Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Exploring Vietnam: Day 3: Sidestreets in Saigon and the Train to Hanoi

After the hustle and bustle of the previous day, Joe and I decided to head off the tourist track and veer away from the map's suggestions. We picked a direction (South), put away the map and started walking!

If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you'll know that Joe has been a long-time manager/ operations assistant/ social media guru/ wafel-slinger at Wafels & Dinges here in NYC. When we came across this sweet lady selling Vietnamese street wafels, we HAD to give them a try! 

The US Wafel Ambassador meets with the Vietnamese Wafel ambassador to discuss tricks of the trade. 

 Sweet, chewy, delicious!


The further away from the tourist district we wandered, the more colorful and exciting things became!

After purposely getting lost for an hour or so, I convinced Joe to stop at a sidewalk cafe for some ca phe sua da (iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk).

Everywhere you go in Vietnam, you'll find plastic kiddie-sized furniture and a sweet old lady serving up some frosty beverages!

Notice all the men relaxing in the background? This is a common theme in Vietnam- a sentiment echoed to me in conversations with both Vietnamese men and women- anywhere you see a man relaxing, you'll see a woman hard at work nearby.

Though we had a serious language barrier (my Vietnamese is terrible and she spoke no English)- the lady running this little sidewalk corner joint took good care of Joe and I, moving us out of the sun when the clouds moved, making sure we had comfortable chairs, showing me how to properly tie the scarf on my straw hat, and attentively watching as I applied sunblock (which she thought was hilarious). And probably the best part of all- not overcharging us. I think we paid 24,000 VND for two iced coffees (appx $0.70 USD each)- it's common to charge Westerners up to double for the same services and goods- considering the average income of a Vietnamese family (even when adjusted for cost of living), this may be more fair than you think, but no one likes feeling like they're getting ripped off. As I stood up from my table, a gust of wind blew my hat into the middle of a treacherous intersection, and out of nowhere, a bystander dashed into the road, dodging motorbikes left and right, swooped up my hat, returned safely and dusted it off before placing it on my head for me, smiling and walking off. Hospitality at its finest, folks.

After an adventurous morning spent among the locals, we wandered back to the tourist track to freshen up, check out of our hotel (the front desk kindly agreed to hold our bags) and set back out for more sightseeing.  

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum is housed in the former Gia Long Palace and contains some beautiful antique pieces from private collections.

Like this gorgeous hand-carved wardrobe, which I want, regardless of the fact that it wouldn't even fit in the front door of my tiny Brooklyn studio apartment. A girl can dream, can't she?

Like most places in Vietnam, where there's shade and relative quiet, you'll find an animal lounging.

One day, I will live in a home with a staircase as grand as this one...

...If only so I can pose like this at the top of it. 

Oh hai, water buffalo.

Joe won't admit it, but he wants these stairs, too.

Refreshed by the shady, slow-paced museum (complete with free clean bathrooms- BOOM!) we were ready to find some lunch! We wandered for a bit and then stumbled across Dong Hoa Xuan

I got the Bahn Canh Cua.

Joe rocked the Banh Tom.

Yes... that's my second/third-ish iced coffee for the day and it's only lunchtime, but who's counting? Check out the rice noodles, sprouts and lettuce wraps to start! Yum!

This soup rocked me to my core. Savory, sweet, a bit spicy and not too complex.

Check these babies out! Shrimp and sweet potato fritters. Self-explanatory. And obviously delicious.

Drink up! We were sweating so much that staying hydrated was a constant task! Mmm... coconut!

Joe shared a few sips of his coconut while I journaled away! I ended up writing about 56 hand-written pages during this trip. How often do we get to hand-write anything these days?

We did some more wandering post-lunch, stopping in a bakery to wait out some intense rain and meeting this breadigator. Yep. Alligator made of bread. Only in Vietnam...

We returned to our hotel, sweaty and exhausted. We had already checked out, so we didn't have a room to rest in, but the awesome front desk guys were very accommodating, letting us lounge obnoxiously in the lobby and offering the "shower" in the lobby-level bathroom. Most showers in Vietnam are simply a showerhead protruding from the wall somewhere in the bathroom near a floor drain- no tub, no shower stall; just you, a tiled bathroom, and a hose. I was so ridiculously swampy from walking around in the heat that I happily trotted into the service bathroom, stripped buck-naked, hosed off, dried myself with the used towel hanging from the door and put back on my dirty clothes. Backpacker-Keelie's hygiene standards are significantly lower than at-home-Keelie's. You've been warned- that was by far not the grossest thing I did in Vietnam- it only gets sketchier from here on out, folks.

We kept it simple for dinner and decided not to stray too far- we were on a time-budget since we had a train to catch that evening. We ended up at Pao Cafe

The service was great. The food was... fine. Not good. Not bad. Pretty unremarkable... and... there were tiny ants on my plate. Like, a lot. I noticed after I was done eating- I think they were coming from the greens served with my soup. At home, I would have FREAKED OUT. Here? I didn't even mention it to the waitstaff. I told you- my hygiene standards shift depending on what part of the world I'm in... And honestly, I really wasn't that skeeved out...

We taxi'd it to the train station an hour and a half early and settled in at the Highlands Coffee in the station to wait for boarding. We had booked our tickets online in advance through Vietnam Impressive- you can only do online advanced purchase through independent agencies, as the train service in Vietnam doesn't sell tickets online. We paid a bit more, but it wasn't unreasonable and knowing that we would definitely be in the soft-sleeper car for our 30 hour trip was worth it. Plus, they delivered our tickets to our hotel- simple as pie!

Can you tell we were exhausted?

COFFEE! We ended up taking ours to-go, as the train began boarding sooner than expected (about 45 minutes before departure).


-Communicate with your front desk staff- they're there to help! And in Vietnam, they were all very helpful. Our front desk held our bags, hooked me up with a shower and arranged all our taxi trips (you will pay a tiny bit more to have your trips arranged by the front desk- frequently you pay them and they in turn pay the driver, but the peace of mind is worth it). 
-To the best of your ability, learn and respect local customs, especially regarding clothing. Most backpackers in Vietnam (and let's be honest, in most of the world) pack light and comfortable, which usually equals dressing a bit slummy. In Vietnam, hardly anyone wears shorts or short skirts, tank tops or anything see-through- the dress errs a bit on the formal and conservative side. This is especially true of women, and I found that making the extra effort to blend clothing-wise was appreciated. Long-ish skirts, flowy gauchos and light-weight blouses pack quite easily.

-Get (relatively) lost! Use common sense to stay safe and enjoy seeing parts of your destination that most visitors won't ever see.

In case you missed them, check out:

Exploring Vietnam Day 1: The Long Haul
Exploring Vietnam Day 2: Ho Chi Minh City