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.
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.
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.
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.