Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- day 2 photo roundup

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Side view of Notre Dame Cathedral.

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US vehicles and firepower outside the War Remnant Museum.

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The troop strength of the US, South Vietnam and its allies during the war.
I’m surprised to see that Thailand and the Philippines contributed troops. The latter was wise to send a few and to withdraw after 1969. The South Koreans were staunch allies, if not a bit foolish, keeping their numbers up throughout the war.

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Tortured and killed political prisoners in South Vietnamese jails.

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US casualties, bombs dropped,  and costs in the Vietnam War compared to World War I and II.

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The ubiquitous Bell Huey UH-1, seen in every single movie and TV show about the Vietnam War. Even the pretty girl can’t resist getting up close.

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Inside the Saigon Central Post Office. The map on top is of HCMC (Saigon) in the 19th century.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 2

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Continuing from part 1 of my second day in Ho Chi Minh City, I started out walking to the HCMC museum, formerly the Revolution Museum. Afterwards on the way to the War Remnants Museum, I passed one of the most famous sights from the Vietnam War- the Reunification Palace. The iconic photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through its gates in 1975, when it was the office of South Vietnam’s president, symbolized Saigon’s fall. Being lunchtime, it was closed so I could only look from outside but I wasn’t interested in visiting it. I didn’t find it particularly attractive either, being a rectangular five-storey building with a large round lawn in front of it, though there is a row of palm trees on its roof.
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When I arrived at the military museum, it was closing for lunch, so I had two free hours. This is a characteristic of many museums as well as the Reunification Palace in Vietnam, which close at around 11.30 for lunch, during which all visitors have to leave. I found it kind of amusing – the concept of a public place closing for lunch, though if I was an employee, I’d probably be very glad. I went for lunch at a nearby noodle restaurant where I had a decent bowl of noodles and was charged a small amount for the sanitary napkin, something I’ve experienced in Beijing too.

Then I walked to Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral (in the photo at the top of this page), which was probably just as elegant as its namesake in Paris. From the back it had a rounded shape due to several round compartments, then from along the side it switched to a long form with a main central arched doorway. Its front featured two bell towers with sharp rooftops flanking the much-shorter center. The entire cathedral was red, except the slightly brown corners, giving it a unique look. Needless, it was much more attractive than the cathedral in Hanoi, one of the few things about HCMC I liked more than the capital. There was even a photo shoot going on with a beautiful woman dressed in a white traditional ao-dai surrounded by a few dozen pigeons.

Opposite the street, I noticed a three-story pink colonial building. Entering it, I realized it was a post office, probably the nicest one I’d ever been to. It was like stepping back into time. The Saigon Central Post Office interior was a fully functioning post office but it had been preserved to retain its oldtime feel with wooden panels and counters. The inside was very spacious and elegant with a high arched ceiling. At the end, a portrait of Uncle Ho, looking very dignified with white mustache and goatee, looked over the entire place. At the sides near the front were wooden enclosed ATM booths, with analog clocks showing the time in different parts of the world. There were also souvenir stores where I bought postcards to mail right afterwards.
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I returned to the War Remnants Museum and it was open again. There were a good number of visitors, especially foreigners, unlike every other museum I’d visited in Vietnam including even the military museum in Hanoi. The outside of the museum was like a dreamland for military enthusiasts. There were quite a number of impressive military machines , mainly captured from the Americans including jet fighters, Chinook helicopter, tanks, and artillery such as the “King of the battlefield” – the giant M107 cannon mounted on tracks. There’s even a flamethrower minitank and a mini-bulldozer used for clearing mines, which I saw in a ‘Nam comic, a former Marvel series about the Vietnam War.

At the side was a recreated section of the Con Dao island prisons, built by the French and later used by the South Vietnamese government to imprison suspected Communist sympathizers. It featured dungeons and “tiger cages”- cages with barbed wire that housed Vietnamese prisoners who could only stoop inside. There were chilling photos of prisoners showing their injuries after being tortured and imprisoned – missing teeth, amputated limbs or badly bent arms and legs- and some actual torture equipment.

The museum was a 3-storey rectangular block that somewhat resembled a giant bunker. Unlike Hanoi’s military museum, this museum almost fully focuses on the Vietnam War. The first floor featured easygoing material like propaganda posters and photos of rallies around the world supporting the Vietnamese and slamming the US. A good amount of these rallies were in Communist countries like Cuba and Eastern Europe, but a few were in Western nations as well, which was surprising. I knew there were anti-Vietnam War rallies in the US, but not in other Western nations.

The upstairs featured more sobering sights. There was an impressive photo collection of the war from various journalists of US soldiers, Vietnamese rebels, and civilians, ranging from depicting US soldiers on a regular patrol to torture of captured Vietnamese, fleeing civilians, and killed US soldiers.
One section was about the use of chemical weapons by the US, including horrendous photos of disfigured victims, which still has an effect to this day. One display was a letter written  by a Vietnamese chemical weapon victim to US President Barack Obama urging him to take action to resolve the lingering chemical weapons presence. Meanwhile, captured American heavy weapons were on display, including rifles, machine guns, mortars, bazookas, and even mines.
While again basically all the information and exhibits portrayed the US as responsible for causing all the damage and deaths, it’s not hard when viewing data such as that more bombs were dropped in Vietnam by the US than during World War II or viewing the photos of victims of chemical attacks to feel sympathetic and even admiringly about Vietnam, at least for me. However I have to say there wasn’t any menacing or belligerent tone to the information and displays, but a matter-of-fact and conciliatory one.

The museum definitely lived up to its must-visit reputation. I definitely recommend it if you visit HCMC, whatever your stance about the war.

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The inside of the post office with a portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging on top at the back.
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Back of Notre Dame Cathedral.
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The mighty “King of the Battlefield” – self-propelled M107 175mm gun.
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Two of the “tiger cages” used to hold political prisoners outdoors.

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Captured Viet Cong being hung upside down for questioning.
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Castro and Cuba solidarity for Vietnam.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the second full day- part 1

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For my second day in HCMC, it was time to experience the city all by myself after having had a good tour with Nam from Saigon Hotpot the previous day. My plan was to go to the Revolution Museum, the military museum (War Remnants), and take in some colonial buildings in the area. I was particularly eager to visit the War Remnants Museum, which was described as one of HCMC’s best sights in many sites and articles online.

I set off from my hotel, passing through the large park right opposite all the hotels and restaurants along Pham Ngu Lao. It featured a large, lotus-filled pond and walkways framed by palms and other tall trees. It was quite pleasant and wouldn’t be the last park I’d walk through in HCMC, a big contrast with Taipei where parks are small, few, and often had more concrete than trees and grass.

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First, I went to the Revolution Museum, which focused on Ho Chi Minh and the revolution against the French which ended with Vietnam’s victory in the 1950s. Housed in a elegant gray colonial mansion, as many Vietnamese museums are, the museum’s name was changed to the City Museum, possibly reflecting a move to tone down the militarism and expand the museum’s scope. It also makes sense to have a museum for the city itself. I also found out recently via a website this was the former residence of the French Governor and the final home of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt strongman who eventually died in a coup.
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The city part of the museum consisted of a few ancient artifacts found in Saigon, which had been formed in 1698, and a range of cultural objects including wedding clothes, instruments and even ancient Vietnamese coins. The revolution part featured photos, letters, weapons, uniforms, and even a pot and pipe that had been used by revolutionaries during the revolution. The displays were quite impressive, full-size human mannequins making speeches on stage or defiantly wielding weapons. One of the main attractions was a bicycle, fitted out with giant bags piled atop it and looking as if it had just been brought in from service on the Ho Chi Minh trail, when the North Vietnamese moved supplies on foot and on bikes through jungle and hills to their allies down south. There was a lot of serious firepower on display too such as rocket propelled grenade launchers, grenades, and machine guns, and even the humble pistol. On the ground floor, there’s a stairway at the side that leads down to an underground shelter that had been built by Ngo Dinh Diem.

There weren’t many people, especially locals at the museum. Nam had told me that not many Vietnamese found this museum interesting, which wasn’t surprising given that the museum was mostly propaganda, promoting the heroism and glory of the Communist party. Around the building were several Vietnam War-era fighter planes, tanks, and artillery pieces, another common feature of Vietnamese museums.

What was annoying though was being hassled by drivers offering city tours on the outside, one of whom took it upon himself to appoint himself as my driver and told me he’d wait for me when I came back out so he could take me on a tour. When I came out about one hour later, the damn guy was actually there though thankfully he left me along when I ignored him. As I walked to the War Remnants museum, I encountered more of these pushy drivers. It was really silly since I was literally minutes away from the place’s sights so there was absolutely no reason I’d want a driver.

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F-5 fighter jet, an American-made airplane, which was flown by a North Vietnamese agent in the South Vietnamese air force to bomb the Reunification Palace (when it was the office of the South’s president). That explains why it is in North Vietnamese colors.
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Vietnamese theater costume, which looks similar to Chinese Beijing Opera costumes.

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Hotel with a rather interesting and nice design.
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Another park in HCMC near the HCMC museum.
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Serious firepower in the HCMC museum.

China

Beijing life – a market trip to remember

Usually, a guy will consider himself lucky to have a comely female clutch his forearm tightly and say don’t go.

Except if this happened inside a market stall and the guy doesn’t want to buy anything.
It’s striking that just after posting about amusing female vendor market interactions in Ho Chi Minh City last week, I’d experience something similar one in Beijing, though not so amusing. A few days ago, I was at the Yashow indoor market, a squarish mall actually, in Sanlitun, which sells a lot of clothes, especially replicas, a place recommended by a colleague. Inside, the place was filled with open stalls in all directions which kind of resembled a maze. Each stall was roughly the size of two or three cubicle spaces. There were quite a number of non-Chinese tourists here, even including tour groups.

I was looking for a coat jacket and I stopped at a few stalls to check out the goods and ask the prices, which you don’t accept at all. It seemed straightforward enough. I was looking at a few decent coats at one stall when a lady came up to me and said I could try them on. Sure, I replied, and I did. Where’re you from? Singapore?, she asked. I told her Hong Kong, and she said “oh, well you all look similar” with a laugh. “We’re all Chinese,” I replied. Anyways I asked the price and it was high, but not surprisingly she reduced it. However I decided not to buy and started to leave when the lady placed her hand on my arm.  Come on, she said, clutching a calculator with her other hand. “I’ll give you a better price. And look at this jacket again, it’s good quality,” she said. Well, I said it’s alright and turned to leave again. The lady put her hand on my arm again, except this time she was grasping it as she pulled me back into her stall. Wait, I’ll give you a better price, she said. It’s ok, I replied, “I’ll look around first and maybe come back.” Unbelievably the hand went on my arm again and this time the grasp was tighter. By this time, I was a little stunned and to use a cliche, couldn’t believe this was happening. I had to pull away, with the lady still holding on, but finally I managed to extricate myself. OK, I’ll sell it cheaper, she shouted. 200! 150!

Anyways, I walked away a little shaken but still in the mood to do a little more shopping. And would you believe it, practically the same thing happened again a little later (I never learn, it seems). I was at another stall looking at a jacket and the female attendant urged me to try it on. I did, and then asked about the price. I thought it was a bit high and I didn’t want to buy so I said thanks then walked away. The lady put her hand on my arm and said she’d reduce the price. I said I’d consider it and walked away. Now listen to me, she said and immediately her hand tightened on my arm and the whole drama above repeated itself. This lady was a little more persistent though, at one point when I told her to release my hand (fang shou 放手), she actually said no. I really had to put some effort into getting this one to let go and as she did, she defiantly shouted out a last offer – “150, you hear!”

The shouting part happened with several other vendors when I walked away, since bargaining is an accepted part of buying. Actually it’s mandatory since the real price is always much too high – after all, these are mostly replicas, whether of Adidas or Timberland. While for some people, walking away is just a tactic, for me it’s usually for real since I don’t tend to buy things right away.  I did end up buying a decent coat from a male vendor. I bargained the price down quite a bit though I wonder if I still paid too much since he seemed to agree too easily.

Anyways, when I think back at this, I can’t help laughing a little. But trust me, it was more than a little harrowing when it happened, especially when considering how those helpful friendly female store clerks morphed into tenacious, forceful creatures within a split second. In contrast, the caresses by the female vendors at the Ben Thanh indoor market and the comical pleading and theatrical blocking by the female vendors at the nighttime market at the same place, seem downright gentle.

Sometimes, it seems like living in Beijing is like an adventure. The most basic situations can turn into the unexpected.

Of course, China can be very beautiful, pleasant and relaxing. Take a journey across China in this video of timelapse photos of cities and landscapes.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City at night

Pham Ngu Lao St is HCMC’s backpacker/tourist district, supposedly the local equivalent of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. Hopefully Pham Ngu Lao never becomes as loud, seedy or notorious. While it’s great that hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies fill Pham Ngu Lao, one of the best things is that a major market and some fine historical buildings are just minutes away.

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Ben Thanh Market is HCMC’s biggest market and during the day it’s filled with vendors selling clothes, coffee, food, and souvenirs. At night the building closes and a night market forms outside on both sides, with mostly clothes and souvenir vendors catering to tourists. Especially notable are the many “brandname” backpacks on sale for amazingly low prices. North Face is a very popular one, and at first glance can seem genuine (I’ll have more on this later). Another notable thing is how persistent the female vendors can be in trying to get you to buy something. During the day, I went inside Ben Thanh Market and while walking through the narrow lanes in between all the stalls, female vendors constantly called out while a few even touched my arm with slight caresses. It felt nice, but of course not everyone might feel that way. At night, the vendors may not be as touchy-feely, but they will call out prices, lower it, then even pull up a calculator and tell you to name your price. As a last resort, some women will block you from leaving their stall while looking at you with sad puppydog eyes while begging you to buy – “please, pleeeease buy from me. If you don’t buy, I won’t let you go.”

Looking back, it seems so comical and flattering, but at times it was a bit too much.

On the flipside, I had a male vendor ridicule me in Vietnamese to his fellow vendors after I asked him about some magnets and then walked away without buying. He spoke some Vietnamese in what sounded like a mocking tone and his fellows burst out laughing.

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Besides the market, if you continue walking along the main road you will hit a really fancy part of town where you can check out the City Hall and Saigon Opera House, both colonial buildings. The City Hall is very nice and you can walk right up to it, situated at the end of a driveway with luxury brandname stores on both sides. The Saigon Opera House has an arched doorway and a long rectangular shape, which I didn’t see properly since it was in the night. There’s also the Hotel Continental Saigon, a hotel famous for its role during the Vietnam War for being the haunt of American journalists.

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Ho Chi Minh City’s City Hall

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Saigon Opera House

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Back to the market, when you cross the street to an open space and face a roundabout with a statue of a man on a horse (14th century Vietnamese hero General Tran Nguyen Han), there’s a fine view (the first photo in this post) of the Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam’s tallest skyscraper. Shaped like a leaf, or a dagger, and lit up at night, it’s a very nice sight It’s also a reminder of HCMC’s economic vitality and how Vietnam is a nation in flux, communist but following a similar path as China.

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Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Ho Chi Minh City- the first full day

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So back in June on my Vietnam trip, my next stop after Hue was Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon which it is still popularly known as. It may not be the capital, but it is Vietnam’s commercial powerhouse and a famous city, mostly due to its role in the Vietnam War as the capital of South Vietnam and where American troops and journalists had a major presence. It is located in the south, near the Mekong river delta, in perfect contrast to Hanoi which is in the north.

I left Hue for Da Nang, where I took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. My Jetstar flight went smoothly and it got into Ho Chi Minh City airport on time, which was more modern and bigger than Hanoi’s. However I encountered a slight issue very soon, as I mentioned in my previous post about scams. I approached a taxi counter right before you exit customs, and showed the guy my hotel address, only to be given a larger amount than expected. 320,000 (US$16), he said. From websites, I knew the amount was around US$10, so I declined politely and was about to walk off when he called me back. 200,000 (US$10), he said, and I agreed.

My driver didn’t speak any English so my ride into the city was mostly quiet. Along the way, he did tell me the name of a church when I asked him. My hotel was in a side street near the end of Pham Ngu Lao, which is the city’s main backpacking drag, full of hotels, bars, and travel agencies. When we arrived, the security guy came and helped me carry my luggage inside, which was pretty good; I’d also experienced that in Hanoi. My hotel was a little underwhelming, being the newer and presumably downscale sibling of a hotel with which it shared a name, but with a “2” being added at the end. Parts of the interior were still being worked on, and the two guys at the front desk were respectively friendly and cunning. I walked to Ben Thanh market that night, taking in the sights of Pham Ngu Lao and its myriad eating places, hotels and souvenir shops.  The market was just about 10 minutes away from my hotel.

The next day, I did a free daytour with Nam, a student guide who was a member of Saigon Hotpot. Like the organization in Hanoi who I also did a free tour with, Saigon Hotpot was made up of mostly university students who volunteered to take visitors around the city. Nam was studying engineering and had a really good knowledge of temples and Buddhism, certainly much more than me. As with my female guide in Hanoi, Nam’s English was remarkably fluent. I’d wanted to go to the History Museum, the Jade Pagoda, and “Chinatown”, and we went to all three. Whereas in Hanoi, my guide had called taxis to take us, Nam had us take the bus at the station near Ben Thanh market, which was interesting and cheap as well (not that the taxis in Hanoi were walletbusters). At one point, a lady on the bus stood up and began making a pitch to other passengers about kitchen tools, which she was selling. It was of course very surprising, and a first for me, though it is a normal event according to Nam.

The Museum of Vietnamese History was similar to its counterpart in Hanoi, but it’s still worth a visit if you have time. The exhibits are all on the first floor and include military weapons, Champa statues, and ethnic artifacts. The most famous exhibit is an actual mummy, laid out behind a glass case exposed in all its decaying glory- a noblewoman who had been buried in the 19th century. There’s a more extensive display of the Oc Eo culture, which existed close to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

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We had lunch at the “Lunch Lady,” a local semi-celebrity who’d gotten famous after being visited by Anthony Bourdain. This wasn’t a high-end restaurant, but a typical outdoor Vietnamese foodstand that served noodle or rice dishes. True to her reputation, the Lunch Lady had a lot of customers, mostly office workers. Nam ordered for us, which turned out to be delicious pork noodles, and it was nice to sit down at one of these places to eat at last. Though, I couldn’t help notice the rat running around a few meters from us, a sight that I’d see again in Bangkok.
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The Jade Emperor Pagoda was a red temple that had been built in the early 20th century by Chinese-Vietnamese. Despite being called pagoda, it’s not actually a tower but a two-storey temple. The temple’s roof resembles that of Chinese temples with its continuous curved layers, but with one striking difference- the colorful decorations on top and on the roof corners that feature dragons and people.

Outside the temple door, vendors sold birds and little turtles for believers to purchase and release. This is due to a Buddhist belief that setting animals free can earn a person merit. In Taiwan, some people also do this, releasing fish or birds in large numbers on certain days. It has dubious effects on the environment as not only do some of these animals die in the wild, or damage the local ecology, but as Nam said, end up being caught again, or fuel the capture of more wild animals just to be sold and released. The courtyard features a fish pond but more popular is probably turtle pond on one side, filled with turtles that had been released by believers who’d bought them from the vendors. It wasn’t as pleasant a sight as one might think. It was very overcrowded and dirty, and dozens of turtles were climbing up all over each other on the sides of the pond. Inside the temple, there were several halls, each with a main altar featuring a different deity, similar to Chinese temples. The main reason people visited this pagoda was for women to pray for a child. There was a second floor with more halls including one with the goddess of mercy Guan Yin. Nam did a fine job explaining the different deities and practices, helping me learn new facts and making me feel a little ashamed that I knew so little about my heritage when it came to Buddhist temples and gods.

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Finally, we went to Cholon, the “Chinatown” of Saigon. This was a historic part of the city, where much of the local Chinese population lived and traded. Yet, as Nam explained, this wasn’t exactly Chinatown since many of the residents and stores were not Chinese. I didn’t mind too much. This area was indeed full of bustling trading, with cloth stores especially numerous. There was the Binh Tay market, a large market filled with food and dry goods stalls, and that also has a memorial to the wealthy Chinese businessman who financed the market. There were several restaurants and businesses with Chinese signs as well. We went to a couple of old temples, featuring similar exquisite rooftop decorations which far outdid those on Chinese temples.

We also stopped at the St. Francis Xavier Catholic church, an attractive French-built church with a tall central tower, and went inside. Right outside the front door is the grave of a former priest- a Father Tam. We happened to sit right behind a bench which had an inscription on it. Apparently this was where former South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were seized from after having fled into the church during a coup in 1963. Diem and his brother, who ran the secret police, would later be executed in cold blood, though having been quite a dictator himself, little sympathy was given to Diem. Nevertheless it was a sad part of history to encounter.

It was a good first full day in Ho Chi Minh City and a good tour, taking in history (museum, the church), religion (temples) and commerce (Cholon in general).
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A Chinese temple in Cholon.

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A vendor selling birds and turtles outside the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

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Another nice museum diorama depicting a conflict with China, this time the Qing Dynasty who were allegedly defeated.
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The turtle pond at the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Hustled in Huế (and elsewhere)

The title of this post is quite brief and self-explanatory, though an alternate title could be “How I got tricked, then thought I got tricked really bad, then had things turn out ok in the end in Hue.” As a bonus, I also listed the scams I experienced elsewhere in Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.

It should be obvious, from my previous posts, that I really liked Vietnam a lot. Vietnam lived up to, even exceeded, my expectations, and it was definitely the pick of the Southeast Asian countries I visited, which included Cambodia and Thailand. What made my Vietnam experience better was that I had almost no problem with safety, other than that probable pickpocketing attempt the first night in Hanoi, the heat (since Taipei was and is still in the midst of seriously hot weather), or the food. However I didn’t escape unscathed when it came to being overcharged and tricked. Vietnam does have a reputation for this with travelers, as do other Southeast Asian countries (Thailand, looking at you). Again fortunately I wasn’t cheated that badly so I can look back at it as a humorous experience and with just a little head-shaking.

The first time I got cheated was when I got into Huế. I had just gotten off the train and through the exit, when I was confronted by drivers and touts. A couple of guys appeared at my sides, asking me where I was going. Now, I needed a taxi since I didn’t feel like walking, so I told one guy my hotel. OK, he said, 5 [US] dollars. That sounded cheap to me so I decided to go with him. That was mistake no. 1 as I was hustled over the price. Another guy said he was from my hotel, and he pulls out a card of my hotel and hands it to me. “That’s my hotel. I was just dropping off a guest,” he said.  This made me believe him, which was mistake no. 2 as I was hustled again (read on, please). The card was just a hotel card and didn’t have his name.  To be honest, the guy seemed nice and not aggressive or tricky. But then, that’s how a lot of hustlers are.
Hue is a former capital of Vietnam, but I wasn’t terribly impressed by its train station. I have to admit the Hue station fit the description of a small town train station, with a small, old one-story building, an exit that was virtually next to the platform, and a mob of drivers hanging around right outside.

Hustle no. 1 was I was overcharged by a few dollars by the taxi driver. I’d actually emailed the hotel before about how to get there from the train station and they had said I could walk 15 minutes or get a taxi for US$2. Taxis are very cheap in Vietnam so US$5 was definitely too much for a car trip of 10 minutes.

Hustle no. 2 was I was completely tricked by the second guy who said he was from my hotel. His English was quite decent and he asked me about my travels while in the car. When I said I was going on to Da Nang, and that I was planning to visit the emperors’ tombs, he said I could buy a bus ticket from him to Da Nang, and book a day-tour to see the tombs. Sure, I said. And with that, he had the driver drive me to a hotel (not my hotel) and led me inside to buy the bus and tour tickets from a travel counter, which many Vietnamese hotels have. I paid for a daytrip to see the tombs for around 200,000 dong (US$10) and a bus to Da Nang for around the same price – I had planned to take the train from Hue to Da Nang, but given my overnight train had arrived 1.5 hours late, I didn’t want to chance the train since I was taking a flight in Da Nang. I would get picked up at my hotel by both buses, which was good. I can’t remember the exact price. I handed over the money, got the ticket receipts, which had no telephone number or company name on them, and walked back to the taxi. There were a few guys hanging outside that hotel who the hustler exchanged greetings with, resulting in big laughs and even a mock kick. My hustler did seem like a tricky guy at that moment and I’m sure he was telling them of my gullibility with glee. In the car, he said how he and his family managed my hotel and others as well.

When we reached my hotel, he got out and pointed me to the hotel entrance, which was in a small alleyway near the road. Then he said goodbye and got back in the car. I thought that was weird he didn’t come inside. When I entered the hotel and talked to the receptionist about the guy, she was puzzled and said she didn’t know anybody by that guy’s name (Son). At this point, it finally dawned on me that maybe I had just been tricked (yes, I’m a bit slow). I showed the tickets to the lady and she pointed out there were no phone number or company or hotel name, so it was impossible to contact the people if my bus didn’t come.  Lord, how I really wanted to whack myself at that moment.

The next morning, I went out to the street at the scheduled time to wait for the bus for the tombs daytour. The time passed agonizingly slowly- 5 minutes, then 10, then 15, and I really got annoyed. F**k, f**k, I kept repeating to myself, cursing my own stupidity as well. Every time I saw a bus or van drive onto the street, I would eagerly hope it would stop, only to be disappointed as it passed by. To be honest, the money wasn’t that much but it was the act of being conned that really got at me. I felt foolish standing outside my hotel for so long, especially when pedestrians or vendors looking at me. I think I went inside to wait, because I can’t imagine I waited out there for over 20 minutes. The bus came after over 20 minutes and I was off on the tour. The tour turned out well, though not without some further hiccups. This will be for another post.

Now, the next morning (two days after I arrived in Hue), I would be taking a bus to Da Nang, another city close to Hue, from where I’d take a plane to Ho Chi Minh City. I was still a little apprehensive about whether the bus would come, though it was lessened by the fact my tomb daytour did turn out to be real. I waited for about 10 minutes when a guy on a motorbike stopped and called out to me. I was puzzled and was close to ignoring him since I thought he was some random driver, but he said my hotel’s name and something about the bus to Da Nang. I got on, with my small luggage wedged in front of him while I sat behind him. “Where’s the helmet?” I asked, and he said there was none, it’s ok. I had no choice but to go along with the ride, riding pillion helmetless on a motorbike in Central Vietnam. Now if this was Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, I would have refused, especially as a helmet is mandatory for anybody riding on a motorscooter or motorbike, but this was sleepy Hue, so it was alright (though I’d have preferred a helmet anyways). The guy dropped me off at a waiting room in the first floor of a building, and soon the bus arrived. Within two hours I was in Da Nang, safe and sound.

In the end, things turned out alright, with both trips that the guy tricked me into buying being real and even good value. But I learned my lesson. In future, I wouldn’t be so quick or foolish to trust somebody without concrete proof of what they say.

Hustle 3 was actually in Da Nang, not Hue. After I got off the bus at Da Nang (the bus was going on to Hoi An) at a travel agency, a taxi driver was there and told me it’d be US$5 to go to the airport. I accepted as I thought US$5 was a decent price and didn’t even think of asking him to do it by meter (yes, making the same mistake as I did outside the Hue train station) instead.
Then, since I had over 3 hours before my flight, I asked him if he could drive me to a scenic area in Da Nang – I’d seen the coast from the bus driving into Da Nang and it was very beautiful. The driver offered me several options, and I chose to go to “Monkey Mountain” for US$20. Now, by Vietnam standards, this might have been overcharging, especially as the mountain wasn’t too far from where we were. However, given that this was an out-of-the-way destination- a mountain by the sea, and because I didn’t want to wait in the airport for 3 hours, I thought it was ok and I don’t quite see this as a scam.
What was possibly a hustle was that, after the driver drove me to the mountain, he drove me back to the exact same spot where we’d agreed on going to the mountain, and said that from there to the airport would be US$5 in addition to the US$20 for going to the mountain. I didn’t remember if he had said going to the mountain only was US$20, and I had thought the US$20 would be for the mountain and the airport. I had no choice but to agree, and for some reason he kept the meter on on the way to the airport. When we entered the airport, he even asked me to pay the car fee, and when we reached the dropoff point, he told me the total was US$25 or 550,000 dong. He was quite smart with money since he insisted on US$1- 21,000 dong rather than 20,000 or 20,500 (which the rate is close to), which some hotels offered. I was paying him in dong, but I took out my calculator. US$25 was 525,000, not 550,000 and I paid him that.
Whether that was his way of getting a little extra or an honest mistake, I don’t know but I was a little suspicious.
What was definitely a scam and made me annoyed was that the meter had showed about 40,000 (US$2) for the drive from the place we’d returned to (from the mountain) to the airport. I asked him about this, but he insisted that we’d agreed to US$5, which I did indeed, so I didn’t protest further. The main reason I felt annoyed is that since I had given him extra business – by going to “Monkey Mountain” for US$20 – I thought he might at least have loosened up on the airport fare and agreed to the metered amount. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was actually a decent guy to talk to, but it was clear when it came to money, he was very sharp.

Hustle 4 wasn’t actually a successful hustle, since I prevented it (yeah!). What was bad was that this hustle attempt happened in the Ho Chi Minh airport. I hadn’t arranged a taxi pickup with my hotel since I thought it’d be cheaper getting a taxi myself. As I got through customs and was walking out of the passenger area, I saw a taxi company counter. I walked up to the guy and showed him my hotel address. 320,000 dong (US$16), he said as he consulted a sheet. I immediately rejected it since I’d seen on travel websites that a taxi from the airport to HCMC’s Pham Ngu Lao, where my hotel was, was only supposed to be US$10 or so. I said I’d get one on my own outside and walked away. Right away, he called me back and said 200,000 dong (US$10). Of course I accepted. I paid him, got a receipt ticket, and got the taxi outside at the taxi queue. It was a good thing I was aware of the approximate taxi fare price beforehand since it saved me from overpaying by 120,000 dong (US$6) or almost a third more than the real price.


Tips
for avoiding the predicaments I got into:
— Always keep in mind local prices. When asking for prices from say, taxi drivers, don’t be fooled by hearing the price in American dollars. US$5 might sound little, but the real fare might be US$1 or US$2. To avoid this issue altogether, do the next step.
–Always ask taxi drivers to use the meter. I did this in Thailand and I managed to prevent myself from being scammed by other drivers who had quoted prices and refused to use the meter (I’ll write about this in a future post).

–Use your calculator or phone if you’re unsure about prices. This helps you figure out the price in your local currency and prevents you from being overcharged. This is especially helpful for Vietnam since the dong exchanges at about US$1 to 20,500.
–When you get taken to a place to book a tour or buy a bus ticket, always note the name of the hotel or agency and its phone number.
–Research the prices of things like taxi trips before you go somewhere, either by asking your hotel or going on Wikitravel or Tripadvisor.

When’s all said and done, I wasn’t scammed out of much money, and the two main hustlers – the Hue tout who claimed to be from my hotel and the Da Nang taxi driver – were actually rather friendly people though this is not an excuse for scamming people, so I don’t have much hard feelings. It’s ironic, as some people say, or write, that one of the reasons they hated traveling in Vietnam was unfriendly, aggressive people, that I found even the scammers kind of friendly. However, I would definitely not want to experience these things again and I learned my lessons. These were basically the only times I was scammed or hustled in Vietnam and it’s a far cry from what a certain prominent travel blogger named Matt experienced and hated when he was in the country.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Brief overview of a fine first Southeast Asia trip

My recent trip to Southeast Asia took me through 3 countries- Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. It was my first trip to this region, after almost five years in Asia (Taiwan) so it was definitely overdue. I have to say it was really good and I can see why many travelers love SE Asia. I spent 3 weeks there in total, with about 10 days in Vietnam, six in Cambodia, and the remainder in Bangkok. I can say without any doubt, Vietnam was the highlight, followed by Angkor (not just Angkor Wat) in Cambodia, and then Bangkok. I didn’t enjoy the latter that much, especially considering its reputation as a traveling hotspot. I’ll leave my griping for another post. I’ll say that Vietnam is quite underrated, but seems to be up and coming.

To me, my trip was quite ambitious, but throughout my travels, I met people whose trips were much more bolder than mine. I met several young mainlanders, who were going to the same three countries I was going, and also continuing on into India or Nepal with plans to return to China via Tibet. In Vietnam I met an English lady who was in the middle of a four-month trip through Asia and Australia, with China and Japan her next two stops. She’d already gone to Myanmar (Burma), having started in Thailand, and this was her first time in Asia! There were mainlanders who I met in Cambodia who were going on to Laos, which I had thought of going, or Vietnam in the reverse direction of my trip. In Hue, I met a Spaniard who was going through Vietnam, having flown halfway across the world all the way from Spain for a 2-week holiday from work.

The itinerary

I started in Hanoi (having flown direct from Taipei), went to Ha Long Bay for an overnight boat stay, returned to Hanoi and then took the overnight train from there to Hue. I stayed two days in the former imperial capital, then took a bus to Da Nang where I took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I spent three full days there, including a Mekong Delta day trip, then took a 6-hour bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of neighboring Cambodia. After one whole day there, I then took another 6-hour bus to Siem Reap, where I spent 3 whole days, going to Angkor each day. Finally I flew to Bangkok from Siem Reap, as I decided two long-haul buses were enough, and I spent 3 whole days there before returning to Taiwan.

The highlights

Vietnam
–The main reason I was going to SE Asia was to visit Vietnam, and the main reason I wanted to visit Vietnam was to see Ha Long Bay. While I have revised my thoughts after having actually gone to Vietnam (lots of interesting things including the cities, culture, people, scenery), Ha Long Bay was incredibly beautiful and fulfilled the expectations I had of it. The islands are spectacular, the water is scenic, and even all the boats add to the special atmosphere.
–The lively, bustling, attractive cities as a whole, especially Hanoi and HCMC. I’d heard HCMC was the more prosperous and fun city, but Hanoi turned out to be very interesting, charming, and bustling as well, so much that I think I liked Hanoi more than HCMC. Hue was quite decent if a bit laidback, and Da Nang (which I only spent a few hours) has a very nice coastline.
–The night-time atmosphere in Hanoi, including braving the crazy traffic, the sights and people around Hoan Kiem Lake, the bustling Old Quarter, and the weekend night market that ran up one whole street in the quarter. And being able to catch part of a street concert at the night market on my final night in Hanoi.
–The awesome guides I had throughout Vietnam, ranging from the hilarious Mekong Delta guide and  his coconut talk about the local place, the friendly, knowledgeable, and very English-proficient young guides (members of free student guide organizations) who took me on great day tours in Hanoi and HCMC, and the warm, humorous, and outgoing guides in Ha Long Bay and Hue.
–The war museums in both Hanoi and HCMC, where planes, tanks, and weapons from  the Vietnam War were the main attraction. The War Remnants museum in HCMC has a particularly poignant photography gallery inside.

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Ha Long Bay

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter at night.

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A lake near Hue. My bus to Da Nang stopped at a roadside restaurant and at the back was this. Beautiful scenery is common in Vietnam.

Cambodia
–Angkor, of course, which includes the great Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and several other impressive ancient temples and buildings. The whole of Angkor was great and I didn’t get tired of seeing so many temples or “templed out” as I’ve heard some visitors have.
–Royal Palace complex. It’s an impressive place with some beautiful buildings, and it’s both awesome and obscene that a poor country could have such a lavish royal palace. It’s not as big as Bangkok’s Palace complex, but it’s still worth visiting.
–I did visit the Khmer Rouge genocide sites- the “Killing Fields” and the S-21 prison, but rather than call these highlights, I’d rather say these are very meaningful sites that are also worth visiting.

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The famous Angkor Wat.

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Ta Keo, one of the more striking temple sites in Angkor.

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The Palace complex in Phnom Penh, seen from the riverbank.

Thailand
–Watching muay thai kickboxing live at Lumpinee “Stadium”. The action in the ring and the animated atmosphere in the stands, especially the bettors, were quite good.
–The Palace complex. It’s a large complex with some very attractive buildings including temples, a giant golden stupa (bell-shaped Buddhist tower), and a huge European-style mansion with a Thai/Khmer-style roof.

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Muay Thai at Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium.

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Wat Arun, on the opposite side of the river from the Palace.

There were lowlights as well, but those will be for another day, haha. For now, I just want to look back at my first SE Asia jaunt and say it went quite well.