It took nearly 3 years for Sarah and I to indulge in another trip abroad. It certainly wasn’t through lack of desire, but circumstances do change and almost 18 months of that time was spent convincing her that we could still certainly afford to travel (we were now holders of a mortgage and much of that time was spent giving her confidence that we could afford both it and travel).
That period saw us accrue annual leave in abundance, so when we finally began planning this next trip, we were comfortable in the knowledge that we would still be getting a paycheck during what was to be a month away (we did our best to take as much time off work as we were possibly allowed and still returned with 5 weeks leave up my sleeve).
Vietnam had always been high on my to do list for many reasons. Wonderful food, beautiful scenery, there was that historical slant, with the Vietnam/American war all those years ago and its colonial past, and very importantly, it was both close and extremely affordable.
To keep this trip on a more frugal budget, we opted to fly with Air Asia and got ourselves return airfares flying into Saigon and out of Hanoi for about $900 (via Kuala Lumpur each way).
I’d arranged our flights with a rather short time frame between our KL arrival and our connection to Saigon (not really leaving room for any flight delays), so it was not until we’d made it with time to spare (try hours) that Sarah began to relax and get into holiday mode.
Landing in Saigon, our first thought was to catch the local bus to the backpacker district (the area backing up to the famous road, Pham Ngu Lao). Our bus dropped us a few blocks away, so after orienting ourselves, it was time to find some accommodation. We’re not into big hotels, so ducking down a few alleyways we came upon a decent looking place that had been mentioned in our lonely planet guidebook.
Giang & Son is located just off Pham Ngu Lao on PNL Alley and… it was fully booked! As luck would have it, they also own another place 2 doors up where they were able to give us a cool juice and find us a room.
We got ourselves settled, then it was time to head out and grab lunch, and for day one in Vietnam there could be no other choice for us than Pho. Pho Bo to be precise. One of the real treats of travel in south-east Asia is street food, and before long we were tucking into what would be our first of many bowls of steaming beef broth, noodles and a liberal sprinkling of chilli. Add an ice cold bia (333 or Saigon) and this was living!
From there it was time to pound the pavement and without getting lost (hopefully) see a few of the cities many sites.
The Ho Chi Minh city museum offered me some sights in the form of old military hardware and it certainly seemed popular with the locals for wedding photos (very similar to Melbourne’s old Treasury buildings back home).
We caught sight of the old colonial Opera house as well as the Continental Hotel. I was grateful to have seen it during our time here, as we actually had ‘The Quiet American’ with us to read and it proved the scene for much of the action.
The weather slowly took a turn, however we still had a crack at the panoramic views from the Bitexco tower, Saigon’s new gleaming tower. On a clear day I imagine the views would be spectacular, as they weren’t half bad, even with the cloud and rain about.
After another round of Pho for lunch (this time we dined at Pho 2000, made famous after Bill Clinton ate there) we received a shock on a tour of the Reunification Palace when an American amongst the party looked at a bust of Ho Chi Minh and asked “Who’s that?” When the guide patiently told him who it was, it still didn’t ring any bells and did little to dispel the belief I’ve long cultivated; That most Americans see themselves and their country as the centre of the universe!
The weather continued to worsen. The rain became steadier and the wind slowly began to increase but it failed to deter us. We were grateful we’d taken a 5 minute detour to the Ben Thanh Market after lunch and purchased some cheap plastic ponchos (detour is a slight exaggeration, as it was across the road from lunch) as they offered us some protection.
Outside the War Remnants Museum which is quite moving, if slightly propagandist, we met our first American from Guam. He made up for with friendliness, what he lacked in photographic ability, as the photo he offered to take of us came out very blurry indeed!
Vietnam’s old colonial buildings are a delight, and the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office are certainly beautiful and very much worth a look. At this point we finally gave in, thinking whilst not cold, we were certainly very damp and the weather actually seemed to be getting worse rather than improving.
By the time we made it back to our lodgings, in some points we had been forced to wade through calf deep water! We would wake the next morning to learn we had been strolling the city in the midst of our first ever typhoon!
Despite the inclement weather, at some point the previous evening we had arranged to join a tour of the Mekong Delta (the rice bowl of Vietnam) so after an early rise where I had my first of many viewings of Vietnamese morning aerobics, it was on to a bus and time to leave the city.