Vietnam 07/2009-Day 10


Day 10
Saigon, Vietnam

July 13, 2009

The taxi to the Da Nang airport from Hoi An takes about 45 minutes and costs around $18, as expected. Once inside the small Da Nang airport, we see that not only are we early, but our flight has been delayed by half an hour.
There's no one at the check in counters, but there are already several lines of people waiting. We pick one at random and wait too. When the staff arrives at the counters there is a rush among the passengers (mostly foreign) to get in one of the lines.

"Excuse me!" I say as an Australian family of six cuts right in front of us when our line opens and theirs does not.
The mom whines, "we've been waiting since 9 am!" while dad pulls her back into the line in which they were standing even though there's no one yet at their check in counter.
Sorry lady if you chose the wrong line to stand in, I say to David in sotto voce. I'm married to an elementary school teacher. There is no cutting in line.

Da Nang airport runway

Eventually we all get checked in and go through security. It's just another example of "hurry up and wait, the Vietnam Edition." We make it on the plane and after an hour flight, arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still calls "Saigon." Once we get our luggage we head outside to the taxi stand at the curb and get a meter taxi. The ride into town is 90,000 VND (less than $5) and takes about 40 minutes with some heavy traffic the closer we get to the center.

I've booked us into the Sheraton Saigon, using SPG points (4000/night) plus cash ($90/night) for a standard room which usually starts at $225/night. On arrival, they ask us if we'd be interested in upgrading to a Grand Tower room which is newer, larger and comes with all sorts of added amenities including breakfast in the Club lounge, afternoon tea (with food) and evening cocktails (with food). Also included is internet access both in the lounge and the guest room which is normally $18 a day.
I think about it for a split second and say "no" because we'd just spent a lot of extra money "upgrading" at the Victoria in Hoi An. It just didn't seem necessary. But then David says, "Can we upgrade with points?" The answer is "Of course!", for an extra 6000 points per night. We discuss for a minute and decide to do it sight unseen. I have no idea if using those points were a better "value" than paying in dollars, but it worked well for us.

The room is spacious and has an entryway which includes a cabinet/closet and a place for luggage. There is a large alcove/desk/work area. Sliding glass doors lead out onto a very narrow balcony and our view takes in the river and the city streets eight floors below. The bathroom is good sized with a glassed in shower and tub room which also has a (non-opening) sliding glass door for a window. The bed is by far the most comfortable one we had the entire time in Vietnam.

By now it's about 3pm and we're starving. We go downstairs to check out the Towers Lounge and the "complimentary" offerings for Afternoon Tea. There are all sorts of little sandwiches and desserts and we avail ourselves of the treats for a while and use the wifi in the lounge with our laptop while we wait to meet our friend Lori at 5:30.

A little background; Lori lives in Siem Reap Cambodia where she runs a non-profit foundation she started called the Ponheary Ly Foundation. The PLF (www.theplf.org) supports the poorest school children in Siem Reap (it is an amazing organization, please check it out if you have not). Lori and I met in December 2007 when my mom and I visited Cambodia and spent some time with her, Ponheary, and the schools. But I already "knew" her from Fodor's message board. In person we he hit it off, maintaining email correspondence and she's even stopped by on her way through LA.

I am usually guilty of being an over-planner, but in this case I did little more than research restaurants for Saigon. Lori and I made a list of a few sights we both wanted to check out, but in general, decided we would "go with the flow". The only other thing we had planned (besides eating) was a 1/2 day tour of Cholon (Saigon's Chinatown) with some "students" who she had found through a friend. We both assumed this would be similar to the Hanoi Kids. More on this later.

View from our room.

We're supposed to meet Lori in the lobby around 5:30 because her flight gets in a few hours later than ours. She's managed to find a much cheaper place to say and it's only a block from the Sheraton. In fact, we get out a map and our little binoculars and we can see the street sign from our room so walk over there to see if she's checked in and she has, but she's no there.

Finally, everything comes together in one of those odd, right person/wrong context moments in the Saigon Sheraton hotel lobby and suddenly there we all are, in a city none of us knows.

First things first; let's eat! We have no plans and just start walking in the general direction of the closest place to eat on my map which happens to be near the central market called Ben Thanh. District 1 in Saigon is bustling and seems much more "modern" than central Hanoi. There are lots of high end designer clothing and accessory stores. Yes, there is traffic chaos, but there are also traffic lights and in general, people seem to obey them.

We stop for an early dinner at a place opposite the market called Thanh Binh (140 Le Thanh Ton). It's a narrow storefront room, brightly light with fluorescent lights and formica tables. But we're not here for the decor, we're here for the food. We order goi cuon (shrimp and pork summer rolls) for which they are known, bun bo xao, bun cha gio and cang cua which are crab claws in tamarind sauce. Most items are $1-$2 but the crab is 150,000 VND (about $8) and worth every penny. With a round of beer, dinner is 291,000 VND for three (about $16).

After dinner, we walk around the market building, observing the set up for the outside night vendors. On one side it's all food vendors, cooking in outdoor "restaurants", and wow, does everything look amazing. We agree that we'll have to come back another night.

On the other side, it's mostly clothing and shoes. Lori tells us how it was impossible to find dressy shoes her size in Cambodian when she needed to go to a wedding. In the central market in Siem Reap, a woman assured her she has shoes in every size, but when she tries to fit Lori's size 10 (?) and cannot, she tells Lori she has "demon feet." I love that story because it's so typical of Cambodia. As Lori says, it's khmertastic! But back to Vietnam...

From there, we walk around, a little aimlessly, just checking out the city's vibe. Going back past the market area toward the hotel we see a street vendor selling something which looks oddly like fried potatoes and egg. She has a big metal stove on one end of a bamboo pole (for carrying) and on top of the stove, a flat griddle. On the other end of the bamboo carrying pole is a tray with all the condiments.

She fries up the white cubes on the griddle and then squirts them with a thick sweet soy sauce. When she gets an order, she clears a spot and cracks an egg on the pan, mixing it with the fried cubes. Then it all gets scooped up into a bowl, more sauce goes on top along with some sliced vegetables. We order up a bowl to taste and sit down on the little plastic stools on the sidewalk and share it, eating it with a teeny-tiny fork. It's delicious and I can't remember for sure, but I think we ordered a second bowl.

View from the rooftop bar at Rex Hotel

After a while we go to the famous Rex Hotel rooftop bar for drinks. The view is "ok" but I expected it to be better after having read so much about it. Drinks are very expensive and the "scene" while I'm sure was happening in the 60's was nonexistent, at least on this night.

View from our room at night.

In airport; Oreos are popular everywhere.
Next to the dried shrimp snacks
they were the most purchased item.


Glassed in shower room w/tub.


























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