImageThe plane left ontime, or thereabouts, but we were stuck for a bit in the runway. Let’s say about 10 minutes. My cousin N, who was a pilot for a local airline, always lamented on this unfortunate situation of the airport. The flight was uneventful, your typical Cebu Pacific flight, ie. no food or drink, unless you’re willing to spend an arm and a leg for instant noodles. Can’t complain though, and I was asleep for most of the flight anyway. O was unable to sleep, so she read Smile Inflight Magazine twice.

We arrived at Tan San Nhot International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City at around 0140hrs. The flight was 2 and a half hours, but there was a time difference between Manila and Saigon of 1 hr., Saigon being an hour behind. We passed through immigration and customs without a hitch. What I noticed was the abundance of flowers (orchids at that!) in the airport! How refreshing!

ImageWe then went to the money exchange booth, and exchanged 100USD. The exchange rate was 20850 Vietnamese Dong for 1USD. We were then instant millionaires!

Out the airport we went. We refused the insistent offers of cab drivers outside the airport. Instead, we walked to the right side of the airport, straight to the domestic terminal. O read in a blog that cabs were cheaper in the said terminal. What greeted us after our short walk was an empty, and I mean desolate and dark, terminal. The few people hanging around didn’t speak a word of English so we just went back to the arrival gallery of the international airport. We figured that tip would only work in daytime 😀

We went to the extreme left side of the airport, where the supposed taxi stand was. We picked a cab (an Innova) and bargained with the driver to take us to Pham Ngu Lao, District 1. We settled at 200,000D (approximately 9.60USD or 412.25PHP) for the 4 of us.

Imageview of the domestic terminal from the cab

We actually did not know where we were staying. O, prior to take off, contacted Chanh of Bich Duyen Hotel to book our beds. Unfortunately, the said hotel was already full, so Chanh referred us to the hotel next door. We didn’t even know the name of the hotel. It was funny, we really just relied on Chanh’s word about the whole thing!

After about 20 minutes, we arrive at Pham Ngu Lao. We asked our driver to drop us off at Bich Duyen’s address. I, Y and T didn’t know what we were in for. We arrived at an alley, a sort of Diagon Alley, should you miss it, you’re doomed! It was really a darkened alley, with flashes of Hostel, it was practically an eskinita (Filipino for alley, sort of derogatory, actually). It was so funny! And scary, I have to admit. We passed some hotels and finally reached Bich Duyen. We had to wake the gatekeeper to ask about the “other hotel”. The gatekeeper was “Chanh” (or, as we found out later, was a general name used by all in Bich Duyen) and knew of our arrangement and led us to Hotel Phan Lan. The gatekeeper was Van, and took us in. It was surreal.

I was unable to appreciate Phan Lan at first, probably because of the shock. I will write more about it in my next post.