“Do you know that Vietnam is a Communist country?” my mom added before parting on Skype.
She’s like that.
This is my second big solo trip to a developing country and she’s concerned for my safety. But her method of care is to instill fear, rather than courage… at the last moment.
Overall however, I’ve heard Vietnam is reasonably safe for female solo travelers so I’m not too worried.
Day 1: Daegu to Ho Chi Minh City and my Less-than-Amazing Race
My morning call was… early. I was running late and it was the first time there were no taxis in sight!
Korean taxis are usually everywhere. Was this a sign? A traveler’s omen?
“Just go with the flow, Chris… No matter what happens, just go with the flow… ,” I reminded myself
I jogged with my backpack through Daegu’s humidity straight to the metro, like a boxer in training. Drenched in sweat, I made it to the express long distance bus terminal with two minutes to spare!
Close call. Korean buses are very punctual. I hopped aboard the Daegu bus to Incheon Airport and buckled down for a 5 hour ride.
Converting Currencies: Won to Dong
At the airport, I exchanged my Korean won for starter Vietnamese cash. In Korea, I think in USD conversion rates when I buy things. Now the conversion between KRW-VDN-USD (or Won-Dong-Dollar) was throwing me off.
I had to have counted my money at least seven times, only to not understand why I felt I was continually coming up short…
Now, if all the zeroes in Korean won can feel confusing, the Vietnamese dong is much trickier. You have as many zeroes, but even less worth!
10,000 Won = $8.50 USD (approx)
10,000 VDN = .50 USD (approx)
*Additionally, a 10,000 VDN note looks very similar to a 100,00 VDN note, with the difference being 10x the value. $5.00 to $0.50 !
(Note: to self: Do not get these two confused)
Arrival into Ho Chi Minh City and discovering the “first-come-first-serve” motto
After wasting a day in transit, I touched down in Ho Chi Minh at midnight.
It was two and a half hours later than I quoted my hostel. Call it premonition, I didn’t have a good feeling.
I picked up a SIM card for my mobile phone and quickly purchased a pre-paid ride into town with Sasco taxi ( 100,000 VDN).
My taxi raced through the exhilaration of a warm Saigon night, funky neon city lights, deserted streets and occasional motorbikes. On the radio, a Vietnamese chanteuse sang a tune that was deep, haunting, loungy and Viet pop cool.
Finally, the taxi dropped me in the Old Quarter and the alley entrance to my hostel.
Exhilaration in one hand, fatigue in the other, I arrived to find the gates of my hostel locked, lights off… closed. I rang the buzzer. Vietnamese dealings are unpredictable and spotty, I’d heard.
Now it would prove itself true.
Hanh, a tiny and sprite-like Vietnamese woman in her late 20’s and manager of the My My Arthouse hostel, opened the warehouse-like gate and explained that when I didn’t show up at the time I confirmed, she gave my bed away.
Never mind, that I had a Hostelbookers reservation, that she knew my flight itinerary or that I wrote her that I was a female traveling alone. I didn’t arrive when I said, so my room went to the next in line. Simple as that. Nothing personal, just business… and in Vietnamese business, nothing is set in stone until they’ve got your passport!
And yes, passports are left with the hotel until checkout or payment –a rule in Vietnam!
Spotty was the general impression I had of Vietnam before I arrived, when a handful of hotels and tour operators never responded to my email queries.
It made me realize: transactions are probably best carried out in person.
All was dark. Hanh was apologetic and offered to help me find another hotel.
I whipped out my Lonely Planet guidebook and we picked the next in line.
Kim’s Hotel… walking distance.
Hahn explained that most hotels at this hour, would follow this pattern. Well, shit on a schizzel…
Drunken party laughter of boisterous tourists mixed with the sputtering of passing motorbikes. I was alone; and yet the street noise was weird solace.
Worst case scenario, I’d pull a damsel-in-distress and vie for the help of fellow travelers. Faced with survival, all my Asian inhibitions escape me. But then Hanh found a hotel that was open 24 hours. … At $20/night, there was a commission markup on my distress.
But at least I had a room and Hahn seemed genuinely nice to have walked me around to help me find a place (vs. just pointing her finger!) A young Vietnamese man rose from his sleeping cot and TV located in the middle of the hotel lobby and checked me in.
I left my passport with the front desk.
A double bed is useless, if you’ve slapped down a twin-sized silk liner!
I got a spacious double bedroom, with a balcony view overlooking the street life of D Bui Vien. But…the Minh Chau Hotel was a cross between a crusty relic and a dive. Off-white sheets, water-stained ceiling with occasional mildew stains in the room and bathroom.
I knew I could get better for less money,… but at 1 AM, you think I’m gonna try?
For that night, this was home; and on the bright side, I had a silk liner and my home had…uh, “character”.
Walking around the Old Quarter at night, a sweet incense perfumed the air. Bars were open, motorbikes zipped by and strange men on bicycles made weird sounds of snapping forks or charcoal lighters as they pass. They offer a service; I don’t know what it is… Tourists roam the streets like moving glow-in-the-dark targets and I can’t tell if the girls at the cafes, restaurant and bars are average Vietnamese loungers or (sorry)… prostitutes. At the end of my street stood an amusing eye-sore of a landmark– a giant face of an angry red bull– The Crazy Bull, a bar for westerners.
Facebook is BLOCKED in Vietnam (click here for the article)
At the internet cafe near my hotel, the connection speed was blood-letting my patience and my fingers wrestled with the computer keyboards.
It was… “rffsesng towrkforme“.
It took me a while to realize Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, even though the few Vietnamese around me were happily checking Facebook status updates.
I could hear the faint sound of my mother’s voice:
“Did you know that Vietnam is a Communist country?…“
How do you access Facebook in Vietnam:
• Open Google search engine
• Type in Facebook.com for search
• Click on the link which in English is normally your Cached option.
Street Crime in Ho Chi Minh City
They say there’s a high amount of theft in Ho Chi Minh City. This could be true. Just as I was about to leave the internet cafe, a shriek came from across the street. A young Canadian backpacker, watching the street life outside jumped up to excitedly relay the news:
“You would not believe what just happened! Some guy jumped out of an alley, snatched the bags of these two girls and took off like lightning. Should’ve seen him run! I’ve never seen anyone run so fast!“
This was my first crossing with theft in Vietnam. It would not be my last.
My first four hours in Ho Chi Minh was both, alluring, interesting, sketchy and unpredictable. Was this a good or bad start for going solo again?
All I could think at the moment-
Just go with the flow, Chris. Just go with the flow…