Our roving international correspondent, Bob Schiff, has been traveling throughout Asia, reporting on the obscure and exotic. Here is his 11th installment detailing his travels. Enjoy Shiff's musings on the locals, customs, accommodations, and certainly the visual and descriptive majesty of the sites he is visiting and documenting.
- You know you've become a seasoned traveler when you carry three or four different currencies, carry more mobile phone SIM cards than credit cards, need to think which way to look for oncoming traffic each time you step off a curb, have had to visit a U.S. embassy to get more pages added to your passport and seem to always be making visa
runs. It was that time again for me. Another visa run. I have used Bangkok as my Asian travel hub for the past two years. At this point it feels like home - I read the Bangkok Post
every morning; travel the city without a guide book or map; navigate the mass transit system - skytrain, underground and klong ferries - with ease; and dress my street food with the traditional blend of sweet, spicy, sour and salty with confidence. I could easily live here.
New Year's Eve on the streets
In the mid-1990s, shortly after Vietnam opened up for tourism, I spent a quick few weeks touring the country. My recollection of Saigon is pretty good. I remember staying at one of the grand old world hotels, The Majestic. It was a run down dump. I also remember having cocktails at the rooftop bar of the Rex hotel, another grand hotel made famous by the military brass, journalists and other assorted dignitaries and shadowy characters during the American War (that's what it's called over here). It too was a dump. From the crumbling streets filled with beggars to the run down buildings and intermittent electricity the city was clearly third world. There was an energy though. A subtle buzz. I also remember that most everyone was young.
I arrive early evening, get through customs, hit the ATM and grab a taxi. I decided on the area of town I'd like to stay but have not made a reservation. As we drive I come to realize that this is not the Saigon I remember. The streets are lined with cafes, restaurants and stores all ablaze in in bright lights and neon signs. The pavement is smooth, streets well lit and everything looks clean and modern. There are many late model cars and shiny new motorbikes. As we approach District 1, the central business district, I notice many modern office buildings and hotels all decked out in a brilliant profusion of Christmas decorations. All the typical high-end retailers are here too. Look at that overweight, shy, pimple-faced kid from high school now. I'm blown away. A truly remarkable transformation.
I scout around for a hotel. A few are full. I find one for $35/night but it's a bit tired. Another is $115 but they will give it to me for $90. I keep looking. Another at $70. Maybe I'll be back. Then I hit upon the Ho Sen
Hotel; just renovated, all the usual western amenities, large room, spotlessly clean and only $35. After a quick shower I'm off for dinner. The streets are an agglomeration of activity. Thousands of people on motorbike and on foot. Young families (heck, everybody seems young here) and groups of friends many "glamour" posing for pictures in front of the Christmas decorations. It's like a big street party. Everyone is smartly dressed and looks to be having a truly fun time. Within the few blocks around my hotel are dozens and dozens of restaurants. I settle on a restaurant for a meal of assorted Vietnamese appetizers, sauteed tofu and lemongrass and a braised pork hotpot. Excellent.
Twenty seven years as a manic type-A New Yorker and habitual J-walker has prepared me for the streets of Saigon. Motorbikes swarm like locust. There are literally hundreds of thousands of motorbikes on the streets. Traffic lanes, one-way street signs and the few traffic lights are merely a suggestion. Sidewalks are fair game for bike too; both parked and on the move. To cross a street you just step off the curb, make eye contact and go. Everybody does it. Somehow it works. I walk or use Xe Om's, motorbike taxis, to get around town. Adults can only ride two-up but families can take their children along. It's easy to see why they all ride so good - first babies ride sandwiched on the seat between mom and dad. Then they graduate to riding in front between the driver and the handle bar. By the time they are old enough to ride themselves they have a lifetime
of experience in bike handling and judging traffic flow. You can tell the uninitiated tourists on the back of motorbikes - they hold on white knuckled to the seat railing. I go hands free; just like the locals. You really need to have faith as it's absolutely wild with motorbikes and cars coming from every direction. Definitely not for the feint of heart.
Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world. There is a great coffee culture with hundreds of coffee shops around town filled with trendy locals socializing over iced coffee. I drink Ca phe sua da - iced coffee with condensed milk - thick, rich and delicious. The working class can be seen perched on small plastic stools scattered on the sidewalks all over town doing essentially the same at a fraction of the cost. Rich or poor it's a great for people watching and a great way to while away an afternoon.
Ho Chi Mihn City (HCMC) is a conundrum - while Vietnam is a communist country it's really a single party managed economy. Capitalism though is overtly king. The people are industrious and there is clearly wealth here. I have seen a Bentley, a Rolls Royce
, the new 4-door Porsche
, a Porsche Turbo Cayenne, numerous late model Mercedes, BMW
's and Lexuses, and even a Lamborghini. People dress smartly and there are many sophisticated galleries, boutiques, stores, cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs. The Majestic and Rex are now 5-star hotels with prices to match. There are many other 4 and 5-star hotels now too. It is an interesting mix of emerging east and modern west. Most of the activity seems to center around the central business district or District 1 - there are many well healed Vietnamese, overseas Vietnamese workers home on holiday and western expats and tourists out and about. I have ventured into the other districts and they too have a vibrant buzz, just no westerners.
I do notice one disappointing negative; the national sport seems to be getting over on the tourists. It seems everybody - yes, even that sweet old lady selling her wares on the street that you stop to buy from just to be nice - is out to get as much as they can from visitors and overcharge as much as possible. It almost seems like a personal accomplishment to see how much they can rip off the uninitiated tourist. Sad.
Rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel.
Up to this point I rated Thai as the best food in Asia. With my visit to HCMC I now think Vietnamese takes the top spot. It has a more refined, delicate and intricate blend of tastes. The Vietnamese enthusiastically share this opinion. In fact, they are very proud of their country and culture. Deservedly so. It is hard for me to fathom how we ever chose to fight a war in this beautiful country. I thought the same last time I visited.
Last night was Christmas Eve. Unlike in New York, here everyone is out and partying. The streets are jammed with motorbikes and the bars, pubs and clubs are packed. It seems more like New Year's Eve back in New York. In fact, it seems very much like New York here. Much more so than any other city I have been to in Asia. I almost regret that I broke my rule and bought a round trip ticket here from Bangkok as I'm scheduled to fly back on December 30th to spend New Year's Eve in Bangkok. Had I known what Saigon was like I would have probably chosen to stay here. Oh well.
As with every major city, Saigon really comes alive at night. By 7 p.m. it seems everyone is on the streets. With all the Christmas decorations it really adds a festive air about town. I do notice that more lights and decorations are being strung about town presumably in anticipation of New Year's Eve. The park near the backpacker area has a few large stages and many food stalls about. At night it too is filled with decorations and lights. It seems that the whole town is ablaze. And oh what an energy level. Most nights I head for one of the clubs at around 11:30 p.m. After a few hours of clubbing it's off to a crowded all night Chinese restaurant to soak up the evenings libation.
One nice aspect of Saigon is that it's really a walk-around town. Sure for a few dong you can grab a Xe Om or taxi but generally it's not necessary. Being on foot really adds to the overall experience - you feel a part of things rather than an observer. Besides, it's just easier. The evening before I'm scheduled to fly back to Bangkok I begin to ask myself, Why? Sure Bangkok is a great city but so is Saigon and to be a stranger in a strange city Saigon just seems easier and the people are clearly gearing up for a big night. You guessed it; I stayed. And yep, it was a good decision.
STAY TUNED FOR SCHIFF'S NEXT INSTALLMENT
Street vendors carried fruits and vegetables across the market.