Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Here Today, Saigon Tomorrow

| Comments

Yet another day in transit, this time from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City via Kuala Lumpur. We give our farewells to Feel @ Home and the eerily pristine garden city of Singapore, board the MRT, and head for the airport.

Once there, we immediately hit a snag: the Malaysia Airlines clerk won’t issue our boarding passes unless we can provide proof that we plan to leave Vietnam before our visas expire. She insists that the Vietnamese immigration officers will need this, so we set about solving this problem in progressively more desperate ways:

  • Valkyrie tries to get on wifi in the airline desk area, but she can’t get a decent enough connection to book anything;
  • Evan heads off to ask about booking flights out of Vietnam, but is told by a couple of airlines that they don’t have anything;
  • We both ask if the flight can be moved back a day, but the next available flight out is on June 22 and we don’t plan to spend another week in Singapore;
  • We finally find out that Malaysia Airlines offers flights from Ho Chi Minh to elsewhere, but these cost S$500 and up which is more than we’re willing to pay to solve this.

We try our last option: we convince the clerk to give us only the boarding passes for the flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. Once inside security, we get a better signal and promptly book a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh for 260 000 dong per person, or about US$13 – much better!

The flight to Kuala Lumpur is super-short, about 45 minutes, and before we know it we’re touching down in Malaysia. First things we notice: strong Islamic presence here, different currency, seems generally clean. There’s multiple signs flashing “WARNING: Beware of taxi touts”, referring to a common scam in which smartly-dressed attendants sell wildly overpriced ride passes into town from the airport taxi stands. Since we don’t have our boarding passes for the second flight yet, we have to exit customs, get our bags, convince yet another clerk that we do in fact plan to leave Vietnam eventually, check our bags, go through security once more, and wait around. In retrospect, getting our Vietnamese visae ahead of time was a good investment; the airline clerks in Kuala Lumpur initially give us a hard time, but they back off once they see that we already have them. Yay!

Even though the Kuala Lumpur to HCMC (as it’s commonly abbreviated) flight is only about two hours, we get a meal service. Somehow Malaysia Airlines also thinks we have a fruit-only preference, but to their credit they send a flight attendant over to verify this – so we get a regular meal of chicken in a surprisingly tasty peanut-based satay sauce over rice.

On the ground in HCMC, we grab our bags, get some of the local currency, push our way past hordes of insistent taxi drivers, and board the public bus for 5000 dong each (about US$0.25). This results in a small navigational adventure; the bus driver doesn’t speak English, we don’t recognize any of the listed stops on our route, and we have neither GPS nor a working knowledge of HCMC’s complicated geography. What to do?

We decide that we need to get off near the city center. Watching the numbers of people who get on and off gives us an idea of how close we are. Further help is given by the French-style system of district numbering, in which lower-numbered districts are more central. After reading the addresses off shop awnings, we decode enough to separate out the ward and district numbers. Once we enter district 1, we pay special attention for especially large concentrations of hotels, and once we find a large cluster of them we hop off.

Shortly after being disgorged from the still-slowly-moving bus into the chaos of HCMC’s streets, we happen upon two tourists who graciously let us snap a photo of their map. This gives us enough information to find Pham Ngu Lao, widely known as the touristy part of District 1 – this is the easiest place to find backpacker hostels, guesthouses, and the like. We settle on one down a side alley called Tam Anh, which is run by a cheerful grandmotherly lady. We agree upon a daily rate, but no money changes hands; reputable places to stay won’t ask for money up front.

Now that we have a place to stay, we need food! We plow our way through two delicious bowls of combination brisket, rare beef, and tendon pho at nearby Pho Quynh. With pho, you’ll often get several condiments:

  • herbs, usually basil and Vietnamese coriander;
  • hot and hoisin sauces;
  • lime wedges, hot pepper slices, and (sometimes) pickled garlic;
  • (sometimes) bean sprouts.

Pile whatever you want into the steaming broth to taste. OM NOM NOM.

Oh yeah: for Western tourists, be aware that you can’t expect a Western-style toilet. Some places have pit toilets, and some toilets come with bidets rather than toilet paper for your, er, hygienic needs.

Long day! We receive a map from the innkeeper along with some suggestions for a walking tour the next day, but for now it’s off to sleep…

Learn Vietnamese

  • Xin chào: Hello.
  • Cảm ơn: Thank you.
  • Không: No. Also used as the number zero, and as a general negation (not, none, no one, etc.) It also seems to be used in a positive sense, but I’m not sure about that one.