Away I flew; up the coast of BC, over Anchorage (just like last year), and then across the Bering Strait and down across Russian, Korea, past Japan and finally, finally landing at Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3, the second largest air terminal in the world (Dubai has the largest) and third largest (area covered) building in the world.
Although I was flying to Ho Chi Minh City I had to leave Terminal 3 and go to the domestic terminal as my next flight landed first in Nanning. I had to get my passport stamped for my brief China stay, clear a couple of security gates (where they dumped the water I had purchased at the Victoria Airport) and take a short train ride to the other terminal. Once there I discovered there was no place to change currency. Unless I used an ATM, or credit card, I was without funds. Luckily I wasn’t starving and I filled my water bottle at a water station. Not the best tasting water but it’d do. After a 4 hour wait I boarded a bus to the plane waiting out on the tarmac. A plane with next to no legroom for a tall person. I did manage to nod off a bit but in a couple of hours we landed in Nanning. Off the plane, through yet another security gate, where my passport was again stamped and then back onto the plane after a short wait. On the last leg I managed to get a whole section of seats for myself when I offered my seat to a young woman so she could sit by her mother. No sleep though. At about 2am, local time, we landed in Ho Chi Minh City. I rocketed off the plane, got my bag, cleared Customs and was almost first person out of the terminal to the taxi stand. I caught one of our a cab for a quick ride through almost deserted streets (sucking in the tropical air through the taxi window) to my hotel where I had a shower and hit the hay by 3:30. No long sleep for me though: I was up at 7:30, in time for breakfast.
Ho Chi Minh City. Or is it Saigon. Well, most locals call it Saigon, especially the downtown core. Ho Chi Minh City itself covers a huge area, almost all the way to Cambodia. The population is around 9 million and is forecast to be 20 million by 2020. Yet it seems less crowded and less polluted than Hanoi.
My hotel, the Saigon Mini Hotel #1, lies in a small lane, near the edge of the backpacker area, in what is known as District 1.
That’s my room, on the floor over the entrance (ground floor is bike parking and dining, first floor is reception). I got a Deluxe Room, thinking I’d need it to rest up after the long flight. I get a free brekkie in the mornings (small but it gets me going), have wifi, a deep bathtub and lots of light.
On my first day I didn’t do much. Wandered out for food and a walk around the neighbourhood. Had a big nap. Since Sue and I have reverted to an almost strictly vegetarian diet I spent some time on the net finding all the local veggie restaurants. There’s about half a dozen within minutes of the hotel, some small, some big. And the backpacker area is chock full of restaurants and bars. Compared to Hanoi’s Old Quarter this area is much less congested and has fewer local services, it’s focus being tourism.
On my second day I went for a long, long stroll. First I walked towards the Saigon River, passing by where we stayed last March. Ah yes, Vietnam, where life is lived on the street…
When I got near to the river I couldn’t actually see it as there was a verge of rough land along the banks, plus some new construction of high rises. Despite the size of some of the projects the materials are often moved by small motorcycle trucks which can easily move through the traffic and narrow lanes.
I was now entering the posher Dong Khoi area, home of the expensive hotels and fashionista stores. I was stopped a couple of times by folks who simply wanted to chat (ah, the friendly south!). Having seen this area with Sue in March I kept going, finding streets we hadn’t been on. Mixed in with the new highrises, hotels and huge banks were some older buildings, creating an incongruous blend of styles.
Along the way I spotted another example of an older culture,although this one was from Europe: a Tatra T87 from the former Czechoslovakia, parked in the entrance of a brauhaus.
Eventually I’d wandered off the edges of the map supplied by the hotel so turned back. The clouds were piling up, indicating the afternoon thundershowers were impending.
Note the smooth dome on the top. Where’s my weather guy? Tony? What does that indicate?
Next day I set off to find some speakers for my laptop and iPod. As in Hanoi many stores of the same type tend to be in the same neighbourhood. And, as luck would have it, that area is only minutes from my hotel. I found just what I was looking for in a medium sized store. What made the experience great was the service I got: not only did my salesman sell me the speakers, he showed me his hometown on the internet and then invited me to visit him at Tet! Later he sent me a bunch of web-links and restated that Sue and I were welcome to stay with him and his family, emphasizing “For Free”. And we just may do that; his hometown is situated on a gorgeous beach, just up the coast from Nha Trang, where we spent a few days in March.
That’s Huy on the left, holding my new speakers, and his co-worker.
I walked around the ‘hood to get some exercise and saw a few more interesting sights, including the inevitable odd load on a motorbike:
And a touch of home…
As the days passed I worked on the job hunt, sending my resume and assorted documents to one school, trying to find sources of info on other schools and pondering going to Vung Tau on the coast. Some of you might remember my saying “I’m going to Vung Tau.” Well, I wasn’t having much luck booking a hotel there from Saigon. And I couldn’t stay in the Saigon Mini Hotel for long as the $40/day rates are too much for my budget. I decided that I liked Saigon well enough, the air quality seems fine, the people are downright friendly for a huge city and there are more opportunities here. After some research I walked to the lane where Sue and I had previously stayed and right across from our guesthouse found what I was looking for: a guesthouse with a monthly rate. I booked in at Miss Loi’s for a $300/month room, which will become a $350/month room when Sue arrives. Miss Loi’s is located in a very narrow lane, almost too narrow for bikes, meaning it’s very quiet, yet minutes from the main backpacker and commercial center of Saigon. On my way out the door Miss Loi said to me “We’re family here”. Perfect!
But I thought I should still take a look at Vung Tau so on Wednesday went to the hydrofoil dock to catch a boat for the hour and half ride to Vung Tau, situated on a peninsula about 70 km. down the Saigon River where it meets the South China Sea.
Rather than sit in my seat, trying to see out a blistered window, I stood in the opening where the ramp was placed. A young man struck up a conversation with me. He was on his way to a family gathering in Vung Tau with his younger brother. While we chatted I snapped photos of life along the river. There were boats everywhere, big and small, moored and moving.
The one and a half hour trip passed quickly what with the conversation and interesting scenery. In the northern distance I could see the hills Sue and I crossed via bus on our way to Nha Trang. Downriver, jutting up from the otherwise lowlands, I could see Big and Small Mountains at Vung Tau. We hit the ocean swells near the river’s mouth and then turned in towards the post-modernist ferry terminal.
Vung Tau has some notoriety: Gary Glitter, the 70s glam rocker, was arrested here for committing obscene acts with minors. The town does have a seamy side with older, paunchy Westerners seeking young Vietnamese girls. The Vietnam oil industry is centered here, with a significant population of Russian oil workers coming in from offshore. It is also a popular seaside retreat for folks from Ho Chi Minh City, with miles of beaches (unfortunately not too pristine due to its proximity to the Saigon River). And it has the world’s largest statue of Jesus, 32m. high, 6m. higher than the statue of Jesus in Rio.
I deflected numerous offers of xe om drivers and walked up Small Mountain to the lighthouse for a view of the area. It was hot and humid and I could feel my heart getting a workout. When I reached the top a couple of Aussie fellows, who’d seen me from their bikes as they rode up, told me they’d been coming here since ’69. Then it clicked: the war. Vung Tau had been an R&R zone for the troops. They come back now for a couple of weeks every year, and one of their buddies, now 60 something, hikes Small Mountain every morning. Well, at least not all the Western men weren’t paunchy or here for illicit sex. When I got to the lighthouse I met another Aussie man and his family. His wife is Vietnamese and they were visiting family. He had some interesting stories about life around the Mekong Delta and told me taking the hydrofoil was a smart move. The road trip took 4 hours due to construction. He pointed out another large floating crane below us and explained it was used for moving the oil rigs.
After a rest and plenty of fluids I walked back down the hill, pausing to take a photo of Back Beach stretching away in the distance.
And a close-up of some beautiful flowers…
When I reached the bottom of the hill I walked along Front Beach for a bit but I could see the storm clouds coming.
Soon the rain pelted down and I dodged into a restaurant to escape. By the time I finished a delicious bowl of soup the worst of the rain had passed and I continued through town and over to Back Beach. Despite the rain people were swimming and the beach was crowded with vendors. After a stop for some juice I caught a taxi back to the ferry terminal and the hydrofoil to Saigon.
Almost a week in Saigon now and I think I’ll stay here a while. Although a huge city, I feel comfortable, I continue to meet people (tomorrow I’m having lunch with a Vietnamese family) and I think there are opportunities here for both teaching and my art.
The future is unwritten… stay tuned!