Well, we’re in Vietnam, and it’s quite an experience!
On the flight from Singapore, we did a Vietnamese crash course, reading the Lonely Planet phrase book that Chippy got Ben for Xmas. Highly recommend it for it’s content; however, it’s produced in Australia so the pronunciation is a little off. Anyway, I read that, mainly b/c I never had to talk “airport” terminology growing up (go figure), and also the Saigon section of our guidebook (I’d also recommend the one Cookie got me, but that’s in French). I was ready, or at least I felt so…
The airport was much more modern than I remembered. The last time I went in 2001, I vividly recall walking down the ramp from the plane to be greeted by two communist guards with machine guns. We had then walked into the “airport”, which was one big, old room, that had a lot of signs saying to NOT slip money into your passport. It wasn’t exactly welcoming. Now, that time was Hanoi, which could still be very different from Saigon. But still, the Saigon airport was quite modern! Glass windows, signs, normal toilets. Immigration still felt a little strict: a singe file line and your background is thoroughly checked. Makes for a very, very long wait.
Now, our airport crash course didn’t quite pay off. First, we went to exchange money to pay for the taxi, and chose the first one (in a row). It was of course a lower rate than the last one at the end of the row. Rookie mistake. We step outside, and immediately, everyone offered us a taxi ride. Phung (cousin living in Vietnam) had told us it shouldn’t be more than 80000 VND to her place, and so did our guidebook (not Cookie’s, which I missed). And also to ask for a metered taxi and not prepay, as they overcharge. But all the drivers insisted on 150000 VND or more. I refused! I walked down the taxi line, sticking to the companies people and guidebooks told me to trust, inquiring each one: how much to Saigon, do you have a meter. All responses were along the lines: “oh, that’s far” or “meter doesn’t work” or “things have changed since your friend went to the airport”. Argh. It was like they were a union all working together to rip me off. We decided to go back inside and check with the places where you can rent and prepay. They also quoted the same price, saying that she lived further away from downtown. Um, there was a scale on my map and it was like maybe 3/4 mi. But at this point, I decided to give up b/c I just wanted to get there. Maybe I could have waited for more taxi drivers to arrive and would have found a metered one, but it wasn’t worth to bargain $4. Of course when we arrived, I looked at his meter and it read 66000. We’re flying around Vietnam (to save time since Ben only has 9 days), so I’ll get to try again. Yay… At least my Vietnamese was coherent.
But, the taxi ride was worth the $8. Our guy was good! At times, I thought taxis, or at least this one, get their own lane, but no, he was crossing over into the other lane to cut in line to the front. All the while there are cars and motorcycles coming at us, honking like mad (though honking is supposedly not rude, but actually more of a warning). Still, it was quite scary. And the motorcycles and mopeds! It’s suicidal. Something like 30 people die every day driving in Saigon, and I can see why. People are practically leaning, touching each other as they ride 30mph. They say you should take a xe om (motorcycle taxi); we’re not quite ready for that yet.
One reason is the smog and pollution. It’s pretty awful and unbearable. They use leaded gas and there are so many vehicles that it makes walking around really impossible.
But of course Ben and I still tried 🙂
Yesterday, we arrived late morning at Phung and Minh’s place. They have a great big apartment near the downtown area. Minh was her usual cute and floopy self; she had just woken up, or rather, we had woken her up. Since I always love soup after a flight and we were in Vietnam, we went straight to a pho restaurant right around the corner. Pho 24, a growing chain that is good and quite clean. Mmm…pho at 10am: my kind of country!
Then Phung and Kimmy came back from Vietnamese class. I was so impressed that Kimmy BIKES around. She’s one of those suicidal people, and even more b/c she doesn’t wear a helmet. The helmet rule was just installed a year ago, but not for bicyclers; I almost want to buy her one. It was great to see them, and again, after chatting a bit, we went out to eat. You’ll see a theme coming here. This time it was bun cha, at a street vendor down the alley. Ben and I decided to dive right into the street food, despite any fears of getting you-know-what. Of course, it felt worth it b/c it was so friggin’ delicious. Like little girls, Kimmy and Phung got really excited about the ice cream man who came by, so we got some of that too.
I must mention crossing the street is sort of like an art. No one really stops for you, but as long as you walk a slow and steady pace, you’ll eventually get across. You can’t be like frogger and wait for a spot to come. It’s still pretty terrifying since there fast, heavy moving things all around you. When all else fails, you find a local who’s about to go, and stick to them. Kimmy abandoned us the first time we had to do this 🙂 We’re getting better, but it’s still one of those hold-your-breath-til-you’re-done moments.
Later in the afternoon, I went to see Bac Bao and Ong Noi. I was so happy to see my grandfather again (it had been years) and for Ben to meet him that it brings tears to my eyes writing about it (yeah, I know that’s not saying much since I am THE cry baby, but still…). He is cute as ever, and so healthy! That’s really what made me so happy: to see him doing well. He is old, but talks and understands things just fine. His English is almost gone, but the Vietnamese and French are still there. I wonder why but he understood my Vietnamese better than my French, or maybe he couldn’t hear me so well at times. Ben had to whip out his French (which is never as bad as he thinks), and Ong Noi tried to say a few English phrases here and there: yes, so cute.
We talked about the family, what all the Duongs are up to. I told him about our lives, Chippy, Cookie, my parents, the Bui relatives living in Vietnam, anyone else I could think of that he might know. He likes being up to date on things and has a really good memory.
He has to walk with a cane when he goes around, loses balance sometimes, but otherwise, he can get around fine. He doesn’t go outside by himself, and that’s a good thing! At the time Ong Noi wanted to leave for dinner, it was just us three. He said to me “I never cross the street by myself” and since he knows we’re new to it too, he started to rethink the dinner location. “We could try going to one that doesn’t require crossing the street. Hmm, but I don’t know any.” I told him that Ben and I could take him across, so he says “Ok, let’s try it!”. And gets up, all fired up to do it. I don’t know if I’m writing this well, so this may be more targeted for my family, who hopefully can tell how CUTE this is of Ong Noi. Fortunately, we manage to snag someone he knows on the street to help us cross. Phew. But I was ready to become suicidal for my grandfather; no way was I going to let those cars take him down.
He reminds me so much of my dad: the eyes, shrug, voice, thoughts. It’s like a vision of him, 40 years later. I really could go on and on about him. Our visit stirred so many childhood memories of his staying with us over the summer, painting. But I’ll stop here. One last cute moment: at some point we talked about his recent 97th birthday, and he shrugs (the shrug!) “Oh, it’s no big thing”. But then, he has a realization and says “In a few years I’ll be 100. Wow.” Yes, yes he will.
That was our first day. I’ll write more about the second day (today) after dinner (with Kimmy, Phung, Minh, Chu Hien and Ta Tram). Tomorrow we leave for Hoi An for a few days, then go up to Hanoi, then to Sapa, and back down to Saigon. We’re looking forward to going to the smaller places as Saigon is a little too big for us. But so far, yup, we’re enjoying Vietnam!