Tip: Almost all the nationalities need an online approval letter before flying into Vietnam. The letter can be obtained through various websites and costs between 20 dollars to 40 dollars, depending on the length of stay and size of the group applying. With recent changes in immigration laws, it is advisable to have a flight itinerary out of Vietnam ready. Once at the airport, the stamp costs 20- 40 dollars more, again depending on the length of your stay.
It had been a while since I was last on the road. After my eight month long excursion in South East Asia, I had spent almost a year back home, digesting the realities of life that had hit me and changes that those had brought in me. But now, all my liabilities cleared, my car sold and all unnecessary accounts closed, my life was once again in a forty five litter Wildcraft.
And my first stop, of course, was Saigon!
I checked into the same hostel I had stayed the last year, Budget Hostel 2, in a small alley called Nguyen Van Trang, in the backpacker center of District 1. The name of the hostel was now Hostel Wanderlust and the price was increased from 60,000 dong to 80,000 dong.
Still, under four dollars a night and with one free beer each day, it was always a good deal.
I was showed to the 30 bed dorm by a young Vietnamese from Da-Nang, who spoke fairly good English. He explained that he was there to help out the owner and learn English from travelers.
I chose a bed that was not too far from the balcony door, shoved my backpack in the locker and in a minute, was out on the streets.
Tip: Most cheap hostels are near the Park 23/9 and to get there from Airport, take bus no. 152 which runs every fifteen minutes to Pham Ngu Lao street.
Bus cost- 5,000 dong (additional 5,000 dong for backpack)
Hostel cost- 70,000- 90,000 dong (depending on what you expect)
1 USD = 22,500 dong (approximately)
I knew the area pretty well and my feet found leading themselves immediately towards the park. My stomach grumbled at the fragrances coming from the street side vendors, but I decided to wait. The Park 23/9 is a famous hot spot among the travelers and the locals alike. It runs along Pham Ngu Lao street and provides a nice respite from the sun during a hot day. And at the sun down, it gets crowded with Vietnamese, young and old. A lot of university students hang out to have a conversation with a traveler or two, thereby improving their English, while others are busy doing their evening exercise routine. There’s a wide variety of games being played too, badminton, Jianzi (shuttlecock game), skateboards and of course, a little bit of soccer. Middle aged women are normally dancing to the aerobic music being played by a trainer, while middle aged men make use of one of many free exercise machines set up in the park.
And then there was a traveler from India, walking aimlessly, trying to retrace the footsteps from the past.
I passed by a few young students huddled around two tall westerners, who looked Dutch, and overheard them explain their travel route in Vietnam. They had already been to Sa Pa, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hoi An and Dalat and were of the opinion that Saigon was the craziest of all. And I agreed.
Where the park ends, lies the famous Ben Thanh market, but at this hour, crossing that busy street was rather a task. I joined a group of other backpackers and waited, while hundreds of colorful helmets floated past us. It was quite an astonishing sight, even for a person coming from a crowded place such as India. But holding my right hand on the side, my palm facing the moto riders, I walked straight, aiming for the market. I made it through without a scratch, while many others still struggled on the other side.
Ben Thanh market is just the way you would imagine an Asian market to be. The variety offered in the little stalls has no bounds. From meat to silk work, from fruits to wooden craft, you can find it all here. I made my way through the clothing line that had shorts, T-shirts and jackets on display, their owners calling out to me, trying to sell a fake Northface or two. Then I wandered through the souvenir alley, hardly touching any objects and finally into the food alley. The aromas made my stomach grumble again, and I decided it was time I grabbed something to eat.
Tip: For most things, Ben Thanh market is the cheapest, but be ready to haggle, and haggle a lot!
For food, the market has some good options, though cheaper and more delicious food can be found in one of many street side stalls in District 1. Just wander through the area and take yourself to the smell that appeals to you the most.
Meals (mainly Pho) on the street should cost between 10,000 to 20,000 dong. The meals in the restaurants would be between 30,000 to 50,000 dong.
Coming out of the front door of the market, I looked up straight at the sign of Pho 2000. Holding my left hand out this time, I re-entered the throng of moto taxis.
But 40,000 dong for a vegetarian noodle soup seemed like too much money and I decided to explore more. Crossing the park for the second time, I saw a game of Jianzi in full force while a few westerners watched in awe. There was a distance of at least 40 meters between the two players as they wacked the shuttlecock with their bare feet. I gave the game a few minutes and then entered a little alley that connects to Pham Ngu Lao street. And as the evening light began to fade, the music on the street side bars started to get louder. It seemed like most of the bars were just opening up, but old westerners had already claimed the extra-small yellow chairs. Their huge fists clenched the little mugs of beer as they roared with laughter at somebody’s joke.
“Friend, Bahn Mi?” I heard a shout from a corner stall and followed the voice.
Bahn Mi might be one of the first glimpses of French roots you get when roaming around on the streets of Saigon, that, and of course the architecture.
It is a sandwich made from a Baguette with garlic, onion, tomato and lettuce with addition of eggs or pork or beef. I chose to go with the eggs, said yes to the chili and asked the guy to put the same amount of chili again. With Bahn Mi in my hand, I felt a lot better and the first bite was enough to remind me of the rich cuisine that this country holds.
The sandwich was over before I even realized and continuing on to the other end of Pham Ngu Lao, I looked up. There were last few traces of the sun in the sky and the clouds had gathered in. A storm was coming!
Since Bia Hoi had run out at the most places already, I took a refuge at a 50 cents beer place.
As the rain began to pour, the place got crowded and with my second mug, I had a company of a couple from France and a guy from Maldives.
“You are the first person from Maldives I have ever met”, I said to the guy with the darker tone of skin as a thunder roared up above.
He was on a short vacation in Vietnam.
The French couple were traveling through Asia since four months and had done Thailand, Laos and Cambodia already. And now, they were towards the end of their trip, eventually flying out of Hanoi in a week’s time.
“And since when you travel?” the French girl asked me in the typical accent.
“My first day!” I replied.
“And how long do you have?”
Tip: Vietnam normally has very cheap beers. For a mug, expect to pay 10,000 dong everywhere. For a bottle of Saigon, it could be 10,000 to 20,000 dong depending on the place.
For cheaper and more authentic experience, try to find a Bia Hoi corner in the morning. Yes, in the morning. The beer is fresh and costs anywhere between 4,000 to 6,000 dong. And you might see morning customers in ties and boots stopping by for a beer before heading to work.
The rain water was pouring in on the street and the owner of the bar was busy in keeping it away from where we sat, while our table began to get clattered with empty mugs. We were later joined by an Englishman who had bought a Honda Wind in Hanoi and rode down all the way till Saigon. And now, he was looking for a traveler who would buy the motorbike off him.
He gave us some glimpses into his adventures on the road in Vietnam and by the time he decided to head back to his hostel, the rain had stopped.
I also took my leave from the group and ignoring offers from moto-taxi guys of “Marijuana” and “Boom Boom”, made my way back through the ankle deep water clogging the alleys.
It was my first day of this new adventure and I was very glad to be back in Vietnam. But this time, without a clue of my destination and the road that lay ahead of me, was a long one.
Tip: While buses are quite fast and regular in Vietnam, buying a motorbike is a great option. In the backpackers’ area of Hanoi or Saigon, it is possible to buy a Honda Wind between 250 to 350 USD and after finishing the trip, you can always sell it to someone for the same price. Always be careful though, as the Vietnamese traffic can get rough.