I was told the previous night by the Sinh Tourist employee that the bus that would take me back to Saigon will pick me up at 9:15am. Since I woke up at around 6:00 am, I still had plenty of time to pack my stuff, have breakfast and take a shower.
Since breakfast was part of the inclusions of my 1-night stay in Ever Green, I found my way to the main house (my room was in a separate structure) and looked for Monik to inquire about my choices for breakfast. Basically, she told me that breakfast includes fruits, vegetables, yogurt, coffee or tea, toast with jam and butter, bacon and 2 eggs. Like all the cheaper hotels back in Saigon, my only real choice was the way the eggs are cooked. I opted for sunny side up.
The dogs were a lot less hostile that morning and and so I took advantage of this mood by walking around and taking pictures of the place.
It’s really a shame that I didn’t get to use the pool. It looked very inviting. From what I’ve heard and read, almost all guesthouses here have pools – especially the ones that aren’t located in the beachfront. A short while later, my breakfast finally came. Here it is:
While I was eating, Monik sat with me and we chatted a bit. She shared that Ever Green used to be a strictly “lodgings only” guesthouse and only recently offered breakfast as part of the package (she cooks and prepares the breakfast herself) in response to customer feedback they’ve received. She also admitted to being surprised by the number of guests they receive from all over the world because they never really advertise and most of the publicity they generate in the internet were made by former guests without their knowledge. More to the point: they had absolutely no idea that Ever Green Guesthouse had very high rankings in tourism websites until their guests came in droves.
She also warned me that Sinh Tourist would pick me up at exactly the time specified in by the employee that I spoke with, so I needed to be prepared and to have settled my bill by that time. So after I finished my breakfast at a leisurely pace, I promptly returned to my room and took a shower. By 8:55, I proceeded to the main house to check out, settle my bill and return the keys. There were seats in the receiving area so I took a seat. Ken kept me company while waiting for the bus to pick me up.
Just as Monik predicted, the bus arrived on the dot, at exactly 9:15am. I was impressed. So after some quick farewells, I boarded the bus and I was on my way back to Saigon for a second time.
BACK TO SAIGON (AGAIN)
It seems that I was the last passenger to be picked up by the bus before returning to Saigon because there was only one vacant seat left (thankfully beside the window.) The bus used this time by Sinh Tourist was smaller than the one I boarded the previous day. So once I settled in my seat, I tried to sleep all the way.
We reached Saigon at 2:30pm, by which time I was already hungry again. So naturally, the first thing I did after getting off the bus at De Tham Street was to look for a place to eat. At this point, I was already running low on funds so rather than attempting to discover exotic new dishes in some restaurant, I opted for the safer choice and had late lunch at a noodle house, Pho 2000.
Pho 2000 only source of pride is that former U.S. President Bill Clinton had pho in one of its branches during his state visit in Vietnam. Other than that, there’s nothing impressive about it. The interior of the store is sparsely decorated, the pho itself is nothing special, and the service was perfunctory. I’d much rather dine at Pho 24.
LAST-MINUTE WALKING TOUR
After letting all the food digest for a while, it was time to do a last-minute tour of Saigon. With my trusted photocopied map given by Chanh, my camera hanging on my neck, and my backpack on my, er, back, I tried to find my way to those tourist spots I haven’t been to before. The following is a summary of the route I took:
From Pham Ngu Lao, I found my way to the rotunda near Ben Thanh Market and walked along Le Loi Street. At the end of the street, one would reach a park (pictured above) and behind the park is the old Saigon Opera House along Dong Khoi Street.
Near the opera house, separated by small Cao Ba Quat street is the French colonial-inspired Hotel Continental Saigon:
Facing the opera house, I turned left along Dong Khoi street, and snapped this photo of a commercial center.
…and walked all the way until I reached the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Since the church is only open to visitors and worshippers on Sunday, I had to content myself with snapping photos from a distance and getting a glimpse of the interior through the grilled gate at the front area.
After spending a bit of time praying outside the cathedral, I found myself feeling thirsty. So turning left at Nguyen Du Street, I found a Pho 24 store. Having just eaten, I only ordered iced coffee with milk to refresh myself. I had to wait for a few minutes for all the freshly brewed coffee to drain from the ground beans, so I just took photos of the apparatus prior to enjoying the refreshment.
After this, I found my way to Nam Ky Khoi Nghia – the street facing the facade of the Reunification Palace. While walking, I saw this pretty building across the street occupied by a restaurant at the ground floor.
And of course, here’s the Reunification Palace:
Due to the lateness of the hour, I could no longer enter the compound, so I just contented myself in taking pictures of the building from the outside. I wasn’t alone though. There were also a lot of tourists at the front gate snapping photos.
The Reunification Palace was formerly the seat of government of the former South Vietnamese Republic, before the war and subsequent unification with the North. It is said that everything inside the palace was left as it once was. As always, I’ll just have to make a note to do a longer visit next time.
I tried to go around the entire block of the Reunification Palace compound to see if I could find something interesting. Other than the squirrels I saw playing by the trees through the grills, there was nothing else notable.
I’d have to say though that I was impressed at how clean, orderly and organized this part of Saigon was. Even the air pollution was at minimal levels. If this were Manila, the place would have been smothered by jeepney exhaust fumes.
Daylight was rapidly fading. It was almost 5:30 pm and my flight back to Manila was 1am. That means within the next 5 hours, I needed to visit a few more tourist spots, do some last-minute shopping at Saigon Square, get back to Bich Duyen to get the rest of my stuff, and hope to God that I still have enough money to get a cab that would take me to the airport.
Since Saigon Square is on Le Loi Street, I retraced my steps and found myself back at the opera house, which looks much better at night than in daytime:
I also came across this brightly-lit building at Le Loi corner Nguyen Hue streets:
And finally snapped a photo of a majestic French colonial building that used to be the old Saigon City Hall, that has since been renamed into the more socialist-sounding People’s Committee Hall:
A closer look at that statue in the middle reveals Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese hero in the struggle against the French, from which this entire city has been renamed.
After deciding that I’m slowly running out of time, I quickly made my way to Saigon Square, hastily did some last-minute shopping, and finally walked back to Bich Duyen.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
By 7:30, I was back at the front door of Bich Duyen to claim the rest of my stuff and repack them into a more compact unit so that they would easily be transportable. I really am thankful for this extra courtesy by Bich Duyen. Take note that I was no longer a paying customer at that time but they still allowed me to hang out and even take a shower prior to leaving for the airport.
While waiting at Bich Duyen’s lobby, I got to chat with two guests who were also leaving that night – Darren and Suanne. They’re Canadians who have been touring this part of Southeast Asia for a few weeks already. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I suggested (but I would have begged if they refused) that I share a cab with them going to the airport. They easily consented and in my mind, I made a huge sigh of relief. By 9:00 pm or 10:00 pm, we decided to finally leave for the airport take a cab. Darren and Suanne’s flight was earlier than mine, so we had to leave early.
Every tourist in Vietnam knows that there are only 2 trustworthy taxi cab operators in Saigon. These are Vinasun and Mai Linh. But apparently, Darren and Suanne are only aware of Mai Linh’s good reputation so they were insistent that we only take that cab, despite a lot of empty Vinasun taxis passing by. I suggested that we take the Vinasun but they weren’t comfy with it. Since I was just a last-minute addition to the party, I didn’t push the issue. Anyway, there was bound to be a vacant Mai Linh taxi that would pass by. And after a few minutes, it did.
The story would have ended here were it not for one notable incident. Upon reaching the airport and unloading our bags, we split the fare as shown in the taxi meter in 3 equal parts. Since making an absolutely equal division in 3 ways was impossible, that means we paid a bit extra to the driver thinking he’d appreciate keeping the change. Imagine our shock when he insisted that we pay him a lot more. He justified this by saying he needed to pay for the ticket upon leaving the airport.
This was of course B.S. since there’s absolutely no such ticket for merely entering the airport to drop off passengers. But at that time, the driver looked like he was begging and I actually pitied him. Good thing Darren was firm and once we started walking towards the airport entrance, the driver didn’t push the issue anymore. After telling them that I kinda felt sorry for the driver, Suanne wisely said something along the lines of, “Yeah, but they’re good at making themselves look pitiful. It’s probably what they do everyday.”
I guess if there’s something to be learned from this, it’s that I’m taking Vinasun next time. (Although it’s also possible that we took a fake Mai Linh cab.)
Nothing further to say at this point except that the Tan Son Nhat International Airport is a nice one to stay in for a few hours when one checks in much earlier for his/her flight. With my last few dongs, I bought a soda, a small bag of Vietnamese treats, and donated the rest of the small dong bills by dropping them off at the Red Cross drop box.
At the boarding area, I whiled away the time alternating between playing Brick Breaker in my BlackBerry and looking through all the pictures I took in my camera. At one point, a Filipina caught my attention when she called me “Mr. Flores”. I don’t know her name, but I recognized her as someone who was in the same Mekong Express bus that I was in on the way back to Saigon from Siem Reap. (And the reason she remembered my name was probably when the bus conductor was calling each of our names to claim our passports after a border crossing.)
We were allowed to board the plane earlier than the appointed time. At this point, it already felt like Manila because everybody was speaking in Tagalog. Before long, the plane took off.
Thus ended my first solo overseas trip.
= = = = = = = = = =
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