When I arrived at the Xa Li Pagoda I was approached by a girl who was selling Buddha incense to use at the Buddha statues. I decided to buy one and do what Mrs. Chiang in Taipei had taught me several weeks before. As soon I walked through the gate some little woman about 3 feet tall was shoeing me out of the place pointing to her wrist saying “2, 2, 2,” indicating that the place was closed and that the pagoda would reopen at two. I gave her some crap indicating I didn’t understand, but she kept saying “2, 2, 2,” pointing to her wrist. Eventually she pushed me out and I was pissed. My next step was to get my money back for the incense I had bought from this girl who passed the money to the old lady in the chair. At first she refused to give me back my money and at one point after the girl and I went back and forth my cyclo driver handed me the 5000 dong more she owed me. At first I took it and was like, “no way, she is not getting away with this,” and handed him back the 5000 dong coin and stuck it in his pocket. Eventually the girl gave in and the old lady took out the money. She was reluctant to hand it to me so I ripped it out of her hands, put my headphones on and walked away. I left the cyclo driver and the street vendors just standing there, probably wondering “what the hell just happened.” I was all charged up too, I was first screwed by the cyclo driver, then the girl then by the old lady. Some would call that a movie waiting to happen, I just wanted my money back.
So as I walked down the street listening to music and steaming, I then had to figure out where to go. I decided that I would walk to the next site on my list; the war museum. It was really hot out, but I wanted to see the city on foot and was not keen on taking a cyclo or motorbike just yet. So I pulled out my map and figured out the best route. The streets in HCMC are very easily marked in both directions unlike some of the other Asian cities I have been too, so I did not have a problem getting the War Museum the problem was getting in. Again the site was closed, as were most tourist sites in SEA during the hours of 1130 and 2pm. From the War Remnants Museum I decided to walk to the Reunification Palace which was surrounded by walls on all sides, and a garden. The Palace sat in the middle of it all. On my way to the palace I saw a bunch of kids playing that badminton type game using a shuttle cock with weight attached, in which people kick it around. Since there is a weight attached to it, you have to wait for the thing to drop then you can kick it. I decided to join in with the local kids standing outside their school and they loved it. I did the best I could, and while I am not a pro at it, I gave it my all. We all kicked it around until one of them kicked it over the high fence of the school. When the kid tried to retrieve it by climbing over he knocked a shingle off the fence and it broke. At that point I decided it was time for me to leave, I didn’t know what would happen and figured this would be a good time to go. I said goodbye and thanked all the local kids for letting me play. They all spoke English so that was nice that they understood my sincere “thank you,” and then I was off.
So now I had to find my way to the Reunification Palace. Once I got there it was also closed, as was Notre Dame. Eventually I ended up at the post office that I had seen the night before, but this time it was in the daytime. I snapped a few more photos, took out some money and decided to write and send a few photos (to the family and Jenny, surprise!). The post office is really nice and looks like a darn train station, but isn’t. Once I left the post office I was really, really, really sweaty, so sweaty to the point where people were staring at me and just looking at my chest and body, because my Vietnam futbol jersey was soaked in sweat. I would notice them looking at my chest and the sweat and just go “I know it is disgusting, sorry,” regardless if they understood or not. I was also tired and wanted to go back and change my clothing from head to toe and regroup, figure out what to do, and kill sometime. Because I had walked basically all around the Central District during midday I was tired and all the places I wanted to go were closed, I needed to kill time so I headed home. I jumped on a motorbike and headed back to the Hotel. I quickly changed and then found another mode of transportation. This time I worked out a deal where this motorbike would take me to several attractions to save me the trouble of walking the same route twice to see all the places that were initially closed the first time I went to them.
So if you didn’t realize what I am talking about, I went to all the places I wanted to see were closed, I decided to go back when they were open and do it all again, so I did. My first stop was this Indian Temple which the motorbike took me too. I walked around, snapped several photos and were off to that stupid Xa Li pagoda. This time it was semi opened enough to where I could take some photos of it and walk around a bit. I didn’t want to spend much time there because of what had happened this morning so I moved on.
After that it was on to the War Remnants museum. This place had a lot of US Army paraphernalia from the Vietnam War. Helicopters, planes, tanks, weapons etc…It was rather small, but interesting and I took many photos of the guns and some of the old equipment on display. I got some people to take my photo in front of a helicopter and plane which was cool and at that point said good bye to my motorbike driver and was off to my next place; Reunification Palace. On my way to the Palace I came across this western style restaurant. After my stomach incident the night before, I was keen to have some western food which I knew would be relatively safe with my stomach. I ordered some spaghetti and meatballs and was very happy. It went down nice, and since there was nothing left in my stomach from the night before, I was pretty hungry. From the restaurant I made my way to the palace. I spent quite a while walking around. The interior design was very 60’s Deco. From the chairs, carpets, furniture, it screamed 60’s Art Deco. The outside building was fairly modern so the inside was quite funny. At one point I joined up with this Asian tour group and got to go to the basement of the Palace where they had all the bunkers and basically could run the army or whoever from the bunkers.
After the Palace I was starting to get tired but had more to see. I wanted to see Notre Dame Cathedral. I was interested to see what it looked like being in HCMC. This time it was opened and much to my delight. Inside looked like any other type of church, and had beautiful stained glass windows. I spent some time walking around, snapping a few photos and just looking at the interior design and architecture of the cathedral. After the Palace it was on to City Hall and the famous Rex Hotel. The Rex hotel is famous because during the Vietnam war the journalists would go there at 5pm, get all liquored up and exchange their war stories. It was called “The 5 o’clock frollie.” I had to go up there and have a drink and check out the hotel. It was really nice and the rooftop bar did not disappoint. The drink was a little expensive, but well worth it. I got a Saigon Beauty, and just relaxed and watched the world go by. It was 430pm, not quite 5pm, but was good enough.
I think the day was one of the best of the trip because I was alone in the city, walking around, I had a lot of local interaction, from the touts, and hawkers to the school boys, to the old lady, to bargaining for shirts and pens and bags. From walking around the entire Central District basically twice seeing everything I wanted to see was perfect. I try not to be a tourist, but I try to be a traveler and observe the local culture the best I can. So far I have done pretty well doing so, talking with many locals along my way through Asia and it has been awesome.
From the Rex Hotel I bought to knock off Mont Blanc pens; one fountain, one ballpoint. At first she wanted 1 for 10 bucks. I ended up getting 2 for 10. Next I bought two more bracelets; One for the ankle, one for the wrist. This time she wanted a dollar for one. I got a 1.50 for 2. Then I bought 2 more beer t-shirts. I got them for about 3 dollars for 2, when she wanted like 2 dollars for 1. I was doing pretty well with my bargaining and have gotten much better. I just pick a price about 50% or more from what they are offering and just stick with it until they won’t budge and then I will go up a little and if I want it will buy it if not will walk away and see who gives in first. Again usually they do, but if your price is outrageously low, they won’t give in and you must go to another shop to find what you want.
The last thing I bought before I went back to the hotel was a backpack. I needed another one to shift some of the weight out of my abnormally large and heavy one. I walked passed a shop initially, inquired about the price of the one that immediately caught my eye and then walked on. In the end I went back and accepted the price she had offered; $10. It was a 45L pack supposedly, with a detaching smaller day pack, exactly what I was looking for as a second pack. I put my pens, shirts, and whatever else I bought in the bag and went home. This was the fun part, crossing the street. Crossing the street in Saigon has been compared to that scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy in the end just has to take that leap of faith to get to the holy grail. In Saigon, you must take that leap of faith, don’t look back. To get to my hotel you needed to cross a huge roundabout where many lanes of traffic come together and just make for one giant mess. There are no traffic lights, and you are more or less on your own. There are pedestrian cross walks but again they are at your risk. After spending 7 weeks in Asia you just become accustom to crossing the street in this fashion. Others in the group were much more hesitant when crossing the street, but I had the same faith that Indy had. I was able to get across the street, barely, weaving in between motorbikes, tuk tuks and cars hoping they would swerve around me like they are supposed to do.
When I got back to the hotel, Morrie was in the room and he informed me that we were meeting up for dinner at the usual time of 7pm. This gave me time to wind down, check out my new bag, take a shower and get ready for dinner. Tonight Andy wanted to take us to the backpacker region of Saigon. It was only 10 minutes from our place and literally had tens of guesthouses and cheap forms of accommodation for the backpacker. It also had many, many restaurants and bars. Andy had taken several groups to the same restaurant so again, they were extremely friendly to us and served us well. I had pizza, which I considered to be safe, water and soda. I did not want to take any chances tonight after last night. Dinner was good, but took a while to come. We could see the kitchen across the small street, out in the open and they were working feverishly to get our food out as well as food for the other customers in the restaurant.
After dinner, Andy wanted to show us where the bars in the area were. She didn’t want to pick one, and told us that we should go to the first place that caught our eye. Eventually we got to one place where they had free pool on the first floor, with a nice bar and good music and then upstairs was more of a louder club type scene with again a bar. We were immediately grabbed out of the street and the guy told Andy that he had a “happy hour,” type deal for us. This gave me flashbacks of Kuala Lumpur when Clara, Laura and I were victim to the “bait and switch,” when they tried to charge us a crazy amount of money for drinks that we thought would be free. I was skeptical, but when we got upstairs it was legit. Beers were buy 2 get 1 free, but not cheap. I decided to stay away from the beer and go for alcohol. I got the local Vietnamese rum and cokes all night long. They were fairly affordable for a bar and going out, and so I was content. After a few of those drinks I decided to walk around and ventured downstairs. There were a lot of younger people around, and I wanted to try and get on the pool table. I put my name on the list and watched for a while. There were some good games and quality players. After waiting for a little while finally I was up. My first games are always rusty, and I lost by one ball, and should have won, but because so many were waiting I did not want to wait around for another game. At this point some of the other ladies in the group were intoxicated, to the point where they were dancing around just talking to random people and making a little ruckus. Deb introduced to three girls traveling together, so I sat down and had a bit of a chat. The girls were from London, had graduated from Uni this year and took a year off to travel around the world. It was again good to meet some new people and people that were under 26. It was not everyday I met people my age. After chatting with them for awhile, it was suddenly 130am and Elizabeth wanted to go home. I said I would go back with her, so we grabbed two motorbikes and headed back to the hotel after arranging the price. It was fairly close, but it was late I was tired and just wanted to get back.
All in all the day was really good. I did not mention every single interaction I had with locals because many of them are just in passing for a few minutes to a few seconds, but they make me smile, it makes my day and it was just an overall quality day for such a hectic place.