Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Good Evening Saigon!

I first discovered Vietnam over a decade ago, touring Hanoi and several other regions.  It was a fantastic trip.  I was struck by the industriousness and friendliness of a people who lived under a communist regime but behaved as if they were wanton capitalists.  They also arguably (then at least) still bore the scars of long decades of war, but welcomed foreigners with open arms.   It took a while, but I subsequently returned several times looking at some business ventures.   The nation has changed a lot since my first trip, making the journey one of continuous discovery.  Just in the past two years, I used the opportunities to visit Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, Hue, Nha Trang and, most interestingly, wander deeper into some of the smaller towns and villages in the jungle.  I plan to backfill with posts from those enlightening journeys at some point.

This current trip requires me in HCM for three days to follow up on some earlier business discussions.  That aside, I am extending this visit to explore more of this remarkable country.  I really enjoyed the ocean side city of Nha Trang last year.  This time I will visit Mui Ne which is a five hour drive from Saigon.  After that, I will return to Hanoi for the first time in a decade.  I will also revisit Halong Bay and journey to Sapa for the first time.

Flying out of JFK, I had a three hour layover in Hong Kong.  I find that airport to be among the most efficient in the world, and actually thought about meeting up briefly with some old friends.  I’ve been to Hong Kong many dozens of time in the past, but my last stop was something like five years ago.  I missed my long time acquaintances.

As fate would have it, our schedules didn’t work out so I just hung out in the Cathay Pacific lounge.  Sitting there, it struck me how much Hong Kong had changed since the handover in 1997.  As to be expected, the city is now dominated (some say overrun) by the mainland Chinese, and many of the colonial British traces have faded greatly.  Pollution is much worse, though not as bad as before the financial crisis.  Prices are much higher, and in my view, the city is a lot less livable than it once was.  I like Hong Kong, but I do not really miss it and was quite fine to journey on to HCM without much ado.

I landed in HCM in the early evening.  It had only been about eight months since my last trip here, but the changes in the city were evident from the moment I landed.  I picked up my visa-on-arrival, cleared customs, and hopped in a taxi in record time.  Usually, there is chaos at the taxi stand outside the airport which I historically avoid by going to the Mai Linh counter in the arrivals area.  No one attended the desk this time.  I was a bit worried, but when I walked outside, discovered that the taxi queue had been reorganized.  I ended up taking a cab company that I had never heard of (and normally I avoid like a plague all taxis that are NOT Vinasun or Mai Linh).  I arrived in my hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood without any incident.

After check in, I wandered outside for a drink and quick bite too eat.  The main strip, Bui Vien, had changed noticeably in just these few months.  Many new, quite modern store fronts, ranging from convenience stores to hotels and restaurants, had replaced some of the aging buildings.  Most stark, however, were the outdoor bars.  Drinking $1 beer outside in small plastic chairs, while watching the crowd go by, is a long-tested and traditional past time on the street.  All the plastic chairs were now gone!  In their place, each bar had instead put down uncomfortable looking floor mats.  I suspect that this is a byproduct of new regulations, and the crowds were thus somewhat diminished.  Still, the street remained lively, as backpackers everywhere love cheap beer.

After all that travel (and plenty of in-flight and in-lounge alcohol) I wasn’t in the mood for beer, so I instead opted for fresh mango, pineapple, and banana juice from a friendly side street merchant.  Not bad for $1.25, and quite refreshing in the oppressive Saigon evening heat.

After about 24 hours of door-to-door traveling, I was quite beat.  I grabbed a fast dinner and quickly fell asleep.  I was apprehensive about jetlag, and indeed I awoke at 3 am, but for the most part, had restful sleep until I awoke at 7 am for an early morning meeting.

I had never been to District 7, which is far from downtown Saigon.  Many refer to this area as “Little Korea” as many Korean businesses (and their expats) are based here.   I was meeting with a Korean company to discuss a business venture.  It was a productive meeting, but I was equally stuck by how different District 7 was from the rest of Saigon.  Much less crowded and cooled a bit by many shade trees, the area’s suburban nature seemed very much out of place with the Saigon I knew.   Many of the homes looked very nice, with private gardens and attached garages.

A large park dominated the area.  Many soon-to-marry couples use that venue for their wedding photographs.  The brides looked miserable in the unbearable heat, all made-up and wearing many stifling layers but trying to smile.  Still, they all managed to strike that oh-so-elated pose just as the shutter clicked.  I guess brides are the same everywhere in the world.  The grooms generally didn’t fake it as well.  But maybe that’s the same worldwide also?

The park itself was OK, when using global standards, but was sort of an oasis when compared to the rest of congested HCM.

Just outside the office building was an inflatable duck.  When I say inflatable, I don’t mean a small two seater boat that happy couples can paddle on the river.  What I mean is it was the size of a building and…well, just see for yourself.  Don’t ask, I have no idea.

I was in Vietnam, so I needed to eat pho, among the tastiest noodle soups in the world.  For lunch, I asked my hosts to take me to the best, authentic pho place, and they ended up driving me all the way back to District 1, not far from the backpackers’ district.

When I glanced at the menu, it appeared that the restaurant actually has branches in the USA, although I’m not sure how my Texas friends would react to having the Lone Star State be relegated to nothing more than just another borough of New York City.

In any case, the pho was a bit more expensive than the competition, because the meal set us back a total of…$4 per person, including a beer.  I can’t vouch whether it was “the most authentic” or “the best”; maybe my hosts were erroneously suspicious of the sensitivity of this foreigner’s stomach.  Regardless, it was yummy and definitely hit the spot.  I sweated profusely because, as in typical fashion, I spiced the broth up more than I should.

After an afternoon of meetings, I went back to my hotel to rest.  During the day, I encountered the usual mix of the busy (and an occasional not so busy) ordinary Saigon folks, and normally I might have been inclined to explore the city some more.  However, jetlag was kicking in and the strong, tasty Vietnamese coffee had failed to drive away the droopy eyelids.

It was after 8 pm when I awoke from my nap.  I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to eat, but I knew I had to try street food.  A couple years ago, I rode in a foodie motorbike tour of Saigon (highly recommended!), and I remembered a particular street where the stalls had been pretty good.  I wasn’t sure that I could find it, but I referred to my notes and gave directions to the cabbie as best I could.

He found it, or at least something close.  There are many great food stalls streets all over Saigon; I don’t trust my ability to distinguish locations.  The first order of business was to get a beverage, and for that, I started with a sugar cane icy, made fresh on the spot.  Looks like this vendor was quite popular, judging from the cane remnants.

After spending 25 cents on my drink, I needed the entrĂ©e.  I settled on a Chinese noodle stall.  I watched with fascination as the two old ladies sliced up fresh pork and chicken, adding them to a simmering broth before pouring the entire soup onto some just-fried noodles.  They then added various Chinese dumplings.  I happily slurped away, cooling the outdoor heat (and the in-bowl spice) with my sweet sugar cane icy.  The meal set me back $2, and was delicious.

Some different business associates telephoned me for some post-dinner drinks, but I was too tired.  I went back my hotel, showered (for the fourth time of the day), answered emails, and then drifted off to slumber.

I was certainly back in Saigon.  What a great way to begin my trip.

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