Pretty balla, right? Not for a guy in my situation. But more on that later.
Monday I left the hot, sticky, and polluted Bangkok to visit the hot, sticky, and polluted Ho Chi Mihn City (aka Saigon). I was on a visa run. Every so often you have to leave Thailand and go visit another country where you visit the local Thai embassy and request permission to stay in Thailand.
I had never been to Vietnam but I had heard good things about it from other expats. On a scale of one to ten most didn’t rate it a zero.
The most entertaining part of the trip has been bringing along my girlfriend. I mean, she’s always wonderful company anyway but this trip has been interesting because everyone here thinks she’s Vietnamese and treat her accordingly.
The other day we were walking near Reunification Palace. It was hot and we decided to buy a bottled water from one of the street vendors. My girlfriend walks up to the vendor, points at the water, and holds up 1 finger (no, not that one) to indicate we would like one bottle.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
This little old lady starts yapping away to my girlfriend in Vietnamese. Not in a “That’ll be $1.00” way but in the quirky “Oh, that’ll be $1.00. It’s so hot out today, isn’t it? Is that your boyfriend? Where are you guys going today?” sort of way. Of course, I’m not sure what she said exactly but she just kept yapping and yapping away completely ignorant of the fact that neither of us understood a single word of what she was saying.
My girlfriend just stares at her blankly as the vendor pauses obviously awaiting some sort of response or confirmation.
I say “She’s Thai.”
“Ooooooohhhhh! Thailand!,” she says loudly so that the 20 or so people around us can hear. And they do hear and they all start looking at us. Murmuring all around.
The old lady smiles and says something to us in Vietnamese that, based on her body language and facial expressions, is some sort of apology and we make a quick exit.
Don’t get me wrong though. She/we haven’t been treated poorly at all. In fact, most of the people here have been incredibly friendly. The only thing that was uncomfortable about the situation I just mentioned is that part of being Thai is not pointing out other people’s mistakes and causing them to lose face. So she’s very hesitant to correct people when they speak Vietnamese to her. She gets completely frozen not knowing what to do. She can’t understand them and it would be rude to tell them that she doesn’t speak Vietnamese. I, being completely oblivious to face-saving issues, usually have to break the deadlock.
Most Vietnamese seem curious and the ones that can speak pretty good English chat her ear off wanting to know more about Thailand. And, of course, they always end up chatting about the differences between Thai and Vietnamese food which are very similar but are often prepared differently and have their own unique flavors.
The upside to that is that I can speak Thai to my girlfriend in front of Vietnamese and they have no clue what we’re talking about.
Overall Impressions of Saigon
I guess overall, the more I travel around SEA (South-East Asia) the more I appreciate that Thailand is truly a place of its own. Cambodia was similar but still very different and Vietnam seems worlds away.
Not that Vietnam is bad. We’re enjoying ourselves. It’s just that it is different.
I’m going to just come out and say that I was a little concerned about flashing an American passport in Vietnam considering the history between the two countries. I wasn’t sure if there would be any sort of buried animosity.
If there is, I haven’t seen it. Most people seem to be very welcoming and I don’t feel I’m being treating any differently than anywhere else in SEA. In fact, many of the market vendors sell t-shirts with American flag designs and the line outside the American embassy was half a block long with people waiting to apply for visas to visit.
Now for the more trivial matters . . .
Vietnam has nothing on Bangkok in terms of nightlife. Vietnam is pretty tame in comparison.
Other than KFC I don’t think I’ve seen any other Western fast food chains. No delivery service. You better like Vietnamese food if you come here :-)
If you’ve been having withdrawal symptoms from listening to the vuvuzelas during the World Cup, I highly, highly recommend Vietnam. Much like India, the Vietnamese use their horns as courtesy notices to other drivers. If you come up behind someone and you want them to be aware of it you give a little toot of the horn. If you start to pass someone you give a little toot of the horn to let them know so they don’t swerve into you.
What the essentially means is that all you hear, day and night, is horn honking. Unless you’re staying on the 97th floor of your hotel you’re going to have to learn to drown out that sound.
If you’re anywhere near Bui Vien expect to be approached all night from street vendors. It sort of reminds me of Bangla Road in Phuket. Mostly children but some older people will walk by whatever establishment you might happen to be in and try to sell you stuff. Roses, books, bracelets, cigarettes, watches, whatever. And just like Bangla Road, no matter how many times you’ve seen the same person and told them “No” each and every time you’ve seen them they’ll still stop and aggressively try to sell you.
My guesstimate is that if you sit at an outdoor cafe for 2 hours you will have told every single street vendor “No” at least four times. Considering there are 10 or 15 of them that’s 40 – 60 no’s per two hour period or one “No” roughly every 2 minutes or so.
I’m not sure how you’re able to spot expats from tourists but I seem to have that super-power in Bangkok. Using the same criteria, it seems Vietnam has relatively few expats and lots of tourists compared to Thailand. In general that’s a bad thing because it means that more people are on the scam if they know they’re scamming tourists who will get on a plane and never return.
We went to one of the local markets and I picked out a few t-shirts I wanted to buy for myself and as gifts. I chose four in total and the girl told me that she wanted something like $25 per t-shirt. I just laughed in her face. I said, “Listen, I live in Bangkok and I can buy t-shirts like this for 100 baht without even bargaining. That’s $3 a t-shirt!” Her response was “Well, these say Vietnam on them. You can’t buy t-shirts like this in Bangkok.”
While she was technically correct (Thailand vendors haven’t begun knocking off tourism t-shirts from other countries . . . yet) they were selling these same exact t-shirts on the street for $5 before you even started negotiating. I ended up paying $15 for the lot but the blatant thievery is almost awe inspiring.
I can appreciate a good 100% – 200% markup for dumb tourists that you can negotiate down from but when you start heading any farther north than that, that’s just abusive greed.
One of the reasons the locals might feel so inclined to rip off foreigners is because most tourists are a**holes. Last night I was sitting between two different groups. One was two British women of Indian origins and the other was two pasty white Brits.
The Indians spent 20 minutes disputing every item on their bill despite the fact I had witnessed them eat their meals without complaint and even commenting how good the food was to each other. They were trying to angle shoot everything.
The other was some whiny gal with her male date (boyfriend, maybe?) bellowing out this philosophical masterpiece “I always thought Asian food was supposed to be cheap in Asia.” Well, it is. But not in a tourist restaurant in the heart of the tourist part of town that mainly serves Western meals and only serves Asian dishes for people like you who come to Asia and think having fried rice is “going native.”
Want a $1.50 meal? Go eat noodles from a street vendor. I guarantee you’ll have a hard time spending $2 there. Unfortunately, she probably doesn’t sell souvenir t-shirts and you might actually have to learn 2 or 3 words of the local language to order your meal.
One last observation: We were sitting in a very popular and well-known bar the other night and one of the street vendors offered to fetch a pack of smokes for someone at the table next to us. A few minutes later he returned with the cigarettes and he also handed the guy a bag of pot. I’ve heard that that amount would be a dime bag in size.
Vietnam has some pretty strict rules on drugs but from what I’ve read on the internet the local police don’t care too much as long as it’s tourists. In other words, don’t flash it in their face and you’ll probably get away with it. Still, if they do decide they need to send their kid through college they might bang you up and look for a nice bribe to forget it.
The guy’s response was kind of funny though. He took the bad and looked at it. It was as if he was somewhat stunned for a moment. He looked back at the kid (who was all of about 10 years old) and said “Is this pot?” The kid shot back “Yes, it’s good ganja. It’ll get your really high.” The guy (wisely) shoved the bag back into the kid’s hands and said “I don’t want that.”
I have achieved the goal of my trip, my visa. I highly recommend the Thai embassy in Saigon. It’s not easy to find but the upside is there’s nobody there. I walked in and was the only person there. I handed in my visa application (which I had already filled out), waited for a receipt, and was out of there in under 10 minutes.
When I picked up the visa and my passport the next day, again, there was nobody there. I walked in, went straight to the counter, and walked out in about 5 minutes.
Unlike most cities where you wait for a little green man to indicate that it’s safe to cross the street, Vietnam doesn’t seem to be too hip on the whole traffic light thing and people just sort of more or less do whatever they want. They do have stoplights but only at major intersections and there are no stop signs at minor intersections so the right of way is pretty much left up to you to figure out amongst yourselves. But there is a method to the madness.
In Bangkok if you’re caught in the middle of the street, there’s a good chance drivers will try to hit you. Okay, they might not go out of their way to hit you but you’re really putting your faith in Buddha if you think they will avoid you.
In Vietnam the only way to cross a street is to just walk right out into the traffic. Motorbikes and cars will swerve to avoid you. Somehow it just works.
So far, I’ve found that there only two reputable taxi services, Vinasun and MaiLinh Group. There might be others but my online research constantly came up with those two companies as being mostly legitimate.
When you arrive at the airport an important thing to know is that once you walk past all of the less reputable taxis you’ll have a hard time if you’re sitting there waiting for a Vinasun or MaiLinh taxi. You have to cross the street to the guys sitting around with walkie talkies. They’ll call you a taxi from a waiting pool in a parking lot across the street. But do make sure they’re waring badges from either Vianasun or MaiLinh because there are a few other guys with walkie talkies too.
200,000 Bar Tab
Oh, and that was in VND (Vietnamese Dong) which is roughly 20,000 dong to the US dollar so after dinner and drinks the tab came to about $10. Sounded balla though :-)
I’m back in BKK Sunday where I hope on hooking up with my good amigo Hilly who is in town. I’ll have more pics to post then. I brought two cameras with me. My DSLR and my little Canon point and shoot. Well, it seems that time is catching up with the point and shoot and it’s not letting me access the photos via the USB port on the camera. I have to remove the memory card and use a card reader. Of course, I don’t have one with me so . . .