I finally arrive at my hotel, Hong Vy 1, and check in. I’ve booked two nights via Cheap Tickets. I like to book one or two nights prior to arrival so that I have a place to drop my luggage after a flight and a chance to get my bearings. I generally don’t book any longer because, booking these places sight unseen, simply by reading online ratings which are often, well, there’s definitely a “pants on fire” factor. So I’ve booked two nights and will wander around and decide if I stay.
My room is fine, with a comfortable double bed, air conditioning, a safe, and even a TV with some movie channels in English. The only negatives are the bathroom window, which won’t close, making it necessary to keep the door shut so that only the bathroom is a sauna and not the entire room (ooh, an in-room sauna; now there’s a selling point), and the classroom-type clock on the wall which, later, at 1:23 am, I’ll find the need to grab from the wall and pop out the battery due the constant tick-tick-tick keeping me awake.
Before turning in, I head out down the street to a local restaurant. As I walk in the door a waiter walks past and says to his counterpart, “American.” At first I’m amused, and then a bit puzzled. I could be Canadian, Australian, French, British, or so many other non-Asian nationalities. I’ve not said a word. Do I have “American” stamped across my forehead? Do they assume any western-looking person is American? Perplexed, I grab a seat.
I attempt to ask the waitress what her favorite meal is as I’m anxious to try local specialties. Still, I’m being careful as, well, dog is a fairly common dish here and, while I love to try local specialties, I won’t eat dog food and I won’t eat dog food. The waitress speaks no English and calls over her manager who speaks only slightly more. Still, he’s hesitant to recommend anything.
I decide on the Pho which is a big bowl of clear soup with veggies, noodles, herbs, spices, and, in my case, beef (not dog, but cow), accompanied by a well deserved Tiger Beer. The beer arrives first in the form of a room temperature can and a glass of ice. This will take a bit of getting used to.
Soon after, the Pho arrives; it’s a large bowl with the main fixings, along with a large plate of various green herbs and some other veggies to add. Also served on the side are a couple of different sauces, which the waitress helps me with. They should add a note to the menu, “Some assembly required” as this is the IKEA of meals. They should also add a warning, “Caution, these chilies may require a bread or cracker chaser which you have no idea how to say in Vietnamese.”
As I attempt to confidently eat my Pho using the china spoon and chopsticks supplied, the waitress passes by, quickly dropping a fork while saying “For you.” Apparently my chopstick skills are lacking.
Stomach full, I walk back to my hotel where I hear music coming from the park across the street. I wander over to find men and women dancing to the Tom Jones song Delilah while children and adults roller skate around them. Further down I find a children’s playground while directly next to it is a sort of adult playground containing unique pieces of metal exercise equipment. It’s a brilliant concept encouraging adults and kids to live a healthy lifestyle while playing together. Further up a variety of children’s amusement park rides outlined in colorful lights with carnival music playing. This isn’t a special fair, it’s a nightly (or perhaps every weekend) occurrence.
I head to bed, fighting for sleep, unplugging the clock, and still not sleeping well. I wake up in the morning with a bit of a plan. First stop, the Paradise Boutique Hotel. I’ve booked a night at this hotel, which is above my normal budget, for later in the week. As I mentioned in Trials and Tribulations of Travel, I had a bit of a challenge while in Kuala Lumpur. A day after leaving Indonesia, someone there accessed my checking account through an ATM and removed all of the money within five-minutes. As I still have possession of my card, this was quite a shock. I spent much of my nine-days in Kuala Lumpur dealing with this situation. The card is through Charles Schwab which has an account that comes with a debit card with no international fees. From the time I opened this account, Schwab customer service has been outstanding. During this challenge, they were no less than spectacular. They put the money back into my account within four days and we arranged to have the card delivered via FedEx to Vietnam. They also worked with me to get some cash in my hands while I tried to connect with my new card. (*See bottom of article for note.)
So, I booked the Paradise Saigon Boutique Hotel because, well, while it’s above my budget, I’d hoped this would improve my chances of actually receiving the card. Lo-and-behold, the card arrived in Vietnam before I did. I received an E-mail from the hotel notifying me of this a couple of days ago so, this morning, with the help of the hotel bellman, I hop on a bus and find my way to Paradise to collect my package. I have a wonderful talk with Jolly, the lady who I’ve been communicating with via E-mail, and assure her that, although I can still cancel my reservation without penalties, I will keep it (perhaps only changing the date) as they’ve been very helpful and it’s the right thing to do.
I continue on my way, find another hotel to stay for a few nights, as I like this neighborhood much better than where I’m staying, yet can’t afford more than one night in Paradise (story of my life) and meet Tony, a pedicab driver who shows me photos of him dressed in uniform when he was a soldier during the war as well as some American friends. The photos are well-worn and I want to hear more of Tony’s story so I agree to hire him to drive me to get a bite to eat before I head to the War Remnants Museum. While Tony has said there’s a noodle place just a few blocks away which he can take me to, twenty-minutes later, he’s still peddling away. I insist that I don’t want to go far as I want to go to the museum. He assures me that it’s just ahead. He continues to reassure me of this as we turn left and right around many corners while weaving through traffic.Finally, we arrive at the noodle place (more Pho!) and I invite Tony for lunch, partially for some instruction on how to properly eat Pho, but mostly because I want to hear his story. We order our food and I ask Tony how to be sure I avoid eating dog. He assures me that beef always means cow (it’s a start). I then ask about his experience during and after the war.
Tony tells me that he was a Lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army for two years before Saigon fell. He spent the next two-years under arrest in a work camp before he was eventually freed and married an American, from Texas, who worked at the embassy. He now has two children, a married daughter living in Saigon and a son who is in the army in Cambodia, and four grandchildren.
I also take the opportunity to ask Tony whether the city is called Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Tony tells me that it’s Saigon. Well, at least he calls it Saigon. He says that younger people call it Ho Chi Minh City, but “for you and me, it’s Saigon.” (Did he just call me old?).
We finish up, hop back onto his pedicab, and he takes me to the museum.When we arrive he tells me the cost is 300,000, double that of our agreed upon 150,000. According to Tony, it was 150,000 one-way. I have flashbacks of yesterday’s cab-ride from the airport. It’s difficult when you know you’re being overcharged yet, they’re so darned nice about it. And there might just be a bit of guilt playing a role here due to the troubled history of America and Vietnam.
*Note – I did have a travel alert on the account stating that I would be in Malaysia on the dates it was accessed. You can do this online with most debit/credit cards which will help you have access to your money while you’re traveling.
Tomorrow – Facing the past
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