Only seven days after landing in Chiang Mai from our trip in Laos, it was time to take another trip! This time, we would be spending some time in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam. For Julia, this trip was actually a business trip as American Honors has an office in HCMC! So Julia’s flights and meals were paid for, as well as our hotel! Julia worked for three days – Thursday through Saturday – and we ended up staying for an extra two days. Also, Julia flew in a day earlier than I did so I’ll let her tell the story of her time in HCMC without me…
After two short and uneventful flights to HCMC, I queue up for my Vietnam Visa, paperwork in hand. After waiting in line, I discover that I’m missing some paperwork that wasn’t wasn’t one of the (several) documents my coworkers sent me. No big deal, I filled out the form and waited in line to turn everything in. The taxi and sim card for my phone are more than I expected, after living in Thailand, but at least I can expense them.
Broc will fill you in on more details, but driving in HCMC is insane compared to Chiang Mai. With all the roundabouts and crazy, rule flouting buses, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and taxis, it’s like driving in a blender on high. You can’t even expect to just look one way when crossing a one way street. As an example of how close everyone gets, my taxi’s proximity parking sensors were beeping almost the entire twenty minute drive. When he couldn’t turn it off or turn on the radio, I eventually had to put headphones in. At one point, another taxi veers across three lanes to cross right in front of us. My driver slams on the brakes and lays his fist on the horn for a good five seconds, long after the other taxi is gone, and then continues on as if this happens all the time. Luckily it was 11:30pm, and the wide boulevards were beginning to empty, so nobody was behind us at the time.
I check into a grand old beautiful hotel in the heart of the tourist (expensive) district in one piece, take a bath (very unusual to actually have a tub!), and call Broc before going to bed. The next morning, I had a very short but leisurely walk to work, and got an espresso and Bahn Mi at a local coffee place. Bahn Mi are skinny baguette sandwiches with meat such as bologna or ham, plenty of veggies and herbs such as cucumber, cilantro, lettuce, tomato, etc. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you’ll get one with scrambled egg and/or laughing cow cheese! An instant favorite; even acceptable breakfast fare for a spoiled westerner! My only concern was being robbed, as I had both a laptop under one arm and a purse (strap across body, of course). I was probably being a little too cautious, but after being warned by almost half a dozen locals/travelers of HCMC that I’d met in the last month, it was hard to relax 100%. A friend I met at the ceramics studio in Chiang Mai said that she saw a motorcycle in HCMC come up and swipe a purse, and the poor woman got pulled across the sidewalk trying to hang on to the purse strap! Later, when we went on a motorcycle tour, the driver requested that I take my necklace off for the same reason, even through I had a high collar and the necklace was tight. Yes, these precautions are common sense in a busy city, but after staying in friendly Thailand it was a bit unexpected.
Work was actually really fun, other than a few slow times when a student didn’t show up for an appointment with me. I’m obsessed with my coworkers Sophia and Thuy (pronounced somewhere between Two-ee and one syllable Twee). They are both single ladies about my age. It was so fun joking about English words and explaining expressions in our languages. They are both fluent, but of course I had to listen carefully to understand them the first time. The actual work responsibilities were engaging and rewarding; in fact, the experience cemented my goal to work in International Education. Perfect timing, as I received a job offer at Pierce’s International Dept after the second day of work in HCMC! I’m tentatively set to start only a few days after we get back, pending our flight home, which we haven’t bought yet!
My favorite task was interviewing students so that they could practice for their Visa interview. Often, a student will get accepted to a school, or our honors program, and prepare in every way possible, (letters from the school, bank statements, marriage certificates, etc), only to get denied access by the U.S. Embassy. Because the questions were slightly simple and formulaic, it was easy to converse with students even when they weren’t fluent. I also enjoyed a coffee chat that Broc assisted with, a small education fair, and I get to speak at a large education conference in April! We also “trained” a few different agents (usually driving to their office) on the main points about the honors program and the Community Colleges where American Honors is. Since most of the agents had already heard about AH from my co-workers, my role was just to cover the main points as a refresher, then answer questions that were harder for my coworkers such as living accommodations (dorm/home stay/apartment), getting around (bus), what there is to do on campus (clubs, intramural sports), the weather, etc. Luckily, these questions were pretty easy for me, no research needed! Only one agent had some hard questions: “What changes in U.S. Visa policy have there been in the last two months?” “Who will most likely win the presidential election, and what changes in Visa policy will result?” “Will it get harder for my students to study abroad?” I had to get her to stop repeating the questions, and explained that my pause wasn’t because I didn’t understand her, but because I couldn’t answer-and probably nobody could!
Before lunch, I had time to walk around the business district. On the same street as our office, there was an international grocery store, a Japanese restaurant complete with geisha in costume, and a Starbucks (as well as a few other coffee shops). It was very interesting to see a mix of different types of culture all in one city. That first day my coworkers took me to a local, slightly upscale lunch place literally next door. It was amazing! It’s so interesting comparing tastes and cooking preferences between countries. For example, they really like drinks filled to the brim with Jello textured substances such as custard, soft red beans, or a coconut soy product. The food is also not as spicy, and there is more beef and bread in the Vietnamese diet, at least in the city. Yummy! (Except don’t say yum, apparently it means horny?!?)
I landed in HCMC on Thursday night and completed the Visa process for Vietnam. Unlike Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, Vietnam requires citizens of most nations (including the U.S.) to apply for a Visa ahead of time. In fact, other than the time where Julia and I studied abroad in Florence, this is the first time I’ve had to do something other than just fill out a form and pay some money at the border. Thankfully, all passengers headed for Vietnam are asked if they have applied for a Visa at the airport they disembark from, so a last-minute (very expensive) Visa can still be applied for – as some other passengers on my flight found out the hard way!
I got in the taxi to head to the airport, and it didn’t take me long to find out that driving in HCMC is a bit different than driving elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In our experiences so far, drivers are pretty laid back in their attitude towards driving – no road rage, very little honking, and lots of cooperation on the road. In HCMC, every taxi driver we had literally drove with one hand on the horn. It was common to see the driver lay on the horn for four seconds in a row. I couldn’t help laughing every time I witnessed that, it was just so absurd!
I met Julia at the hotel and quickly dropped off my backpack, and we walked out to get some dinner. The restaurant that the hotel recommended to us was packed, even at 8pm, so we wandered to a cafe nearby and got some food there. Meals are only a little bit more expensive in HCMC than in Chiang Mai, but we opted for splitting a pizza (with tuna and curry – very tasty and interesting!) with the intention of finding some street food. We must have been walking in the wrong area, because we had a lot of trouble finding street food – but we did come across a very friendly cat! It’s been tough being away from our cat, Luna, for so long, but there are always plenty of cats around to get our feline fix! This particular cat was chasing a catfish across the grass, and when the fish finally tired, we swooped in for some love.
The next morning we woke up and … hey, it’s my birthday! As far as I can remember, it’s the only time I’ve celebrated my birthday outside the state of Washington! The day began with a nice breakfast in the hotel. The hotel that Julia got for work was nice, a bit nicer than we would normally buy for ourselves on a trip! We had a great view overlooking the square that the hotel was situated on as we ate breakfast.
I walked with Julia to her office and met her coworkers in HCMC – Thuy and Sophia are very nice and seem to be great to work with! Thuy even very generously offered for me to borrow her moped for the day while they were working so that I could explore the city, which I happily agreed to! I let the girls get to work while I went off alone to explore the city.
As I got onto the road, I was quickly reminded that I was not driving in Chiang Mai anymore. The impression I got in the taxi the night before did not prepare me for how truly insane driving in HCMC is. I like to think of driving in Chiang Mai as an “organized chaos”, where it may seem like people are driving erratically at first, but you can understand the general mindset once you get used to it, and can usually predict what drivers will do. HCMC is not even close to that – “disorganized chaos” would be an understatement. You know when you’re walking in a crowded place like a stadium or a busy mall, and you’re kind of in a hurry so you just look straight ahead but not *at* people, and constantly nudge by and change direction at the last second to get to where you need to go as fast as possible without actually running into anyone? That’s what driving in HCMC is like, only you’re on a bike and many other drivers are in actual cars. If I didn’t have several weeks’ experience of driving on a bike in Chiang Mai, I would have been completely intimidated out of even trying to drive on these roads. Having had the experience, though, I had a blast! A great advantage of being on a bike means that I can pull over on a whim to rest, take in the sights, and plan where I want to go next.
The first impression of HCMC I got while driving around was that it really doesn’t feel much like an Asian city – it feels much more like driving around a large city in Europe. Besides the fact that there are actual churches here (quite a shock to see after all of the Buddhist temples), the general layout of the city just isn’t like anything else we’ve experienced in Southeast Asia so far. And the city just keeps going and going. There are some tall buildings in the district where our hotel is, sure, but after driving six or seven miles away from that location I kept expecting to find suburbia, or fewer businesses, or at least more space between the buildings, or something different. But nothing seems to change, including the amount of traffic on the road! I couldn’t imagine living in a city this large and this busy.
Not having had a haircut for a while, I was keeping an eye out for a hair salon or a barber so that I could look a bit less like a hobo. Also, the “cool season” ended in Chiang Mai a few weeks prior, and HCMC was much hotter than Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, there are only a few hours during the day where it’s legitimately uncomfortable to be outside because of the heat. But HCMC is further south, and I was sweltering on the short walk to Julia’s work before 9am. So I was looking to trim down to get whatever respite I could from the heat. After not seeing a single hair salon for fifteen minutes, I saw four that were all next to each other – that’s just how things seem to work here. I picked one of them at random and walked in, asking for a haircut. They didn’t speak any English, so I just kind of trusted that they wouldn’t mess up my hair too badly! I was a bit nervous that the barber started cutting my hair without washing it first – my curly hair is pretty hard to cut when it’s dry – but he ended up doing a fantastic job. Then, after my haircut, they washed my hair, complete with shampoo, face wash, and scalp massage! In the end it cost me just a bit over two dollars…it’s going to be hard to get used to paying American prices for things when we come back!
After wandering around for a bit more, I started the drive back to meet Julia for a late lunch while she had a small break in her day. I rounded a corner right by our hotel as a pedestrian started to walk across the street, and made a huge mistake by braking only with the front brake while turning. I actually fell all the way over on the bike – but luckily, I was going quite slow and there were no other vehicles around. More concerned about Thuy’s bike than myself, I picked the bike up and couldn’t locate one of the side mirrors! Disappointed with myself for damaging someone else’s bike, I finished driving over to Julia and met her for lunch. We had a great (if not simple) lunch at a hole-in-the-wall place that was basically in a back alley. These are the type of places that I like the best, because there are rarely other tourists there, and the food is much more interesting/authentic (not Westernized).
Towards the end of lunch I realized that my left wrist was feeling pretty hurt, so I decided to return Thuy’s bike early while I iced my wrist and rested up a bit – I was feeling pretty tired anyway – and I sheepishly asked Julia to apologize on my behalf for losing one of her side mirrors. I iced my wrist in the hotel and took a small nap in the hotel while Julia went back to work. Later that evening, Julia and her coworkers hosted a “coffee chat” event where they helped aspiring students practice their interviews with the U.S. Embassy, and I was asked to come by and help out! I talked with a seventeen year old who was hoping to go to college in Michigan, then come back to Vietnam to be an airline pilot. His accent was pretty thick but he spoke English very well, I think he’ll have no problem getting a student Visa. I was glad to be able to help out! I also talked to Thuy and found out that her bike only ever had one side mirror, so the bike wasn’t damaged at all! That was a huge relief to me as I was feeling pretty guilty about damaging the bike she lent me.
After the coffee chat, Julia and I took a short ride in a taxi to a restaurant that her co-workers recommended to us for my birthday dinner! Ngon Restaurant was packed at 8pm, but Julia had made reservations so we were sat right away despite the line at the door. The dinner got off to a bit of a poor start, as it took a while for someone to take our order – and then the first three things we tried to order were all out of stock. However, once we did finally order something that was in stock and got it…it was so delicious! I got a dish that was basically just grilled beef and toast, with some sort of chili salt on the beef. Maybe it’s how hungry I was, or the beer, but it was some of the tastiest, most tender beef I’ve ever had! Julia got a unique kind of salad with some lotus leaf and lotus seeds, and then we both got some dessert as well – Vietnamese sweet soup for Julia and grilled banana with sweet sticky rice and coconut milk for me. Delicious!
My wrist was still in a lot of pain at this point, so we decided to walk around and look for a clinic. I was pretty sure that nothing was broken, but I just wanted to be sure. Plus, we purchased travel medical insurance, so might as well use it! After a bit of wandering and googling, we found an international clinic that was open 24 hours. We walked in and were helped immediately – it was a Friday night, but we seemed to be the only patients there. Everyone was very nice and spoke excellent English – definitely the most fluent we’ve encountered in our travels here. Long story short, nothing was broken and I didn’t need surgery or anything like that. They even got me a soft cast to wear while my wrist healed up! All in all, from the time we walked in to the time we walked out, it took less than 45 minutes. Such a small price to pay for a little piece of mind. And don’t worry, at the time of this writing, my wrist is almost completely healed up!
We started wandering back towards our hotel and came across some sort of ceremony. After watching for a few minutes, we figured it must have been some sort of singing competition! We saw a sign advertising the event and realized that the man currently singing was the headliner of the event – the Vietnamese pop star Noo Phước Thịnh (what, you haven’t heard of him?). After he finished his last song, he was escorted out by some private guards into a waiting car, mobbed by wailing fans the entire way. And we were only an arm’s reach away!
It was quite an eventful day, but we still had a few more days to spend in HCMC! Thanks to everyone who called, texted, Facebooked, or emailed birthday wishes – it really made it feel like a special day even so far from home!