Big was my surprise when we were asked to take off our shoes at the doors of the bus. What is this? It is not polite to have our shoes on in the bus anymore? We were given plastic bags to put our shoes in. Once we got in the bus, it started to become clear why the shoes had to be off. It was a sort of sleeping bus. Eery passenger had a reclined seat. The legs could be completely stretch out, halfway into a capsule like construction, the back of the seat could be adjusted. There were 3 rows and 2 decks of seats. It was my first time in such a bus. It felt rather comfortable, spending a night in such a bus might work out well, as the legs can be stretched & the seat reclined.
Few days back the traffic between Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City was horrible. The road that usually takes 3 to 3,5 hours took around 7 hours. We did not have high hopes. But it turned out that the 1st day of Lunar New Year is the best day to travel. The roads were empty. It took as 3 hours sharp to arrive in Ho Chi Minh. The bus station is at the outskirts of the city. We knew there was supposed to be a free transfer shuttle, that would take us closer to the centre. The taxi drivers, that attacked us like piranhas, tried to convince us about the opposites. Fortunately, there were some helpful people who pointed to the other bus, that took us closer to our destination.
We were so happy about the bus trip that we wanted to book the tickets to our next destination immediately. After a bit of search we found the right office of the same bus company and booked our tickets to Da Lat, were we were planing to go in 3 days. Luckily we did not have to pay for the tickets immediately, but let’s no rush things. From the ticket office we took a taxi to the hotel we had reserved. Our hotel was in the centre, very close to the opera house and the promenade decorated for the Tet. We went out to find food and have a glimpse of the evening city.
Once we were installed, Stijn took us to a restaurant that is popular among locals, expats and tourists. Nhà hàng Ngon Is a big place in several floors the kitchen is located around the perimeter of the ground floors halls. When it is not busy, you can easily wonder around to see how different dishes are made and what are the ingredients. The menu is quite extensive, prices are democratic and the service is quite fast, if you consider the amount of guests they are serving every evening. Go early, as later on you might have to queue for a while to get a table, but it still moves rather fast.
We still wanted to have a look at the flower and monkey decorated promenade, but it was too crowded to enjoy it, so we just headed back to our room.The same evening we started to watch “Making a Murderer” on Netflix. The wi-fi was sufficient to stream the series. Seems that we started to miss out back-home routine.
The following day we got out of our hotel very optimistic and ready to conquer the city. We tried to take another look to the New Year’s promenade, decorated with flowers and monkeys in every possible position, but it was still too crowded. After 10 minutes it was enough. In contrary to the promenade, all the other streets of Ho Chi Minh City seemed empty. The benefit of Tet is that everyone flees from the big cities to the local holiday destinations, as Vietnamese can get up to 7 free days in the New Year period. One of the down sides of the big holidays is that many places are closed. Cafes, restaurants and many public institutions reduce their working hours or close down completely. That becomes less interesting, if you are actually trying to see something.
Most people that do stay in the city take some time of, have a nap or play cards on the streets. Tet is the only period in the year where playing cards for real money is allowed publicly in the streets. On large avenues and small alleyways, we noticed many people sitting around low tables. Money in the hand, talking, drinking and hoping to win some money from friends and family. Winning money during a game of cards on Tet is another sign of good luck for the rest of the year. It’s allowed for one day, afterwards, playing for money is illegal again.
Planning the next destination
The other down side was the fact that our next destination Da Lat turned out to be a very popular escape for the locals. Even though booking a bus was not a problem, finding a place to stay was impossible. Besides we wanted to do several day trekking in the area, but the company had taken holidays too. We could not find a place to stay (that wouldn’t cost 300 euros) and our planned activity was not possible. With hesitation we decided to go directly to Nha Trang, that promised some white sand beaches.
We had opted to get there by train, but we had to get train tickets first. Like the main bus station, the train station is also located outside of the centre of Saigon. As we had nothing better to do, we decided to walk the 3 km. It was an early afternoon, hot air, dusty roads and contact lenses in my eyes was not the best combination. My eyes were hurting and burning. Stijn came up with a very creative solution – just close your eyes! Hmmm.. Busy roads, uneven sidewalks. Ok, why not!
In my yoga training in Goa we had an optional task to live 24h with a blind fold on. At the time I did not do the exercise, but here was my chance to do it in a city (we had discussed this option with my yoga mates too). At first it was very scary – the noises suddenly increase, even though my eyes were closed, I could still see the light changing. Sudden shadows were very frustrating. Every little elevation or hole of the road seemed much bigger now. But we managed. Stijn bravely guided me through dozens of crossroads. I had created my own image of the area, that turned out to be quite different once I opened my eyes.
The train ticket reservation systhem in Vietnam is a mix of old and modern. The train schedule is printed on big boards, but to book a ticket you have to take a number that is announced on screens, like in a bank or post office. Are the details are filled in computer and the printed ticket has a QR code and all the timings you need to know.
As there was nothing much to do around the city with everything closed, we concentrated on eating. There were still way too many placed to choose from. We focused on those close by or known by Stijn’s previous visit, like a sushi bar, a french bakery (yes, our bodies were missing some white flower) and some other places (some were closed). I had a craving for soups, so I tried out several.
By now I had cultivated a certain coffee addiction. It was hard to resist the Vietnamese dripping coffee with ice and condensed milk. Sometimes I would just eat the thick, sugary milk with a spoon. Just like I did in childhood. It was never really supported by parents, but we did it anyway. It is the tastiest right out of the fridge. Soon enough I realised that the coffee-sweet milk combination is not really stomach friendly, so I had to reduce the amounts of the consumption.
Out of boredom we also visited a fair that took a place in a park we had chosen for a lazy walk. We paid our tickets and tasted a bit of local atmosphere. Exhibition of bonsai trees, fish tanks with colourful specimens and a collection of wood and stone sculptures were laid out for everyones admiration. Stijn’s eyes were caught by Vietnamese families dress up for holiday promenade in identical outfits.
We paid a courtesy to the famous post office that is an artefact from the French times – colonial and cute, if you ask me. And designed by Gustave Eiffel. Near by we found café “Propaganda”, even though it had limited menu because of the same Tet holidays, we were convinced. So convinced, that we returned there again. Finally I had a chance to try the banana blossom salads (taste is a softer version of fresh cabbage). We also had fresh spring rolls, that we grew to like more and more. Even though the prices are slightly higher (to Vietnamese standards) the place is central, fresh and hip. So hip, that a grandmas’ club had chosen the place for their chit-chat time, how cute is that. By the way, they have a Hagen Daze shop next door, but Propaganda is way better.
Another nice place we went to was slightly more expensive Hoa Tuc – contemporary Vietnamese cuisine. Fine interior (with art nouveau elements), fine service, fine food. The right place were to treat your self.
Looking back at the days in Saigon (thought the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, everyone prefers Saigon) we did not do much, we did not see much. Even the must-see market was closed and the backpackers streets were just sad and empty. I am sure there is more to the city, that can been experienced when the Tet days are gone.