A.D.M. Was Here: Vietnam

In the fall of 2013 I went on another trip abroad as a sort of before-I’m-an-official-lawyer trip; two and a half weeks in Vietnam, a few days in Thailand and Cambodia, and a week in Seoul. This post will be focused on Vietnam.

I flew with Asiana which, at the time, was suffering from some bad press due to an unfortunate incident in San Francisco so the tickets were cheaper. After many hours in the air and a complimentary hotel room in Incheon for a layover, I arrived in Tan Son Nhat International Airport in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Many folks still refer to the city as Saigon rather than Ho Chi Minh, so that’s what I’ll be going with.

Before going to Vietnam, I was told by a friend that might have to pay off the airport security in Vietnam for one reason or another (i.e., bribe them to not be hassled). So I was fairly paranoid going from baggage claim to the customs checkpoint. They looked at my passport while my bag went through their little machine and—well, nothing happened.

Saigon, Part 1

I spent most of my time in Saigon mooching off a friend’s relatives. I stayed in their apartment, ate their food, and was chauffeured around once in a while. A young woman, let’s call her S, who spoke more English than the other folks was sort of assigned to show me around.

View of a less touristy corner of the city from an apartment window.

View of a less touristy corner of the city from an apartment window.

After dinner with my friend’s family on my first night in Saigon, S brought me to some places where young people hang out. From what I remember, there were a lot of places to shop and eat, a lot of small groups of people just loitering on the sidewalk and talking. The next day, S brought me back to the mall while it was open and got me a prepaid phone.

Somewhere in Saigon.

Somewhere in Saigon.

Aside from my booked flight to South Korea, I had nearly two weeks to kill and had absolutely no plans. All I knew was that I wanted to explore Vietnam. As most reasonable people would do, I went to Google to research things to do and see; unlike some people, I waited until I was already in the destination country before opening my browser. Eventually, I resolved to use The Sinh Tourist to make my way from city to city.

The Sinh Tourist is a popular touring company, but it’s surrounded by imitators with similar names. I’m not sure if this is due to lax trademark law or simply a lack of enforcement. Thanks to all the other “Sinh” touring companies, both physical offices and on the internet, it was a slight hassle to figure out which was the one I wanted.

I had another one of my friend’s relatives bring me to the physical office. He thought it would be fun to do so on his motorbike rather than his van. Having never ridden a motorized two-wheeled vehicle before, it was a novel experience. What made it more interesting was Saigon’s traffic.

For those who haven’t seen Saigon traffic, imagine a swarm of motorbikes and bicycles with a handful of cars and vans all constantly moving through the streets, with little to no signs or lights to regulate them. If you’re a pedestrian, unless you’re at a huge intersection, there aren’t any crosswalks or lights to well you when it’s safe to move. You simply start walking across the street and try not to get hit. The trick is to keep your speed consistent. If you make sudden stops or sprints, it’ll make it harder for drivers to predict your movement and would probably make them hit you. If you walk at a consistent and moderate speed, the drivers will see you and adjust their speed so you pass each other without incident—supposedly.

On the way back the Sinh Tourist office, however it began to rain a lot. Not taking the van turned out to be a horrible idea. My driver had a rain poncho, but all I had was the back of his poncho to put over my head.

Da Lat

After a few days in Saigon, the motorbike guy brought me back to the tour company’s office and I hopped on a bus to Da Lat. It was my first day in Vietnam without my friend or his relatives to guide me, and it gave me a sense of excitement I’ve only ever felt when traveling solo. Right before the bus was to leave, a young blonde woman rushed aboard. She was out of breath and had cuts and scabs on her knees and arm. I think I had trouble placing her as English at first, having only heard her speak a few words to the bus crew.

The drive from Saigon to Da Lat took over six hours. One of our stops was at a large rest stop which included shopping and several restaurants. With the people from my bus being the only people there, it felt deserted. Since the English woman was also traveling alone, I asked to join her for lunch. I’ll be calling her D from here on out.

Back on the bus, D and I swapped numbers and, after checking into our respective hotels, met again for dinner. She, like many expats her age in Vietnam, was an English teacher. She’d been doing it for a while, maybe a year, and had some stories to tell. The most memorable bit was how she’d been mugged twice: once when she first moved to Saigon, and another time rather recently. It was a mugging that resulted in the scabs on her arms and legs.

In the touristy, foreigner area of Saigon, there’s a considerable rate of theft. One of the common means went like this: Two jerks drive by on a motorbike, one guy drove while the other sat in the back ready to snatch bags from tourists. The first time this happened to D was her birthday. The second time, D refused to let go without a fight. She held onto the strap of her bag and ended up with some cuts and bruises when she fell. The thieves still got away, though. She admitted it would’ve been smarter to just let go, particularly since she had known not to carry anything essential in her bag to begin with. In contrast to D’s experience, I’d been staying at my friend’s relative’s house, away from the touristy area and foreigner-targeting thieves.

D told me she’d already been to Da Lat, and she had come back on her solo vacation from teaching English because Da Lat was her favorite place in Vietnam.

Da Lat, unlike most of the country, was nice and cool. The city was at a higher elevation in the mountains with an abundance of green and fresh water streams running through and around it. Since D had already seen most of the touristy things I was set to do the next day, I had to go off on my pre-booked tour and make new friends.

The day tour group wasn’t too big, so it was moderately intimate, making it easy for me to befriend a group of college-aged kids from—well, I forget where, but I’m thinking Singapore or Malaysia. Their English was just a tad below conversational, and I didn’t speak a word of their first language so our conversation was minimal. However, we were able to communicate enough to take photos for each other (this was before the explosion of selfie sticks; not that I use selfie sticks).

The first attraction on the tour was Bao Dai’s Summer Palace, more of a mansion than a palace, but it was the vacation house to the final emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. I took a bunch of photos, but was most impressed with the green outside.

Da Lat 1

Front of the Bao Dai Summer Palace.

Woods outside of the palace.

Woods outside of the palace. There may or may not have been a public restroom just out of the shot.

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A.D.M. Was Here: Athens, Greece

The bus from Sofia brought me into Greece and, after a pit stop in Thessaloniki, I went straight down to Athens where I stayed for two nights (i.e., more than I’d stayed in the previous three countries combined). I spent these nights in the Apollo Hotel which was reasonably priced and only a short subway ride to the city’s main attraction: the hills and temples of (and around) the Acropolis.

Now that I think about it, I may actually have gone from Bulgaria into Greece on Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas day. Anyway—

After finally getting some rest in a proper bed (and not the Train from Hell as described in my last post), I took the subway in the A.M. to Acropoli station and began to explore. The first place I tried to get into was the Acropolis to see the Parthenon, but the place was closed for Christmas.

It wasn’t a big deal, though, I just had to come back the next day; there was still a lot of Athens to see. Somewhat aimlessly, I wandered southeast to the Arch of Hadrian and followed the road up to Zappio Megaro where there were a bunch of people doing holiday stuff, and tiny horses which now reminds me of Parks and Recreation:

Athens 00

Arch of Hadrian. Not to be confused with the other ones in Italy or Jordan, or Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England (aka The Wall keeping out the Wildlings).

Athens 01

The view of Temple of Olympian Zeus… from over a fence.

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A.D.M. Was Here: Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia

To reflect the way I rushed through these cities, I’m squeezing them all into a single post (secondary motive: to finish writing about my prior travels a bit faster; there are still a number of countries to get through).

Prague, Czech Republic

A friend from law school, let’s call him Mr. Sarcastic, let me stay at his family’s place in a quiet part of the city. He picked me up at the train station and we took some sort of public transit to their family’s apartment where we kicked his younger sister out of her bedroom. I took my Mr. Sarcastic’s crappy bed, he took his sister’s considerably fluffier bed, and she was banished to the couch in the living room. Not my idea.

Longest escalator I've ever seen.

Prague Station’s escalator is probably the longest I’ve ever seen.

After leaving my bags at the apartment and before going out for the night, I ate some random food Mr. Sarcastic’s mom set out for me (ham cold cuts, I think). My friend’s mom, through my friend as a translator, gave me advice not to drink any liquor due to recent incidents of counterfeit stuff in the region causing people to go blind.

So, Mr. Sarcastic gave me on a night tour of some areas of the city. It was getting close to Christmas so there wasn’t much partying going on; but there were holiday decorations and a Christmas market. We finished the night by drinking a bit at some club called Karlovy Lazne.

Prague at Night 01

Prague at Night 02

The next morning, Mr. Sarcastic brought me to see Prague Castle and its hodgepodge of architectural forms. If I recall correctly, the variations are due to the fact that Prague was a major seat of power for a long period of time, which brought a broad range of intellectuals there, including architects.

Prague 01

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral's interior.

St. Vitus Cathedral’s interior.

While I did some touristy stuff at St. Vitus Cathedral, Mr. Sarcastic ran off to the post office (I think). It began snowing while I waited for the dingus to comeback (actually, it was nice).

Prague St Vitus Cathedral 03

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A.D.M. Was Here: Berlin

Coming back into the Eurozone after Scandinavia, the price of food and lodging seemed super-reasonable. My train out of Copenhagen brought me to Hamburg where I had some time before the next leg of my journey to Berlin; I spent that time at a Christmas market eating Christmas-y snacks (assuming you count deep-fried dough covered in Nutella as a Christmas snack).

Hamburg Christmas Market

Christmas Market in Hamburg

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A.D.M. Was Here: Scandinavia

After my trip to Iceland, I returned to London for a one-night pit stop. One weekend into the winter break, most of my classmates had already left the country. Many went back to the United States to spend the holidays with their families, and a few others went off to do some more traveling. I prepped myself to do the latter.

I moved my luggage from the flat in Bloomsbury over to my law school’s building and packed about seven days’ worth of clothing into a canvas “holdall” bag from Marks & Spencer. The clothes would last me two weeks as I rode the rails around Europe as part of my self-imposed rite of passage to become a full-fledged pretentious writer (note: I washed my clothes at a hostel in Athens halfway through the trip).

The first stop on my solo trip was Scandinavia.

Oslo, Norway

Oslo 00

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A.D.M. Was Here: Bavaria (Munich and Ludwig’s Castles)

From Rome to Munich

Yep, a lame wingtip photo.

After my would-be adventures in Italy with my fellow law students, I flew solo from Rome to Munich. I spent the first night wandering on foot for a few hours.

Munich 02

Marienplatz

Munich 03

The next morning, I headed off to Dachau to visit the concentration camp. Like the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, the entire experience was rather somber. Going into the gas chambers gave me an unexpected chill. It’s a creepy space to walk through and I did it backwards, first seeing the room where they incinerated the bodies, then walking into the “shower” room where they murdered all those people and finally seeing the slots outside through which they dropped the gas canisters.

Dachau 05

Incinerator.

Dachau 06

Gas chamber.

Dachau 07

Gas canister drop slots.

Dachau 09

“Work makes [you] free.” Right.

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