Saigon: Week 2 – 3

After my last post (The Sting) you might think I wouldn’t be tempted to visit anyone in their home again. However, the very next day I met with my young Vietnamese friend Huy for coffee and he invited me to visit his home. This invitation seemed safe enough; after all, I know where he works. So I hopped on the back of his bike and off we went. I didn’t have a helmet on, which made me a little nervous, and we did catch the eye of the police. But Huy made some sort of signal to the police and we continued on.

Huy lives across the river, where rents are not so high. We wound our way through a series of lanes and arrived at his humble abode. The building reminded me of storage units at home. One storey high, identical doors lining the narrow lane. Huy shares his room with a friend from home who’s job hunting in Saigon. This is typical of many Vietnamese; there’s no work at home so they migrate to the big cities, living on the fringes where costs are low.

small apartment in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Muoi, young visitor and Huy

We sat on the floor and drank tea for a couple of hours. Their young visitor played video games on the computer and quiet Vietnamese music played in the background. There’s a small loft where the guys sleep but no kitchen. When they want to cook they use their neighbour’s kitchen. After the morning tea we returned to Huy’s workplace and went for lunch at a large Vietnamese cafeteria before he began work.

I haven’t visited much with Huy as he only gets two days a month off work but we text/email often. He’s done some written translations for me so that I can ask Vietnamese people if I may take photos of them or their businesses. This coming Saturday I’m meeting Huy and some of his friends for coffee along the Saigon River before he goes to work. He wants to show me the real Vietnam. I’m happy to go along and help he and his friends with their English while they teach me about Vietnam.

I’ve moved into Miss Loi’s guesthouse. Here’s a shot looking down the lane as I approach the guesthouse.

Miss Loi's Guesthouse, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Miss Loi's in the Lane

The guesthouse sign looks kinda familiar… wasn’t that cartoon figure used for some gas company?

Miss Loi's Guesthouse sign, Saigon, Vietnam
Miss Loi's Sign

The eyes (well, really one eye) light up at night.

I had a small room with a view over the neighbours’ roofs when I first arrived. Small room, small fridge, small bathroom and if I was lucky I could get a wifi connection from a neighbour’s unlocked network. After five days another, bigger room became available. It’s much larger, has a view over the lane from a huge balcony with plants and I can access the guesthouse’s wifi from my room. Larger fridge, more furniture, larger bathroom with a shower stall and both air-con and two fans! Luxury. And all for an extra $50/month.

room at Miss Loi's guesthouse, Saigon, Vietnam
My Room

I get a small free breakfast, which includes a Large cup of coffee, in the spacious lobby.

lobby at Miss Loi's guesthouse, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The Lobby

The stairs on the right lead to my room; the ones on the left lead to my previous room. It appears that Miss Loi’s was once two buildings that have been joined.

I spend most of my days working in my room: applying for jobs online, working on my web site (a project that aways seemed to get left until last) and watching movies/TV on the net when I’m feeling lazy or discombobulated.

It is the rainy season here. The mornings can be quite nice but often by lunchtime thunderstorms and torrential downpours occur. As I have no kitchen I venture out for lunch and dinner. I’ve eaten at many of the vegetarian restaurants within walking distance. Perhaps it’s the strong Buddhist influence in southern Vietnam as there are a number of good com chay (without meat, eggs, dairy products) restaurants here. Also the nearby backpackers area features a large number of cafes and restaurants.

This is Stella, the restaurant I was at when the con artist approached me.

Stella Restaurant, Saigon, Vietnam
Stella Restaurant

Behind the line of motorcycles out front is outdoor seating. Sliding glass doors lead to the air conditioned interior. Stella’s is renown for its excellent coffee and has a mix of Italian and Vietnamese cuisine.

I haven’t been to the place below but the sign caught my eye.

restaurant signage, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Interesting Taste Combo

My favourite restaurant is a vegetarian place that does a number of dishes with mock meat. The young man at the front is very friendly; he always greets me with a handshake and asks after my health. Last night was the 15th day of the lunar calendar and the place was packed. Their chicken (mock meat) with lemon grass and chilies is to die for.

Ngoc Tho Com Chay, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ngoc Tho Com Chay

Another of my vegetarian faves is Zen, which Sue and I discovered when we visited Saigon in March.

Zen Restaurant, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Zen Restaurant

And for a bigger breakfast, a wider selection or simply to hang with expats I’ll go to the Chi Cafe.

Chi Cafe, Saigon, Vietnam
Looking Out from Chi's

I was having lunch at Chi’s yesterday when the downpour started so I ordered a second tea and waited it out. An English fellow, who’s been in Saigon a year, joined me and gave me a few tips about work and places to visit here. Last week I was invited to join an older Aussie tourist at his table. He had noticed I was trying to sort my order out with a new waitress. We were also both having a laugh about a wandering masseur I’d had to vigorously dissuade from pummelling me. Instead he attacked a fellow at another table. I noticed they didn’t agree on a price before hand and after the massage there was a lot of confusion over payment as the fellow’s girlfriend looked on in disgust.

street masseur, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Pummelling the Unsuspecting

A couple of places with interesting entrances I haven’t visited (and may not)…

dairy products store, Saigon, Vietnam
Holstein Head

I think the above is a dairy products store. And below… well, I think we can see what it is. There never seems to be anyone there though. Not sure if it’s because Texas BBQ is not popular here or if it’s the Vietnamese competition.

Texas BBQ, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A Bit of Texas in Saigon

And of course there are the street vendors:

street vendor, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Happy Vendor

This fellow was quite persistent and I don’t think he could believe it when I walked away without buying a drink after taking his photo. These guys linger around the museums where many tourists pass by. I was actually looking for a recommended cafe, but the building it was in had been torn down. I did discover the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City with its small selection of military hardware parked out front.

F-5E fighter jet, Saigon, Vietnam
F-5E Fighter Jet

The above American jet was used by a disillusioned South Vietnamese pilot to bomb the Presidential Palace in April, 1975. I haven’t been in the museum yet but it’s on my list of places to see.

I did visit the Fine Arts Museum, housed in a colonial building.

Fine Arts Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Fine Arts Museum
Fine Arts Museum courtyard, Saigon, Vietnam

Each of the three floors display different periods of art. The first has contemporary art, most of it for sale and a few nice pieces. The second floor contains mostly social realism – art of the revolution. I’m pretty tired of social realism and other than some nice lacquer work and a few abstract pieces found it uninteresting. The third floor has traditional art, some going back to the 4th century. The large incense burners and older sculptures (some purloined from Cambodia) impressed me.

artists' equipment, Museum of Fine Arts, Saigon, Vietnam
Revolutionary Artists' Working Equipments

The tube for carrying paper etc. is made from a bomb casing.

I’ve now found listings for contemporary galleries in Saigon and am looking forward to seeing some new works.

Although I have walked and wandered a few times I do get tired of the constant pestering by xe om and cyclo drivers, men offering girls and general sales pitches.

Bui Vien corner
Cyclo Driver on Corner

At least the neighbourhood where I’m staying is on the fringes of the tourist district and comparatively mellow.

produce vendors, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Local Street Vendors

I’ve started a series of photos of barber/beauty shops. With the help of Huy’s translations I’m hoping to some close-ups.

street barber, Saigon, Vietnam
Street Barber

I talked to a local real estate agent one evening and he told me that stores in the backpacker area rent for about $4000/month and sell for about $500,000. How people ever make money is a bit of a mystery. No wonder some businesses are on the sidewalks and streets themselves. Huy pays $70/month for his tiny shared space on the other side of the river. Any extra money goes to his family. Currently his mother and father are cutting rice frantically on the Central Coast as the land is flooding from all the rain.

And then there’s the high-end stores in the posher tourist district…

crocodile products, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Crocodile Products

But it’s not all about shopping or aimlessly wandering. I have been sending out my resume and so far have had one interview, at one of the huge ILA schools. When classes empty out onto the street traffic jams ensue.

ILA building, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
ILA Building

But some youngsters practise wherever and however they can….

girl writing on car, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Practising Writing

And so it goes. Day by day. I miss home and have to admit I’ve already looked at prices for return flights. However, I’ll hang here for the duration of my visa, maybe go to visit a friend in Bangkok or wander over to Cambodia if I don’t find work by then. And I’ve had a tip about freelance photography here so will be pursuing that.

Stay tuned! and please feel free to email me or leave comments here on the blog.


1 Comment

  1. Hi Kelly: A very entertaining account of your travels so far. We have been busy here with Fall Fair B&B , Pender Post etc.Everybody out catching sockeye. Cheers

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