Sunday, September 10th

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Singapore

Despite the music from the park until very late we managed to get some sleep last night though we were up very early at about 5 am though we got out of bed a while later. At 7:30 we found the breakfast floor and everyone from the group was actually already in the restaurant! Rous, Chris, Maree, Loretta, Tony, Sally, Rachel, Carl, Steph, and PJ (though the last four were just on their way out the door). The breakfast is buffet style and had a few cooked items which were mostly cold (fried rice, hash browns, etc) but they also had bread, cereals and fresh fruit (watermelon and dragon fruit). The tables with our fellow travellers were full so we sat at a separate table, wishing them all the best as they left.

Our flight is at 7:40 tonight and Rous had suggested that we arrange our transfer to pick us up at the hotel at 4pm but we are always a bit paranoid so suggested instead 3:30. This still meant we had a good part of the day to look around the city some more.

We checked out and left our bags at reception then headed out into the city.

We had wanted to have a bit of a closer look at the market so that is where we started heading for.

One of the things we do when travelling is play “spot the chain” which we have been doing here: KFC is just around the corner from the hotel, Baskin Robbins we visited last night but we have also seen 7-11s as well as “Circle K” convenience stores. Of course there is the ubiquitous McDonald’s. It is amusing to see these here as we so much associate them with the US or other western countries. Of course, it is also sad that no matter where you go they seem to follow. It means a little less diversity in the world though it does also mean you can always go to places that you are familiar and comfortable with when the other options are more daunting. I can relate.

At just before 10 on a Sunday “Ben Thanh Market” was quite quiet. It was nice to have a bit more time to look around. There are some stands selling an impressive arrange of dried fruit and vegetables as well as a good number of knick-knack shops which shows that this market is not just for tourists as they sell the things you need for everyday life - Toilet paper, shampoo…The fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood and meat I found the most interesting. As I was just wandering around looking at what was on offer Mel was taking sneaky pictures of what we found. There was a lot to take pictures of including some more unusual cuts of meat (heart, liver, brains, etc) and even live frogs. You can get just about anything you would want here and the place is absolutely spotless with very little smell and no litter. It also seems safe with a few police we spotted here and there.

As we left through the north end of the market there are a large number of gorgeous flower stalls with very impressive and colourful displays.

Despite looking today we had not spotted any 7-11s yet so we instead visited a Circle K just north of the market and had a frozen slurpee-like drink (“Froster”, 16oz – strawberry if you are interested, 30K dong each) sitting for a time at some tables in the back of the shop. It was nice to be out of the heat and humidity and just relax. It is also nice to have a very relaxed timetable for the day rather than having to worry about where the tour is off to next.

While we were sitting I watched the staff restock the shelves of the shop with things that would not be out of place anywhere else in the world including loads of instant noodle soup bowls.

As we continued our walk Mel stopped to talk to a rather communicative macaw tethered on a railing outside of a shop.

At the Independence Palace there were a large number of identical black Audi sedans parked along the compound’s roads. It looks like the APEC people are meeting there today. It is all a bit surreal but odd as well with all of these German cars being used for a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders…Perhaps they should be driving Suzukis or some other Asian car instead?

Always on the look out we did come across a 7-11. When we went inside it looked like it had just opened and they even had slurpees! No idea what the flavours were though the pictures seemed to indicate various fruit.

Shame we had already had our drinks at the Circle K…Here they have a local “Highland Coffee” chain that we would have visited but for the massive amount of scooters and motorcycles parked outside and the large amounts of people we could see inside. Seems popular…

Back at the cathedral it was nice to see it during the day.

There were a few tourists about and more at the post office across the road which was now open. Being a bit of a stamp collector I did want to see what was on offer but, sadly, I was disappointed. The building is quite impressive - very old colonial in style. High on the walls to the left and right as you enter there are two murals: A high level map of Vietnam and the region, the other a map of Ho Chi Minh City. Below these were old wooden, folding door telephone booths surmounted by clocks showing the time in various places around the world.

A hall past this front area is just a standard post office with counters for various things and a large kiosk in the middle that was selling stamps for collectors as well as souvenirs (mostly postcards). Unfortunately none of the stamps really grabbed me so after taking a look for a few minutes (while Mel took a seat and waited patiently) I gave it a miss. We wandered through the souvenir shops that line the hallway in the front of the building and saw a few things of interest such as paintings of local sites though mostly it was tacky tourist stuff.

The front of the post office has a few people selling elaborately constructed three-dimensional paper cards. Sitting on a small stool they have a large spread of these cards in front of them, some of which are quite impressive indeed with their level of detail - Buildings, flowers, etc.

Next door there was a small aquarium set up on the pavement with a “try your hand” sign on it. It was an advertisement for a beauty salon and these are the “cleaner fish” you often see that are used to remove dead skin from your feet. Mel gave it a try but found it a bit hard to take with the fish being a tad…aggressive. Nibbling a bit too hard, perhaps. I was wondering how they keep the fish alive in the sun all day on the pavement…

We continued roughly following the route the cyclos had used last night. We passed by a number of very nice shops including a shopping centre that we stopped outside of for a few minutes to relax. In the mall there is a branch of H&M here which we had seen people queuing at last night as it was their grand opening. We came to the Opera House which, sadly, was closed so we would not be able to visit.

Opposite is a large construction site that we were told last night is for a new subway station being partially sponsored by the government of Japan.

We went over a few streets to the “Walking Street Nguyen Hue” - A very wide pedestrian walk leading from the city hall down to the river. The crosswalks here all talk to you (in English) which is quite amusing.

There were few people about but we did see a wedding party arranging photographs as we made our way along the street towards the river.

Some of the buildings along here have “scooter parks” which are interesting - Small underground car parks only for scooters. There are also some very impressive hotels here that would not look out of place in New York, Paris or London.

It was difficult to cross the busy road that runs along the river but we wanted to have a look at it. After a few death-defying moments we managed to climb across the barriers and make it to the other side. There was not much to see in the Saigon river, really. Large floating islands of greenery floated by and there were a few fishermen trying their luck from the shore. There were no boats about that we could see though a few docks that looked to have been used in the past.

It was quiet peaceful here save the noise of the traffic going by so we followed the river for a ways passing under the trees that line it. It was also a great place to be back far enough to get pictures of some of the incredible buildings here in the central region of the city.

We came across a small park with no one else around where a small tributary met the river passing under a busy road bridge. A few minutes along the path and there were some fishermen using nets cast into the water that they then waded out to retrieve their legs covered in mud.

There were quite a number of goldfish that we could see in the water so it must be pretty good for them.

We decided to leave the river and head back towards the hotel so crossed again over the busy road though the traffic was a bit lighter here so it was easy. Making our way up a side road we came across a number of people selling things from blankets on the ground which to me looked obviously like it was stolen. One had an assortment of watches, another mobile phones and yet another had a very large number of obviously used helmets.

We stopped at the Art Museum at this time desperate for something to drink (other than water) and a cool place to sit. Inside the grounds there is a small, very nice, modern cafe in the corner. On being shown a table near the window we were immediately given two classes of cold green tea which was very refreshing. I eventually had a passion fruit “mojito” (virgin, of course, 55K dong) and Mel selected an iced cappuccino (55K dong).

It had been a long hot walk so we just relaxed and people watched out of the window. A taxi cab pulled up, parking with the driver then reclining the seat to have a sleep…The guys on the opposite side of the road selling their scooter helmets…

After making use of their wonderful toilets (modern, very clean) we left the cool cafe into the blanket of the heat outside. Wanting to see a bit of the museum itself we headed into the nearest building - “Ancient Contemporary Art” (!) up some stairs across the courtyard (of course, not realizing until later that we were have meant to have bought a ticket from the booth near the compound entrance). There was no air conditioning and only a few pieces set up in this old building with nothing really grabbing our interest so we left after only a few minutes. Just as well we had not paid.

We passed by other more interesting looking buildings belonging to the art museum as we left the area but did not go in.

As we approached the market again we stopped for a few minutes at a very busy junction to take video and pictures of the organized chaos on display. The thousands of scooters seemingly in perfect unison with the numerous cars, bicycles, carts and other road users. Amazing there are not more accidents. It is just so…alive and vibrant. A banana seller peddles his covered cart through the middle; another pushes his cart piled high with charcoal; a scooter goes by with a comically long piece of metal strapped to its side; a whole family piled onto their single overworked scooter.

Interestingly, all of the scooter drivers seem to have helmets which suggests that perhaps the police are a bit strict here…

Near the hotel we returned to the underground food court we had visited yesterday to have something to eat as it was getting close to 2. After wandering around for a while we settled on a meat Bánh mì (sandwich) each - Mel had the chicken (25K dong) and I had the pork sausage (also 25K). It was a bit confusing as we placed our order we were asked to sit down with our sandwiches shortly arriving at the table with a wonderfully spicy sauce and fresh herbs scattered on top. I had also asked for two spring rolls (not fried) with prawns (2 at 10K dong each) but these never seemed to arrive so I had to eventually go back to the stall to get them. Drinks were not available here so I had a look around finding a stall that sold only soft drinks (Pepsi) around the corner. All part of the experience.

As we left the food court to return to the hotel we saw Rachel and Carl in a restaurant beside the food court (there are a few places to eat here including a sushi place, a pizza place and a steak place).

Back at the hotel we retrieved our luggage from the concierge then sat in the sofas near the front door waiting for the taxi to arrive for the transfer to the airport. Carl and Rachel eventually came and had a chat with us while we waited which was nice. The friendly staff also offered us all cold bottles of water while we sat there. The taxi actually arrived early at about 3 so we were off.

The short ride to the airport was uneventful, arriving at about 3:25, well before the Singapore Airlines check-in desks were even open. On the outside of the terminal there are several places to eat, mostly uninspiring like a Burger King, so we headed inside to see what we could find. We figured out that there were a few restaurants on the first level overlooking the check-in area so grabbed a seat there and had a drink. I had a fresh orange juice (no sugar; 75K dong) and Mel had a cappuccino (65K dong) while we waited for the desks in Zone C to open. We were able to relax again before the long journey ahead.

The airport terminal is quite modern with high ceilings and a light feeling to it. Of course, airports are much the same the world over now with the standard polished floors, grey metal luggage carts, the same shops…

Just before 5 we returned to the main floor of the terminal to check our bags in. After only a short wait we passed through security uneventfully. Once in the gate areas I was hungry so we found a Pho (remember, noodle soup?) place, “Big Bowl”, where I ordered “Beef Pho Brisket, Spicy Beef Salad with Papaya and 'Dragon-Rice' Tea” ($11.50). Quite a lot of food! Mel had my salad with some prawn crackers ($1.50). It was all very delicious but mine was quite filling. Interestingly despite still being in Vietnam they insisted on payment in US dollars so it was good that I actually had some on me! Don’t understand why this is the case.

Before we left I noticed a sign that if I liked their FaceBook page (we were using the airport’s Wi-Fi) I would get a free pair of very nice chopsticks so after a bit of humming and hahing I eventually did…they are very nice!

Through the glass windows of the terminal we could see storm clouds coming from the distance. Saigon is quite flat so it was easy to see them from quite a way away. The rain was coming down quite hard and we watched as it passed over the airport. Fortunately, this did not delay our flight as we had only 2 and a half hours between flights in Singapore.

>> Monday, September 11th