We arrived back into HCMC after midnight and so hailed a taxi to the hotel close to the airport for the night. The driver took the long route and charged us an undeclared airport fee, but otherwise our arrival back into Vietnam was uneventful. It was Tet, or Vietnamese New Year, so we were unsure what the travel plans were going to be as we'd attempted to book a train ticket north online while in Philippines, but it had been full. It was an ominous sign.
In the morning we headed into town checked into a nice spot (City Hotel- highly recommended) by the market and immediately headed out to get some much anticipated (after 3+ weeks in Philippines) Vietnamese food and then to one of the travel agencies that line the streets in Saigon's touristy District 1 to figure out our travel plans. The guy pretty much laughed at us when we told him our idea; basically to head North ASAP and to get to Hue by the middle of the next week in order to rendezvous with our friend Becky who was traveling South from Hanoi with her parents.
"Don't you know it's Tet?" he asked. "Everything is full."
And boy he meant it. Every plane, train, bus...hell even the dreaded mini-vans were full for the next 5-6 days. After about an hour in the travel agency looking at every option we could think of, we settled on the best (although far from good!) plan: a 22 hour long straight shot bus ride from Saigon to Hoi An on the following Tuesday. It meant that we'd have to skip a few of the Southern beach towns like Nha Trang which we were planning to check out, but it did mean we'd be able to meet the Reinings, and in the mean time we'd be stuck in Saigon, which may as well have been Disney World compared to Manila where we'd just come from.
So, we booked our Open Date bus ticket to Hanoi with stops planned in Hoi An and Hue in the central part of the country and then retreated immediately to one of our favorite spots in town, the 10,000 Dong ($0.50) beer spot, to consider the hellish endeavor that we'd just financially committed to and also to discuss what to do for an additional 5 unplanned days in Saigon.
We decided we'd book a day trip to the Mekong Delta one day and, as it happens, we'd gotten a message a day or two earlier from our friend Sam Eckhouse who randomly was on his way to Saigon from LA for a visit with some friends that weekend. We figured that between those two things we could fill in the blanks and, as so far as the looming 22 hour travel bender; we agreed to talk and think about this as little as possible.
In the morning we tried to hit the gym, but it was closed for Tet. We ended up having our obligatory Saigon Cyclo experience instead. (A cyclo is a bicycle powered rickshaw.)
Here's how it goes: you are minding your own business in any public place frequented by tourists. They aggressively pursue you. You politely say "no, thank you". They seem to understand English, but not that phrase. Your politeness starts to fade the 5th time you say "no". They ask one more time. You cave and without committing ask how much. They say either "cheap, cheap" or "you pay what you want" or both or dodge the question entirely. You are suspicious and attempt to get a more detailed answer. They say whatever it takes to get you into the cyclo. You go against your better judgment and hop in. They smile. You are screwed.
The ride itself is pleasant... exhilarating even. The drivers are chatty and friendly, they speak great English and ask questions about where you are from and tell detailed stories about their family. You snap photos of each other and the city and giggle a little as you are deftly navigated through the city's vaunted traffic. They try to get you to sign on for a day tour and show you hand written testimonials from other travelers from exotic places like Paris and Texas who have had "the best day of their trip" in this exact cyclo with this exact driver. You consider the idea momentarily and ask again about the price. They dodge the question. You get suspicious and decide you've had enough.
They stop at the site you are going to see and point you towards the entrance and assure you that they'll wait in the shade over there for you. You try to pay them. They smile and warmly refuse your money assuring you that you pay at the end of the day. You tell them that this IS the end of the day and that you'll walk from there thanks. They do not smile.
You pull what you consider to be a reasonable amount of money out of your wallet and try to hand it over. They say it is too little and produce a price list. You have not seen the price list before even though you asked about pricing countless times. They point emphatically to the place on the list that says the hourly rate is 500,000 Dong (US$25)/ hour and say you owe them 1,000,000 Dong for both cycles. Your blood pressure rises as you peer into your wallet knowing full well you do not have 1,000,000 Dong and even if you did there is no way you'd give it to these guys. They forget how to speak English and begin to yell at you in Vietnamese. You calmly ask about when earlier they said "cheap, cheap" and that we pay what we wanted. They still have forgotten English and their level of hostility rises. You give them 500,000 Dong and say that's all they're getting and walk away. They do not smile.
You have just been taken for the proverbial ride and although you didn't get sucked for the entire 1,000,000 you still feel like a chump. They ride off in search of the next tourist. You rationalize the money to yourself and chalk it up as another lesson in travel and something mildly entertaining to blog about.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on foot trying to see the few sights we'd missed on our first stop in HCMC. We ended up walking forever turning down many a taxi cab and many a cyclo trying to find the Jade Pagoda but with no luck and eventually returned to the hotel for a rest before dinner that evening.
The next day was interesting; up bright and early to catch the tour to the Mekong Delta. Our tour guide "Jackie" was a real piece of work. He has long hair, earrings, smokes like a chimney and, as we discovered, enjoys himself a drink. Apparently, he fought in the "American War" (as it's known here) for the Southern Vietnamese Army, alongside the Americans and eventually as a translator and then (allegedly) as part of the US Navy. When Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, Jackie was thrown into jail for 3 years. He says he liked jail though, since at least nobody was trying to kill him and he didn't have to kill anybody. On a side note: he got his handle "Jackie" because the US GIs thought he looked like Jackie Chan. I can't say I see it...but amusing all the same.
Jackie spent the first 45 minutes of the van ride to the Delta telling us how little we knew about the War and how lucky we were to have him as a tour guide since he'd teach us so much about the War, Vietnamese culture, and history. Above all Jackie claimed emphatically that we could count on him to tell us the truth! Jackie was very energetic.
We got to the Delta and quickly boarded a boat and after a few awkward attempts the boat driver was finally able to push out from the dock. We puttered up the river a few hundred yards to the area where the floating market is held...by "is" I mean is at 6am. As it was 10:30am by this point all that remained were remnants of what Jackie explained is a pretty incredible scene. Sweet, this was the main attraction on the bill for the entire tour and we missed it by several hours...hmm...suspicious.
Soon after that we parked the boat and did a walking tour through I guess what you would call a village, but really was a series of stores where we were strongly encouraged to buy stuff. We went to a honey store where they keep bees they gave us some nice tea and snacks and then tried to sell us their honey based products. The coolest thing there was that we sampled some "snake wine", which is wine marinated in a jar with several dead, embalmed snakes. It tastes better then you'd think. (Check the photos for futher explanation.) The rest of the morning we saw some other interesting stuff: a 92 year old woman who makes rice paper by hand, a candy factory where we ate some great coconut and banana candy, a spot where they make popped rice by hand using hot sand. At the candy store they had a cage with a big Boa constrictor which we draped on my neck and snapped a few photos. One other interesting (by interesting I mean nauseating) thing was when we stopped at one house and Jackie showed us how to eat one particular Vietnamese delicacy: an duck egg with a partially developed duck fetus inside. First you crack it, then suck the juice out- Jackie missed and part of the juice leaked down his chin and onto his shirt. Next you dig into the yoke/tiny duck body -careful for the little feathers though. Yup, that's how Jackie rolls.
By the time lunch rolled around we had noticecd the rice whiskey pint bulging out of Jackie's back pocket and had sort of chalked up the day and so tucked into a few cold beers of our own. Probably the best part of the whole day was meeting a couple of real cool friends. Cristiano and Suzanne from NY caught on to Jackie's vibe straight off the bat and so we bonded over beers at lunch, swapped some travel stories, and shared a few laughs as we watched Jackie knock back several cold ones. Just as lunch wrapped up, me, Gina and Suzanne took a quick bike ride through the town just to check it out.
By the time we got back to the bus, everyone was ready to be done. Jackie seemed to have run out of steam (or whiskey?) and was completely silent all the way home. We hypothisized that the incessant, passionate diatribe from that morning was fueled by the remnants of the previous night's drink and that despite the steady intake of rice whiskey and beer throughout the day, he'd plain petered out on us. Oh well. We picked up another partner in crime on the ride back and once safely back in Saigon headed straight for the 10,000 Dong beers spot with Suzanne, Cristiano and Taneil from Bris-vegas, Aus. We tried for a Vietnamese pancake place for dinner, but thanks to Tet it was closed and so finally ended up at the Black Cat cafe for sandwiches. Calling it a night, we made plans to meet up for lunch the next day.
In the morning we hit the gym and ran a few errands before meeting up with the team. Of course, Pho 2000 (aka: "Pho for the President" as it is Bill Clinton's favorite Pho house when he is in town) was closed for Tet so we ended up with a bowl of noodle soup from a street vendor. It was...adventurous. The noodles and broth were good but then there were huge chunks of nondescript meat of various shapes, sizes and colours. I gave them a miss, and silently prayed that this bowl wouldnt be the one to send me into stomach hell.
Sam and Cal flew in that morning and so after lunch we rolled out to their hotel to meet up and we hung out for a few hours with them until they went back to meet their friend Vinh who was their host in Vietnam who also was flying in from the states that day. They had big dinner plans with Vinh and his family for Tet and so we made plans to meet up in the morning.
For dinner that night we went out with Cristiano, Suzanne and Taneil. We started off with 7-11 beers while wandering through the Tet festivities before settling on Japanese food which was awesome. Plus the gigantic Vietnamese Sake bottle went down smooth and fast as we drank it out of soup bowls. Suzanne and Cris had a flight back to NY at 2am so we comitted to seeing them off and thus carried on until it was time to roll back to their place for a farewell drink before they hopped in a cab for the airport. At the hotel, we ended up chatting with an interesting dude we met in their hotel lobby for a while; he was an American vet from the War who came back to Vietnam to make peace with the people he'd fought against and ended up marrying a Veitnamese woman who was from one of the villages he'd fought in and the daughter of one of the guys he would have fought against. Talk about a stressful meeting of the parents.
The 49ers were playing at 6am in the NFC championship game and so we peeled ourselves out of bed and made way for the Boston Sports bar where we met Sam, Cal and Vinh. The place was pretty full, especially considering it was 6:30 am. and the vibe was pretty fun. Unfortunately, we watched the 9ers fumble the game away and had to endure a little cockiness on behalf of the Giants fans that were in attendence. After we headed out for a Pho breakfast and then said goodbye to Vinh who was going home to sleep off the jet lag. The 4 of us decided to kick it in another way: to grab a rocket fuel strength Iced Vietnamese Coffee. It got us going alright and we spent the rest of the day with Sam and Cal wandering the streets of Saigon eventually ending up somewhat unexplicably at the Saigon Zoo. It seemed as good a place as any. It was a real fun day hanging out with a couple of Oakland cats. We said our goodbyes and then headed back to pack our bags and get a little sleep before our 8am departure for Hoi An in the morning.
Saigon round 2, good times with some new friends and old. There are worse places on Earth to be stuck for 5 days, that is certain.