140612 Saigon Night 1 Part 2: Nobody Told Me about Neon Lights

One of the most important advices you will receive when it comes solo travelling is to stay away from dark alleys and other areas where you’ll feel a sense of danger. But nobody told me about flashing neon lights…

A good friend of mine who often travels solo once told me that one of the first things I need to do when arriving in an unfamiliar place is to explore the area around my hostel, hotel or wherever I am staying. So after I settled for quite a while at Kaiteki Hotel in Ho Chi Minh (formerly known as Saigon) on the night of June 12, 2015 (see previous diary entry, ‘Of Solo Trips, OC Plans and Panic Modes‘), I decided to roam the streets. Besides, I was so famished after the long trips from Cebu, Philippines. The hotel was on Bui Vien street, which would take me to the so-called Backpacker’s District if I turn to my right when I get out of the establishment. Based on what I had seen in Google Maps when I was still in my hometown, I remembered (and thought) that the popular tourist district was still kilometres away from my Kaiteki.

location of Bui Vien
Street location, as shown by Google’s first page results for “Bui Vien” keyword.

Bui Vien is a long street and filled with lots of people (mostly foreigners) at night. It’s lined with pubs, restaurants and other establishments that come to life when the sun sets. But I was confused along the way because I suddenly see some areas that reminded me of the Backpacker District photos circulating on the net. I wondered, “I can’t be in that area now since I haven’t walked that far yet.” But then, I ignored my thoughts because I was so hungry and was actually craving for bun bo hue (spicy beef noodle). But since the signs are all written in Vietnamese, I had a hard time looking for dinner.

I left my eye glasses in the hotel so I was walking half-blind along the road of Bui Vien, where local vendors await tourists, and fire breathers are performing in the middle of the street. Combined with my inability to read the Vietnamese signs, I know I would be in big trouble if I won’t be vigilant because I look like a dumb person waiting for a local to scam me. If you have seen me by that time, I am sure you’ll definitely say that I was absentmindedly lost… absentmindedly, lost. Double kill!

True enough, somebody noticed my dilemma. A guy was grinning and waving at me as he approached me by the kerb. If I was in my hometown, I would have mistaken him for a pimp with the way he acted and approached me. But then, he came out from a restaurant and so I thought that I might have looked really starving that night. He was talking to me in words I couldn’t comprehend because he was speaking in either Vietnamese or broken English. I just nodded and smiled, trying to decipher his gestures and keeping a sharp ear in the hopes that I will hear familiar words. In fact, I was hoping to hear “food” or “bun bo hue” until… He gave me a business card.

I was surprised. And when I looked at it, I was even more surprised. I saw pictures of sexy women on it and immediately realised that he’s offering massage services, probably by his girls. I laughed and coughed at the thought. Then I hear familiar words from him. “Happy hour?” he asked while grinning with his lips reaching from ear to ear. I could have joked and asked, “you have men?” (okay, maybe it would be a half-joke… a three-fourth joke?) I smiled and politely told him I have to look around for food first. He could have stopped me but I was walking quickly. I guess I also blurted out the common alibi of “I’ll just be back.”

That wasn’t the only incident during that night though. There was a guy or two on bicycle who followed me along the road saying something I couldn’t understand even if I had said goodbye to them. For quite a while, I wondered if there’s a language misunderstanding each time I say goodbye or tam biot.

There was also a guy who approached me in a street corner and asking me what I was looking for. Although I couldn’t really understand what he said, I assumed he was offering me something. For some reason, I keep listening to him because I don’t have a destination anyway. He kept talking, more like whispering while I was still looking around the area, scanning for a familiar word. When I saw a man in uniform on the other side of the road, looking at us, I panicked. The first thing that came to my mind was that the guy was probably selling me drugs and the uniformed guy is now targeting me for arrest. I immediately crossed the street when I saw there’s a convenience store there, leaving the whispering guy behind me.

[Later on, I realised that the uniformed guy was a security guard and not police. *whew*]

Before I entered the store, I was blocked by a big, elderly guy with a big tummy and wearing an unbuttoned shirt. He was talking in a low, seducing voice that reminds me of pimps in movies. I couldn’t understand what he was really saying but I believed I heard something like, “I know what people like you are looking for…” I couldn’t blame him for saying that because my eyes have been wandering around, but I’m sure he didn’t guessed what I want. :-p I immediately told him, “I’m looking for food!” And before he can make wrong implications of what I had just said, I quickly entered the store.

It really took me quite some time to make sense of what’s been happening or where I really was. The sexy girls outside the establishments, men waving on tourists with greedy excitement in their eyes and… colourful neon lights as signage of many establishments in the area…

neon rendition of Ugly But Naughty signage
Neon sign was something like that, but the text is the same… *chuckle*

It’s undeniable… I was in the city’s red light district!

I confirmed it when I was on my way home, a guy on bicycle was incessantly following me and trying to offer me something. Since I believed he’s offering girls for massage, I keep saying goodbye to him and walked away. And since I always get lost, he kept finding me. He can speak a bit of English, so I decided to hear him out. I realised, he was the one doing the massage when he showed me a small bottle, which I believe was baby oil.

“I use this,” he said.

I smiled. He’s cute. But no, I will never give in to situations like this. Not in my hometown, and definitely not in a foreign country. He kept asking me where my hotel was, and I keep saying “I can’t tell,” or “secret.”

“I know a place, we can go there and I give you massage,” he offered.

“No, I don’t want to.” I smiled and walked again, faster this time until he stopped following me.

[Update] I discovered that the area was actually the red light district of the city. I also discovered that the massage business is a highly regulated and monitored activity by the government, and no hanky-panky will be happening between the girls and the clients. But still, you should be careful especially because the rates are much higher when you’re a foreigner in Ho Chi Minh.

Solo Travelling Lessons Learned

Trust your instincts…

Author: ethan

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