Saigon the Beautiful
We stayed in Beautiful Saigon 2 (BS II) on lane 185 which is straddled between Bien Vui Rd & Pham Ngu Lao Rd; in District 1; in the backpackers district. BS II has a sister hotel nearby (1 minute walk away) on Bien Vui Rd; both are smack in the tourist epicenter; very affordable; incl. a sufficient breakfast, endless coffee & fresh baguette; even the fresh butter and chunky strawberry jam served were simply great. BS II is brand new; services were excellent; and is the most appointed budget hotel on Lane 185 amongst other family-owned motels; hot water works; aircon strong; and was very surprised to discover internet in room was inclusive in the rate. The counter, ‘concierge’ and waiters were very friendly, they made every effort to please. BS II has 4 storeys with a french walk up staircase, whilst BS I has 6 storeys with elevator.
On the one end, Lane 185 walks out into Bien Vui Rd greeted by plenty of good art shops, drinking places, with Crazy Buffalo pub just at the corner; we managed to eat a good Vietnamese lunch on Bien Vui at VND 50,000 for 2 person. On the other end, Lane 185 walks out into Pham Ngu Lao park; another 8 minutes of leisure walk and weaving amongst motorcycles and voila – Ben Thanh market welcomes you.
Half a minute walk from our hotel is De Tham Rd where the inbound Airport Bus also stops. We took the no.152 bus from the airport (just VND 3000 per person, and another VND3000 if your luggage decide to take a seat too); the journey is a comfortable 30minutes from the airport to De Tham Rd; another 5 minutes onwards will take you to Ben Thanh Market.
For outbound bus to the airport, you can wait for the same bus at Ben Thanh (but they don’t pass by De Tham on way to the airport); apparently, they leave very timely every 15 minutes each. Because we bought half of Ben Thanh, we decided to take a taxi from our hotel to the Airport; we felt we we overcharged slightly at USD7.00 [no, we didn’t take a meter taxi, against common sense; we trusted our helpful concierge]. We decided the next time to stop a Vinasun taxi to ask the price for benchmarking, and maybe book him for the appointed hour if his rates were good.
We found changing money in the Airport arrival hall gave the best rate in Saigon land; by the way, for even better rates, do come armed with USD50 or USD100 notes. VND (Vietnamese Dong) was VND 19,480 to 1 USD.
When in Bien Vui Rd and surrounding backpackers area, look up at each of the small narrow 4-6 storeys hotels (try to imagine not seeing the spidery-webbed telephone lines) and see the different bold colors of each building – so very narrow & colorful like the graceful ao dai, those graceful long silk skirts still worn by vietnamese ladies everywhere.
Our standard-plus room in BSII has a double bed and a single bed; easily sleeps 3; very comfortable solid beds. If we have a complaint, that would be noisy tourist kids scrapping the chair on the floor and running the marathon upstairs of us. Our room is just above the dining area – and we thought we could hear swiss bank account numbers being whispered amongst the occasion loud guests drinking downstair. Anyway, the whole day out would have knocked the daylight out of anyone to be bothered by the loud cyrillic or italian going-ons downstair. Maybe staying another floor up would have have provided better appreciation of their languages.
Now, you do need to practise zen contemplation whilst crossing any streets in Saigon; you have far better chance of arriving on the other end in one piece with sanity intact if you walk blindfolded with ears waxed up. I’m told Saigon has 10 million people and 30 million motorbikes – now, the mathematics doesn’t add up, but that’s how it feels : 30 big ones. The cacophony of motorbikes and their incessant peen-peen horns – and coming from every directions, with the riders giving scant attention to your existence but instinctively they swerve around you gracefully if you walk confidently – is so zen. Four days there and we only saw 2 motorcylists falling over without any drama – in the same roundabout – only caused us to conclude that the roundabout is jinx, not the riders fault. When we came back into the hotel room, the silence caused us momentarily to think we have lost our hearing.
Saigon early city planners had done so well by building parks everywhere and broad french boulevards with deep walkways uncluttered by food stalls commonly found in other asian cities. And where do the quadzillion of motorcyles hibernate then? – where else but in ground floors of quaint buildings converted into paid motorcyle-parks.
The tall tree-lined boulevards saluting and shading you as you walk down the straight roads – is just so relaxing, punctuated by many small petite street stalls or shops, and many many coffee shops or stalls, and oasis of ice cream parlours. Join the vietnameses in their gallic-influenced culture of sitting by the street sipping drip-coffee or small strong ice coffee and watch life and traffic passing by. The thick condensed milk strong coffee must be the opiate for the somnabuslistic rumbling of the blurred parades of mopeds.
Come to Saigon and not try their pastry and baguette found everywhere on the street? I won’t say anymore.
Even their papayas, watermelons, sour sops, mangoes and ciku beat all their neighbours in the region. Comparatively, the street hawkers are very clean in their food handling (well, sensitive us didn’t need any lomotil, antihistamines or stronger) – and mind you, by that we meant, eating roadside escargot, snails, clams & oysters a la Champ Elysee style. Oooh, you must try the oysters topped with garlic fried lightly in light oil. Unlike other food in the region, the vietnamese rice cakes, mixed rice, noodles, soups, broth & porridges are all very savory but delightfully light, moderate in the paprika thermo-experience, delightful to ones vision, not too mucky that you cannot detect for sure that nothings still swimming leisurely in there; neither piquant nor shocking, and is totally refreshing, frequently surprised by fresh mint and basil, without leaving a hole in your tongue and in your wallet. It hinted to me cantonese cooking style with fresh herbs not usually used by chinese in their daily cooking. I don’t know which part of the cow the beef slices came from, but in the noodle or soup, they were soooo tender & divine, and these are all street food, mind you.
The vietnamese seemed to have left the war behind them, and looking very much forward into the future. Cars are not too many, and despite the quadzillion of motorcycles, the air is surprisingly not anywhere as polluted as other cities in the region. I suppose switching off their moped at traffic lights (yes, they do come to a standstill – sometimes – at traffic lights) does help mitigate pollution. I guess, a diesel engine pick up truck of 2,300cc in the neighbouring countries would emit 20 times more emission than a 110cc mopeds. The fact that a pleasant continuous breeze blew the whole 4 days for us probably helped cleaned the air. My only wish for Saigonians is that their government would build a comprehensive but inobtrusive efficient infrastructures of monorails, subways and bus lines – so that cars would not be an aspired mode of transport.
Ben Thanh in District 1, and Binh Thay in Cholon – are the 2 markets every visitors would gravitate to. Binh Thay is wholesale. I saw this must-get shoes for my nephew, and the conversations that transpired went like this in Binh Thay – Me: I want 3. She: OK. 3 dozens? Me: (eye brows skewed up) Nooo, 3 pairs (and that’s too many already). She: (eyes skewed higher) No sell (and she pleasantly walked away to attend to other big buyers). So, don’t mind the abruptness & heat in Binh Thay but for small batches, you might only end up buying dried shrimps, scallops, dried fruits and nuts, fishy stuffs, and have very nice noodles & rice, creamy fruit shakes of every kind all in that building. How to go there? – from district 1, take bus no.1 which originated from Ben Thanh, to Binh Thay and vice versa; 3,000 dong per ride, luggage on seat pays another 3000 dong. Actually, all the chinese shops and temples around Bin Thay are very fascinating too.
In my opinion, Cholon is one of the most authentic chinatown in the region where the varied chinese cultures and languages are still spoken well and practised. I was so impressed to see elegant chinese new year wishes on red strip of paper written out in situ by calligraphy masters – something you don’t see anywhere else except in hongkong or china. Ben Thanh and surroundings are all within a 1 kilometres radius covering everything that can be walked saunteringly under shades of trees; after a while, the motorcycles rumbling around you would rush so zen-ningly like ocean waves. For the real waves, walk passed Sheraton towards Renaissance, to the riverside, from evening around 7pm, and sit and seep coffee till 8pm, watch brightly colored dinner barges chugs by whilst the quadzillion of mopeds and container trucks provides sensurround effect in the background.
Coffee: Buon met thont (blue mountain, in viet) has many grades; they would grind it up in situ for you to inhale. They have beans roasted with or without oil (supposedly, butter); I test coffee by biting a bean for its freshness and crisp, not expecting it to be obviously sweet but I wouldn’t had liked it to be bitter, sooty or rancid. Bargaining gently, we could still get 30% off from the listed prices. We didn’t need Weasel coffee which came out from the end of some squirrels despite its purported aphrodisiac ability (for that, lizards tongue is preferable). We asked for 1 kilo (of coffee, that is) to be grounded and packed into small packs to keep freshness. We are enjoying it now as we write, regretting not having bought more.
To beat the cacophonic boredom in the market, in 2 separate incidents, 2 ugly foreigners (in looks and in manners) waved their money and walked about shouting their reprimands at some unfortunately storekeeper for not reducing price further. Must be the heat but their embarassed wives must be insurceptible to the same celsius. They obviously couldn’t afford the 15000 dong heavenly fruit shakes around them – which would have cool their brows. We had sour sops, mangoes, coffee, and in heaven, the experience overwhelms you to be put in words…