140613 Saigon Day 1 Part 1: The Walk to the Independence Palace

“Good moooorning, Ho Chi Minh!” I exclaimed, but silently in my mind, as I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock at 6:00 AM on June 13, 2014, Vietnam time (which is 7:00 AM, Philippine time). It was my first morning in this city more popularly called Saigon. I know that the earliest museum to open would be The Independence Palace, also known as The Reunification Palace, at 7:30 AM. Since my Vietnamese friend told me that everything is just a walking distance away from one another, I planned to visit a lot of places in the morning — the Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the Notre Dame Church, the Central Post Office, etc.

Ethan ready for Saigon adventures
Ready for you, Saigon!

My tourism professor back in college is going to kill me if she finds out that I’m planning a lot in just one morning. But first, I need to eat breakfast.

A Taste of Saigon… Not Really!

My first breakfast in Saigon!

I thought, “I should photograph myself during that moment, print a super-sized image and hang a humongous picture frame on my wall back home.

I got excited when I heard a woman on speakers shouting something in Vietnamese.

I’m sure she was selling a kind of street food even if I didn’t understood what she was shouting. But it reminded me of the short film, Xin lỗi… Anh Chỉ Là Thằng Bán Bánh Giò (I’m Sorry… But I Am Just a Rice and Pork Dumpling Vendor — ok, I literally translated that.).

I was then craving for that Banh Gio!

Banh Gio! Oooooh, just saying its name made me salivate, though I didn’t know how it would taste.

Banh Gio! My stomach grumbled as it prepared its acids to digest that exotic food.

Banh Gio!

… but I ended up in a fast food. (rolls eyes)

Yeah… you read that right. I ended up eating my breakfast in one of the fast food chains in Vietnam, Lotteria.

Lotteria near Bui Vien street in Saigon
Lotteria near Bui Vien street…

But hey, unlike in the Philippines, the fast food establishments in Vietnam (at least in Saigon) aren’t really influenced by Western countries. In fact, Lotteria originated in Tokyo, Japan, way back in 1972 and entered Vietnam in 2004. The original menu items were…

… Oh wait, why was I in a fast food again?

Well, it was because I was travelling solo and never really had the courage to immerse into the local street life by myself — not with my awkward experience with the noodles vendor the night before. No, I am not ready for another awkward experience this soon.

Besides, most of the people on the street don’t speak English. And even if I know “bhao nhieu?” (how much is that?), I don’t think I would quickly comprehend the vendors’ replies. I even often find it hard to recall numbers.

So it made me think of the impracticality of learning how to speak a foreign language without comprehending the essence of a sentence. Too much information. Ouch.

Also, street vendors in Saigon are notorious for overcharging foreigners. Try Googling for “Saigon travels” and you will encounter stories of bloggers narrating their experiences of how they were shocked to be paying high prices for street foods. And thanks to my big, round eyes, I cannot be mistaken for a Vietnamese. (cries)

Well, not to be bitter about it, but the best thing about fast foods in Vietnam is that you’re still eating healthy. Unlike in the Philippines where you’ll generally be eating fried foods in fast foods, the establishments in Saigon have lots of veggies in the menu. And even if it’s chicken, you can choose a so-called soya chicken — whatever that means.

Chicken dish at Lotteria, Saigon
This is so delicious and healthy! It’s chicken. But don’t ask me its name because it was written in Vietnamese. I just pointed at the picture and said, “that”. lolz

Probably the best thing I had in that breakfast was the iced black coffee. It was orgasmic! Well, that may be an exaggeration. But it’s refreshing and so new to me! If you personally know me, you will probably have an idea of how my face lights up when I eat something that I consider to be “oooorgaaaasmic!”

Well, it was just actually (or probably) simple black coffee with ice. But since I first tasted it while on my first-ever, life-changing solo travel in Saigon, drinking the seemingly ordinary coffee became a special experience. (choz!)

The Challenges You’ll Face When You’re a Foreigner on Saigon Streets

There are foreigners everywhere in Saigon, especially in the Ben Thanh market area. There are lone walkers, couples and sometimes, a family. But for an introvert like me who just want to observe things around (and pretend to be not lost), having your peace can be a challenging thing to do. Why?

Scam artists in the disguise of friendly cyclo or motor taxi drivers.

Not that I say all of them are scam artist, but it pays to be vigilant. They will annoyingly convince you to have a tour with them. If you do online research on travel stories in Saigon, you will most likely read experiences about getting scammed through this scheme. They will be friendly to you and will offer to take you to the interesting places in Saigon, for a price of course.

But the tricky part is that you have to make sure that the price quoted is for the entire tour and not on a per hour basis. They will also show you a notebook with a list of comments from the previous “clients”. Just read other bloggers’ travel guides on Saigon to learn the details of how these notes were acquired. As for me? I did my research, that’s why I ended up walking most of the time. And when someone incessantly try to book me a tour, I just smiled, said “I will just walk,” and walk away briskly. Although in many cases, they still ran after me. (cries) Go away!

Benh Than Market in Saigon, photo by Ethan
Beh Thanh. A cyclo driver is the reason why I didn’t get a selfie with this market. Argh.
Ethan in Saigon
On the empty street beside the Independence Palace property. I didn’t have a good shot because the motor taxi driver startled me. Argh! Haha.

Crossing the streets of Saigon.

When you’re used to being guided with traffic lights and street signs, you’ll probably panic when you’re in Saigon. Maybe every Vietnamese of legal age have motorbikes and the roads are filled with these machines. To a foreigner, the road looks like a big chaos swarming with bike riders and a few cars and buses. Probably its 80% motorbikes on the road, so your chances of getting hit is… well, 80%. Lolz.

But fear not! Be brave! Just cross the road (if there’s no street light) and never doubt your heart as you move forward in a steady pace. As my Vietnamese friend told me beforehand, “Saigon motorists are talented drivers.” They can definitely manoeuvre the road without hitting you as long as you won’t make any sudden movements. And after my experiences of crossing Saigon’s streets (and be breezed away twice on the road *whew*), I could say “I trust Vietnamese motorists.” Hey, unlike the drivers here in the Philippines, Saigon’s motorists respect pedestrians who are not even on pedestrian lanes!

… and did I mention that the roads in Ho Chi Minh are wide? And pedestrian lanes aren’t necessarily straight? (dizzy)

Saigon pedestrian lane
Wide roads… and the motorcycle riders will be swarming around you once the traffic light turns green… oh wait, i think there was no traffic lights. (worry)

Getting lost when you can’t read or speak Vietnamese.

When you’re travelling in a country with a culture that’s almost completely different as yours, you should keep in mind the possibility that every building signage and street sign will not be written in your language. I learned that the hard way — actually, I had no choice. The whole time I was roaming Bui Vien at night, my eyes were aimlessly wandering looking for familiar text on the banners and signage… until I read “Ugly but Naughty.” Then I realised (to my shock) that I was in the red light district.

Bitexco Financial Tower in Saigon
At least you get to see amazing sights like this… Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Saigon so far.

What should you do?

• Just trust your instincts when roaming around. If the place doesn’t feel right for you, then why should you stay?
• Have some common sense. You wouldn’t go into dark alleyways on a foreign land, wouldn’t you? Not on your first trip at least.
• Study your map beforehand if you’re an individual who doesn’t want to bring out maps in the open.
• Ask a local if you’re lucky enough to find someone who knows how to speak your language.
Ask a uniformed police for directions. (heart)

Saigon Diary: Walking map from Bui Vien to Independence Palace
It was quite a leisurely walk (only 2.76 km)

Solo Travelling Lesson(s) Learned

• When you’re solo travelling, it’s normal to be lost. Getting lost is one way to develop your sense of direction. It’s also one way of being able to explore an area more intimately. Who knows, you’ll stumble into a treasure of gems while you’re lost.

Author: ethan

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