River Life – Can Tho and the Mekong Delta

At this point in our journey we had originally intended to move on up the coast of Vietnam, but we changed our minds last minute and headed in the opposite direction.  After a few days in the big city, we were ready to wind down and check out the floating markets on the Mekong Delta, where the Mekong River empties into the South China Sea.

We decided to journey to the largest city in the region, Can Tho.  After a taxi to the mini bus station, a mini bus to the bus station, a 3.5 hour bus ride, and another taxi into the city, we spent an hour or so walking along the river and trying our first Banh Bao (Vietnamese Steamed Pork Buns).  I’m normally very excited to try new foods, but there was something about the quail egg hanging out in the meat that I just couldn’t get past.  Jojo enjoyed it, though.  We planned on waking up early the next day to see the floating markets so we turned in early.

We got up at about 5am and walked down to the river.  There were several small boats that tourists could hire to take around the markets.  We hopped in one and set off!

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Just set off, still dark!

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The river was very quiet and still dark when we set off.  We passed by a lot of homes, some of which you could see right into.  There were hardly any other boats around and it was very peaceful.  After about an hour, we came to the Cai Rang Market, the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta!  The market was bustling yet still quiet at the same time.  It was fascinating to watch all of the exchanges.

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All the pineapples!

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We drifted through the market for another hour or so, then made our way through a narrow canal to the village areas.  We stopped at a noodle factory and got to watch how they make rice noodles.

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We wandered around this area for a little while, then got back on the boat and proceeded to the Phong Dien Market which we found a little more enjoyable than the Cai Rang, as it seemed more colorful and energetic.  Our boat guide even bought us some treats!

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After another hour or so exploring this market, we went through another narrow canal where we stopped and got out for lunch.  We explored this are area for a while, admiring the flora and waving to people as we passed by their homes.  The children were especially excited to see us and would shout “Hello! Hello!” and giggle when we said it back.  They also loved having their pictures taken!

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We cruised down the river for a long time until we finally reached the dock back in Can Tho.  The whole trip took about 7 hours and was a very nice experience, (despite paying more than we should have.)  We spent the rest of the evening exploring the city and trying some delicious banh trang at the street food market.  There are also heaps of seafood lining almost every street!

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Exploring this region was both fascinating and humbling and we were really glad we had changed plans at the list minute!  After a super long day, we were back in the room preparing for the next day’s adventure.

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Because why pay for laundry?

 

Tea: 25,000vnd ($1.17 USD)

Beer: 25,000vnd ($1.17 USD)

2-1.5L H2O: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Taxi: 50,000vnd ($2.33 USD)

Bus: 250,000vnd ($11.66 USD)

Taxi: 150,000vnd ($7.00 USD)

Dinner: 28,000vnd ($1.31 USD)

Accommodation: 315,ooovnd ($14.69 USD)

1/2 Total Spent: 873,000vnd ($40.73USD)

Mekong Boat: 840,000vnd ($39.19 USD)

Lunch: 225,000vnd ($10.50 USD)

Dinner: 20,000vnd ($0.93 USD)

Beer: 20,000vnd ($0.93 USD)

Accommodation: 315,000vnd ($14.69 USD)

1/3 Total Spent: 1,430,000 ($66.71 USD)

Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Central Post Office – Hello, 2015!

Good morning, 2015!  After an eventful night and a few too many beers celebrating NYE (no regrets), we had a slow start to the New Year.  At about noon, we finally made it out of our room and back onto the streets of Saigon!

We had a plan to visit the Reunification Palace, the Saigon Central Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.  We looked up the route back at the hostel (we usually opt to walk every where, rather than take taxis) and saved it as a pdf on our devices in the event that we got lost.  This method proved to be extremely useful because we got lost a lot and the Vietnamese street names are really difficult to remember.

After a short 20 minute walk, we arrived at the entrance of the Reunification Palace.  The entrance fee was only 30,000vnd ($1.40USD) each and well worth it!  We got to explore every level of the palace and look into the rooms of the home and workplace of Ngo Dinh Diem (President of South Vietnam) during the war.

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Fountain in front of the Reunification Palace
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Walking along the gate
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Reunification Palace

The building was designed by architect Ngo Viet Thu, who used symbolic concepts derived from Eastern philosophy as inspiration.  The building is still fully furnished as it was during the war, including desks, chairs, beds, dressers, and even a screening room.

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Some possessions of Ngo Dinh Diem
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Floor tiling
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Screen Room
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On the balcony
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Jojo on the balcony
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A painting also done by the architect
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Signage describing the symbolic architecture

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The grounds were full of incredible bonsai trees and there was also a small garden inside the building.

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Jojo sipping Vietnamese Red Bull
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A surprise free concert in the cafe next to the Reunification Palace
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Jojo next to one of the huge bonsai trees
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Close up of a bonsai

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Nicole in the indoor garden

After touring the Reunification Palace we moved onto the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Constructed by French colonists, its original name was “Saigon Church,” but was changed after the installation of the Peaceful Notre Dame statue in the front.  The Vatican conferred it a basilisque in 1962, and thus the official name has been “Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica” since then.

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Jojo in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral
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Stained glass windows inside Notre Dame

Brick wall of the Notre Dame Cathedral

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We happened to arrive in the middle of a mass.  (Another awkward tourist moment taking photos during a religious ceremony.)  But this one was relatively small and tourists were confined to a small place in the front of the cathedral, so it was much less intrusive than our experience at the Cao Dai Temple.

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Brick wall of Notre Dame

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Next we walked across the street to the Saigon Central Post Office, another building constructed by the French.  In fact, it was designed and construction by Gustave Eiffel.  We were especially excited to finally find postcards here, as we had not seen a single one anywhere else!

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Saigon Central Post Office
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Inside the Central Post Office

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Our next stop was the Jade Emperor Pagoda.  It’s worth mentioning that we also tried to visit this on our first day and failed to find it.  We did not find it on this day either.  However!  It lead us to a part of the city that we otherwise would not have explored and it ended up being a lot of fun.  We were pretty far from any tourist areas and it gave us a more authentic image of what life is like living in Saigon.  We were getting a lot of stares so we opted to not take photos, but we never felt unsafe.  We did get a couple of shots of the river, though.

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Jojo on the bridge

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We had managed to meander pretty far of Pham Ngu Lao Street, so we opted to take a taxi home.  There is a plethora of options as far as food goes on Pham Ngu Lao, and we stopped at a stand boasting “$1 Noodles!”  We couldn’t pass that up so we ordered our noodles and went to pay, but realized we only had 500,000s on us ($1USD is 21,386vnd.)  Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but the woman handed our change back in wads of extremely small increments that we were unable to count right there and then on the street.  We would later find that she had only given us 350,000vnd back, meaning we paid 150,000vnd ($7) for what should have been $2 worth of noodles.  This is a common method of ripping people off in Saigon, but is easily unavoidable if you a) carry small bills and b) double check the change you’re given, even if it takes a couple extra seconds.  But in the big scheme of things, she probably needed that extra 5 bucks a lot more than we do, so hopefully it made her life easier in some way.

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It doesn’t snow in this part of the world, but there were lots of snowy and cold weather related decorations for Christmas in Saigon.

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Despite the setbacks, we both really enjoyed Saigon, and would come back.  The city is beautiful and most people are very friendly and nice to interact with.  There is a lot to do at any hour of the day or night and it has a ton of energy!

2-1.5 Liters of H2O: 30,000vnd ($1.40)

Breakfast: 64,000vnd ($2.99)

1-16oz. H2O: 7,000vnd ($0.33)

2-Reunification Palace Entry Tickets: 60,000vnd ($2.81)

Redbull: 20,000vnd ($0.94)

Postcards and Stamps: 165,000vnd ($7.72)

Taxi: 83,000vnd ($3.88)

Dinner: 150,000vnd ($7.01)

1-1.5 Liter of H2O: 14,000vnd ($0.65)

Private Room: 625,535vnd ($29.25)

Total Spent: 1,218,535vnd ($56.98USD)

Cao Dai, Cu Chi Tunnels, and NYE in Saigon!

On our second day in Ho Chi Minh we decided to venture outside the city to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai temple.  Because we were new to the region and unsure of the transportation situation, we decided to book a tour through our hostel the night before for the sake of convenience.

We were up and ready to go at about 8:00am and the bus picked us up around 8:30.  The tour bus we were on was mostly full but we were still able to find seats next to each other and we were also given free bottles of water.  The bus ride was about 2.5 hours west of Saigon to the Cao Dai temple.  The ride was smooth (except for the small Vietnamese boy who got sick next to us 😦 ) and we only stopped once at a rest stop which was a warehouse full of crafts made by handicapped people affected by Agent Orange.  We got to walk through and watch them working which was very humbling and if you didn’t want to purchase anything, there was a donation box in the front.

This was also our first encounter with the “hole in the ground” toilets that your relatives who have never actually been to the country love to ‘warn’ you about.  If you’ve ever been camping (like real camping, not in a tent next to a bathroom) you can handle this.  You don’t have to touch anything, it’ll be fine.  They even had toilet paper.

The ceremony was starting just as we arrived at Cao Dai.  There were guards on either side of the front entrance showing people where to walk.  You have to take your shoes off before entering and it’s respectful to have your shoulders and knees covered.

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Our tour guide really liked throwing West sides.
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The gate into Cao Dai
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Walking toward the temple
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Nicole just inside the gate

The inside was even more ornate than the outside, and absolutely stunning.  The only weird part was that the temple was packed with people, so the tourists were practically walking on top of the attendees.  I imagine that is a common occurrence, as they didn’t seem to really notice.  There’s also something that feels a little disrespectful about gawking and taking pictures during a religious ceremony, but we did our best to respect their practice and be grateful for the opportunity to sit in on something so sacred.

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Mural in the front entrance of the temple

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Cao Dai is a relatively new religious movement in Vietnam that combines concepts and practices of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity.  You can read more about it here.

 

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Cao Dai Rooftop
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Beautiful pillars in Cao Ddai

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After exploring the temple, we walked back outside and explored the rest of grounds which were equally stunning.

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(It was very bright.)
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Jojo admiring the architecture
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Beautiful landscaping!

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After about an hour we got back on the bus and headed back eastward toward the Cu Chi tunnels.  We stopped at a small town restaurant on the side of the road for some (entirely too expensive) food and we couldn’t resist getting a coconut.  Touristy: yes.  Delicous: yes.  We watched our waitress crack it open right before bringing it to our table.

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Jojo hanging out by the road
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The restaurant where we stopped.
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Fresh coconut water and a Bia Saigon (Saigon Beer)

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After that we were back on the road to the tunnels.  First we walked through the battlefield area and saw the tiny openings above ground where the Vietnamese would pop up and shoot at the enemy.  It was shocking how small some of them are!  We also saw some examples of the terrifying booby traps they would set, most of which involved sharpened bamboo sticks.  There is also a shooting range next to the tunnels where you can shoot semi-automatics weapons.  It was eery walking through the jungle and listening to rapid gunfire, and it definitely added another layer of intensity to the experience.

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B52 Bomb Crater
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Underneath the booby trap
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Booby trap waiting to be stepped on
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Tunnel Entrance
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One of the tiny openings from the tunnel that the Vietnamese would use to fire at the enemy

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Then we got to actually go down into the tunnels.  At first we could easily just duck our heads and walk, but as we went on, the tunnel got smaller and smaller until we were crawling on our hands and knees, and it was a pretty tight squeeze in some areas.  It also got really hot down there, so it was a relief to finally make it to the end.  Another humbling experience to think about people actually living down there and having to crawl through them regularly!

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This tour was not terrible as far as feeling too touristy and herded around, but we decided that we probably wouldn’t be taking any more tours and just do things on our own from now on.  The convenience factor is nice but you sacrifice a lot of the integrity of the experience.  It’s also not that difficult to get where you want to go in Vietnam.  You could literally walk around showing people a piece of paper with your destination written on it and they will help you get there (or at least point you toward someone who will.)

We hopped back on the bus and arrived back in Ho Chi Minh at about 6:30pm.  Still jetlagged, we went back to our room and tried to muster up some energy to hold us over into the evening.  It was New Year’s Eve, afterall.  Each night our hostel gave us each 2 free beer tickets, which we had not taken advantage of the night before.  Thus, we had 8 free beer tickets to use for the celebration.  We went up to the 9th floor of our hostel which had a rooftop bar overlooking the city.  It was packed with intoxicated backpackers and promised a night of debauchery, but we opted to chug our free beers (then buy a few more) and venture out into the city instead.

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Jojo trying out one of the free exercise machines scattered throughout the park

 

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View from the rooftop bar

 

The streets are always full of motorbikes in Saigon, but this night the streets were literally full of motorbikes in Saigon.  We had to step over and in between motos until we worked our way up to the front of the 23/9 park.  Caught in the middle of a sea of people and blinking LED lights, we counted down to midnight and watched the fireworks off the Bitexco Financial Tower, along with millions of other visitors and locals of Saigon.  The energy was high, the vibes were good.  There’s something about celebrating New Year’s Eve out on the street that makes it just a little more energizing.  We bought and played with a Vietnamese Foot Shuttlecock, walked back to our hostel in a blur of hiccups (the mark of a successful NYE), reminded each other that this was the coolest thing ever, and proceeded to pass out.

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NYE Selfie
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Fireworks!
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The park full of people and motos on NYE

 

 

Tea: 25,000vnd ($1.17 USD)

2-Cao Dai/Cu Chi Tour: 380,000vnd ($17.77 USD)

Lunch: 180,000vnd ($8.42 USD)

2-Cu Chi Entrance Fee: 180,000vnd ($8.42)

Beer: 180,000vnd ($8.42)

Shuttlecock: 20,000vnd ($0.94 USD)

Private Room: 625,535vnd ($29.25 USD)

Total Spent: 1,590,535vnd ($74.37USD)

Into the Unknown – Exploring Saigon

After a much needed horizontal sleep, we were up and ready to go see Saigon at about 7am.  Our hostel, Vietnam Inn Saigon, offered a very adequate complementary breakfast, served on their rooftop bar (fantastic view!), which we happily indulged in.  They had several options including fried eggs, scrambled eggs, toast, and fresh fruit plates.  Jojo also got an iced coffee which was strangely thick and sweet, resembling a porter more than a Western-styled coffee.  It was delicious all the same!

Our first destination was the War Remnants Museum.

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Jojo standing next to a US aircraft from the Vietnam War
Jojo standing next to a US aircraft from the Vietnam War

This museum is significantly (yet not surprisingly) different than the US Vietnam War Memorial.  There is a heavy concentration on the aggression and war crimes committed by the US including disturbing images of Vietnamese people affected by Agent Orange and Napalm, letters to and from people in the US government, and anti-war demonstrations all over the world.  They also have a lot of military equipment, weaponry, and uniforms.  The building itself is very large with multiple levels and beautiful landscaping and open-air architecture.

Nicole in front of War Remnants Museum
Nicole in front of War Remnants Museum

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Origami Necklaces from the war
Origami Necklaces from the war

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Next, we headed to Nha Hang Ngon for lunch.  The draw here is that there are a ton of local street food vendors that all work in this restaurant.  They are lined up on the side of the patio, each making their signature dishes, and you can walk along the path and watch them.  The prices are pretty decent here (and are fixed.) We ordered 2 bowls of Pho and a beer, totaling 144,000vnd. The drawback is that this place is pretty touristy (like all destinations featured on Lonely Planet.)  We were happy with our experience-the patio is full of beautiful plants and it was nice to escape the obligation of haggling, due to the fixed prices.

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Jojo enjoying his Pho

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After lunch, we just roamed around for a while and found ourselves at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.  Another site with impressive landscaping and architecture, the museum was opened after the death of President Ho Chi Minh and houses many documents, photos, and artifacts collected from his time as the leader of Vietnam.

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Jojo on the balcony of the HCM Museum
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Nicole on the balcony of the HCM Museum
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Underneath the HCM Museum

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We spent the rest of the day walking all around Saigon getting lost, found, and lost again.  Motorbikes are a very common mode of transportation in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh is absolutely full of them.  To cross the street you just walk with a purpose and they fly all around you, anticipating your movement.  It’s a little nerve-racking at first, but it’s actually quite impressive how smoothly the traffic flows.  Sometimes we would see families of four riding on one motorbike!  We walked along big roads and ducked down alley ways, admiring the architecture and people-watching.  One thing we found very interesting is how open the apartments are.  A lot of the time you can see right into their dining and living rooms, as the doors are often left wide open.

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View from our hostel

 

As evening fell, we stopped for street food and squatted on tiny stools while eating roast chicken and pork with rice.  We sat and watched as the woman who served us stood next to the street, cooking everything on a tiny portable stove.  We ended the day with a beer on Pham Ngu Lao, watching people, cars, and motorbikes fly all around us.

 

Iced Coffee: 25,000vnd

2x War Remnant Museum: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Lunch at Nha Hang Ngon : 144,000vnd ($6.73 USD)

2x Ho Chi Minh Museum: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Dinner: 100,000vnd ($4.68 USD)

Private Room: 625535vnd ($29.25 USD)

Total Spent: 954,535vnd = $44.63 USD

Cincinnati to Saigon – Welcome to Vietnam!

At last, the long awaited day had come!  We had been saving up for almost a year, packed 99% of our belongings into storage, and mentally prepared ourselves for a long, indefinite journey to Southeast Asia.  The last few of our possessions were loaded into our backpacks, just small enough to fit Delta’s carry-on requirement; losing track of everything we effectively own just wasn’t worth the luxury of not lugging them around the airport.  And thus, we embarked!

We started with a 5 hour flight from Cincinnati to Seattle, a 2 hour layover, 11.5 hours to Seoul, another 2 hour layover, then another 5 hours to Ho Chi Minh City.  With a grand total of 25.5 hours plus losing 12 hours with the time change, our travel time was long, but pretty seamless!  We got delayed in Seattle but we thankfully had enough time in Seoul that it didn’t affect the rest of our itinerary.

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Our first few experiences in Saigon were a bit rocky.  As soon as we stepped out of the airport, we were immediately approached by multiple people offering us taxi rides.  We haggled with the first driver down to 400,000 vietnamese dong (14USD) which was a pretty bad deal, but after many hours of travel and it being 1:00 in the morning, we didn’t have a ton of energy to argue.

We put our backpacks in the trunk of the car and got in, but when the driver pulled up to the end of the parking lot, he stopped, turned around, and asked us for what sounded like “5 dong” to exit the parking lot.  Not only was this confusing because 5 dong is not even convertible-because it is essentially nothing-but the smallest bills we had on us were 20,000s.  As we were trying to understand what he was asking for, he started saying “half dollar.”  We asked if he wanted coins, but that seemed to further the confusion, at which point he started reaching for our money and attempting to grab it out of our hands “to show us” what he needed.  The vibes in this taxi were getting pretty sketchy so we decided to bail.  Luckily he let us out and let us get our bags with no further issue.  We walked back across to the taxi area and haggled another one down to 300,000vnd.  This was still not a great deal (should be about 200,000vnd for where we were going), but no sketchiness and we actually got to our destination this time.  Yay!

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We arrived at our hostel, Vietnam Inn Saigon, which we had booked in advance because of the timing (didn’t want to risk not having a place to stay in a huge city during NYE, nor did we feel like walking around at 1:00am looking for a place when we got there.)  We decided to splurge on a private room for the holiday and celebrate our first few days in Vietnam.

As we are standing at the reception desk to check in, another guest runs in frantically and tells the employees that he had just escaped an attempted robbery.  He explained that he had hopped on a moto (you can pay for a ride on a motorbike here, same as taxis) and had the driver take him to an ATM so that he could pay him.  When he got off the bike, the driver told him to give him all of his money, that he had a gun, and that he would shoot him if he tried to run away.  Apparently he ran away anyway, and thankfully was unharmed.  Between this and our scuffle with the taxi driver at the airport, this wasn’t the greatest first impression of a city we had ever received, but it wasn’t enough to put us off.

We retired up to our surprisingly lovely private room with huge windows overlooking the city.  We finally got to lay down and have a moment to reflect, (we’re in Vietnam!!!!) and fell almost instantly to sleep.

2 Vietnam Visas: 3,100,000vnd ($144.96USD)

Taxi from airport: 300,000vnd ($14.03 USD)

2-1.5 liters of H2O: 30,000vnd ($1.40 USD)

Private Room: 641,571vnd ($30 USD)

Day 1 Total Spending: 4,071,571vnd ($190.39 USD)