Friday, November 7, 2014

Last Stops in Vietnam - Nha Trang and Saigon

My last stops in Vietnam, Nha Trang and Saigon (also called Ho Chi Minh City) were stark contrasts to each other - Nha Trang, a beach town known for attracting hoardes of Russian tourists, and Saigon, a bustling city that's the center of southern Vietnamese culture.  

Nha Trang

Arriving into Nha Trang in the early morning hours after a long overnight bus ride from Hoi An, I had a few hours until my hostel would allow me to check in.  During that time I set off to find a dive shop, booking a trip with Rainbow Divers for the following day.  Once I was able to check in, I threw on a bathing suit and set out to find lunch, picking up a bowl of Pho at a beachside cafe, then settling in on a cushy chair on the beach.  As relaxing as it was, it wasn't exactly calm and peaceful and quiet - some kids were having a soccer match on the sand not too far away, complete with announcers and music over loudspeakers, and I was surrounded by Russian vacationers in too-small speedos chatting away loudly.  I finally dusted myself off and returned to the hostel, venturing out later to find a cafe to do some work.  

The cafes and restaurants definitely cater to the Russian tourists, and half the menus were in Cyrillic and included typical Russian dishes!  I spotted one with a Caesar salad, and suddenly craving one, sat down for an early dinner.  Unfortunately, the only thing my salad had in common with a Caesar was the lettuce.  I actually wound up having a long chat with one of the waiters, in which I had to explain that a Caesar salad is an actual thing with a specific set of ingredients… it seemed to boggle his mind that anything other than oil and vinegar or soy sauce could be used as "dressing" for such a thing.  

I had quickly decided that Nha Trang was not for me, so I hoped to catch the night bus straight to Saigon after my dive trip the following day.  I sent a few emails to my travel agency in Hanoi where I had booked the open-ended bus ticket, but through a series of misses I never quite got a confirmation from them.  The next morning I made a panicked phone call to the bus office to beg them to reserve me a seat, knowing there was no way I could make it up there to make the reservation in person before my dives.  Hoping it all went through successfully, I grabbed my bag and headed to Rainbow Divers.

I was a little disappointed to discover I would only be able to do two dives, rather than the three I had signed up for, but at the end of the day, two was just fine.  The boat was pretty nice, and after pulling out of the harbor and passing under a long gondola structure, we made our way slowly out to our first dive spot, called Madonna Rock.  The sky was overcast and the breeze slightly chilly, as we got to know our fellow divers - I was paired up with a Spanish girl and a Danish couple, all diving with a Vietnamese guide.  

The visibility on our first dive was wonderful - incredibly colorful, gorgeous corals came into view almost immediately.  And thanks to the size of the site and the different levels of the divers, we hardly saw anyone else.  The current, however, was fairly strong, and maintaining neutral buoyancy was a real challenge!  We saw some incredible nudibranches, little spots of color, a long spotted sea cucumber, lion fish, and dozens of other colorful fish playing in and around the corals and anemone.  A large black moray eel poked his grumpy looking face out from some coral, and as we passed through a small cave - really just a small passageway - we saw bubbles caught on the roof like glittering balls of light and schools of tiny fish, accompanied by a small yellow eel.  I also noticed a gorgeous little red porcelain crab with an intricate white geometric pattern hanging out inside an anemone, and our guide pointed out an egg cowri, a large, smooth, black creature with a large white mark in the center.  

We surfaced after only 45 minutes, and I was a bit frustrated that I had so much air left in my tank.  But we returned to the boat, sampling small pastries as we made our way to the next dive site, called Seahorse Bay.  Amazingly, the sun began peeking out for a bit before we descended, bathing us in warm light.

The visibility wasn't as good to start, and we spent the first bit of the dive swimming along a sandy bottom, spotting some hermit crabs and shrimp  on a handful of soft coral along the way.  The ground was covered in something that looked like a mashup of a turtle and a sand dollar, round shells scattered along the floor.  Finally we reached a large reef, where we saw a huge variety of sea life:  spiderfish - similar to seahorses, but long, straight, horizontal things - were all over the place; bannerfish; lionfish; lots of nudibranches; a handful of large, long trumpetfish; a black Nemo; schools of coral shrimpfish, which swam vertically through the water; and a rolling cloud of striped eel catfish.  The sun came out again at some point, suddenly bathing the coral in light and making the colors pop, especially the bright yellow hard coral beneath me, like a field of frozen branches.  We also spotted a large cuttlefish gliding through the water, a bright yellow clouded moray eel swimming from one hiding spot to another, and a little white clownfish looking guy shimmying through the water like a flamenco dancer.  

We surfaced again after less than an hour and me with nearly half a tank left, and I retreated to the top deck to relax in a lounge chair for the ride back to Nha Trang.  Back at the shop, I quickly filled out my dive log before rushing up to the bus station to make sure I actually had a seat on the night bus.  Miraculously, I did!  They had penciled in my name after that 6am call, and it took only a few minutes to fully confirm the booking.  Now with six hours to kill, with plenty of time in a not-so-interesting town, I returned to the shop and set up my laptop, booking a number of upcoming flights and having dinner before returning to the bus office.

On the bus, I wound up sitting in front of a young Swedish guy who peppered me with questions, and I suddenly realized I had gotten fairly tolerant of the Asian way of doing things when he asked me why the bus had been sitting still for nearly an hour at one point.  "Oh, probably the driver stopped to eat dinner or something," I said, returning to my book.  Probably it also helped that I wasn't hungry myself and had plenty of backup snacks this time.  Thankfully they actually turned off the Vietnamese TV program blaring through the bus and switched out the lights after a 10pm rest stop, allowing me to get some sleep, but it was fitful at best.


The bus arrived in Saigon into District 1, very close to a major hub of hostels.  I had researched a few in advance, and after finding a narrow alleyway where a few were located, I settled on the Khoi Hostel, checking into a six-bed dorm room for roughly $7 a night.  Thankfully, the bed was available immediately, and I went straight upstairs to lie down for a nap.  It started down pouring not long after I got up and ready to go out, so I immediately sought out a warm bowl of pho at a small enclosed stall a few blocks away.  Once the rain had cleared, I started wandering along a park until I came to a huge roundabout with a tangle of traffic weaving around and through the area.  I sat down in a Coffee Bean for a cup of coffee and a scone, observing the flow of traffic outside the window.

Not long after, I heard from a couple I had met back at Elephant Nature Park - Rupa and her husband Manoj, both from NYC - who had moved to Saigon for a few months as they worked on a new business concept.  We decided to meet up for dinner, agreeing to check out an American BBQ spot we had spotted on the Legal Nomads blog, called Quan Ut Ut.  We sipped cider as we waited for a table, taking in the incredible smells of the smokers and grills hard at work all around us.  We had already decided what we wanted to eat before we were seated - a sampler with sausage, pork shoulder, rib tips, and smoked chicken, with grilled corn and okra on the side, to which we added additional sides of pork belly, pink slaw, and mac and cheese.  The food was absolutely incredible - the meat was falling-off-the-bone tender, juicy, delicious, and with an incredible sauce.  We stuffed ourselves full, then gave brief kudos to one of the owners as we left, walking back to our respective accommodations for a full night's sleep.

The next morning I had the thought to visit a few tourist attractions and drop a few things off to be mailed home - I had that massive pile of clothes I had had tailored in Hoi An after all!  I wound up setting out and paying a visit to the market, picking up a few souvenirs to send home with my other purchases.  The market was jam-packed with stalls, like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but smaller, more compact.  After bargaining for some conal-shaped hats, I ventured out of the market for a snack, down an alleyway full of nail salons, to another spot recommended in the Legal Nomads Saigon Street Food Guide, called Quan Nam Giao.  She had suggested the Banh Beo, but I decided to get a sampler plate which included Banh Beo, Banh Nam, and Banh Bot Loc.  All were combinations of shrimp, pork, and a chewy, gummy wrapping.  It might have been a little too ouch texture-wise for a full meal, but as a snack, it was perfect.  

I plunged back into the market, purchasing the hats and walking back to the hostel, where I loaded up a bag with the items to be sent home and caught a taxi to the DHL office.  Unfortunately, despite my stuff weighing less than four kilos, they were going to charge me for FIFTEEN kilos because I needed a large box!  So, I took my stuff over to the massive post office, just around the corner, set up in a gorgeous old building.  It took a while, but the man who put together my package was wonderful, getting it to exactly five kilos with the box and all the tape he wrapped around it - actually placing it on a swivel chair, spinning it around as he covered the entire thing in tape.  

Finally I left, the burden of my stuff gone, and I took in the Notre Dame Cathedral just outside the post office building, with a beautiful statue of Mary out front.  I didn't actually consider going inside, continuing instead towards the Reunification Palace (also called the Independence Palace), where I bought a ticket for a bit later, then returned to a small lunch place I had passed for Bun Cha Hanoi, a dish that I've come to decide is my definitive favorite of Vietnam.  

Back to the Palace through light rain, I explored the various floors, the decor and architecture so very late 60s and so very Asian.  The underground bunker was especially crazy to see - massive hand-drawn maps on brown paper displayed on the walls, and 60s-era radio equipment throughout.  I exited just as the building was closing, and I hopped on a moto to go straight back to the hostel to rest a bit.  Immediately upon my arrival, I received a message from Kevin, another friend from Elephant Nature Park who was in town for a couple of days for work.  We had all planned to meet up that evening for dinner, but Kevin was free a bit early and was looking to meet up for coffee.  

I quickly freshened up and met Kevin back near the massive roundabout, catching up over iced coffees sweetened with condensed milk, until it was time to meet up with Rupa and Manoj for dinner.  We wound up squeezing onto the back of a single motorbike, as our driver zipped through a luxury shopping area and then got a bit lost looking for the restaurant, stopping to ask buddies for directions, driving on sidewalks and against traffic on one-way streets, until we finally pulled up at our meeting point, greeting our friends with a laugh.  We had dinner at an open air spot called 5KU, which served a variety of BBQ dishes.  A large clay pot full of coals was brought to our table, as well as a small grill on top to cook the piles of food we had ordered - pork cheek, ribs, beef, ostrich, morning glory, and okra.  It was all incredibly tasty, and we spent hours chatting over Saigon beers and our feast of grilled food.  We set out afterwards to grab one more drink, walking all the way back towards the backpacker area - not too far from where I was staying - dubbed the 'Koh San Road of Saigon'.  We stopped in and had one last beer before calling it a night, and I made plans to meet up with everyone the following day.

I took a slow morning to sleep in and work at a nearby bakery, until Kevin met up with me for a late lunch.  We went searching for another Legal Nomads recommendation - Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio, on Co Giang.  It resulted in a delicious bowl of noodles, pork, and spring rolls, through one of the herbs had a slightly off-putting flavor to me.  (I'm one of those people that thinks too much cilantro tastes like soap, so it was probably something in that family).  

We then hopping in a taxi to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda, arriving at the temple just as it started to rain.  Inside, the idols were huge, almost like Samurai warriors with menacing faces, and visitors left offerings of incense, red candles, and yellow oil.  If this room (despite the dark wood and evil-looking figures) represented heaven, the other was supposed to represent hell, and the altar was flanked by a pair of horse figures with gritted teeth and bells hanging from each of their necks.  Outside, a small pool was overflowing with live turtles, and a pair of Chinese dog statues guarded the entryway.  

After a quick coffee, we walked to a nearby history museum, where we quickly browsed a collection of artifacts from all over southeast Asia before exiting, taking a quick peek inside the temple across the way, and hopping in a taxi to get Kevin back to his hotel in time to get his stuff and make his flight home.  

I was pretty tired from the activities of the day, so I returned to the hostel, spending time in the alley talking to a few of the guys from the hostel and playing with a neighbor's tiny Chihuahua puppy.  As tired as I was, I threw on the nicest outfit I could manage with my limited wardrobe options and joined Rupa and Manoj at a spot called Song, a store hosting a launch party for a Japanese jewelry line.  We sampled sake and some high-end chocolate from a Vietnamese company called Marou, checking out the jewelry before calling it a night.  They gave Rupa and I sweet parting gifts of tiny bracelets, but mine sadly fell off my wrist a few weeks later.  They had already had dinner, so I bid them farewell - it would turn out to be the last time I would see them in the city, but it had been a wonderful little reunion over the past few days.  On the way back, I ran into those same guys from the hostel, so I joined them for a quick bite just outside the market, bustling with nighttime activity.  

On my last full day in Vietnam, I had booked a trip to visit the infamous Cu Chi tunnels outside Saigon.  The tour group picked me up from my hostel late, and I joined the massive group on the bus for a long ride out to the site.  When we first entered the area, we were taken to a small hole leading to a tunnel, with a small wooden lid that could be covered in leaves to conceal the hole.  We each took turns climbing inside and getting our photos taken, squatting down to fully conceal ourselves inside the tunnel.  We then visited another spot with a trap door that would swing open to reveal sharp bamboo stakes driven into the ground in the hole underneath, a trap for passing soldiers, adapted from hunting techniques.  

We were then taken to a bunker to watch a video, catching the very end of another tour guide's explanation of the tunnels.  Ours never actually bothered to give us much detailed information, but this guide explained that entire families and even towns were truly set up inside these tunnels - he had actually been born in one. The video itself was a full on war propaganda film from the 1970s, in black and white, which repeatedly referred to the "evil devil Americans" and how the sweet innocent people of Cu Chi had taken up arms to fight, showing a young girl honored for killing Americans.  I cringed every time they said "Americans" with that bare hostility, wishing the film was a bit more unbiased and feeling generally uncomfortable.  Our guide of course called me out for being American, later asking me and another guy (who wasn't American, but was a big enough guy that our guide called him "Captain" because he was "big like American soldier") to demonstrate how small another tunnel was by having us attempt to crawl inside.  

Through the rest of the visit, we saw mounds of earth that covered air holes to the tunnels down below, and grotesque displays of traps used to attack and injure or kill soldiers.  As we walked, there was a constant cracking of gunfire from the onsite range (for about $10, you could fire an automatic rifle), lending to the eerie and discomforting feeling from the place.  After passing the gun range (and our only opportunity for a snack all day - crisps and a soda), we came to a long tunnel we could actually crawl through.  The space was tiny, and the women in front of me kept pausing for selfies, so I climbed out a bit early - my knees were killing me!  The long tunnel crawl was our last activity of the day, and we piled onto the bus for the long ride back shortly thereafter.

I'm glad that I paid a visit to the tunnels, but I probably would have picked a different tour operator.  After such a long visit with no food, I was absolutely exhausted and starving by the time we returned.  We had the option to get dropped off at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon on the way back, which I had heard was well worth a visit, but I wound up going straight back to the hostel and making a beeline to a nearby spot for lunch.  I visited the Hungry Pig, a delicious little spot with inventive sandwiches with unique names like the Notorious P.I.G. and the Pig Lebowski.  It was cute and creative and perfect.  

After devouring a sandwich, I returned to my room, which was by now full of new travelers.  I joined an American girl and a pair of Portuguese travelers (who I was thrilled to practice the handful of phrases I had learned on), venturing out for dinner, and later getting a quick pedicure before returning to pack my bags.  The following morning I awoke far too early, boarding a bus bound for Cambodia, the next stop on my adventure.