Vietnam: Saigon Scooters and Ho Chi Minh Cuisine

English in Vietnam

In my earlier post about my first international trip, which happened to occur inside a Socialist Republic, Vietnam, I give background on the reasons for my trip in December 2017. In short, I traveled to Vietnam to meet a dear friend, Nghia, with whom I’d developed a relationship with while helping with English studies.

English is a very important language in Vietnam. There’s even a test individuals must take to confirm their proficiency in the language. Passing the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) exam is needed to secure a promotion, and a definite prerequisite to being offered an international transfer.

During our friendship Nghia’s coursework became so intense I investigated taking a course with the International Teaching Academy so I could be of greater assistance to her.  She was grateful for my assistance and when I decided I would come to Vietnam to see her she agreed to be my exclusive tour guide through the rough and tumble streets of Saigon.

By Day 3 in Vietnam jet lag was kicking my butt. Nghia and I had had a very busy day meeting her brother, Thanh, at Húng Ki Mi Gia. Later we’d had a meet-up with eight of her fellow English classmates at Haagen-Dazs. The group grew to eleven people and we stayed a little longer at the streetside seafood restaurant.


ATM’s and Scooter Traffic

The next day we planned to take it easy, but still get some necessary shopping done. Turns out, after a hearty breakfast, some take-home Vietnamese coffee and another bout with fatigue due to jet lag, Nghia and I basically called daylight a wash. We stayed in and took care of some homework for her and correspondence for me.

A little after night fell we decided to go for a walk to restock our water supply and get snacks for the night. We went searching for one of the Circle K stores we’d seen on our excursions. The night turned into an interesting adventure on the streets as we tried to backtrack our way to the first ATM I’d used.

Never did I imagine that withdrawing money overseas would be as simple as it was. I found a safe ATM vestibule (most are enclosed), swiped my Bank of America ATM card, entered my PIN, chose English as my language and I was withdrawing 5,000,000 Vietnamese đồng (đ). By the way, I’d notified by bank that I was traveling overseas and would be using my card in Taipei, Taiwan (possibly during my layover) and in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Along the streets were found ourselves faced with the dilemma most foreigners experience in HCMC: to cross the street or not to cross. Scooters wait for no man, and if you hesitate you’re lost. Even at designated crosswalks scooters will shoot by as if you weren’t standing there. It’s quite intimidating. Even Nghia was hesitant to cross and she has lived in this environment all her life.

I’d read somewhere that you simply have to keep walking. Do not stop. Do not hesitate. If you do, you disturb the ebb and flow of this organized chaos and you are more likely to be hit.

In fact, standing at the edge of the curb, looking at the hashmarks for the crosswalk and pondering the safety of crossing made me remember a message I received from Nghia in October. She’d gotten struck by a scooter as she ran errands. It made sense for her to be gun shy about crossing.

I’m a presumptuous American. Reading about how to cross streets in Ho Chi Minh City was enough for me, so I grabbed Nghia’s hand and stepped out into the danger zone. I made a point of making eye contact with every rider who steered towards me, but I never stopped walking.  We made it across the street safely.

More importantly, this became the manner in which we would cross many other streets during my remaining days in Ho Chi Minh City. Nghia would hold my hand and put her trust in me. I would guide us across the street safely, slowly only to carefully judge the speed of oncoming traffic.

Japanese and Americana in Saigon City

Nghia had read about a restaurant that served legit American-style breakfast called The Elbow Room. We ascertained that the location was far from us, so we’d leave it for another day. I had a craving for something other than Vietnamese pho so we walked to a Japanese restaurant, Marugame Noodle – Udon & Tempura, for lunch.

Afterwards we went to a Coffee & Tea House named Phuc Long. I bought 1/2 kg of coffee beans. We wanted to drink upstairs but with all the eating I’d been doing I wanted to walk it out.

Later, after our walk, we stumbled upon Trung Nguyen Legend Cafe and we went upstairs to enjoy a scenic view and a hot cup of coffee. There were three levels. Real estate in HCMC extends in height, not so much width. The second level allowed smoking at the tables. Lots of men smoke in Vietnam, but I haven’t had a cigarette since January 5, 2011. The smell annoys me now and I’ve become one of those irritable types of ex-smokers.

Nghia and I opted to go to the third level. We found a charming window seat with a view of a window cleaner/painter perilously walking along the edge of building. He was five floors up and wore no safety line that I could see. I prayed for him…and took his picture.

Sometimes Speaking Vietnamese Doesn’t Help

Nghia called for an Uber and we headed off to an electronics store near Ben Thanh Market. I desperately needed an adapter to charge my MacBook, iPhone, AppleWatch and iPad. I also opted to buy a Bluetooth mouse because I’d been borrowing Nghia’s mouse to work on my writing assignments.

I cannot remember the name of the store and I did not have sufficient charge on my phone to take pictures willy-nilly. Funny thing was even though Nghia spoke Vietnamese to the workers, no one knew where the adapters were. In fact, I’m tempted to believe they didn’t even know what an adapter was. To that pint, I was surprised that the hotel staff didn’t have an adapter. Surely I was not the only foreigner who’d forgotten to bring an adapter to charge his electronics?

Nghia and I wandered the store aimlessly hoping to find what we were looking for. We circled  again and again amongst the aisles until I found a combination surge protector and power strip that had adapter built-in. Score! We also purchased a wireless mouse. We’d been sharing Nghia’s mouse for the work each of had to do on our laptops and it was becoming a hassle.

We decided we were close enough to Ben Thanh Market to walk. We would have to brave the streets and scooter traffic again but with a successful mission under my belt I was up for anything.

Ben Thanh market is a massive indoor flea market (for lack of a better phrase). It’s not quite a mall, in my opinion, because there is no emphasis on the shopping experience. It is a retail establishment and people come to buy and negotiate.  I bought five T-shirts and a pair of Abercrombie and Fitch cargo shorts. The price was cheaper than I’d get in the USA, but Nghia later informed me there are even cheaper prices outside of the market. Lesson learned.

After we dropped off our gear at the hotel we went back to the Japanese restaurant for chicken and then back to Trung Nguyen Legend Cafe for coffee. There was Wi-Fi inside and Nghia needed to finish her homework for a presentation coming up. It had been a long and busy day and we decided to go back to the hotel, get into our pajamas and just relax for the rest of the night.

The next day we went to Húng Ki Mi Gia for an American-style breakfast. I had sausage, toast, hash browns. Nghia had to rush off for errands and meetings with her classmates before her presentation that night for English class. I found some old TV shows subtitled in English to watch.

When Nghia returned she had a surprise for me. She had her scooter and we planned to put it into good use. I hopped on the back. I am a big guy and Nghia is a small woman, about 1.55m tall, but we made it work. We went for an exhilarating tour through District 1, District 4, District 5 and Binh Thanh District in Ho Chi Minh City.

I was tempted to  take out my iPhone during the trip to take video especially after we rode across a bridge.  However, I’d heard stories of people who’d gotten their $1000 phones expensive cameras snatched by thieves as they stood at the curb taking pictures. I opted to keep my iPhone safe. Besides, I certainly didn’t want to drop it. Next time I will have a GoPro with me.

We put our scooter tour on pause when we parked the near Cho Ben Thanh (Ben Thanh Market) and walked down a street called Duong Ham Nghi towards the Saigon River. The street was brilliantly lit with lighted arches every hundred feet.  At night it was almost like walking through a massive tunnel. We reached another street, Cau Khanh Hai at the bank of the Saigon River and walked north to Duong Nguyen Hue.

I found another ATM and decided to take out more cash in case I needed it. That’s when I realized that I did not have my ATM card. I’m anal and ritualistic about putting my card back in my wallet after use so I assumed I hadn’t lost it, it was most likely wrapped in a receipt or tucked in the back pocket of my shorts.

We continue north on Duong Nguyen Hue and I was floored by how many people were out at night. The street is essentially a park bordered on both sides by the street, which leads to the elegant looking Ho Chi Minh City Hall Building at the north end. There were families out with small children, teenagers on Segways and Hover Boards, and there were rollerbladers. Meat vendors, snack vendors and fruit vendors, all on motorized scooter carts, were abundant. It was astonishing to see.If I had to choose one word to describe how it looked, I would use, “alive.”

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We made our way up to City Hall and decided to cut through the streets for a shortcut back to the scooter. I’m a stickler for noticing directions, (e.g. north, south, east, west) so when Nghia got a little lost I knew should continue walking Northeast to find the street, Duong Ham Nghi, where we’d parked the scooter. Sure enough, found our scooter, paid the attendant and rode away. On the way out we serendipitously saw The Elbow Room, the local eatery renown for its authentic American-styled breakfast food.

A Precision Exit From Saigon

It was after 3am when we returned to the hotel. After a shower we fell asleep quickly. Tomorrow I would be flying home to the USA.

In order for my final day to be successful everything had to move with clockwork precision. In the morning  I packed my clothes quickly. Nghia had already taken her bags home the previous day because we knew it was impossible for her to carry her luggage on the scooter — although many people in Vietnam do it!

We rode the scooter to The Elbow Room for breakfast and I had the most enjoyable pancakes with sausage and toast. This time I had American coffee instead of Vietnamese. We rode the scooter back to the Ngoc Ha Hotel and I checked out.

My hotel room had been prepaid using for about $25 US per night. There was nothing more to do besides get my passport from the Front Desk Clerk. And that became a bit of an issue. I watched the Clerk shuffle the deck of passports three times trying to find my passport. Nothing. I could feel my heart beating faster and my neck getting hot.

She looked at me and said, “I returned the passport to you.” It was a statement but sounded more like a question. To which I replied, “No you did not. My passport should be in that pile.”

She sorted and shuffled the pile again. Nothing. She picked up the phone as if she was about to call someone and then she picked up a single passport on the desk. It was mine and it had a note that read, “Check out.” I assumed someone prepared it in advance knowing I would be checking out, but never advised the rest of the personnel.  I snatched my passport and headed outside. Nghia was waiting with her scooter and her typical scooter clothing to defend against the hot sun.

The plan: Nghia would follow my Uber to a place called The Coffee House near the airport. She would park her scooter and we’d hang out together for two hours before my flight. Then we’d leave her scooter and take a taxi to the airport. When it was time for me to check-in I’d say good bye. Nghia would take a taxi for a short ride back to her scooter and then ride home.

I immediately checked the arrivals board when we arrived at the airport. My flight wasn’t on the board yet. Nghia and I decided to relax curbside near the Burger King I’d noticed the day I arrived. It was a little smoggy and crowded outside but we ignored it and found seats on a bench  outside. We sat close to each other. We held hands. We gawked back at the people gawking at us.

After forty-five minutes I asked an attendant about the flight. I was told that I could begin the check-in process now. I came back outside to say good-bye to Nghia. We hugged. She cried. And I reassured Nghia I would come back soon to see her.

The check-in process was smooth and I found myself at the gate in no time. Nghia stayed at the airport and we continued texting and video chatting until it was time for me to board my flight and begin my 22000 km flight back to the USA.

Approximately four hours later I was in Taipei, Taiwan for a three-hour layover. I still had international data and texting service activated so Nghia and I had an emotional video chat. We’d already begun to miss each other. I was torn. On one hand I was happy to be flying home, but on the other, Nghia and Vietnam has left an indelible impression on my heart.

One thing is for sure — I will definitely return to Vietnam.

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