Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Part 1: I'm So Fancy

I am a little sad currently because I sent all my clothes to the laundry in an effort to massively clean everything at once, and the laundry people didn't dry it fully before bagging it up; and now all my clothes have a not-so-pleasant swamp-like odor.  I guess if that's the worst of my problems, I'm still doing OK in life - but do you think I should douse my clothes in anti-wrinkle spray or mosquito repellent?  Only two choices of scent I have in my life currently.

Moving onto more relevant topics, arrived in Ho Chi Minh City!  Which is also called Saigon for short (Saigon is the old name; but it's easier to say so you'll find in the South people still call in Saigon).

What It's All About:
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is the largest city in Vietnam, with over 9 million people - though Hanoi is the capital city. It's. Huge. To me, it was like stepping into Hong Kong or another similar huge Asian metropolis - driving in, you instantly see all the global brands and franchises (KFC, Carl's Jr, Starbucks, even Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and Swensen's [side note: ICE CREAM NOMNOM]).  I love it. I feel at home in cities.  There are skyscrapers, men in business suits, and fancy hotel chains. Big cities are my jam.

It also used to be the capital of South Vietnam pre-Vietnam War, which I've learned extensively about in my time here.

Cliffnotes of the Day:
  • Pulled into the city by bus around dinnertime. Amanda, my diving/cooking class buddy who I'd met in Hoi An, was in Ho Chi Minh City for work, and had invited me when I was back in Hoi An to stay with her at her hotel (courtesy of her work).  So I took a cab over to Le Meridien, where she was staying.  Amanda was at a work dinner when I arrived, but she'd put my name on the room so I could get into the room.
  • First off, there is nothing like rolling into Le Meridien looking completely homeless and carrying a beat-up backpack and feeling totally out-of-place. The sweet bellmen kept trying to offer to carry my sad-looking bag for me.  Anyways, I finally checked in to this:

The Le Meridien lobby - just like the hostels I've been staying in, obvs

First order of business - put on hotel robe; lounge in comfy bed ASAP

  •  Amanda arrived a little later; we seriously just chilled in bed and watched a movie. It felt like such luxury, as come to think of it, I also haven't watched a single ounce of TV/film in this entire time.  The next morning, we headed down to the hotel's complimentary breakfast buffet. 

Whattt.  Seriously the most beautiful sight I've ever seen
  • The buffet was insane - there was a make-your-own-omelette station, a make-your-own-pho station, unlimited ridiculous amounts of hot breakfast dishes and breads and pastries and yogurt and cereal - even an entire dessert section. I was in heaven.
I may have gone a little nuts on breakfast. I even had a personal omelette that I didn't photograph
  • After the largest breakfast in the world, we went to lounge by the pool overlooking the river.  #beachedwhalestatus

Oh, and here's our gorgeous infinity pool, of course
Looking out over Saigon

Gorgeous athletic center (apparently the hotel is only a couple months old)

  • The hotel did force us to check out eventually, so we headed to Ben Thanh Market, a famous indoor market known for selling all sorts of tourist (and local) goodies.  I needed to replace my tennis shoes, given I'd lost them somewhere between canyoning and the city (RIP).   

Ben Thanh market

  • After the market, Amanda had to leave to catch her flight back home to Hong Kong (tear).  We parted ways and I gathered up my things to return to my usual routine of hosteling - I checked in at a nearby hostel for the rest of my time in the city.  At my hostel, I met a new roommate, Ed, from Britain - we went for dinner and drinks at a crazy busy backpacker-y road near the hostel.

Moment of the Day:
Moments of the Day don’t always have to be good, right?  Vietnam is also well-known to have really scam-y taxi drivers - it’s pretty common to get ripped off.  I’d been pretty lucky so far to not have had any major issues - common rules of thumb are that you always ask the driver to turn on the meter, or you clearly establish the fare beforehand (and make sure it includes all luggage, extra people, etc.).  But my luck couldn’t last forever, I guess.

Amanda and I had taken a cab from the hotel to the Ben Thanh market; which cost about 35,000 Vietnamese dong (about $1.50). When we were done at the market, we flagged down a taxi back to the hotel.  I asked him to turn on the meter, which he did.

First problem: I noticed the meter was jumping in really large increments. A couple minutes in, our fare was already at 300,000 dong (~$15) - but the meter was wonky looking and there were a couple weird separators in the numbers, so we surmised it maybe was only at 30,000 dong.

Second bad sign: I asked the driver at that point whether the meter said 30,000 or 300,000 - and he mumbled something under his breath in Vietnamese, blatantly ignoring me.

Third bad sign: By now, we were close to the hotel (it was only a 5-minute drive away), and the taxi refused to pull into the hotel - instead; he stopped the car over a block down the street.

The meter was stopped - and it said either 45,800 or 458,000.  When I tried to give the man a 50K note - he shook his head, starting rambling in Vietnamese, and wrote on a piece of newspaper “458,000.” (over $20). At this point, Amanda and I start arguing with him - we refused to pay, saying it was too much. I told him our ride to the market only cost 35K, so how was the exact same ride back over 10x that amount?  He started getting agitated, raising his voice and consistently writing the 458K over and over again on the newspaper while starting to shout.  At one point, he took it down by 3K dong ($0.10) and wrote 455K, as if that was some kind of grand discount and should settle the matter.  Amanda and I were adamantly not paying, and we clearly told him we didn’t even have 400K and were getting out of the car.  

I tried to open my door; and it was locked.  Amanda’s was locked as well; and when we tried to toggle the lock to unlock it, it flopped uselessly back and forth; a.k.a. he had locked us in and the locks from the inside didn’t work.  At this point I panicked a little - I was glad Amanda was there, but we had no way to get out of the car. So we continued to argue - I think it’s also a good thing that both Amanda and I are very good at being very firm and very argumentative.  It ended when we were both basically like “We don’t even have 460K, so you can keep us in the car as long as you want, but you will never get that from us because it’s impossible.”  Out of nowhere, the man grabbed the 50K note I had kept trying to pay him with - and here’s the part I don’t understand - he actually pushed 4K worth of change into my hand - before unlocking the doors and telling us to get out.  Not sure why he gave change at all, but hey - not arguing. 

Overall, kind of an unnerving experience, but not wildly uncommon, from what I’ve heard. 

Fun Facts of the Day:
  • Traveling through Vietnam, I’ve come to learn that it’s a pretty common backpacker/traveling thing for people to rent or buy a motorbike and drive it themselves either North to South, or South to North.  This is popular because A.) Motorbikes are incredibly inexpensive - most of them just end up selling it after their trip is over; B.) You don’t need a license or insurance or anything to own a motorbike (case in point: I could have rented a motorbike in any of the cities for only $5/day, with no proof I’ve ever been on one or know how to ride); and C.) The drive is apparently gorgeous and well-traveled enough. Next time, Vietnam.
  • Beds in hostels in SE Asia are notoriously hard - like planks of wood.
  • Vietnam has tiny little banh mi metal carts on every corner. Kind of like NYC hot dogs, but more prevalent and a thousand times more delicious (not hating on NYC hot dogs though, because those are delicious too).  They vary in what they'll stuff in your banh mi (sometimes an assortment of meat, sometimes paté-like stuff, different veggies), but the deliciousness is pretty consistent.  It's a real problem.
Adorably-delicious street banh mi stand

MVP of the Day:
Amanda is def my MVP of the Day.  Not only did I love meeting her and hitting it off with her and having someone fun to spend my time with, but it was beyond incredibly kind of her to let me stay in her fancy hotel with her - even going so far as to ask for an extra bed, putting my name on the room so I could check in, and letting me spend a day relaxing poolside and having the most baller breakfast of my life.  Above and beyond, she even brought me back the most delicious banh mi ever for dinner after I’d arrived.

Amanda and I in the prettiest hotel ever. Also for anyone who's interested, this is my nerdy tailor-made Taylor outfit

Hello, delicious banh mi in bed. I may have slept in crumbs all night but worth it

Honestly, I know it sounds ridiculous because I’m on this perma-vacation and my life really isn’t that hard - but when I stepped into Le Meridien, I felt like a person again (dramatic, but for serious). For a brief, glorious night - I didn't feel like backpacker Connie - always covered in grime, hauling my life around in a giant dirty backpack, worrying about locking my things up, having to rent towels and search for plugs, and sharing a room with 6 other people. It made me feel briefly like a normal, everyday human being again, and I loved and treasured it.

So for that, and for generally being awesome and fun to hang out with, and as a friend I know I will keep in touch with (and hopefully travel with again!) - you win, Amanda. 

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