Vietnam Part One: Planes, Trains, Automobiles: From a small mountain town to a big Asian city.
It took me about 36 hours to get from my little house in a shady canyon on the eastern fringe of the Cascade Mountains to downtown Ho Chi Minh City; a journey that included a three hour drive to my mom’s house, two hours on trains to get to Sea-Tac Airport, a 10 hour flight over the Pacific, a 12 hour layover in South Korea, a 5 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (which from here on out I will refer to as HCMC), and a half hour taxi ride into the city center. With the time change, I arrived in HCMC after something like 48 hours. It’s best to not think too hard about that.
I’m not complaining: I actually enjoy this kind of travel. When else do we have time to just sit and read, watch movies, stare off into space, and generally slow down and chill out? Ok, so the last couple hours of the flight over the Pacific started to drag on a little, but for most of that flight I alternated between reading and just staring off into space thinking about how cool it was that I was somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, near the Arctic, heading towards the other side of the world. Sometimes I thought about nothing at all. Since when do we have to be busy and in a hurry all the time? In the end we’re all going to the same place, and most of us will get there sooner than we’d like.
Sunrise over the Puget Sound on the commuter train to Seattle. Many Seattleites hate their growing rail network since their tax dollars are paying for it, but they also hate their notorious traffic jams and crumbling infrastructure.
The airport in Seoul, South Korea is set up well for layovers. Lots of food options, nap rooms and relaxation areas with tables and recliners, and most importantly, big, clean, private shower rooms. I got in around 5pm, wandered, showered, napped for a few hours, wandered more, and eventually had a decent Korean dinner at the only restaurant that was still open in the wee hours of the morning. At that point it felt like I had the whole airport to myself, so I went for a jog and did some pushups, took another nap and another shower, and then it was time to fly again. Not bad at all. And compared to the 10 hour flight, the 5 hour flight to Vietnam went by in no time.
In Ho Chi Minh City it was just a matter of finding wifi at an airport restaurant to get directions to the Airbnb, stopping by an ATM to withdraw 1,000,000 dong (yes… their money is called dong, and 1,000,000 of them is only about $40) and then going up to an official airport taxi desk to get a ride into the city. Getting a taxi from the airport in a big city when you’re sleep deprived and don’t have a good grasp on the language (I know, like, three Vietnamese words) can be uncomfortable, and I have once gotten myself into trouble in such a situation. The first time I went to Peru, as soon as I stepped out of the airport I encountered a mob of shouting taxi drivers, and one guy basically grabbed me and shoved me into his cab. His car had the logos to suggest that he was legit, so I went with it. Long story short, we ended up getting into a loud argument (I did speak Spanish) because he wanted to take me to a more expensive hotel that would pay him for bringing me there. He ended up dropping me off a few blocks from where I wanted to go, and when I handed him a bill he pocketed it without giving me change. Apps like Uber, and in Vietnam, Grab, alleviate these problems, but I didn’t know about Grab yet. I can now say that the taxi desk just outside of the HCMC arrivals terminal is trustworthy. I think it was about $12-15 to get deep into the city. A short ride from one district to another within the city will cost $2-5. It's certainly not unheard of for drivers to scam tourists, so use Grab when possible.
I don’t have a lot to say about HCMC because I only spent a couple of days there. We ate some really good food, which is easy to find. Restaurants are everywhere. Look for one that looks popular, and it’s probably good and affordable. In touristy parts of the city (and throughout the country in general) most menus have Vietnamese and English on them, and in less touristy areas they’ll usually at least have pictures. If not, use a translate app to ask for whatever the server recommends. If you go to a pho place, ask for ga (chicken) or bo (beef). Sometimes they might only have fish (ca, which sounds a lot like ga), but that’ll be good too. When in doubt, use hand signals to say, "bring food, yes that kind of food… sure." A good meal at a normal restaurant in HCMC costs $2-6, which is on par with the rest of the country. Vietnam isn’t exactly a vegetarian’s paradise, but if you don’t mind spring rolls, steamed vegetables, and rice, you’ll be okay in touristy areas.
Minh, a waitress at the restaurant near our apartment building, helped us decide what to order and tried her best to give us a crash in ordering food in Vietnamese. She wasn't impressed with our pronunciation.
Not all of our time in HCMC was spent eating… We also drank! Cheap, light beer is pretty much what’s available in Vietnam as far as alcohol goes. Bars that also serve liquor are easy to find in the bigger cities, and there are a few microbreweries around, but in general it’s not a hard-drinking country. Coffee, on the other hand, is taken very seriously. My favorite is iced milk coffee, which is a shot of strong coffee, sweetened and condensed milk, and a lot of ice… This is the tropics after all. Ice, for that matter, is often added to your beer at bars and restaurants. You get used to it. Coffee or normal beer go for about $1-2, and a mixed drink or a beer from a microbrewery is $3-6.
Nick at the Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar in District 1. You'll pay American prices at a place like this, but you can't beat the ambiance.
Other than eating and drinking, all we did in HCMC was walk around the city exploring markets, checking out hole in the wall bars and cafes, and looking at government buildings that were made famous by the war. We also went to the War Remnants Museum, which I found to be informative and just plain heart-wrenchingly sad. It shows in gruesome detail a reality that I think every voting American should see.