Ho Chi Minh City first glimpse of light and shadow

And so we arrived in Sài Gòn. Saigon is now unofficially called only the central part of  Ho Chi Minh City. A bit of history: under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-china, later after it was captured by the communists Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City after Hồ Chí Minh.

Ho Chi Minh City by night
Pham Ngu Lao - Saigon our first night

We arrived late evening in Pham Ngu Lao which is one of the main streets streets leading to central bus station. We booked first night in advance choosing location in walking distance from main market in Quan 1. The girls came with us. We figured we were staying they might have room for some more guests. Of course as soon as we stepped out of the bus were approached by a couple of touts trying to “help us” out in finding accommodation. Most of them were gone in a second as soon as we told them we already booked a place. One stayed though. After showing him the booking he offered to show us the way – the hostel was his brothers place. Lucky us.

As we entered the narrow labyrinth of tall buildings (most of them looking exactly the same) we felt lost after a few turns. Imagine enormous orient city bustling with night life, shouting people walking in every direction with a lot of traffic and moppets, where at every point somebody wants to sell you something. And then you enter dark and narrow labyrinth of dogy looking buildings where from every corner a pair of eyes is looking at you. Or at least it feels this way.

Park Le Loi Ho Chi Minh City
Park Le Lai Ho Chi Minh City

Some doors are open and show interiors of poor flats with small tv sets and kitchens, lying bamboo mats on concrete floors with their owners sitting there, resting. Cockroaches and cats coming from dark corners in between your feet. And the way is never straight, you take right then left then again right and you are lost. Was it first right or maybe second?

When we arrived at our hotel after a long discussion in English/Vietnamese  thanks to  the help of our guide we established that our rooms were taken by people who decided to stay for one more night. Luckily there was another hostel in “the family” where we could stay. It was just freshly opened. Three minutes later we could unpack and take a hot shower. So did the girls.

Phurong Pham Ngu Lao
Labyrinth during the day

I can honestly recommend it. Check out: My Home, 241 / 43 Pham Ngu Lao Street, Ho Chi Minh City 70000. It was clean with air conditioning and Internet access. It also has a laundry area and drying roof. The woman that was taking care of the hostel did not speak much English but we could arrange for everything we needed at that time. On the picture on the right in the background you can see  guys playing Jianzi – Hacky Sack. We brought one of these home.

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Ho Chi Minh City first glimpse of light and shadow

And so we arrived in Sài Gòn. Saigon is now unofficially called only the central part of  Ho Chi Minh City. A bit of history: under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-china, later after it was captured by the communists Saigon merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and was officially renamed Hồ Chí Minh City after Hồ Chí Minh.

Ho Chi Minh City by night
Pham Ngu Lao - Saigon our first night

We arrived late evening in Pham Ngu Lao which is one of the main streets streets leading to central bus station. We booked first night in advance choosing location in walking distance from main market in Quan 1. The girls came with us. We figured we were staying they might have room for some more guests. Of course as soon as we stepped out of the bus were approached by a couple of touts trying to “help us” out in finding accommodation. Most of them were gone in a second as soon as we told them we already booked a place. One stayed though. After showing him the booking he offered to show us the way – the hostel was his brothers place. Lucky us.

As we entered the narrow labyrinth of tall buildings (most of them looking exactly the same) we felt lost after a few turns. Imagine enormous orient city bustling with night life, shouting people walking in every direction with a lot of traffic and moppets, where at every point somebody wants to sell you something. And then you enter dark and narrow labyrinth of dogy looking buildings where from every corner a pair of eyes is looking at you. Or at least it feels this way.

Park Le Loi Ho Chi Minh City
Park Le Lai Ho Chi Minh City

Some doors are open and show interiors of poor flats with small tv sets and kitchens, lying bamboo mats on concrete floors with their owners sitting there, resting. Cockroaches and cats coming from dark corners in between your feet. And the way is never straight, you take right then left then again right and you are lost. Was it first right or maybe second?

When we arrived at our hotel after a long discussion in English/Vietnamese  thanks to  the help of our guide we established that our rooms were taken by people who decided to stay for one more night. Luckily there was another hostel in “the family” where we could stay. It was just freshly opened. Three minutes later we could unpack and take a hot shower. So did the girls.

Phurong Pham Ngu Lao
Labyrinth during the day

I can honestly recommend it. Check out: My Home, 241 / 43 Pham Ngu Lao Street, Ho Chi Minh City 70000. It was clean with air conditioning and Internet access. It also has a laundry area and drying roof. The woman that was taking care of the hostel did not speak much English but we could arrange for everything we needed at that time. On the picture on the right in the background you can see  guys playing Jianzi – Hacky Sack. We brought one of these home.

[slideshow]

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Vietnamese border

Cambodian border
Cambodian border, we didn't even stop

 

Cambodian border – no problem.

Vietnamese border – big problem.

First the man on the bus collected all our passports, then he quickly left the bus and went to the building on our left. It was just around this time of a day when day becomes night. We were asked to take our luggage and follow another man inside the same building. Inside we saw security gates and X-ray. Individually we put our backpacks on the belt and walked further to pick them up on the other side. The overwhelming feeling was: “not sure why we do it all, but better stay calm, wait and see what happens”. Then we took the baggage and put it back to the bus hold.

And waited. And waited with no information. And waited… did I say we waited?

We started talking with other passengers.  And then first lot of passports came. Still no information about the remaining ones. One of the travelers was a big, black guy. He was fighting in Vietnam and now came back to see it once again. He didn’t get his passport back and expecting troubles got restless. Overreacting, but then he was here last time in quite different circumstances… In second sort we got our passports back, but the black guy did not. Now he was really worried. He started shouting he is American citizen and his visa is ok. He tried to speak to our driver but well the driver didn’t speak English. I guess most of the passengers (like us) were suprised to hear him being so worried and his loud manifestation of worry did not help to stay calm.

Finally the guy came back for the third time and the American got his passport back. We were still waiting for something as the bus didn’t even start its engine. After a while group of four girls were asked to come to the building with our pilot. Polish girls by the way. We got to know each other a little better after this adventure.

They were asked to a room on the first floor where a Vietnamese officer in white undershirt was sitting behind the desk. There were some other people there as well.  As it turned out there was problem with their visas. The girls did not organize them themselves but trusted their friend to do it for them. So it came out that they had a transit visa not a touristic one – cheaper and valid for only a few days. And so were asked to show the itinerary from Vietnam which they didn’t have and $1000 per person which they did have. It was just the beginning of their trip.

They told us the guy was manifestly waiting for a bribe pushing his accounts book towards them as to signal to put the money inside.  They didn’t do it. I remember one of the girls saying “I would give him the money if we were alone. I couldn’t do it in the crowd of other people”. Well there you go…

Finally they came back on the bus and we could start on our way to HCMC. And what happened there I’ll tell you next time…

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The way to Saigon

Of course people who were supposed to pick us up from our hotel were late. We started to think we won’t make it, they forgot about us and we will have to quarrel to get our money back. Very late nonetheless the bus came.  We picked up many more tourists on our way and made it to catch the long distance bus to Ho Chi Minh City with a change in Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia). i wouldn’t bet but I think it was waiting for us.

Helping out in CambodiaI was very sleepy but tried to stay awake to sightsee and get an impression of the country outside Siem Reap. At the beginning I was failing terribly caught somewhere between sleep and being awake. Finally I pulled myself together and got to know a red haired guy sitting behind me. I think he was from Australia (can’t remember for sure) and had a Cambodian girlfriend. He lived in the country for a while, this not being his first visit here, and absolutely loved it.

We talked about why he is coming back to Cambodia, what he loves most about it, how poor the society is and how it’s all changing. I should have written it all down but there are only few stories that I remember.

One of them is why there is so much plastic and garbage lying around: people in Cambodia are not used to things that do not decompose. For generations they used to throw away things around themselves cos they were organic and would decompose.  Now when the country is flooded with plastic – the habit remains and so does the junk.

Also Cambodians are unfamiliar with power (electric current) and often they don’t know which materials are conductors or that they can harm themselves working with power lines without any securities. Crazy things they do because of ignorance, I suppose there is nobody to teach them. This was actually why my new acquaintance was there in Cambodia.bugs

LeafsI need to stress that foremost his message was that people are friendly and welcoming (especially in the countryside) and how much they need help with the education, sanitation and medicine.

At Phnom Penh we had to change the bus. There was police pageant with shields separating our bus from the next one and from anyone who might try stealing luggage from the hold. We took our backpacks quickly and were escorted to the other bus that would take us further to Ho Chi Minh City.Mniam mniam

to eat or not to eat?Before I describe what happened on the Vietnamese border there is one more thing I would like to describe namely the river crossing. We had to wait – as you can imagine – before getting on the ferry. This is when I saw the famous delights of Cambodian cuisine. Have a look at the pictures! I have to admit I didn’t have enough courage to buy any of them, not because of the disgust but being afraid to ask somebody – I get extremely shy sometimes.

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Introduction to Saigon – moppet ride

Before I continue with my travel from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City this is an introduction to this amazing city which I have a huge sentiment for.

I really don’t know why people are afraid of driving in that crowd. Everyone drives slowly and somehow manages to avoid everyone else 🙂 well… no I didn’t drive a bike in Saigon lol

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Crossing Cambodian border – Bangkok to Hue part 1

Route: London – Bahrain – Bangkok – Siem Reap – Ho Chi Minh City – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue – Da Nang – Ho Chi Minh City – Bangkok – Bahrain – London

Time schedule:  5th November 2009 – 19th November 2009

Participants: 2 P & Me

Route map

Here we are at the Bangkok train station on  6th November 2009 early afternoon. It’s my second time in Bangkok so yesterday – the first day we spent in bangkok, we were able to avoid some of the tourist traps tyros do encounter (more about it in a different post). Nevertheless booking train tickets through the agency seemed easy and very tempting, mainly because we were to arrive in Siem Reap late evening and didn’t fancy walking from one hotel to another in strange city, tired with a heavy backpack. So we bought: train tickets to the On the platformCambodian  boarder, bus ticket to Siem Reap and overnight stay in a guest house; in the agency at the main railway station. Of course we overpaid, but well the journey was supposed to be smooth and comfortable.

We are waiting for the train to arrive, expecting probably something like what you see in the pictures from India. We read in our guide that you need to hurry to get seats as the trains are usually overcrowded.  While we are waiting there is more and more people coming. I don’tInside of the train think we spotted any other tourist among them besides two German guys with backpacks. Finally the train arrives and we are able to get in, interior  looks pretty the same as in some old carriages in Poland, P says it might be even better. When we depart most seats are taken but there is no one standing yet. This is of course going to change along the way, there will be youth traveling from school, farmers with their crops, traders offering coconuts to drink and different kinds of food jumping on and off the train. The journey is fantastic. We can’t take our eyes from the view outside the window. Firstly we observe life around the tracks with so By the tracksmany families using the space for their everyday life. Health and safety in Europe would never allow that. We can barely recognize where the stops are, as there are no platforms or signs. The train just stops and people get in. Then we come across group of graduates who have their pictures taken on the tracks. Is that for good luck IGraduate wonder… then the landscape changes and we come across rice fields, little cottages between palm trees just next to fish ponds, pastures and stations in the middle of nowhere. It’s the kind of sites you can only see while traveling by land transport. I’m so glad we didn’t take the plane.

A person working for agency was going to wait on us at the final stop to take us through the border and lead us to the bus going to Siem Reap. Sounds good. We had no idea what time it was and it really didn’t feel like a long journey. When we arrived everyone suddenly seemed to be in a hurry. We looked around in search of our guides. It was them who found us and insisted on Rice fieldsmoving quickly to a tuk-tuk. For those of you who don’t know what a tuk-tuk is: it’s a  motor vehicle with three wheels used to transport passengers and goods, called sometimes auto rikshaw. There was an American couple who didn’t know where to go. I tried to help and offer them to come along with us but we got separated by our guides who insisted we move along faster. And so we did. There are plenty of tuk tuks for hire so if you travel by yourself, don’t worry you will be able to hire transport. I tried to assess if you could walk instead of hiring wheels and I think is doable. I recentlyCows walked to Dublin Port from O’Connell St in Dublin (so compare it to what you are willing to walk).

Anyway we already had our visas from Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok (tip: if you are taking taxi get the address written in Thain alphabet not Latin), so we only had to fill out immigration cards supplied by our guides. You can get Visa and immigration card on the border. The first one is paid, the second free of charge (in case someone wants to charge you). So this is how it looked like: before the border our guide took us to table under a tent and asked to fill out the cards. We did that and waited for him for a while. He came back with another guy and the four of us approached the border post. Our guide told us he cannot cross the border but the other man will take us across and if we want to take out some money we should do it now, because in Cambodia there are no ATMs and a lot of pickpockets. He kept repeating how dangerous it is and we started to get nervous. It was getting dark by now and plenty of people with all types of bags, cases and carts were crossing the border. We did not know what to believe. We had $ so we didn’t feel it was necessary to take out any money, so we just kept on going. When we got to Thai border a man started to camrecord us, which felt really strange. The thought crossed my mind “is this for ransom purposes???!!!” It was really dark by then. We found ourselves in the stream of people walking in darkness. We could barely catch up with the man who was supposed to take care of us. We walked over a stream smelling of fish and dirt. People were brushing and bumping into us. I was getting more and more aware of the stress I felt… And then there was light. We thought we were already in Cambodia, but this was actually a zone of enormous hotels and casinos with limousines parked outside. Everything was luxurious and glittering, like some other world, Asian Las Vegas type of thing. Now I thought about mob and drug lords, but we just kept on walking until we got to the Cambodian border. You know it’s communist country, so we were treated as all foreigners in communist country, which is something difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Let’s just say people are very unhappy when you disturb their “work” even when this work is supposed to be serving you. Just before approaching the official we met Polish couple traveling to Siem Reap as well. We quickly exchanged experiences and wished them farewell.

When we got to the other side P had to go to the toilet so I stayed with the luggage waiting. The man who crossed the border with us just then told me that the train was late and so the last bus is gone and now we need to pay for a taxi to get to Siem Reap. I got really angry, I said I didn’t care, that we paid for the transport and it’s their problem to provide us with replacement.

He kept on saying: “No buses today”

and I kept saying: “I don’t care I paid!” (believe me I know it wasn’t constructive but I was too tired to care).

So it went until P came back and the couple we met earlier suggested we could share a taxi. Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by taxi drivers, touts, our guide and Polish couple. Everyone wanted to pull us in different direction, shouting and convincing us we should come with him. We couldn’t even talk to each other to decide what we want to do. Next minute an old bus approached us and our guide told us to get in so we can drive away where taxis are cheaper than here. There was another tourist already on the bus reaching his hand towards us.

We looked at the bus, at the guide and decided NO WAY!

So we shared the taxi for $30 (for the whole car). Our guide was really mad that we didn’t do what he wanted. And told us to give back our transit tickets (the ones we got at the agency). We thought “well obviously he needs them, fine let’s get it over with!”.  So we took off happy to be on the way, chatting about our trips and places we’ve seen, when suddenly a police patrol started to flash light at us in the middle of nowhere and our driver did not want to stop… but I will tell you all about it in the next post.

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