Saturday, January 26, 2008

Traveling in Vietnam: Second Trip--January 2008

Read first installment here.
In Saigon. This time I left time at both the beginning and end of the trip for sightseeing and travel. I headquartered at the Au Lac Hotel, a smaller three-star establishment on Nguyen Thj Minh Khai street in District 3. It’s one block over from the War Museum, if that places it for any of you.

As last year, I found the free breakfast buffet not only extremely tasty (I like Vietnamese food) but so plentiful that I could generally make it through the rest of the day on fruit and South Beach bars in my room. In fact, I had to. The amount of salt, and especially MSG, used in traditional Vietnamese cooking is far beyond what a mostly-organic American can tolerate. I was told that some Saigon restaurants were eliminating MSG and publicizing the fact, but I didn’t see any evidence of that. I drank at least one cup of herbal detox tea each day (yes, I brought it with me) to counter the effects. MSG is something the tourist industry should consider.

The Au Lac is not one of the new luxury hotels going up all over the city, but it has served me well on two trips. If the service is sometimes a bit uneven (mini bar not fully stocked when I arrived; on first leg of trip was in older room where shower leaked into an interesting drain contraption on the floor), the staff made up for it with their cheerful willingness to serve. Housekeeping staff who seemed to speak no English greeted me cheerfully whenever they saw me. Dining room staff generally spoke a little English and quickly fulfilled requests with a smile. Most of the front-desk personnel spoke enough English to give good service. All was done with cheerful good nature, which I found to be consistently true wherever I sent.

Before I set off, a word about the name of the city. Since the end of the war it has officially been Ho Chi Minh City. One resident told me that’s the legal name, but “in our hearts it’s still Saigon.” That’s the way people refer to it in everyday conversation.

The traffic is as bad as you’ve heard—some private cars, taxis and minibuses, public transport buses and tour buses, and the endless motorbikes. An interesting wrinkle
is the helmet law that went into effect at the end of last year. Unlike a few years ago when the government backed down on a helmet requirement, they seem entirely serious about enforcing it for adult motorbikers, although it does not include children or bicycle riders—both seeming oversights! I asked one of my Vietnamese hosts if people resisted the law and her laughing reply was, “We weren’t allowed to resist.” The socialist government is alive and well.

During my free day I found my way back to a wonderful street of antique stalls near the huge (and hot and airless) indoor Ben Thanh market. Le Cong Kieu Street is a delight, with some pricey antiques and a strong chance of getting ripped off, I’m told. But that doesn’t keep it from being lots of fun. On the other side of Ben Thanh there’s an open-air market that I’m told specializes in war artifacts. I didn’t make it there but it also looks interesting.

I did make it to the shopping streets that are plentiful as you move from District 3 into District 1, past the park in front of the Presidential Palace and near some of the luxury hotels. There are lots of street vendors (tshirts for as little as $1 American, Vietnamese food, bottled water and—thankfully—Diet Coke). There are interesting shops—art galleries, lots of silk, jewelry and watches and custom tailors. In spite of the heat and humidity, Saigon is tourist-friendly with an abundance of small parks where you can sit and watch the street life and a fair number of open cafes. There are surprisingly few panhandlers on the streets and vendors are generally polite. Even the constant offers of rides on motorbikes are polite, not insistent.

A lot of things are a real bargain—witness the “foot massage” I got for $10 American. It wasn’t what I expected; it included scalp massage, a cucumber facial, hot rocks and walking on my back, stretching of various kinds, and—oh yes—good work on my tired feet and legs. It ended with a cup of green tea and some fruit, as most things in Vietnam seem to do.

The one bad call I made was booking a dinner cruise on the river. I was suspicious when the hotel staff didn’t seem to be familiar with the dock area, although I had an address and a map that showed it clearly. It was fully dark when I left the hotel, and the taxi driver didn’t know where to find the dock. Unlike the streets of Districts 3 and 1, the further we went the more deserted it got. It clearly wasn’t a place where I wanted to be looking for a taxi at 9 p.m. to get back to the hotel. Even though it was a reputable tour provider, I turned around and went back to the hotel. A transfer service provided by the tour operator would have salvaged that one.

Overall, I felt as safe on the streets of Saigon as I feel on the streets of other large cities. I’m often alone, so that translates to being fine during the day and being careful how far and where I go at night. When you don’t speak the language, it makes especially good sense to be careful, but overall I found the Vietnamese people to be kind, caring and genuinely welcoming to tourists.

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