Archive for July, 2010

Down Time in Saigon

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

8 – 12 May, 2010

Past experience dictates that taxi drivers waiting outside an airport’s arrival terminal will inevitably try to rip us off and Vietnam was no exception.  We arrived in Saigon late due to a delayed departure from Kuala Lumpur.  Initially excited to find a taxi driver willing to use their meter, a couple miles from the airport we realized that he expected us to pay an additional surcharge.  An argument ensued and after realizing we probably weren’t going to win we finally gave up, deciding our $3 loss wasn’t worth a shouting match.  This incident served as a reminder of an important lesson learned during our previous trip to Vietnam; never agree to anything until all parties involved are aware of the final price.

We typically prefer to make an advanced hotel reservation for our first night in a new country but we didn’t bother this time.  Finding a room was easy as the taxi driver dropped us off in the heart of Saigon’s backpacker district.  Our backpacks served as an indication we had just arrived in town and within seconds we were greeted by Kim, the manager of a hotel looking for someone to fill his vacant room.  We agreed to have a look and were immediately satisfied.  The large, clean, air conditioned room felt luxurious for the price.  After settling in and indulging in delicious food, we felt confident in our decision to include Vietnam on our around the world itinerary.  We enjoyed our time in Vietnam during a previous visit in 2006 and it looked like we were in for another wonderful experience.

Since we saw many of Saigon’s tourist sites during our previous trip, there was little pressure to spend time sightseeing.  This was a relief as our schedule in New Zealand and the Philippines allowed for very little down time and our bodies were screaming for a break.  Besides, we made the mistake of visiting when the heat and humidity were at their peak and stepping outside felt a bit like walking into a sauna. Fortunately, sampling delicious food can be done in any climate and Saigon’s restaurants and food stalls didn’t disappoint.

On May 10, to mark Jason’s 31st birthday, we disregarded our budget and celebrated at a French restaurant where meals cost about four times more than any other restaurant we visited.  After dinner, we made our way to two of the city’s microbreweries to sample some of Vietnam’s tasty beer.  As we entered the beer gardens and took a look at the architecture and décor, we felt as though we had been transported to Europe.  The only indication we were still in Saigon were the throngs of well dressed young Vietnamese professionals. A glance at the food menu confirmed our assumption that the average Vietnamese person would never spend so much on a meal.

Despite our desire to take it easy in Vietnam’s largest city, we couldn’t resist a visit to The Reunification Palace, former home of the South Vietnamese President and site of the end of the Vietnam War, or American War as it is referred to in Vietnam.  During our last visit, we were fascinated by the building’s underground bunkers and the way it looks as though it was preserved in time.  Almost nothing has changed since it was abandoned just before the North Vietnamese Army came crashing through the Palace’s front gates in 1975.  To our knowledge, the only new addition since our last visit was a propaganda video documenting how the heroic North Vietnamese Army saved the South Vietnamese from the “American oppressors”. Witnessing the government propaganda firsthand was pure entertainment.

It felt good to take it easy in Saigon but after a few days we were anxious to head north to Dalat, the City of Eternal Spring.  Located in the mountains of Central Vietnam, Dalat is famous for its mild temperatures and a group of motorcycle guides called the Easy Riders.  Unsure of the bus station’s location, we purchased tickets to Dalat from one of the many travel agents near our hotel.  As one of their staff walked us from our hotel to the bus station, we began to suspect we should have taken the time to find the bus station and purchase tickets ourselves.  Our suspicions were confirmed when we reached the bus station and saw the prices clearly displayed.  We had paid an additional fee at the travel agency and all we got in return was a guided walk to the bus station and time to relax as the travel agency representative went to the ticket counter and purchased our tickets.  Despite our best attempts at avoiding these types of mistakes, we clearly still have a lot to learn.  I personally can’t think of any better way than another  nine to ten months of hands-on travel experience.

24 Hours in Kuala Lumpur

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

7  – 8 May,  2010

Prior to leaving the United States, we spent countless hours on the internet mapping out potential routes for our trip.  Although this was a tedious process, we quickly learned we could sometimes save a lot of money by flying a little bit out of our way.  While taking a detour to save a few bucks isn’t always the best decision, it sometimes ends up working out well because it allows you to see someplace that you might never have considered visiting.  This is how we ended up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  By foregoing the direct flight from Manila to Saigon, we were able to save close to $400, an amount we were happy to put towards something more exciting than a plane ticket.

Traveling from the airport to our hostel in Kuala Lumpur, a couple of things jumped out at us.  First, it felt much more developed than many other places we had visited in Southeast Asia.  Second, there was an astounding variety of cultural groups.  Not only did we see a lot of ethnic Malays, but we also passed through Indian and Chinese neighborhoods.

We expected Kuala Lumpur to be a bit pricey but were pleasantly surprised when we checked into our hostel.  Not only was it in a great location, the room was reasonably priced, clean and had a fully functional air conditioner.  This was a necessity if we were going to get a good night’s sleep in the intense heat and humidity.  After a quick shower, we headed out in search of Indian food.  Having consumed relatively bland food in the Philippines for the past month, we had intense cravings for something spicy.  We walked less than half a block and found a restaurant filled with Indians, which is always a good indication the food is authentic.  The rest of the evening passed quickly as we explored Chinatown and admired the gleaming Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur’s iconic twin skyscrapers.

Heading back to the hostel, we briefly considered rising early the next morning to purchase tickets to the skybridge that stretches  between the Petronas Towers.  In the end, sleeping in won out over standing in a long line with hundreds of strangers.  Besides, the longer we travel, the more we realize  we don’t need to visit every single tourist site mentioned in the guidebook.  Traveling that way is exhausting and it’s impossible to truly appreciate everything when you’re constantly running from place to place.

Prior to making the trek back to the airport, we people watched from the busy street corner in front of our hotel and enjoyed some authentic Chinese food from a street vendor.  The meal was delicious until we spotted a rat feasting off the bits of food being dumped on the floor by the person washing dishes.  Apparently this was typical because the dishwasher didn’t even bat an eyelash.  Trying to forget about it, we discussed how it was probably impossible to avoid rats on this street filled with food vendors and surely every restaurant must have them.  The fact that I still finished my meal even after seeing the dirty rodent tells me I probably truly am adjusting to life as a backpacker.

Our time in Malaysia was much too short but our itinerary for this trip is ambitious enough.  We feel we made the right choice by limiting our time to a short stopover in Kuala Lumpur.  Besides, there’s no doubt we hope to make it back at some point as we’ve heard good things about the country’s scuba diving.