Tales from Saigon Pt. 4

Boarded the tour bus so early in the morning to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tour bus was at full capacity and off we were to the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnel is a vast network of underground tunnels and bunkers for guerrilla troops during the Vietnam War. We stopped once along the way for a rest stop as well as to tour a local arts factory. The art is made of intricately designed inlays of duck egg shells, egg shell powder and mother-of-pearl on dark wood. The art is truly a sight to behold, as well as the manufacturing process itself. The craftpeople are actually handicapped victims of the war due to Agent Orange chemical attacks. The art sort of gives them a sense of purpose, inclusivity as well as a source of income. The gallery was filled with beautiful plaques, murals and other miscellaneous furniture with the same inlay methods, but they were also fucking expensive. But hey, tedious workmanship and beautiful products come at a hefty price.

We arrived at the tunnels, set rather in the middle of nowhere, and our tour guide Mr Liem arranged for our tickets for us. The tour inclusive of entry tickets cost 250,000VND. (approx RM50) We got to see the bomb craters and hiding spots of the VC (VietCom guerrillas) and how they defended themselves against enemies with modern weaponry. The tunnels span across a total length of 250 kilometres consisting of narrow crawlspaces and dark canals. I got to crawl inside one of the tunnels, for roughly two minutes, which was basically hell because it was so dark and cramp and I had to squat in an uncomfortable position to make my way forward. Exiting exhausted, I couldn’t fathom how people could stay underground for days and months and years. The Vietnamese were really resilient people during the war. I also got to fire an M16 (which was really expensive tbh), nothing new to me there because I’ve shot more bullets with the same rifle during my time in national service. All in all, the tour was insightful and terrifying at the same time. Gruesome spiked booby traps, smoking the enemies in the tunnels, bombs and gunshot sounds, all added up to a simulated tour of the war. The tunnels are dug very narrow as the Americans are big and could not fit in most of them.

After watching a film about the war and how the villagers in the Cu Chi area survived and killed off their invaders, we left for Saigon again. Hungry and tired, it was time for lunch.

Finally, I got to eat at a buffet restaurant. Ruben and I ate at Seoul Garden together whilst our parents ate somewhere else. Buffets are deemed a waste of food considering their appetites. It seems that age has whetted our appetites too. The food at Seoul Garden in Vincom Centre was good. Much much better than the shitty meat they serve in Seoul Garden Malaysia, though it is pricier than back home. The meal was good as we stuffed ourselves with quality grilled meats and other food.

More shopping at Saigon Square and the street selling sportswear. I am rather bummed that I could not find decent phone cases here. But then again, these kind of things they sell way overpriced. Roughly RM35 for an ordinary but nice case for the S7 Edge is just too much when I can get some for 3 times less online. Ventured into a little street photography, which yielded some good shots but I think would be better with a wider/shorter lens.

Made our way back to the hotel. Tired bodies and exhausted minds, we had to stop by Highlands Coffee again for a refreshment and some rest. Lime ice blended drink was good and the coffee was strong as usual. Transferred and reviewed my photographs as we sat at a cosy corner for roughly an hour.

I went for a short swim at the rooftop pool of our hotel. the view was quite nice and the atmosphere quiet. There is a poolside bar but the drinks they serve there are twice the price of that I found in De Salita.

Early turn in for the night, it seems. We may go out for some food but probably staying in. Flying back to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow afternoon, wondering how to fit our stuff back into our bags. All in all, this has been quite a good trip and I am very much looking forward to the next trip wherever it may be (fingers crossed: Bangkok, Thailand).


Tales from Saigon Pt. 3

Today I woke up later than before because today is a free and easy day. Ruben wasn’t feeling too well so he remained in the room while the parents and I went on a walking tour. We visited the War Remnant Museum at around 10AM (the morning session closes at 12 noon). The museum was really eye-opening and spine-chilling at the same time. I got to see and learn about the lives of the locals during the war period (1955-1975). The Vietnam War is one of the most infamous and historical wars of the region and the world. So many people killed, so many wounded, so many missing. I could only imagine the anguish and devastation of the people during then. I was interested in the use of Agent Orange (a chemical toxin: Dioxin compounds) by the US Forces. Dioxin is one of the deadliest poisons in the world. Fact: 85 grammes (or mg, not too sure) is enough to wipe out an entire population of 8 million. The after effects of the toxin were carried forwards from generation to generation, until today. When I read the stories on the walls, the air grew cold. Tales of decapitation, disembowlment, opening fire, were all too terrifying.

We walked along the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The sea of motorcycles was really endless, that I could not help but be amazed at every traffic light, every traffic junction. To get across you have to tread with faith. If you want to wait for traffic to slow down or stop, you’ll probably never get anywhere. We came across an upmarket commercial area with an event square and several luxury brands and hotels. Reminiscent of Bukit Bintang, I suppose. There is this mall called Vincom Centre that has many many familiar shops that it almost felt like home. The lowest floor of the building is a foodie’s paradise. Half of all the restaurants there are BBQ/hotpot buffets, the thought of the food left me salivating like crazy. Unfortunately for me, I knew that I would not get the chance to try out. Had Carl’s Jr instead, something familiar. NOTE: FOOD IN VIETNAM IS SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE AND SO MUCH MORE LAME THAN MALAYSIAN FOOD. MALAYSIA BOLEH! We made our way back to the hotel after that. It rained all of a sudden so we were forced to take shelter and buy cheap (one-use) raincoats to prevent our purchases from getting drenched.

We went out again, this time with Ruben. Time for some shopping! Back to the dreaded Saigon Square. At least this trip was more fruitful than the last. I noticed there were a few iPhone cases that were drop dead gorgeous (at least by my tastes) but they didn’t have any nice ones for the S7 Edge. I guess that’s what I should have expected switching to Galaxy. I selected and purchased a couple of imitation UnderArmour items as well as a pair of ‘Yeezys’ from a shop nearby. Dad is definitely the best and most persistent haggler in the family and I’m probably the most complacent.

Time for food. Walked a whole lot until we ended up back at Vincom Centre and had a rather unfulfilling dinner at this “Hong Kong” restaurant. Still rather bummed that I couldn’t get to eat at one of the buffet outlets, although it was for the best as they were rather pricey and the family wouldn’t really make it worth it.

Walked around the area, explored the high-end square and the “atas” buildings. The Opera house, Bitexco Tower, and other fancy hotels in the area. And the area was packed, there were people everywhere. I still find the locals very rude and uncouth. If you think Malaysians are the worst, you’re wrong. If you think the traffic system in KL is the worst, you’re dead wrong. Motorcycles go in all directions at all times, even riding up on the pedestrian sidewalk. By the end of the night, we were all dead tired from all the walking.

Had a second dinner at De Salita again. This time we ordered the more substantial combo as it was the four of us. The food is actually rather good. The best I have tasted on this trip so far and it’s not even local food. Vietnamese cuisine is pretty bland and meh. No match for our own food.

Right now as of typing, I just took a long warm bath in the bathtub. Soaking myself in a tub of [bath]salted water is so relaxing. Also thank you Samsung for creating the S7 Edge, which is my trusty bath time companion, IP68 rating ftw! I just had another tiny jar of Silky Pudding, which tasted and feels amazing on the tongue (the matcha one was better, I still have another jar in the minibar) and am sipping on a mug of warm honey water. Nights!

– Still rather impressed with the capabilities of the Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm f1.8 lens, although it being not as versatile as a walkaround lens due to its long focal length at 90mm FF equivalent. But then again, I have a more than capable smartphone camera on the S7 Edge, photos are coming out pretty nice and I have posted over 20 on Instagram already.
– I think I could do better with my photography, because at the end of the day I realise I didn’t actually take that many photos. Also I’m still new at the whole manual thing, so I leave the camera in Auto most of the time in daylight as it’s too mindboggling for me to expose on the fly.

Tales from Saigon Pt. 2

I hear the sound of the telephone ringing in my sleep. Must’ve been the reception giving us our requested morning call. Ate overnight subs from Subway; Mind you the Subway here is so bad compared to the ones back home. Perhaps we Malaysians are really spoiled with the choice and flavour in our homeland. Most of the food here tasted too bland for my liking. That’s not to say it’s all bad, we found some good food today (details below).

Boarded the tour bus. We’re going to tour the Mekong river delta, approx. two and a half hours away from the city centre. Pha (the tour guide) was a very affable and gregarious character. Always cracking jokes at every chance he gets. He asked us to call him Phar-away (Pronounced: Far away) which was quite amusing. He spoke with a very thick Vietnamese accent but his English was quite proficient. I had no trouble understanding everything he said.

9.30AM (or so)
We arrived at the Mekong harbour and climbed aboard one of the motorised tour boats. The Mekong river is one of the longest and largest rivers in Asia, originating from the Himalayas in Tibet and snaking through the lust greenery of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Faraway said that the Viets nicknamed the river as the River of 9 Dragons as the dragon is a sign of nobility and royalty in historic Vietnam and the river branches out into nine smaller “dragons”

Throughout the very interesting tour, we got to see merchants going out their daily routines on the floating markets. We patronised one of the fruit boats filled with durian, coconuts, jackfruit, rambutan, etc. After snapping a few pictures at the very novel shop, we left it for our next destination munching on sweet local fruits and sipping on fresh coconut water. Our next stop was a local factory of sorts producing rice puff crackers and delicious coconut candy akin to a tougher version of dodol. There was also a bee farm and we sampled tea with the honey and pollen they produce. ONE INTERESTING BIT WAS WHEN I TRIED THE SNAKE WINE. Snake wine has a very intimidating appearance, what with a bunch of coiled snaked soaked in an intense alcohol for God knows how long, some even include a little black scorpion. Talk about freaky eh? It tasted rather nice, when a very strong note of ginseng and was smooth when taken as shots.

Lunch was a mellow affair with a simple rice dish with grilled pork. Nothing spectacular and quite tasteless. The family and I then relaxed for about an hour or so in the hammock area. The hammocks were shaded under tall banana trees. It occurred to me that the life in countryside Vietnam is so laid back and slow paced, that every other store we saw along the road was a coffee shop cum hammock spot. Lepak culture is even more prominent here than back home. The last thing we did on the Mekong Delta tour was sitting in a sampan (gondola) manned, or shall I say, wommaned by ladies wearing long traditional gowns. The boat ride took around half an hour as we snaked through a small canal flanked with small wooden houses. I wondered how the locals handled the mosquito situation here.

Arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City and scoured the streets for some food. We ended up having a meal at this 24Pho restaurant. They told us it was actually a franchised outlet and that there are a few other branches throughout Saigon. The food was surprisingly good and much much tastier than the ones we had in Ben Tanh Market yesterday.

Shopping at Saigon Square. Basically a warehouse wholesale complex with lots of imitation goods. At first I was rather irritated by how rude the people there are. The lack of manners was evident as the Vietnamese folk pushed here and there to get past me without so much of an acknowledgment. Not to mention the environment there was not considered conducive to shop for me. (Please disregard this, I am not a shopper). But in the end I conceded and bought a few things, including a very beautiful travel duffel bag that cost (a discounted price of) 700k VND (approx RM130).

Stopped by a Highlands Coffee outlet for a drink and sandwich. Was recommended to try the banh mi that Highlands serves. Much to our surprise, the food and drinks at the rather upscale looking cafe was very cheap. A decent sandwich+coffee pairing was not even RM9. Walked back to the hotel and noted down the familiar eateries around, e.g. McD, Texas Chicken, Starbucks etc.

Tales from Saigon Pt. 1

30 June 2016

A familiar ringing sound floated through the air. I force my eyes to open and immediately jumped up in anticipation of what’s to come. Today is the day we leave for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for our family vacation. It has been awhile since we last had a trip together. I can’t discern if it was Ipoh/Pangkor, Singapore or Penang but either one was at least five years ago. I got on with my morning ablutions and checked my bags again; Didn’t want to forget anything important. The airport taxi should be arriving soon.

Mr Norihan had been waiting for us to get ready and leave the house. He had come early as he wanted to beat the traffic from where he lives. Rihan was quite a talkative person, as well as being very compliant. Always ending his sentences with “Sir.” At first I wondered why, but he then revealed that he was in the army for 23 years. Twenty three years! No wonder he has the protocol programmed in his ways. Rihan dropped us off at the airport shortly after.

Breakfast at Burger King was even less than disappointing. Overpriced airport food and the lack of quality choices. Either way, we had that and proceeded to the Departure hall.

We entered the International Departure hall. The Immigration screening was rather simple and self-serviced, at least for Malaysians. I was so fascinated by how the things work. Automated e-Passport detection and biometric verification. X-rays to observe luggage contents. Everything was so new to me. An entirely new experience. Mind you, this is my first time travelling abroad (Singapore doesn’t count because lol) and the second time I’ve been on a plane. So the wait to boarding began. Our flight was delayed by approx. 20 mins.

The boarding gates had finally opened as the plane is ready. The Airbus was rather snug (read: Cramp) but it’ll do. You get what you paid for, I suppose. Being on a plane was so exhilarating, especially when it’s preparing for take off. As the plane sped down the runway, the cabin crew demonstrated the safety actions. I was intrigued by how they were all moving synchronously. As the plane took off, my heart was racing, as was my mind. All I could think of, between marvelling at the vast greenery of Sepang, was how amazing humans are. To think that we as terrestrial creatures have devised a way to take to the skies with such mass and velocity. What a miracle it might have seems to the Wright brothers so long ago. The clouds were so beautiful and looked like puffs of cotton candy filling a bright blue sky. I shut the window as it was too bright and closed my eyes.

1.20PM (GMT+7)
Vietnam is one hour behind Malaysian time (GMT+8). We arrived there safe and made our way off the plane. Malaysians will always be Malaysians, I thought as the other passengers squeezed through and fought their ways to the front. We purchased data SIM cards (100,000 VND* for 5GB of data! Fucking incredible!) And took a cab to the hotel. The feeling of sitting in a left-side driven car on right-sided roads was entirely strange.

*Our rate of conversion at the time MYR:VND was RM186 to 1,000,000VND

Sofitel Saigon Plaza. That’s the hotel we’d be staying in for the next four nights. I was very much surprised that we would be staying in such an upmarket five-star establishment. The lobby oozed grandeur as the doormen helped us with our bags. The room was big and spacious with a huge bed (but not enough to fit four grown adults, of course)

We took a shuttle bus, courtesy of the hotel, to Ben Tanh Market. The market is supposed the equivalent of KL’s Central Market. In the sense of it being a tourist attraction with people desperately trying to get you to buy their trash. Nothing was particularly attractive to me as I do not care for ethnic souvenirs and the like. At least I took pretty photos** (haha) We also tried some “authentic” Vietnamese food such as grilled pork rice, Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette), Pho Bo (noodles in beef broth), a duck broth noodle and fresh (raw) summer/spring rolls. None of them were extraordinarily amazing, but I think that’s because I have eaten hawker food for almost half my life so eating this didn’t strike a sense of novelty. I can imagine white tourists, or people who hardly ever ate out, going nuts over the “intense flavours” that just make them go “mmmmmmhhhh so good” (a la travel vloggers). The motorcycles. THE MOTORCYCLES! They were EVERYWHERE! And not just that, they were also ruthless and just went along with their heart wherever they wanted to go. It was quite scary, and at the same time impressive. Walked all the way back to the hotel from there after having a drink at a corner lot cafe, quite good actually. Rest.

**Photos to come later.

Mom and I went on a little food hunt, to much dismay as we did not find much food. Other than a dozen Japanese outlets, we finally settled on a Grill and BBQ restaurant called De Salita which had a pretty good meat combo of pork and chicken and a rather strong yet affordable Gin&Tonic. In my simple terms, dinner was a success.

Walked with Ruben to a convenience store to buy things. Turned in for the night. Long day ahead tomorrow with a visit to the Mekong delta as well as some other outdoorsy activities. Pen off.