When I checked in and entered my room, I literally stopped in awe at the room reserved for me (my mind said: omigoshoigoshomigosh).
Like in my other trips, I don’t expect much from the places nor do I read so many travel guides since they may spoil my own impressions. One funny habit I have is, I read travel blogs of a place after I’ve been there, then I look at the differences and be happy about the coincidence of similarities.
Every little thing in Ho Chi Minh put me in deep awe (and sometimes giddiness) from my hotel room to the streets. I packed enough WOWs in my vocabulary so I never ran out of them right from the moment I stepped out of the plane.
Walking is a way to conquer a city and one’s mind I believe, and I am thankful that I managed to survive the infamous motorcycle traffic of Ho Chi Minh as I walked for hours. From my walks, I took a photo of the Municipal Theatre, posed in front of the Post Office designed by Eiffel Tower architect, went inside the Notre Dame Cathedral, looked at the high-end fashion boutiques at the ground level of antique and classy Rex Hotel, walked around with my bosses at the Vincom Center (mall), took a peek at the Fine Arts Museum and Reunification Palace, bought something at the Ben Thanh Market and took everything in from rest of the quiet streets of HCM.
For the entire week, I only spent about VND50,000 (about 2 US dollars or Php100) for a bowl of beef noodles outside the hotel since everything was paid for by the company. After days of preparation and the 2-day event in the hotel, and everyone flying back to his country, I stayed for three more days to be fair with my stay in Vietnam.
My plan was to make up for my lack of adventures because of the oh-so-comfy touristy accommodations and food that pampered me like a hedonist for a week. My traveler’s conscience was telling me: this is not the way we travel (although of course, I was there to work).
Off the beaten track was my goal. I dragged my purple luggage down to the hotel lobby when I checked out, and waited for a friend to help me find a cheaper hotel, preferably a backpacker’s inn or something (but he wouldn’t let me stay in really cheap inns where you sleep with an army of backpackers). Juni found me a nice one: USD21/night! It’s a great bargain since most of the cheap hotels there are USD30-40/night (my room at Sheraton was USD200/night).
The room was a little scary because I’m on the top-most floor, facing the street and a taller hotel with windows gawking at me (ok, paranoia, you got me). The door doesn’t have any of those electronic locks, but a manual latch that can be kicked if any gangster or zombie… okay, that’s my imagination ruining my focus.
I fell in love with the veranda, which was as wide as the room. One entire wall of my room was glass, with iron-wrought decorated gates and curtains to cover me (that explains my paranoia from stalkers and zombies, ok?).
From the room, I started my cultural learning by means of walking.
All I know about this country is that it used to be war-torn because of North Vietnam’s Communist agenda conflicted with the South, which was ‘aided’ by the U.S, who sent thousands of American soldiers to this Southeast Asian country and who got thousands of military back to the States in body bags.
Now it has incredibly opened itself to capitalist ventures. Just look at the stores of Christian Loubotin, Gucci, and Louis Vitton face each other at District 1 and you’d know times are changing fast.
At the luxurious Dong Khoi St, police officers stand as guards every 10 meters, at night. I found it funny because they stand really close to each other. Near Ben Thanh market, this is not the case. When I bought a pair of walking shorts (because stupid me forgot to bring one), the kind sales ladies and gentleman gave me a big plastic bag where I can put my bag and laptop because they say, there are many people who will get your bag and laptop. Hmmm. Every city, however charming it is, has its thieves.
Eating out wasn’t a problem because there are many eateries and restaurants wherever street you turn. In District 1, Every street has rows of hotels, too. This says a lot about socialist Vietnam’s opening its gates to global tourism huh? I’m happy to know from Juni, though, that there’s no Starbucks nor McDonald’s in Vietnam. Somehow, I saw it as Vietnam’s respect for her past.
Saigon is French in architectural ways, but what strikes me more is the way people, many of them in their corporate attire, sit on small chairs around small tables (kiddie size), sipping coffee or eating lunch, along the streets, outside the eateries. Al fresco dining, Vietnamese style.
As for the people, I can’t really generalize. Some are kind, some are so-so. But the best connections I will keep in my memory are the following:
Our Pakistani delegates. Funny and cool. CEOs and Directors at young age. When we talked, I was one of the boys hoo-ha.
And of course, Vu, our partner in organizing the event. He was all over the place too.
And because we were tired after a long day of working around unnoticed, we played with our cameras.
He and his colleagues gave me a beautiful map of Vietnam, which I used in roaming. He’s very professional and friendly at the same time. Couldn’t believe he’s only 23. I feel so old at 27.
Finally, working with our team was exhausting but everything was new to me so it’s exciting.
Hope to see these guys again. What an experience.