Thursday, October 9, 2008

24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City

Mekong Express_compressed

The Mekong Express Limousine waiting behind a not so express limousine on the ferry crossing the Mekong River

Last Sunday, I took a bus ride from Phnom Penh heading south-east to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) with the Mekong Express Limousine. Sounds posh enough? Well, yes actually for the price you pay. For only USD13 (one way), it comes with snacks, air conditioning, rest room, TV, music stereo and a host who attends to all your needs (well, all your needs pertaining to the journey of course).

The whole ride took about 6 hours, with a short ferry transfer on the Mekong River and one brief stop-over at a restaurant close to the Bavet border. I was very impressed and pleased with the overall services provided by the company as well as the comfort of the bus. I guess they wouldn’t dare call it a Limousine without trying to justify it. You see, I’ve come to notice that Cambodians are very humble people and the fact that they are afraid of “losing face” motivates them to do their best.

As soon as the bus took off (at a rather punctual time, by the way), the host started welcoming all of us in Khmer and then English through a microphone. He persistently informed us that we should not hesitate to ask for his help and that the bus company welcomes any complaints or feedback in order for them to improve.

Then, he guided us carefully through the immigration procedures at the Bavet border, which unsurprisingly helped a lot and the actual process at the border went without any hiccups. All passports were collected, stamped, accounted for and all passengers needed to do was to get off the bus, a quick queue at the immigration counter and then hop on again for our next leg of journey. It took about 1 ½ hours to HCMC center from the border.

I was too grateful for my iPod at some stage when the TV was turned on and Rambo started speaking in Khmer. On my way back to Phnom Penh, the host probably decided that a non-verbal form of entertainment would be more suited for a busload of Khmers and tourists. Hence, Mr. Bean with his silly antics was played on TV, much to the delight of many passengers.

To be honest, one doesn’t always know when Cambodia stops and Vietnam begins if not for the border checkpoints and the national flags flapping wildly in the wind. The landscapes were pretty much the same, vast green fields of rice plantation and water buffaloes enjoying their baths in puddles of water as a result of heavy rainfall for the past few weeks.

The rain came late this year and as soon as it arrived, farmers rushed to plant their rice. I could still see some women bending forward to almost a 180 degrees, sticking straws of rice one by one into the flooded field. *Sigh* It’s a shame that we can’t train animals to do that. Some men were seen handling traditional plowing machines pulled by buffaloes, preparing the ground for further sowing. Time is of the essence and there is definitely no time to lose, especially while the price of rice has risen significantly for the past year.

What might eventually give away the Vietnamese identity were the temples at the outskirts of the capital city. Unlike the majestic looking and intricately shaped roofs of the pagodas commonly seen in Cambodia, the temples in Vietnam are slightly more low key but definitely more colourful. The other thing which ultimately personifies Vietnam was the quintessential cone-shaped straw hats worn by women everywhere to shield them from the blazing sun and more than anything else, to avoid getting a tan.

Broom peddler 2_compressed Oranges_compressed

Yes, like many other Asian women, Vietnamese women are rather obsessed about keeping their complexion fair. All street vendors were covered up from top to toe (the large straw hats manage to hide their faces quite effectively), even more than conservative Muslim women!

You know you are finally in HCMC when you’re swarmed with thousands of motorcyclists. I am not joking. I bet that if you actually have an aerial view of HCMC, these motorcyclists will look like an ant colony that has gone haywire. Well, at least they are disciplined enough to wear helmets, which by the way seemed to be a sort of fashion accessory, and stick to a maximum of two persons per bike.

(Speaking of haywire, a totally unrelated topic but in which I must insist on telling. There was one thing which amazed me about the city. It is charming enough but once you actually notice the number of thick black electrical wires running through the entire city, you’ll never stop obsessing about it. However, if you don’t notice it from the beginning, the Wires_compressedunsightly wires somehow magically blend into the background like the fact that I didn’t seem to notice them until the next day!)

The motorcyclists may be conscious of their traffic regulation, they certainly didn’t pay any heed to the safety of pedestrians. In this city, you need to learn three things; 1) to dodge motorcyclists that seem to come from every direction, 2) to develop an astute judgement of when to grab the exact opportunity to cross the street because make no mistake, they will not stop for you and 3) to be able to do quick mental calculations. If you can master these, then you’re ready to conquer this city.

Since I had only about 24 hours here, I decided to stay in District I where apparently most of the actions are. My first stop was to the famed Cho’ Bén Thaňh market, situated strategically on the roundabout of Le Lai Street, Ham Nghi, Hung Dao and Le Loi Avenues. I decided to walk there since it was only about 10 minutes’ walk through a labyrinth of small alleys from the back of my hotel on Cong Quynh Street.

After walking about less than 1 minute, the rain started pouring down heavily. Fortunately, I had brought along my plastic poncho from Phnom Penh but when I finally reached the market, I was drenched from feet down and regretted than I didn’t opt for my slippers instead. Even with my wet socks weighing heavily in my wet sneakers, it didn’t deter me from doing a bit of shopping and then having lunch at the food court inside the market.

Coming from Phnom Penh, the market didn’t really impress me although the Cho’ Bén Thaňh is undoubtedly cleaner, modern and more organised. Firstly, there are actually less stalls and secondly if you are not careful, be sure that most of the stall owners will try to cheat you by creating confusion to the exchange rate as well as shortchanging you. Be aware that the Vietnamese dong is quite similar to the Indonesian rupiah in terms of the number of zeroes attached to it. The hotel informed me that the exchange rate was 16,500 dong to USD1.

While the USD is a widely accepted currency in Vietnam, most local businesses still prefer to use the dong. So anyway, I discovered several times how people had tried to shortchange me when I gave them US dollars and they returned the change in dongs. Thanks to my Chinese blood, I always check whether I have received the correct change or not. Most sellers would just give a nervous laugh and pretended that it was an honest mistake when confronted. So, who says that learning maths in school is a waste of time? You’ll be grateful here. For those who intend to visit HCMC, I strongly suggest that you bring along a small calculator but do not forget to take it along with you anywhere you go.

Sometimes, you are not only shortchanged but also being ripped off if you can’t be bothered to learn the market price for things. With my shopping bags, I decided to take a cyclo on my way back to the hotel. According to my hotel, it usually costs only USD1 to 2 by taxi to the market due to the short distance. Before I hopped onto the cyclo, I asked the man how much for the fare. He didn’t seem to understand or speak English. So, I asked him “One dollar?”, reinforced by my index finger sticking out from a clenched fist. He nodded, “OK, OK.”

Anyway, to cut a very long story short, the cyclo man tried to take me for a long ride but fortunately since I had previously walked to the market, I actually knew the way and directed him back. He was going to take me on an non-consensual city tour! He pretended not to speak English and hence claimed ignorance but when in the end, I refused to pay him USD10, he argued with me in English! I was equally stubborn as I tried to reason with him that we agreed on USD1 and told him, “So you do speak English” sarcastically. He pretended to look hurt and kept saying, “You pay, you pay.” We ended up having a shouting match on the street when I threatened to drag him into my hotel so that the manager could sort it out and getting the police involved.

In the end, he brought down the fare to USD5 and despite the fact that it was still a rip off, I lost my will to fight. While being upset with the whole incident, I didn’t really want to spoil my dwindling 24 hours stay in HCMC by hanging on to this. I paid the USD5 but with an extremely stern expression, I told the man that I was very disappointed with Vietnamese like him who gave a bad impression to tourists. I didn’t think he care but I made my point at that was enough for now.

By then, I had seriously lost my zeal for the city, particularly when I was rudely splashed with water by motorcyclists who didn’t bother slowing down through puddles, got screamed at by women who were annoyed at me for blocking their stalls while trying to take photographs and last but not least, waiting to cross a street for nearly 15 minutes due to the never ending throngs of motorcyclists. It was close to being an impossible mission if I had not cut in quickly as soon as the motorcyclists were slowed down by a bus in front and stood in the middle of the street with my arm stretched out, making a stop sign to the bus driver and proceeded to cross the street, barely escaped from being knocked down by a motorcyclist who had managed to conquer the obstruction caused by the bus from the other side.

My mood was finally pacified as I managed to get a seat at the notoriously famous Quán ăn Ngon restaurant situated at Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street that night. I am not quite sure whether the food there is actually of superior taste and quality than other places but its ability to draw such a great crowd of people is simply because it imitates a food court with a cleaner, sophisticated and comfortable environment. Its winning point lies on convincing tourists that you can still taste local flavours without getting international diarrhoea.

I, for one, was not convinced that it is a must-eat place in HCMC unless if you possess a weak stomach or an obsessive compulsive person. I enjoyed more eating at the food court in Cho’ Bén Thaňh market where I actually received personal attention from the stall owners, had short interactions with other locals who shared the same eating counter as myself and you can always go shopping after you have enough and come back for more. The food was excellent and no diarrhoea or any other complication related to my bowel.

Supper time_compressed The People Committee Hall_compressed

I also enjoyed eating while squatting down on low stools in hawker places along the many small alleys in the city, especially for a late night supper (see picture above ). Seriously, for a pittance, you actually get a real taste of local Vietnamese food and most of the places are not necessarily unhygienic.

The next day, for the final few hours before I boarded the 1pm bus back to Phnom Penh, I took a walking tour around the upscale Le Loi Avenue. The architectures were impressive and it really did give me a sense of being in Europe, particularly France of course. The streets are lined with majestic early 20th century colonial buildings now mostly owned by hotel conglomerates. The People Committee Hall with the statue of none other, Ho Chi Minh, was particularly grand and beautiful (see picture above). I smiled as I saw the huge Louis Vuitton boutique right at the junction of the avenue. Such is a clear indication of how fast Vietnam is developing economically as more and more people become richer. Genuine Louis Vuitton did not hit the Malaysian market until just a few years ago.

Artist_compressedCoconut seller_compressed

I did some final “touristy” shopping around Nguyen Hue Street where most arts galleries thrive; bought some postcards, a coffee table book by Peter Pham (Vietnamese photographer) and an oil painting by local talent Trāw Huŭ Tāi. Before I headed back to my hotel to pack up my things, I couldn't resist the temptation of being a potential target of local peddler for one last time.

As I was waiting patiently to cross a street, an elderly woman selling fresh coconut juice crossed from the opposite side, skilfully dodging motorcyclists while balancing her baskets of coconuts (see picture above). I quickly took out my camera to catch the image and soon enough, she was standing right in front of me asking me to buy a coconut from her. Out of obligation, I did. After she cracked the coconut, she told me, "Five dollah". I couldn't help but laughed right in her face. I said to her, "Sorry, I'll pay you one dollah or you can take it back." "Ok, ok," she said. I thought that was easy. Then she started smiling coyly, "Why you no give me five dollah?" I looked at her and said, "Errr...because it doesn't cost five dollah?" She started grumbling in Vietnamese but before she could insist more, I saw an opportunity to run across the street. I was finally getting good at conquering the horrendous traffic and not getting ripped off, but it was time to go back.

With my backpack and a cone-shaped straw hat (I couldn’t resist buying one) peeking out from one of my shopping bags, I boarded the bus looking completely like a tourist. I settled down happily on my seat and was looking forward to return to my new “home” in Phnom Penh.

As much as I have enjoyed HCMC in some ways, I was relieved to get back to a city where nobody tries to cheat me and, humility and politeness are still considered as important virtues.

Bavet_compressed Sunset_compressed

Left: Monument at the Vietnam border

Right: Beautiful sunset on the Mekong River on the way back to Phnom Penh

Written on 9 October 2008


  1. so, you won't recommend Vietnam? i HATE places i have to bargain.

  2. Oh yes, I would recommend anyone to go to Vietnam. Sure, it's not perfect like most places but you just have to experience it for yourself.

    Who knows? Maybe I am being too critical, stingy, etc. A lot of people do like Vietnam. There are others things which I like; especially the food of course.

    In terms of people trying to cheat you, as soon as you learn and realise this, you will also learn to deal with it because it is so common. Just be careful.

    I think a lot of bad practices are generated by irresponsible tourists. Many tourists, especially from rich countries, tend to spoil the market by paying whatever prices they are told because at the end of the day, what is USD10 for them? So, locals develop bad habits and expect all tourists to act the same, not realising that there are many budget or shrewd tourists.

    As to the bargaining thing, there is actually not much bargaining to be done in the market. A lot of the prices are fixed. It's just the tendency to shortchange.

    I will go again to HCMC but the next time, I won't go with great expectations.

  3. Went to Hanoi a couple of times and loved it so much. It has got a certain european feel to it. Felt very much at home in Hanoi. Not been to HCM and after reading your blog, it sounds like an experience.

  4. Sree, I would like to visit Hanoi one day. I've seen some of the photos taken from Hanoi and they look amazing.

    The thing is, there is so much hype about HCMC. Everyone talks about Saigon this, Saigon that. So, I went with a lot of expectations.

    Try to visit HCMC one day, it is indeed an experience. I'm sure if I manage to stay a bit longer, I might have a different feel.