I mean really, we’ve asked person after person after person, and gotten all sorts of answers. Anyway, here’s some stuff we noticed!
Airport + Visa
The visa-on-arrival, following getting the required initial reference letter online, was pretty painless, luckily. Aside from having slept on the tile of Bangkok’s northern airport (Don Mueang) the night before for an early flight, that is. (Our bus had arrived from the south around 9 PM, and our flight was at 7:45 AM, so getting a hostel just didn’t make sense.) In any case, we were glad that we made sure to get the fee in US dollars and our passport photos ahead of time, and since it’s the low season, it took hardly any time at all. After customs we immediately went to the Mobifone kiosk to get a local SIM card with unlimited data for cheap and got some money changed. The city bus was also really convenient and easy (as opposed to getting a taxi) was incredibly cheap; we just had to deal with, you know, a crazy Chinese person yelling at the bus driver. Buses, man.
Something Something Traffic Metaphor
Now, traffic here….is crazypants. I’ll just copy and paste from an email I’d sent: “It’s kind of like Bangkok in being a ginormous Asian city. But it’s not so much a hot mess, it’s a bit more walkable. Except when crossing the street; taking the bus from the airport was like riding in a raft in whitewater rapids, except the water was made out of motorbikes. Thus, crossing the street entails being like Neo in The Matrix, and pretending that there is no traffic/spoon. Or maybe it’s like jumping into the water for scuba diving, you just stick one foot out and go at an arbitrary moment, letting all the motorbikes flow around you? It’s terrifying on some level, but kind of like spelunking, you just don’t think about it, and it actually seems pretty safe, bizarrely. At least we haven’t seen anyone get smuckered yet. I think I just mixed a lot of metaphors.” I’ll add that the city overall is actually very walkable, all things considered, there are just even more motorbikes also using the sidewalks than Bangkok. Apparently, there are around 13 million people in Saigon and about 6.5 million motorbikes, one for every two people. Whoa!
The money is frustratingly, supremely confusing. Can anyone who knows economics let us know why they don’t just lop off three zeroes? The current exchange rate is 21,000 VND to 1 USD. Carrying around hundreds and thousands and even millions of dong, little say with old and new versions of bills that are different colors and sizes but also similar colors and sizes….well, we’re just missing the Thai baht. And coins (from what we can tell, there are no coins in Vietnam); apparently there’s even a note that’s equivalent to 0.9 US cents. But hey, at least we get to say we’re millionaires?
New Friends and Microbrews
We’ve also been to several bars in the city, which is really a first for us on our travels – we hadn’t really drank until we got to Vietnam. We started with Heli Bar up on the fifty-second floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in the city. It had retty solid views (if smoggy before the sun went down), but the bar itself was surprisingly tacky; nice service, though, especially in how they escorted us all the way from the ground floor.
During breakfast at our little, very vertical (many flights of stairs, but we get to brush our teeth and go to the bathroom on a balcony) hostel that’s hidden away in a narrow, busy, sketchy alley, we were lucky enough to meet some awesome people! That is, Amy from England-slash-Scotland, and Stephen and Conor from Ireland! Hi guys! We hit it off immediately and made plans to hang out for the day. First stop was to the War Remnants Museum (will talk more about that in a minute), after which we decided we all needed a drink. We came across a random bar on the street that was filled with low couches and coffee tables; I learned that a pomelo milkshake just really doesn’t work and Steve and Conor were able to charm glasses of Glenlivet out of the staff. We have learned many things from them, including Vietnam travel, the etiquette and sacrilege that can be involved in drinking a pint of Guinness, and all sorts of slang.
Next we all went next to my personal favorite out of the bars we tried, Pasteur Street Brewing Company, an American-owned microbrewery hidden down a dark, narrow alley and up a bat-infested flight of stairs. It was very narrow and crowded, but had great bar snacks and offerings like jasmine IPA, a sour mash amber with rambutan, and a passion fruit wheat. This one was recommended by our new friend Anna, who we were introduced to by some Tucson friends. She’s an expat digital nomad currently living in Saigon, who had already given us some of the best advice we’d gotten for our travels – thanks Anna! She also went with us to a bar back on Bui Vien, something like the Khao San Road of this city, full of neon and loudness and bro-ness. But with falafel banh mi sandwiches, here! Also, people selling more dried squid and balloons filled with laughing gas.
Paying Our Respects
To swing to the entirely other side of the seriousness spectrum, we also went to the War Remnants Museum, which houses a collection of photographs and artifacts of the Vietnam War (or as it’s locally known, of course, as the American War or at times the American Aggressive War, or variations on that). It was obviously biased to one end of the spectrum, and as much as we were taking things with a grain of salt, it was a disturbing museum to visit. Exhibits included ones on journalists who were killed during the war, French rule and historical context leading up to the war, weapons used, effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals immediately and long-term, local reconstruction, and worldwide anti-war protests/peace movements. Patrons included one really offensive and obnoxious Australian guy.
The other sightseeing we did was at the Reunification Palace, formerly and sometimes still known as the Independence Palace. It has quite a storied history, including being a former White House sort of capital building, being bombed by a North Vietnamese soldier who infiltrated and stole a plane to do so, and the supposed site of the ending of the Vietnam War via a tank crashing through the front gates. Each of the rooms has been turned into a sort of time-capsule display of what the building was like in the 1960s and 70s, which would probably be amazing for anyone with an interest in interior decorating. We were doing our best to imagine what it was like to be there for historical events, like that tank gate-crashing, or what it would have been like to be hunkered down in the claustrophobic basement bunker with rumbling explosions occurring above. We were a little hindered by Vietnamese tour groups shoving past us in every stairwell, though – we weren’t sure if that was a cultural norm we didn’t get, or if it was because we were foreign.
Also: in almost all bathrooms we’ve seen in this country, there are no paper towels or anything for drying, which is great for trees past any mild inconvenience. There is also, however, no soap at all, which is terrible for hygiene. Also, sales-people can be really grabby, so if you don’t like people yanking on your arm to get your attention, maybe stay away from any claustrophobic indoor markets.