In this journal:
- a tank crashing through a gate
- rolls of shrimp
- I haggle UP the price of a sandwich
Ho Chi Minh City Again
Upon disembarking, I ran like hell towards the immigration center, as the chaos I saw last time was nothing but exacerbated. The surge of customers from a China Southern, an Eva Air, and a Tiger Air flight instantly jacked up the chaos into MAXIMUM OVERLOAD, and Business Class disembarking first did not help either.
To the left of the hall of hell was the visa application center. One should apply for visa here first before going to line up in the pit of doom. A form needs to be filled, and then handed into a window with a 4cm×6cm photo and passport. The agents in the back randomly grab an application and then stick a visa onto it, hand it to the cashier, and afterwards the cashier calls for the person. There was no receipt for your passport, or a number sequence for lining up. If you do not have a photo, that will be a separate waiting line to take a photo and then pay 5 USD.
What can greatly speed things up is to print out your form early and fill it, hand it immediately upon arriving at the counter, so you skip ahead many people writing the forms, and the agent usually grabs the top of the pile so you win out.
The whole process for me was painless, but long. From leaving the jet bridge to getting the visa was about 30 minutes, and I found the shortest lane but it was still 45 minutes of wait in the immigration. Beware though as some lines have 2 agents clearing people while some only have 1, so it is worth running to the front to see which line is served more, and decide accordingly. I finally exited the terminal at 3:45pm after changing my USD into Dongs at 1:22670 rate, having landed at 2:15. To save money, I chose the cheapest option to go downtown, and took the 152 bus opposite of Burger King, which cost merely 5000 Dong!!! In 30 minutes, I was dropped off at the final station at Ben Thanh.
I walked 500m to my hostel, and settled in. It was more like a hotel than a hostel, with a restaurant, a rooftop bar, and all the beautiful decor that comes with a hotel. The cost was sweet: just 10 dollars a night.
I made some friends and took off with them for dinner. One of us being Vietnamese, it was not hard to find a rather great spot filled with different kinds of food congregated at one place. However, being one of the most touristy cities in Asia, it was undoubtedly geared towards first timers.
We walked around for a bit after stuffing ourselves with tons of food, which eventually just cost me 8 bucks! The backpacker district was also characteristic-less: disco clubs, Starbucks, and young westerner fuckpads.
After a night in slumber, I woke up almost at noon time. Jetlag hits like a truck in trips like this. Barely able to rotate my shoulders, I struggled into the famed Ben Thanh market right by the corner. The amount of food stalls inside was shocking.
After some delicious meals and a coconut, which cost about 120000 Dong/5.5 dollars, I wandered towards the War Remnants Museum. I worked my way around the area, reading about the horrible war crimes the United States had committed on this piece of land. One of the most gruesome parts was the Agent Orange. This chemical is still causing thousands of birth deformities even in the 4th generation! Some babies lack eyes, ears, or brains; some lost limbs; some were retarded; and some were conjoined. The museum was not subtle in the ways of showing them. Many people reading alongside me were wiping tears, and others simply remained silent, trying to suppress their gag reflex. The war machines on display in the courtyard had been wiped clean of all the blood that had stained the steel, but some of them still reeked of horror as if the blood had drenched the armor through and through.
I then paid a visit to the Independence Palace, the seat of the American puppet South Vietnam regime. Many rooms were in display, and some interesting history was told in the hourly free tour.
The above tank was the very tank that smashed through the front gates of the palace, effectively ending the reign of the South Vietnam republic.
The two red circles in the above picture were the spots of two bombs dropped by a North Vietnam spy flying one of South Vietnam’s American plane during the later days of the conflict. This severely reduced US’s confidence in the republic.
Another hour of walking around took me back where I started, my hostel, and quickly I found out there was actually a local market right across the street! Things were much cheaper when a place was not infested with fenny-packed tourists, such as the price of a coconut dropped from 25000 Dong to 15000 Dong (you know, the price difference of 40 cents USD is really important to us Business passengers).
I asked a lady with a full basket of rambhutan about her price, she thought about it for a while, and told me 25000 Dong a kilo, while in Ben Thanh Market it was 50000. Gladly, I nodded my head, and she started pouring rambhutans into a plastic bag while I realized I only had about 12 hours to finish them. We finally settled with 10000 Dong of them, and I gladly carried home some 20 rambutans.
I later joined my Vietnamese friend on another stroll through the heart of Saigon.
We settled in a place like a food court, which was obviously set up for foreigners to catch-em-all for food offerings. Over 3 dozen stalls offered hundreds of options, which I gladly took on.
But everything had an end, and even 3 hours of continuously eating did. We returned to our beds and passed out from food coma. I woke up early next day to catch my return flight, but before that, I wanted to make sure I had the classic Vietnamese Banh Mi before I left, so I crossed the street and found a tiny cart, featuring the whole shabang of Banh Mi fillings.
I was ready to use my sign languages, as this would actually be the first time I stepped out of my comfort zone by interacting with non-tourist oriented locals alone, without my newly made Viet friend. However, the stall owner was incredibly warm with his good English. He offered me a pork one for 15000 Dong (now that is a breakfast on budget), and I sat down beside his cart. The lady next to him sold drinks, and she asked me if I wanted anything to drink. (it is quite fascinating to see this kind of mutually benefitting organic partnership here in Vietnam, as drink sellers always open around restaurants) With the help of the banh mi dealer, I settled down with some REAL Vietnamese coffee, costing me a painstaking 10000 Dong. I was just about to bite into my beautiful wife, uh I mean, sandwich, but the lady suddenly gave me another lemon drink. I shook my head and said no thanks, but she insisted by nodding vehemently, while gesturing that it was a free drink on the house. What?! I literally paid 40 cents for a drink and she gave me another drink worth 60 cents for free. I was suddenly moved. Maybe hundreds of tourists pass her every day, but none have ever stopped to her calls because they were still trapped in their “comfort bubbles”. The very first time I stepped out of mine, I was immediately welcomed into the great Vietnamese family, overwhelmed by their hospitality.
The coffee was extremely strong, like red bull jacked up on red bull. The banh mi was incredible, so I did any rational person would do: I ordered another one, this time with EVERYTHING. I asked the owner how much it was, and he thought for a while, then said: 15000. NO WAY. A pork one was 15000, and now with everything else added in, including fish, sausage, fried beef, and many others, was still 15000? He must be giving me a discount. Looking at his contagious smile, I did something I never thought I would do: I told him I would pay 20000.
He shook his head:”no no no, 15000.”
But I insisted:”20000.” I put down the money on his cart.
WHAT WAS I DOING??? Did I literally just haggled the price UP? I sat down, completely crushed by how friendly the first two local Vietnamese I had truly talked to were. As a sentimental person deep beneath the loner facade, I felt some tears twirling in my eyes. But I made the excuse that the banh mi was too spicy. Knowing that, the lady kept refilling my drinks, which I did not pay for to start with! I was at a state of lost of words.
Sadly, I had next to no time to dwell. It was the brutal step of unrelenting time: had to go. Goodbye, my favourite stall in the world. Goodbye, beautiful Vietnam, even though I had only one glimpse.