Friday, June 8, 2012

Exploring Vietnam: Day 1: The Long Haul

I just returned from an epic adventure- I'll be recapping it by day since we did so much. And then, it'll be back to our regularly scheduled food and fitness programming. I've missed you all. :)

We rose with the sun a few Sundays back, locked up our tiny Brooklyn abode and hopped on the subway with two frame-packs, a messenger bag, a napsack and a camera bag! 

Getting from Brooklyn to the Newark airport via public transportation while carrying your body weight counts as your workout for the day!

Good bye, NY... The Jersey Transit makes travel to Newark Airport cheap and easy- giving NYers an alternative to JFK and Laguardia when comparing flight prices.

Our first flight was our longest- 14 hours from Newark International to Narita International. I watched My Week with Marilyn and Albert Nobbs, read lots of Flannery O'Connor and journaled, a lot. Konnichiwa, Japan!

First stop- COFFEE!

Caffeine makes my world go round! We paid over $10 for two iced coffees... Oy. Vey. You know your prices are silly when a New Yorker thinks they're expensive...

In case you need to throw away some trush...

I spotted these sweet kicks in a Harajuku Girl boutique!

Mommy gloss, anyone?

Joe makes friends, wherever he goes!

This one's for you, Katie!


 Don't even bother bringing your pet daisy- lest you want it subjected to PLANT QUARANTINE!

USD are widely accepted at the airport, though change is given in Yen! Souvenirs!

My sister's name is Kieren, so I had to buy some Kirin milk tea! 

We also slurped down a bottle of "Green Tea with Vegetables", which tasted... exactly what you'd imagine it to taste like. 

Stretching and waiting...

Ho Chi Minh City, here we come!

ANA serves some pretty decent in-flight meals!

Though our second flight was only six hours, it felt longggggggg. I was tired. But finally...

Upon arrival in Vietnam, we went through visa validation (Americans need a visa for ANY length of stay in Vietnam), passport verification, baggage claim and customs. 

All told, it took us about an hour to get out of the airport. We exchanged our cash at the stand immediately outside the baggage claim (which also happened to be the best rate we saw the entire trip) and then headed out into the steamy throngs to find our cab driver (we had arranged with our hotel to have someone pick us up).

Walking out of the airport in Vietnam is like walking the red carpet- there's a roped-off area for those exiting to leave the doors and behind the ropes are the HUNDREDS of cabbies, friends and family members waiting to greet them. Holy moly. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City!

Our first hotel was the Bich Duyen on Pham Ngu Lao in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's backpacker district. We arrived quite late, but our hosts were still awake- waiting to let us in. The room was quite nice- spacious, with A/C and a fan, plenty of storage room and quite clean!

A little worse for the wear, but still standing over 24 hours of traveling later...

We were starving, so we unloaded our things and headed out- our host told us to ring the bell when we returned (they don't have a 24 hour desk person, so they lock up at night). 

First stop- convenience store! Circle K's got a decent selection for a mini-mart, with relatively reasonable prices. We hadn't packed many toiletries to keep our packs light, so we picked up shampoo, conditioner, body wash and a giant bottle of water (tap water in most parts of Vietnam- not recommended).

 We hadn't really had much of a chance to acclimate and were too tired to explore (it was LATE), so we strolled to the end of our alley and stumbled across the Dune Cafe (which also happens to have rooms for rent- multitasking)!

If you haven't eaten a meal in the dark on the sidewalk in a pool of your own sweat, then you haven't eaten in Saigon...

I'm pretty sure this beer cost Joe less than $1 USD...

 Soaking in the steamy scene...

My first meal in Vietnam? Pho, natch! 

Complete with condiments!

What's better on a hotter-than-body-temperature-night than some hotter-than-body-temperature-soup?

Joe rocked some stewed white fish- pretty tasty!

We paid the bill (probably $5 USD? maybe less?), snagged some ice cream from the bodega (or whatever the Vietnamese equivalent of a bodega is) and headed back to the hotel.

Tips from Day 1:

-PACK SNACKS. I always have something in my bag but was a little last-minute in my prep for this trip. Airport food is always over-priced and usually not terribly healthy- bring some nutritious snacks to keep you full and spend your $ on necessities you can't pack (like iced coffee)!

-CHANGE YOUR $$ AT THE AIRPORT. This is at least true of Vietnam- the airport had the best exchange rate we saw the entire trip. Almost all of our transactions were in cash (very few places we patronized took credit cards, and most companies charge a pretty crazy fee for international use). Change enough money to last you until you get to your next major city (exchange rates outside of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City aren't great). 

-KEEP IT LIGHT. When backpacking anywhere, a light pack is the ideal. We purposely packed light on everything, and the only toiletries we packed were specialty products (face, cosmetics), medicines and sunscreen/ bugspray (available here in small quantities only). You can buy almost anything you'd need in Vietnam at a comparable (or in most cases, significantly cheaper) rate compared to what you'd pay at home.  And exception to this rule is western-style feminine hygiene products. You've been warned.