This next series of blogs is a chronicle of my observations and reflections on the 7 full days I spent touring Vietnam and Cambodia (November 27 to December 3, 2011.) I was really just interested in Cambodia, particularly because of Angkor Wat. But since there were no direct flights from the Philippines to Cambodia back then, I had to fly to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam to be able to enter Cambodia, and had to return to Vietnam to be able to fly back to Manila.
This was the first time I would be going out of the country alone and so there was some amount apprehension, but for the most part, I felt quite confident that this would be a successful trip because I did my research and I’m assured by the testimony of my fellow travel bloggers who have gone there that both Vietnam and Cambodia are relatively easy destinations to visit. I accumulated a lot of tips, sifted through them and armed myself with those which I thought would be most useful to me. I also booked all my guided tours and lodging arrangements online directly with the guides and the lodging houses.
I was ready for this trip more than any other trip I ever prepared for, is what I’m saying.
As every Filipino who has ever gone to Vietnam knows, Cebu Pacific flies from Manila to Saigon at the ungodly hour of 11:00 pm. This makes things a bit difficult because one would be arriving at Saigon just past midnight and one would need to arrange for transportation beforehand with one’s hotel or lodging house to be able to get there. (More on this on a later entry.)
Once the plane landed, I had to adjust my watch because the Vietnamese time zone is 1 hour behind that of the Philippines. Immigration was a breeze mainly because of 2 things: (1) Vietnam recently instituted rules that liberally did away with a lot of arrival procedures; and (2) as a Philippine passport holder, I was exempt from the visa requirement that is normally required of non-ASEAN passports. So what happened was I just gave the immigration officer my passport and he just looked at me while scanning the passport with a machine. In less than 10 seconds, I got my arrival stamp and I was done. (No words were even exchanged!)
First thing I did after I got my backpack from the conveyor belt was to look for a money changer. There was one near the exit (the only open stall at that hour) so I promptly fell in line and waited for my turn to change a USD 100 bill in Vietnamese dong. Less than a minute later, I became a milionaire for the first time in my life because my USD 100 was apparently worth more than VDN 2,080,000. After this, it was time to find the driver who was supposed to pick me up.
…which wasn’t difficult at all because there were only a few people at the waiting area by the exit (due to the lateness of the hour) and the driver had a large hand-held sign with him where my name was clearly written. In no time at all, I was in the car, we were exiting the airport parking lot, and we were on our way to my “hotel”.
I made lodging reservations and airport pickup arrangements with Bich Duyen Hotel (which is really more of an inn). Situated at the backpacking district at an alleyway (“eskinita“) near Pham Ngu Lao street, Bich Duyen is popular among Filipino budget travelers mainly because of Chanh – a multi-skilled and charismatic employee of the hotel who does everything from sweeping floors, carrying luggage, money changing and front desk duties, among other things. Basically, 90% of Bich Duyen’s good reputation is because of him.
I first communicated with Chanh through email when I was inquiring about their rates. I initally intended to stay in Nguyen Khang, but his good English convinced me that I would really have an easier time if someone from the hotel were able to understand me.
Arriving at the hotel at just past midnight meant that all the lights were closed and the metal grills at the front door had to be raised to let me in. And that was where I first met Chanh, who had the unmistakable look of being abruptly woken up in his sleep clothes. But true to his reputation, he made an effort to have a sunshiny disposition when he asked me to take off my shoes and to leave my passport with him (it’s a government requirement, I learned).
I was led into a windowless air-conditioned room at the 3rd floor, which was very small but looked rather nice and clean, with a wide-screen TV and an excellent bathroom. After Chanh gave me a few pointers on the shower heater and the air con, I was then left to sort out my stuff and to get as much rest as I can before the day’s activities.
DAY 1 PROPER
I only ended up having around 4 hours rest because the night before, I stayed up for an hour more watching TV and taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi by messaging people through my BlackBerry. At around 6 am, it was time to take a shower and then avail myself of my free breakfast at the hotel’s canteen.
I guess you can describe the breakfast at Bich Duyen as “Continental” in the sense that there’s absolutely no meat in it. I was just given a glass of pineapple juice, a banana, a Vietnamese baguette called Banh Mi (which is shorter, thicker and airier than it’s western counterpart), a choice of coffee or tea and 2 eggs that I could either have scrambled or sunny side up. Not the type of breakfast I’m used to, and I can certainly see why it’s free.
At around 8:15 am, someone from the tour company picked me up to bring me to the tour bus that will take us to the Cu Chi tunnels, just outside Saigon. (Chanh already made the arrangements for me days before, when I requested him to do so.) I went up the bus full of young Caucasians and a few Asians – who turned out to be Filipinos when I heard 3 of them speaking in Bisaya – and promptly sat in a vacant seat as it slowly moved to the next hotel to pick up other tourists.
Once everyone was on board, the bus then began to exit the city. Our guide then began to speak into the sound system to give us an orientation on what to expect, what to do, how much to pay, etc. I didn’t catch the name of our guide but he encouraged all of us to call him “John Wayne” because it’s supposedly close to how his actual name is pronounced.
John Wayne was difficult to understand because he had a habit of making catchy mannerisms and intonations instead of trying to pronounce words correctly. Nevertheless, we were able to understand him for the most part (although I must have been having a harder time than most because a few times, I found myself the only person not laughing when it turned out that he uttered a joke.) We were then asked to sign a registration sheet as well as to pay the admission fee, which was separate from the tour package fee.
We made a brief stopover at this place where handicrafts were made and that’s when we found out that there were around 20 more buses like ours full of tourists that intended to visit the Cu Chi tunnels. We spent around 15-20 minutes there before John Wayne began to gather us to re-board the bus and continue on our way.
ARRIVING AT THE TUNNEL COMPLEX
The Cu Chi Tunnels is one of the 2 staple tourist destinations when touring Saigon (the other one being the Mekong River Delta Cruise.) I opted for the Cu Chi tunnels because it only took half a day (until 3 pm) and I wanted to tour Saigon on foot while there was still daylight.
There were a lot of people who were visiting that day. To avoid mix-ups and to make it easier for people to find their correct tour group, tour operators devised this system where each group is assigned a letter, and everyone in that group is given a sticker of that same letter to attach to their upper clothing. This was effective during the stopover and when we arrived at the entrance of the tunnel complex, where we got mixed with a lot of other groups.
While we were waiting for our turn to enter the tunnels, I chatted up Lisa and Christian, 2 fellow Filipinos who stayed at the same hotel as the 3 Bisaya speakers. (Later on, I learned that their names are April, Lovisa and Niño.) All of them were staying at Nguyen Khang and I surely would have gotten to know them sooner had I decided to book with that hotel.
Before we toured the tunnel compound, we were all made to watch a propaganda documentary video in a viewing hut explaining the history of the Cu Chi tunnels as well as how vital it was in the eventual withdrawal from South Vietnam by the U.S. military. It’s easy to see that propaganda is prioritized highly in this place as there must have been more than 10 of these “propaganda huts” that play these videos all day (New groups keep arriving all the time, and each hut could only seat about 50 people at a time.) And yes, like the picture on the right, each propaganda hut had a Vietnamese flag and a framed photo of Ho Chi Minh.
THE GUIDED TOUR
After the film showing, John Wayne took us to some spots in the complex where a number of underground structures that have been built by the Vietnamese are located. These weren’t the actual tunnels yet but served more as an intro on how life went on in Cu Chi during the Vietnam War (or the “American War” as it is known in Vietnam.)
The first was a very small hiding space that John Wayne had difficulty finding at first. It was very inconspicuous because there were a lot of dried leaves and short grasses on the ground. It took him around 10 seconds of sweeping the leaves with his feet before he found the small handle of the cover of the hiding space. The opening was so narrow that only somebody who was thin enough would be able to fit inside with ease.
Another structure was for regulating the water level/supply of the tunnel complex. I mostly didn’t understand John Wayne’s explanation on how it worked as I was busy taking photos. I did catch a bit about how the Americans used their Filipino allies to do the dirty work of tracking the water supply to its source because they were too afraid to wade through the water themselves. (I’m not really sure if this was also propaganda.)
There were a few other things explained before we encountered a tank in the middle of the jungle. It was an abandoned American tank that was left in that same spot since the war. Now, since it’s surrounded by the jungle now, it seems odd that a tank would find itself in such a place without any access road leading to it. The simple explanation was that what we saw as a jungle now was once barren and burnt out due to the entire place being bombed and napalmed. Meaning the tank was older than the jungle and the latter just grew around it throughout the years.
John Wayne also brought us to some exhibits of traps and demonstrated how they functioned. The traps weren’t really designed to kill (although they did that too). They were designed primarily to maim enemy combatants until such time that they can be killed on the spot and their weapons taken. All around the exhibit, there were propaganda pictures of Americans being ensnared/injured by these traps. The one pictured on the right is a type of door-fixed double trap that made sure someone gets injured even though the upper part is somehow stopped. Long story. Looks mean though.
A few more exhibits later and we came at a rest stop where food/refreshments and souvenirs are sold. This was also adjacent to the firing range where one can fire weapons for a price. Needless to say, the place was very noisy as gunfire erupted every half-minute. Since I wasn’t particularly hungry yet and I didn’t like the idea of burning my cash by firing a gun, I just bought myself bottled water while waiting for the tour to resume.
INTO THE TUNNELS
So we were finally going into the tunnels. I wasn’t really sure if this would be a strenuous experience because after all, it would be on level ground and the length of the tunnel wasn’t longer than a football field. And I honestly doubted John Wayne’s reminders that people found this hard.
We were told that even before the end of the tunnel there were around 4 exits for those who don’t think they can still continue. This turned out to be great news since I found that I could not go through the entire length. For some reason, my body found the act of crouching and crawling through the narrow tunnel very exhausting. Maybe it’s a combination of the thinness of air or a lack of any real exercise, but I found myself taking the second exit.
So it was a humbling experience for me. I don’t think I even spent more than 4 minutes in the tunnel and I already gave up. In contrast, almost everyone else went through the entire thing and some even went in and out and were honestly having fun. Lovisa, for one, was even wearing a dress, and she came out of it as fresh-looking as when she entered it.
Once again, I was reminded that I needed to shape up.
Once everybody was out of the tunnels and accounted for, we were brought to a hut where we were made to sit around a long table. The whole point is to give us some final words before we left the complex while serving us the staple food of the Vietnamese during the war. Served in front of us were small bowls of cassava wedges. sprinkled with sugar and crushed peanuts.
Yes, cassava, known hereabouts as kamoteng kahoy. Source of Tapioca. Originally an exclusively South American crop that was exported to the tropics of the world by European colonizers.
The Westerners didn’t think much of the cassava and, to be fair, it really did taste very plain, even with the sugar and peanuts. So in that regard, it was an excellent demonstration on how hard life was during the war if they had to eat this every day. But regardless, I ate a lot of it as I was beginning to get hungry.
Earlier, in the bus going to the tunnel complex, John Wayne offered an alternative to returning to the City center. Aside from the bus, we also could try to go back via a river cruise for an additional VDN 250,000 (around P500). The westerners didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the idea and neither did I because I didn’t want to shell out cash for unnecessary expenses. But I observed that the 5 Filipinos all intended to go via the river cruise and already paid for it. I figured I’d rather stick close to people who can understand me than be the only Asian tourist in a bus full of westerners.
So we boarded this slick-looking boat together with a western couple and 3 Chinese tourists. It turns out that John Wayne would be joining us and not the bus. The trip was mostly uneventful and I thought the additional cost wasn’t worth it. The real benefit of this ride would become more apparent later on.
The only thing I found interesting about this river cruise was the variety of avian wildlife that we saw at various points of the river. There were some species that I’ve never seen before that I wish I could have taken photos of. Of secondary interest was the fact that almost all boats we encountered along th river had “eyes” painted in front of them. I wasn’t able to ask John Wayne the significance of this.
BACK TO THE CITY, LATE LUNCH
We reached the Saigon proper at around 3:00 pm. After asking John Wayne for some final directions, we were off walking. The 6 of us initially had different plans, but decided to stick together for the meantime while finding our way in the big city.
Obviously, the first thing we agreed on was that we were all hungry and we needed to eat. So once we realized this, we promptly entered the nearest restaurant from where we were standing, which was [the ubiquitous] Pho 24. Pho 24 is the Jollibee of Saigon. It’s like a fastfood restaurant that specializes in Pho. It’s ubiquitous in the sense that almost every block in the city has a branch. (Edited to add: As of January 2012, Jollibee actually now owns 50% of the SuperFoods Group – the company that owns Pho 24.)
[A note on the names of Pho restaurants: In Saigon, it’s apparently common to encounter very uncreative names for Pho restaurants. There’s Pho 24, Pho 2000, Pho 5, Pho 24/7, etc. In Philippine terms, it would be like Andoks and Baliwag being renamed as Lechon Manok 777, Lechon Manok 69, Lechon Manok 7/11, etc.]
There weren’t any vacant seats in the ground floor so we proceeded to the small, low-ceiling-ed second floor where it was as if we occupied the entire floor and we suddenly discovered that the 5 of us were a talkative group. We were so talkative that the manager got curious enough to ask us where we were from. (And we probably caused Filipinos to have a reputation for talkativeness.)
So the waiter took our orders, and in no time at all our food was served. Now, for an entire year before this moment, I had been eating in Vietnamese restaurants here in the Philippines to practice eating Pho (Mostly in Pho Hoa and Pho Bac in Robinsons Galleria). So I knew exactly how Pho was eaten, with its side garnishes and the Hoisin Sauce. One thing new to me though was the presence of the fried bread. They tasted rather plain so I doubt if they were appetizers. The waiter later on told us that it was eaten with the broth – probably to neutralize the strong flavors a bit.
In the time we spent at the restaurant, we managed to eat like famine survivors while at the same time getting acquainted with each other and exchanging email addresses so that we could add each other to Facebook later on. (Christian even sneaked a cigarette outside.) Well, actually, the 5 of them already knew each other, so I was the main beneficiary of this getting-to-know you session. And this is why I don’t regret joining the earlier river cruise, even if I don’t recommend it.
GOING SEPARATE WAYS
After “lunch” we resumed walking towards what we thought was the direction going to District 1. Once we came to a point where we thought we can find our way with our maps, we then went our separate ways. My intention was to go find Saigon Square. I made the mistake of not researching on the exact street it’s located in so my map was pretty much useless and I had to rely on John Wayne’s less-than-helpful instructions.
But it was ok. Saigon for me was a nice place to be lost in. The worst that I had to contend with was the fact that every 5 minutes or so, someone approaches me to sell something or offer a service. Later in the evening, when I was back in Bich Duyen, I tweeted this:
Aside from that, there were also shoe shine boys, fruit shake vendors and many others. (I was wrong about the tuktuk though. What I thought was a tuktuk was actually called a cyclo.)
I did manage to find Saigon Square in the elaborately-named Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street. The place was packed and it was impossible to not come in physical contact with anyone. There were tourists of all races and nationalities looking for a good bargain. I was told early on to do all my shopping here and not in Ben Thanh market as the latter was a tourist trap. Well, judging by the volume of shoppers in Saigon Square, I’d say it’s also a tourist trap, but in a good way.
I wasn’t able to do a lot of shopping as I wanted to preserve as much cash as I can (I had another country to go to after all). So I resolved to just do more shopping before I leave, on my last day upon returning to Vietnam from Cambodia.
ROAMING AT NIGHT
When I left Saigon Square, it was well past sunset and the darkness of the night was punctured everywhere by the brightness of a million motorcycle headlights and tail lights. I wasn’t hungry yet as it’s only been about 3 hours since the heavy lunch. I tried to see if I could catch a water puppet show. The place was well marked in my map so I thought I could just go to the place on foot.
Along the way, I witnessed an accident when a motorcycle got sideswiped by a tourist bus and its load of empty beer bottles came crashing on the road. Broken glass was everywhere and this caused a bit of a traffic jam as it occurred near an intersection. Since I found myself at the right place at the right time, I took out my camera and snapped a couple of pictures of the scene. Although a lot of people were looking at the scene, nobody was really alarmed. I later witnessed a number of similar accidents in the following days, so this sort of thing was apparently common in the busy streets of Saigon.
I’m not really sure if I did a careless thing in walking around and exploring Saigon at night. A number of times I ended up in areas of the city that were poorly lit, almost deserted and there were no policemen patrolling. I could have been mugged and I would not have been able to get help. It’s either Saigon is a lot safer than anybody gives it credit for, or it might be the fact that at 5’8″ and 200 lbs, I was taller and heftier than the average Vietnamese male. I also look mean – according to people I know – which might have deterred any would-be muggers from victimizing me.
Anyway, my search for the water puppet theater ended in failure as there didn’t seem to be such a place, contrary to what my map suggested. It’s either the map is outdated, or the theater entrance suddenly lost its elaborate decorations. I simply could not find it. Finally, I just gave up and walked back to Pham Ngu Lao.
One of the things first-time tourists have a hard time with in Saigon is crossing the road when there are a thousand motorcycles zooming along. It takes practice, timing, and a lot of getting used to to be able to do so without freaking out. By this time in the evening though, I’ve already crossed a lot of motorcycle-heavy roads that the novelty of the experience has worn off. I was beginning to cross the street as comfortably as any Vietnamese would. But the sight of all those motorcyle headlights at night was still something of a spectacle so I took a video of one busy intersection. You can see that here.
I eventually found my way back to Bich Duyen where I freshened up a bit before going out again to find some place to eat. I actually still wasn’t all that hungry yet (the Pho I ate earlier apparently more filling than I initially thought). So I just went out to have a light snack. I ended up having iced coffee with milk and a slice of cake at Highlands Coffee. It’s sort of like the Starbucks of Vietnam. (Come to think of it, I didn’t see any Starbucks when I was there.) The coffee and cake was okay. Not very impressive, but not too bad either.
Finally, it was time to call it a day. I was supposed to prepare all my stuff for next day’s departure for Cambodia but I felt too lazy to do so, so after taking a quick shower, I just set the BlackBerry’s alarm extra early so that I have time to pack. And then it was time to sleep.
Next, Day 2 & 3.
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This entry is part of the Vietnam-Cambodia series dated November 27 – December 3, 2011:
1. Preview: Contrasting Motorcycle Scenes in Vietnam
2. Preview: Temple-hunting in Cambodia
3. Suggested 7-day Itinerary for Vietnam and Cambodia
4. Budget Estimate for a 7-day Vietnam-Cambodia Tour
5. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 1 – Arrival in Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, City Tour
6. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 2 & 3 – A 13-hour bus ride, Angkor Wat at Dawn
7. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 3 – All-day Temple-hopping in Siem Reap
8. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 4 – Beng Mealea and Koh Ker
9. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 5 & 6 – Two bus rides to Mui Ne
10. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 6 – Mui Ne’s Natural Attractions
11. Vietnam-Cambodia, Day 7 – Last-minute tour of Saigon
12. Vietnam-Cambodia Travel Tips
13. The 24-hour Mui Ne Travel Guide