Flavours of Saigon – Motormouth’s Priceless Tips & Rants!August 21, 2012 | 1,991 views
Four days of holidays here in Malaysia came and gone in a flash. Have you had enough of rest or fun? Surely there will be that hovering evil thought of extending the holidays by calling in sick, throwing excuses like ‘tayar pancit’ (more like ‘perut buncit’?!), ‘anak sakit’, etc.
I mean, you don’t see unity presented in a more unanimous fashion in Malaysia than during the public holidays. Open house fiesta, shopping malls, touching TV ads, traffic
pileup buildup on the expressways and barrage of Facebook updates/posts on gatherings and homecomings.
Proud to be Malaysian. Really.
1. The Incredibly-Tough-to-Cross Streets of Saigon – If you thought that Hanoi’s omnipresent motorcycles (the locals call them cyclo’s, or you can also refer to them as sicko’s if you want) criss-crossing their ways around Old Quarters was bad, think again. Imagine roads stretching 3-4 lanes, encircling a roundabout with NO traffic lights in sight. And you need to make it over to the other side! No, literally speaking of course. No chicken-crossing-the-road jokes, please.
The trick is once again … DO NOT hesitate halfway through. Or fashionably walk at an uneven pace (ie : run then walk then stroll then run). If you’re still having the chills or stunted by the sheer number of bikes on the road, eat the humble pie and look for the Tourist Police dressed in green. They will be able to help you cross the major roads, especially around Ben Thanh Market. For the smaller streets, lanes and alleys …. Good luck!
More tips, rants and nonsense after the jump …..
2. Language Barrier – I Don’t Speak No Vietnamese! You see, although Saigon/Ho Chi Minh is a relatively more developed city compared to Hanoi, or even neighbouring countries, you will still stumble upon waitresses, taxi drivers, peddlers and even hoteliers struggling with their English. No doubt they can comprehend what you say (also depending on how sober you are, or whether you’re speaking with a heavy accent yourself), but we did encounter more than a handful of taxi drivers whom could not even digest a word we said. Best way to overcome this? Grab a map. Which you can request from your hotel. Study the map a bit, so that you have a rough idea on where you stay. If you’re a himbo/bimbo who cannot differentiate a road from a river, then best to have the receptionist write you the address of the hotel in VIETNAMESE so that you can show to the driver.
Or, download a Vietnamese language app on your smartphone and practise on the simpler terms. Still, avoid this if you’re not gifted. Last thing you wish for in a foreign land is to curse at the cabbie instead of directing him to some market!
3. Only Trust the REAL Cabs – Time and again, you will read in Saigon travel forums and websites on trusting only VINASUN and MAI LINH cabs. Tested and proven. VINASUN (white cabs with green letters; refer to FIRST PHOTO of this post) also come in larger sizes; MPV-style that can fit 8 pax at once! Aside from cabs, you can travel on rented bikes too, though I would really prefer to have you coming back in one piece. Lost? Refer to Tip#1.
And these two companies charge by the meter, religiously. No bargaining required. And the cabs patrol the streets almost 24 hours a day. We took the cab to everywhere, for every single day in Saigon. And we came back unscathed.
Okay, aside from a few scary misses and emergency-braking!
4. Why drink water when you can have aromatic brews of Vietnamese Coffee?! Ahem. Of course, if you can stomach the overload of caffeine in your system, don’t bother with the tea, juices, milk or what-nots !!!
Motormouth here drank coffee for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea time, dinner and even supper EVERYDAY in Saigon! The convenience of having freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee (the hot ones would be the famous drip coffee), while the iced ones named Ca Phe Sua Da (pronounced something like “kah-feh-ser-dah”) with condensed milk had me captivated every single time. From the knee-height tables & stools establishments to restaurants and cafes, every single serving was relished with much gusto. When all stalls have closed or not within proximity, don’t fret. Settle for canned ones from Circle K convenience stores!
5. Squatting by the Roadside for a meal is dirty and bad for you. NOT!!! You will find street food by the streets literally. A bit scary at times, to wonder where do they wash the utensils, or whether the dust and environmental hazards (bugs, smoke) will contaminate the food and drinks?!
However, round the clock, and almost at every corner or junction, you will bump into a stall serving some of Saigon’s most renowned street foods; from noodles to spring rolls, rice with dishes to coffee stalls. And you see locals having a whale of a time feasting there; seated on plastic stools so low I was having a hard time maneuvering my big @$$ for a cup of coffee!
But seriously, the charm of these makeshift stalls holds so much significance in the gastronomic world of Saigon’s famous street fares. The stall usually serves up ONE item that they do best, and the owner has possibly honed his/her skills for years in mastering every single element in ensuring the food deserves compliments and trust from the locals more than the tourists.
We did draw a few smiles and curious stares when eating at these stalls, snapping photographs and by ordering in English when most of the hawkers could barely understood our commands; let alone converse with us in an eloquent manner. When paying for the food, we had to use sign language to confirm on the amount, or by drawing out our money (in the local currency of Vietnamese dong (VND), and I shall explain on where to exchange your USD for VND later) to avoid confusion. Nonetheless, a small price to pay for an exhilarating street food experience.
6. The Epitome of Street Food in Saigon Does NOT Include Dog’s Meat! Like … seriously?
Some of us had misconception that Vietnamese love their dogs so much, they dunk them into boiling cauldrons of superior stock or barbecue them to crispy perfection!
In some areas, mostly rural or within a colder climate (like Dalat for example, and yes we did bear witness to such horrific instances!), the locals DO eat man’s best friend. But not so common in Saigon, thankfully!
In case in doubt, you can always ASK. Or avoid ‘Thit Cho’ (dog’s meat in Vietnamese) by all means. We became overzealous and we did. By the way, the slabs of meat shown in the picture above were not from the dogs’.
7. No 7-11 like in Bangkok, but Circle K will do just fine. And this became our most-visited store throughout our stay. For safe drinking water (and without unpleasant taste of minerals, plastic or whatever chemicals), go for Pepsi’s brand of drinking water; Aquafina. For canned coffee, try Highlands Coffee’s Cafe Sua Da (with milk) or Cafe Da (Vietnamese black coffee without milk).
8. Shopping at Ben Thanh Market like A Tourist. Locals will frown upon the notion of buying your goods from this overly-commercialized local market. Go figure.
Being situated in the heart of District 1, Cho Ben Thanh is easily the most popular market in the whole of Vietnam. The local folks will point you to Cho Binh Tay in District 6 instead, or any other local markets not on the tourists’ map. However, if you are not seeking to cart the entire Saigon home in your luggage, you can make do with some minor shopping here. But remember …. to bargain like there is no tomorrow.
The traders at Ben Thanh Market are very slick. And most of them understand and able to converse in a variety of languages! This lady in red was speaking to us in almost perfect Cantonese. And she could do English plus understand the Malay language as well. Don’t play play.
Unlike Bangkok’s Chatuchak/Or Tor Kor Market where you will spend at least half a day shopping or scrambling for the nearest exit due to the humidity, Ben Thanh’s lay out is generally simpler. And more spacious without the thousands of people out for the killer of a deal. A trade-off too, as you won’t be grinning from ear to ear from the selection, as most stalls sell the same stuff; with foodstuffs dominating the vicinity.
Full details to come in a later post.
9. Brace the Heat and Be Your Own Tour Guide! There are countless tour agencies around District 1 offering almost the same packages; Ho Chi Minh Daily City Tour for about RM30 per pax. Or much lesser if you are booking from up and coming agencies (read : not so famous) instead of stalwarts like Delta Adventure Tours or Sinh Cafe Tour.
Since the City Tour covers mostly tourist spots that can easily be navigated by yourself, and if you do not care about the history (which you can easily Google up and read from Wikipedia), you can effortlessly do a Free & Easy City Tour by yourself! We did one at our own pace, with stopovers for Fanny’s Ice Cream (!) and major camwhoring sessions without the urge to rush through the whole ordeal.
10. Water Puppet Show in Vietnamese but Predictable? Since half of the group have not watched one before, (read about the Hanoi’s Water Puppet experience here), we decided to drop by for a show before dinner on the first night.
Exactly the same show broken down into 17 short segments/sketches, I felt a rushing sense of deja vu washing over me. And I still vividly remembered one of the haunting tunes from the Hanoi show! Priced at about RM20+ per pax for the 45 minutes show, be warned that NO subtitles (duh) or translation will be provided. However, do this for at least once to appreciate the art behind the show.
11. Smaller Tour Agents can be Trustworthy Too! And for a fraction of the price offered by Delta Adventure Tours, we booked our Mekong Delta trip from here. Full details in a later post. Watch this space!
12. Crawling into Small Holes and got stuck can be …. erm, Interesting? Cu Chi Tunnel‘s half day trip was booked through Delta Adventure Tours for 126,000VND per pax (about RM19/USD6). A history lesson indeed with briefing on how the labyrinth of underground tunnels came about, the dreadful Agent Orange’s impact, the opportunity to fire a rifle (at a price, of course) and how we endured NO lunch until way past 2pm!
13. Hats off to the Sun and the Mekong River! Spent almost a day around the river and a few villages; though the tour could be severely shortened had they not dragged their feet around and wasted time in order to prolong the ‘day trip’. Hmm. Nevertheless, booking was done through Saigon Eco Tours (if I remember correctly) for less than USD10 per pax. Delta Adventure Tours were charging almost triple that amount!
14. A delicious respite from the heat; off to Da Lat we went! If you can afford the time; and able to bear the thought of the 8 hours bus trip (they have sleeper bus though, and we slept well throughout the journey!) consider venturing over to Da Lat for a 2 days getaway. The chilling breeze from the high hills, the bountiful of avocados, strawberries and artichokes, as well as the lake in the middle of town will make you reminiscence of Sa Pa near to Hanoi. This was certainly one of the highlights of the entire journey.
*Various Bits & Pieces :
15. Exchange your USD to VND (Vietnamese Dong) at the Airport. Why? Better rates, and more convenient. Imagine bringing MILLIONS of dongs in your luggage while flying over to Vietnam; instead of a few pieces of USD. The rate was USD1 = VND20,850 (about RM1 = VND6,500) at the airport bank. There are a few counters, so just compare notes while you’re there. Not too difficult to locate the counters, no worries.
16. Not All Traders are Honest; especially around Ben Thanh Market. Sadly, this is true. Better to ask for the price of the bowl of noodles or drink before you order; as we ended up with quite a hefty bill while eating from the streets. Bargaining AFTER a meal is certainly not welcomed, of course.
And let me conclude today’s extremely long post here. Will update with more tips as I recall them gradually. After the malware scare, and the fabulous Raya break, I need to re-align myself and reset my priorities.
After all, the Merdeka break is just around the corner … and this means another three days of celebration! Oh yeah.