Day 2 continued: on bargaining

Entry to Benh Tranh

Ben Tranh is near the backpacker side of town, so the guidebooks tell me, but hasn’t been appropriated by them and other foreign tourists. By this I mean there are rows of stalls selling clothing, shoes and fake watches where the stallholders will grab you and trap you inside until you buy something. Equally there are food and vegetable sections, populated by locals seeking produce for the day, assuming tourists are not in the market for raw dismembered chickens or take-away living fish. The latter is more of a morning activity, so go in the afternoon if you want to avoid frankly distressing scenes. You cannot avoid the smell, however, especially as the main entrance walks you through this section.

I’d arrived intending to visit the market and buy some new T shirts and shorts. In the morning, I wandered down, and learnt a salutary lesson about stallholders and bargaining. 

I adopt a simple strategy when bargaining, which is to offer a quarter of the price and go up in tiny increments. So, having found some suitably fake shorts and t shirts, which involved much scurrying back and forth by the salesman carrying armfuls of clothes, I entered into negotiations.

“How much ?”

He tapped some figures into his calculator and thrust it under my nose, assuring me it was a good price. Seeing a figure of 1,100,000 VD I did some quick maths, and suggested 200000, slightly under 25%, I know, but surely a good beginning. The man looked at me in amazement for a minute, then gathered up all the shorts and t shirts laid out before me. He said something in Vietnamese which I do not think was complementary, then marched off, never to be seen again. The news about a rogue buyer spread quickly up and down the allies, and no-one offered to sell me anything. Lesson learnt: you can’ start too low here. Feeling suitably chastened, I slunk off back to the hotel and reflected. The clothes I had seen were of decent quality, not the acrylic garments that sometimes get foisted on you, so a price of 500,000 plus perhaps a little more was fair After all, that equated to roughly 15 euros, which really was not much.

In fact, I learned subsequently that prices for clothes at least are now fixed in Benh Tranh, which explains the somewhat cool reception I received.

I went back early next day, and bought shorts and a t shirt for 300000vnd. The t shirt is fine, but the shorts definitely are not cotton and not particularly well made either. I was intending to go back to the original stall, swallow pride and apologise for my rudeness, but, in the labyrith that is Ben Tranh, couldn’t find it.

Day 6: The best laid plans

Day dawned bright and sunny, a perfect one for motoring down the coast at leisure, perhaps going for a dip, perhaps stopping for a beer. Stopping also, albeit straying slightly off the tourist agenda, at the dog farm. Not my terms but the local one, and the place to go and see Phu Quoc’s extremely rare dogs, the Phu Quoc Ridgeback.

I did know of the breed, but hadn’t made the connection with the island where I was currently staying. The first, and nearly all subsequent, dogs I saw had the trademark ridge.  As a Thai Ridgeback owner there was no decision, a visit was compulsory. So, I grabbed a map, got directions from reception and hired a motorbike, one of the 125cc machines you see throughout SE Asia and Paris.  I started her up, and headed down the narrow lane leading to the main road.

A word about the bike. Something had told me it was sure to be the case, but my machine stood out forlornly in a crowd of sparkling new ones. It had clearly seen better days, days, for example, when it had been cleaned, but now it bore the encrustations and scratches of unloved hire machines, and the kilometrage to prove it. The speedometer didn’t work, and the ignition looked like it had been hacked by many a locksmith. The lady at reception had advised not exceeding 60kph, but, looking at the bike, I doubted whether this was an option. Pausing only to fill the tank at the petrol station opposite, I set off..

I had gone maybe 200 metres when it began to rain, that sudden rain that turns the sky from clouds to torrents of water. It was the fag end of the monsoon, so I headed to the shelter an awning a couple metres away to wait for the end of the downpour.  An hour later, I was still there reflecting on whether it would have been a good idea to check the weather forecast before investing 150000 dong in the moto. Happily the rain began to lighten, to the point when I’d get wet going back to the hotel, but not soaked.  I drove gingerly back through the raging torrent that had been the road to the hotel and lunch.

I found the dog sanctuary, as it was styled, that afternoon, but not before a couple of false starts. There is a sign, but I only noticed it on the second time around. That was fortunate, because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered the waterfall and so missed out on one of the most bizarre spots I’ve ever visited. The pictures tell the story, so I’ll let them do just that.

I’m not sure what to make of the dog sanctuary. The people there seemed nice enough, though they knew only a handful of English. There were signs of the dog zoo type thing, with a coffee house/refreshment centre, but it didn’t have the air of  much frequentation. The dogs are kept in large enclosures, and, at least when I was there, a couple of staff were playing with the puppies.  The puppies could be bought, although it was up to the buyer to organise all the shots and paperwork, not to mention, in the case of the EU, a 3 month stay in Vietnam before the dogs would be eligible to travel. Lovely dog, the ridgeback.  

There’s still a “but” nagging away at the back of my mind, regarding the sanctuary.

 

 

Ho Chi Min City Day 2

Ho Chi Min City museum

I’d visited most of the museums mentioned in the gude books before, so in the morning I ventured out to one Liz and I had missed on the previous trip, the city museum. It is housed in the buiding originally constructed by the French for the governor of Cochinchina, and later became the albeit temporary residence of Diem. He built a series of underground

rooms to protect himself from any bombing, but it didn’t protect him from his own compatriots who dragged him from there during the 1962 coup. They smell of must and dark days: it is difficult to feel sorry for Diem ending the days of power even in these miserable rooms. He was not the kindest of US-supported politicians.

As with many museums, the gardens have planes and tanks dating from the Vietnam war scattered throughout. They are in better condition than some of the others, but do show the effects of 50 years hors entretien. The museum itself is small and curiously intimate, since the crowds don’t seem to want to go there. It tells the history of Saigon-Cholon through its Saigon incarnation to the name it now has. I found it quite fascinating, partly because I’d been studying Vietnam’s history, partly because the building itself is worth visiting in its own right, and partly because I chose not to visit one of its neighbours, the truly moving War Remnants Museum,  which tends to eclipse all others.

A small caveat: much of the information about the exhibits were not translated into English, including those from the French period, so it would be quite understandable if visitors left feeling slightly cheated, especially as the entrance plus photo fee comes to a healthy 35000vnd, nearly 1,50 euros. Happily I can read French, plus recognised much from my interest in the country’s history. I found it fascinating, but can understand why many would not.

The back of the museum was closed when I was there, presumably awaiting restoration. The gardens had that air of unmanicured nature  that comes from years of neglect. This being the tropics, it may only have been months, but there was a curious peace in its return.

The museum has become one of the backdrops for wedding photos, as has happened to many of the historically interesting places in the country. Well, I say it is the building, but it just might be the cars, of which there is a small collection within the building itself. Citroens are the vehicles of choice.

A walk in the park

I wandered back via the Reunification Palace, which was shut, it being lunchtime, and the garden behind where visiting American dignitories would jog or play tennis, and which is now a pleasant landscaped park where HCM residents go out and play.

The feeling I’d had  the day before regarding HCM city began to grow. My memory had been of the endless stream of motos suffocating both roads and pavements, and of dingy eating places where one would be lucky to escape food poisoning.  Now, it seemed a lot more pleasant, with an endless stream of fascinating buildings, parks, and, for the humble tourist, sites. For the first time in months – mine is a frenetic job, a freneticism which I carry with me on my holidays – I sat down, relaxed and began to enjoy the snapshots of everyday life playing out out in front of me.

There were the kids playing badminton, the retirees exercising on the nordic walking machines, the college students doing their 100 metre sprints, and, perhaps a trifle bizarrely, an American girl (at least, I assume she was, Americans tend to do these sorts of thing without the embarrassment the rest of the world feels) exercising with hula hoops. Perhaps as a reminder of Vietnam’s legacy, there was a one-legged man spinning round a pole, stopping, hurling the pole high in the air and repeating the exercise.

Just down from that, in complete contrast to the other street food placers which abound in HCM, I found this modern, sanitised equivalent. The food all looked fine, and the hygien seemed irreproachablr, but somehow the atmosphere was missing. In reaction I ate in a dingy open restaurant a few doors down which was teeming with the lunchtime brigade eating off plates that had seen better days.

HCM is a fascinating city, and an oddly liveable one, too. 

Ho Chi Minh City – day 1

Somewhat bleary, I left the terminal and was pointed in the direction of the bus that would take me to Ben Thanh market, not far from my hotel. The bus did indeed stop outside the market, on a side I’d never been before, with a confusing set of roadworks designed to confuse the average jetagged passenger.

Having stayed in the area before, I was relying on memory to take me to my hotel, but, as I headed into the market, I did begin to wonder which of the four exits to take. At 7 am most of the market was either shut or half asleep, and all the streets outside, comprising mostly, it seemed, of self-appointed official travel agents, looked remarkably similar. I circumnavigated the market until I found a likely street, likely in the sense it rose slightly, and I had a vague memory of an incline. So, I walked up to the next intersection and took stock. The hotel was close to an intersection entirely populated by Japanese restaurants of varying quality, the question was which way to turn. Either way was populated with closed shops and open food stalls where early risers were having their morning pho or bahn mie, it was a toss of the coin. However, Australian swimwear came to the rescue. Across the road and to the left was a Speedo shop, and, for reasons unknown, I recognised it. Two minutes later I was at the Lavender Boutique Hotel, where they kindly offered to give me a room in an hour, so I left my bags, and headed out for a coffee and a mobile phone.

I can’t honestly claim to having done anything useful that day, other than argue pointlessly with the patient man at the mobile phone shop over the package he was offering which seemed highly expensive to my sleep-deprived mind. It was only when it dawned on me that a) all he was saying was that I had to buy the card then charge it with credit, and b) the price was ludicrously cheap since we were talking in vietnamese dong. I apologised profusely, and we parted on good terms. I was also to apologise profusely to the waitress at the coffee shop over my lack of patience over the cold coffee, and to various people I managed to bump into on the street. My body was still adjusted to turbulence, which we’d had for a couple of hours before landing, so my balance wasn’t good, at least, that was my excuse. How the endless stream of motos avoided me says a lot for the skill of their drivers. Mind you, whether they should have been on the pavement at all is a moot point, but, in HCM, anything goes.

Yet, at the end of a long day, I began to realise HCM city  was faintly tolerable. Something about the sprawl, the noise, the playing dare with the motos was no longer as wearisome as it had been before.

How I got there

Pre-departure hassles

I left the day before the flight, overnighting in Paris, which is never hard to do.

The plan was to leave the car with a friend, who would take me from his house to the station, some 5km down the road. That part went fine, my error was in asking to see the property, a converted railway station. My friend opened the gate. His dog, a hefty Australian shepherd, saw me, growled once, thought “Lunch!”and launched itself at me, attaching itself to my arm until our combined shouting animal caused it to let go, and, perhaps aware of the likely and imminent rushed into the house followed by an irate owner. I was none the worse for the incident, being saved by a thick jacket, but, judging by the brief discussion I overheard followed by a lou thwack, then an ominous silence, the dog was less fortunate.

When my friend emerged,  nursing his hand and apologising profusely, we continued on our way.  He was worried, as it can be the case, he said dolefully, a dog that has attacked once may do it again. I suggested obedience training, a little shamefacedly as the world knows I let my own dog run riot. He agreed agreed, then his mood darkened. ‘Yes but your dog loves the world. Mine isn’t so sure.” He fell into a dark unhappy silence

There was nothing I could add, and was relieved when the station appeared.

The second mistake, or so it appeared, was the Hotel des Belges. It is within a handful of metres from Gare du Nord, so google told me, sandwiched in between an upmarket Chinese restaurant and a smart Accord hotel. Given the price, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I was unprepared for a shabby bar nurturing years of neglect from which hung a sign saying Hotel followed by a hand-drawn arrow. I entered the. The one customer was talking with a lady who looked like she had been serving since the dawn of time itself. I looked at the surroundings, briefly cursed Agoda and its clients for giving this place such positive reviews, and acknowledged the second mistake of the day. Only it wasn’t.

The Hotel bar was in the classic polished wood floor and furnishings of Paris the early 1950s, complete with red rugs and stair carpets. It did not look as though the 21st century had touched it. The lady gave me a form to complete, then gave the price. I’d assumed it would be in cash, given the surroundings, but she unearthed a wifi enabled card machine and handed it over. She gave me a brief but strict lecture about a 1 am curfew, which I assured me would not be a problem, then pointed me to a door. Inevitably there was no lift so I followed the threadbare carpet up three flights to my room. It was small, old, but immaculately clean. The toilet, or rather the cistern, was antique: a cylinder with a faucet below that, when turned (and it needed some strength) blasted out water with the flow rate of a firefighters hose. That was the thing about the hotel, it was old, but everything worked. Nothing was dirty, just faded, a little like me, really.

Getting there

The next day I left early for the airport, an uncomfortable journey on the RER during peak hour. CDG was its overworked self, but I was pleased to see my online checkin worked which avoided one of the queues. Once you’ve been through passport control and had your baggage searched there really isn’t a lot to do, but I managed to while away the time until the flight was called.

There are a couple of things with Air France that impress me. Their safety announcement has to be one of the best, featuring as it does 6 girls in long dresses performing mime/dance while an attractive hostess floated in every now and again to do the serious bit. Then there is the in flight magazine, which has to be the biggest I’ve read, coming in at well over 200 pages if you include the duty free section at the end. Mostly, though, it was the Heidiseck champagne they dished out which impressed me.

For once, the vegetarian meal, which airlines in my experience usually look like a congealed grey mass on rice despite the optimistic name given, a chick pea couscous, was spot on. The only downside what comes part and parcel with special meals, in that you get served first, then are stranded in your seat, tray down, until the everything else is served, consumes, and taken away. On this flight matters were exacerbated by a passenger falling sick just after I had been served but before everyone else, which suspended all meal operations. As a side note, this was the first time I heard the classic announcement beloved of movies, the one asking if there was a doctor on board. Hard not to fear the worst in these cases, but a genial-looking chap appeared, and within not too much time the patient was back in his seat enjoying a hearty meal.

Anyway, 11 hours after take-off, we landed in a grey and damp Ho Chi Minh city.  Having only hand luggage and pre-equipped with a visa, ten minutes after disembarkment I was standing outside the terminal, looking for the bus.

Itineraries and getting around

For me travel is about arriving, getting over the jet lag, then starting an itinerary which is only usually organised for the next few days. Afterwards comes the hard part, playing the next part of the by ear.

With that in mind, I sat down at my computer, opened calendar and agoda.com, and started. A given is two days in Ho Chi Minh City, partly to get over the time difference and partly to buy things like shoes, clothes etc from Ben Thanh market. There also happens to be some good Japanese restaurants close to the market and hotel I’ve booked.

I’ve been to the market before, a crowded, jostling place where fake Hugo Boss, Rolexes, Mont Blancs and the fabled Adidas copies abound. Sometimes the spelling is,’t quite as in the original, but, having bought a genuine Ralph Lauren shirt in France and a fake one, I’m blowed if I know which is which. It is a great experience, but be warned: never accept the invitation to go to the back of a clothes store to try anything on. I got out alive, but only through a combination of my nieces distracting tactics and sheer physical strength. 

 

 

Pre departure research

Well, not really. Business took me to Paris in search of asian supermarkets, which I located in the 13th arrondissement. So, I booked a hotel there, made a list and motored up. 

The 13th is an area I’ve motored through, but only to get on or off the autoroute. You live and learn. Had I turned into  one  one of the roads parallel with ave d’italia I would have found myself in little Saigon. Not only that, but the fabled Vietnamese baguettes are readily available.

The only thing missing was the incessant buzz of 125cc scooters and motorbikes as they powered pass you, more often as not on the pavement as well as the road. That was something I never got used to, but hopefully this trip, as most of it will be far from capital cities, should be free of this. I have read somewhere that the Vietnamese government is taking action against those little motos. Prosecuting all those who drive on the pavements, weaving between hapless pedestrians, would be a good starting point.

 

How to plan a trip in the 21st Century

If I take my mind back to the 20th century when a callow youth with two friends boarded the 747 for SE Asia, planning a trip was fairly simple. You bought the cheapest ticket available, grabbed the relevant Lonely Planet guide, and that was it. Advanced travelers read the guide on the flight, others, such as my own small party, were seduced by the phenomenon of free drinks, and arrived, in our case in Kuala Lumpur, with acute headaches and no clear idea where to stay. We were easy targets for the avaricious taxi drivers of whom Lonely Planet repeatedly warned.

Holidays, once started, were easy. You read the guide, looked at the maps, found a train or bus to whatever spot seemed attractive, and off you went. On arrival, you went to the recommended hotel, booked a room, then headed out to eat and explore, usually in that order. Of course, the reality was different. The recommended hotel was fully booked with other Lonely Planet wielding backpackers, as were all the others in descending order of recommendation, ending up in a sleazy but cheap hotel recommended in the guide which the writer had surely never visited. Restaurants or food stalls were easier, in that there was no need to look at the book, since all the places in it were thronging with western backpackers. 

That was then, but the internet changed all that. More precisely, internet booking agencies, TripAdvisor and AirBNB changed all that. Not only has booking online become almost compulsory, since apparently everything from the luxury resort to the humblest of homestays can be booked, but nearly everything is rated by travelers from all over the world so you can know exactly what to expect. The same goes for buses, aircraft and trains. This, to my mind anyway, removes a little of the glorious anticipation that is a holiday, but times change. I’m reasonably sceptical about ratings in general, but there’s no denying the information available can save a morning in the tropical heat traipsing around trying to find a half-decent place to stay. The travel information is a major plus, too, as there’s little worse than finding you have to stay another night in some god-forsaken hole because there was no afternoon train any more. Sites like www.seat61.com are worth their weight in gold. 

 It was with these thoughts that I sat down and commenced planning. Being a little old-fashioned, I’d also bought a real map, plus had some knowledge of Vietnam since I’d already been to the twin capitals. In other words, I had more than a vague idea of what I wanted to do: the train trip up the coast, Son My, Ha Long bay and the Cham ruins. Needless to say, the moment I sat down at the computer, the internet struck . An idea in the back of my mind said that a rare breed of dog, one with a ridge on the back, came from Vietnam, so I googled it. Indeed, there was such a breed originating in an island near the Cambodian border. Intrigued, I googled the island, which is why the first step of the trip now starts in the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc. In many ways the spontaneity of travel has transferred to the internet.

How to obtain a visa

Visa on Arrival

This is simple for many would-be visitors, because there is now a visa on arrival scheme in place which allows you to stay for 15 days providing you have a passport issued by one of the countries listed on your local Vietnamese Embassy website. You no longer need to apply for a visa beforehand, just get on the flight.

However, if you’re not from one of those countries or want to stay for more than 15 days, you do need to apply for a visa. Sadly, though mine is covered by the visa on arrival scheme, I’d forgotten about the limit and booked a non-refundable ticket for 21 days. 

Visa for longer stays 

You can apply online for these now, and, providing you provide the requisite information and a return envelope, the embassy will send your passport back after a couple of weeks processing. 

My local embassy happened to be in Paris, so I took time out of a trip there to deposit my passport, forms, photos and money . There was a handful of people in front of the passport counter who looked as though they had been there some time, but the visa counter was empty, and served straight away.

The charming official checked my application form, promised to complete the bits I’d left out, carefully cut the photos to the right size, and gave me the correct La Poste certified mail form for the return of the passport. No knowledge of price, I’d need to see the cashier at counter 2 about that. The cashier, perhaps a touch less charming – and who could blame her, cashiers are not the most well-loved people in France, kept things to a minimum. “85 euros” was her sole effort at conversation. She took the money, stamped several forms, and gave me an anonymous receipt. 

On price, I think 80€ was for the visa and 5€ for the return mail. I’ve since heard that a multiple-entry one-month visa costs 110€.

Update

I’ll post my passport in next time around, now I know the procedure.

Lady of the hats

Chanced upon this near one of the markets in Hanoi. There’s something about the juxtaposition of old and new, tourists and citizens, bicycles and scooters that appeal to me, but above all it’s the expression on the lady’s face that holds my attention anyway. It’s one of patience, almost of world-weariness, but at the same time  not one of resignation.

I took the photo because the stream of conical hats in the middle of anonymous traffic.