We thoroughly enjoyed our travels through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, three vibrant countries that gave us surprising insights into cultures so very different from our own. We also gained some insight into how we travel best as Senior Nomads...
Goodbye Cambodia, Good Morning Vietnam! The travel to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is known now, was easy. At the airport we bought Vietnamese SIM cards that came with reduced cab fare to the city so we were off and running. Our Airbnb wasn’t bad either. It was in the center of the city in Nguyen Thai Bihn but fortunately for us, it was tucked down a quiet side street. Having said that, there was still plenty going on just below our balcony.
At one end was a coffee shop that roasted their own beans (lovely smells in the early morning), at the other end was a florist that turned into a tiny cocktail bar at night. There was an acclaimed restaurant called Secret House just across the street, and in between, there were little three and four table eateries and hole in the wall shops. One, where an entrepreneurial young woman created simple, stylish dresses all day and hung them for sale fresh off the sewing machine, was my favorite.
On our first night we walked to the grocery store along a crowded street in the “Backpackers” district. It was exactly that - an area full of bars and hostels and cheap eats filled with young travelers. We ran into two bewildered American girls who were very lost. Michael fired up his Google Maps app and we were able to guide them to their hostel.
From there we crossed the street and followed the pounding music to a two-block-long night market crammed with tantalizing food stalls. If something could be skewere, it could be grilled! And the aroma from dozens of deep pots of curry and spicy stews wafted over everything. Then there were piles of fresh fruit (also skewered), salad rolls, and all kinds of pickles. But you couldn’t leave without passing the sticky sweet buns, towering rainbows of shaved ice and fantastic flower shaped cotton candy being spun before your eyes.
At either end there were merchandise stalls, ad-hoc bars, and street performers. Michael moved his wallet to his front pocket, I kept a hand on my purse and we ran the gauntlet. We decided to come back the next night and indulge in all kinds of new and interesting food because it all looked good - and it was cheap!
The next morning we bravely hopped on the back of motorbikes and let two college students take us into the fray showing us "their" Saigon. I’ve never seen so many motorcycles on the road in my life. They are certainly the most common form of transportation and they were used for everything from holding entire families, to delivering goods stacked high above the driver, to becoming drink dispensaries that pulled alongside drivers at intersections for 30 second transactions! Our guides David and Ann (their easier to pronounce "English" names) were great fun. We felt very safe as we zipped in an out of traffic like we were in a huge school of fish.
We zoomed around the city stopping briefly at the main attractions and then had coffee and Bahn mi sandwiches together before being dropped at the War Memorial for our last stop.
Being exposed to the tragedies of the Vietnam war was an eye-opening and depressing experience, but it shouldn’t be missed. We decided to take a cab home and paid a fare that seemed a bit steep, but we weren’t in the mood to argue. As we climbed out of the car the driver got all worked up because he said we paid less than the full fare. The Vietnamese Dong is a confusing currency because it comes with a lot of zeroes and so 20000 can look a lot like a 200000. Maybe we did make a mistake - but I don’t think so. The problem was, we’d given him all of our cash.
So now we had to find an ATM and that is not easy here. So this same dodgy character was going to drive us around even longer while we found the cash that I am sure we’d given him in the first place. It wasn’t a large amount of money in US dollars - but on the heels of our Cambodian airport experience, we were feeling a bit abused.
The next night we returned to the food stalls. I had a memorable plate of grilled octopus with okra and Michael had chicken curry that he formed a love-heat relationship with. After all that eating, you might need a napkin. Good luck with that. We’ve come to understand in this part of the world napkins are Kleenex and if you’d like a small pack, one of the scrappy kindergarten age children darting between your legs would be happy to sell one to you.
When we first arrived at the market we stopped at various stalls selling t-shirts, souvenirs, and wallets. Michael needed a new wallet so we fondled a few, but moved on. Little did we know he’d really need a new wallet the next day. As we headed home with an eye towards finding ice-cream, Michael felt his back pocket. Then his front pocket. It turned out his own wallet had been fondled! He had, indeed, been pick-pocketed.
After all these years of carefully moving his wallet from back to front on subways and crowded places, this time he hadn’t, and now it was gone. There was no point going back into the frenzy to see if anyone had found it. Found it and what? We were resigned to going home and canceling the credit cards and moving some auto-payments around. Luckily he’d kept our cash in a different pocket and our passports were safely at home in our Airbnb.
So in the end, it was more of a more of a warning that we might be traveling too fast and becoming careless, than a tragedy. We could still use my debit card, and we had backup credit cards tucked away in a safe place for just this type of emergency. We had new cards sent to our Airbnb in Hong Kong and carried on. After all, it's not what happens to you, it's how you react.
Michael kicked himself more than necessary since we’ve both made mistakes that have caused a bit of drama, but after this, we vowed to slow down, double check, be mindful of where things were at all times, and where we were!
The next day we were off for an Airbnb Experience called “Touching Local Life”. It promised to be a day filled with a behind-the-scenes look at everyday life in Saigon. We met our guide Lan Ming outside our Airbnb early in the morning and jumped in a cab to head to Tao Dan park. There we would watch locals doing Tai-chi and Zumba to get the blood flowing. We got out of the cab and started walking down a path when Michael went pale. We’d left our backpack on the backseat of the cab. So much for last nights commitment!
Our cab was one of thousands of lime green taxis - and it was quickly swallowed up in traffic so we couldn’t chase it down. The bad news was my phone was in that backpack! Shades of Thailand! But at least this time Michael was able to quickly connect to Find-my-Phone so, for better or worse, we tracked it in real time on his iPhone as it slowly moved away from us across town. Michael called my phone a couple of times but no answer. How would we ever find that cab again? And what if the next passenger took a shine to our green backpack!
Luckily our trusty guide jumped into action and called the cab company to report the situation. Within 20 minutes they called her back and said their very honest driver had called them when he realized our bag was on the backseat. He would turn it in at company headquarters later in the afternoon. Whew!
We decided to return our attention to the tour and enjoy ourselves even though we had obviously not taken our own advice from the night before. From the park we took in the flower market and then wandered dark and narrow residential alleyways. From there we took in a sprawling marketplace dedicated just to selling motorbike parts!
For most of that time we were in our own Pedicab with the driver sitting behind us so we saw things passing at eye level. It was like being in the first car of a roller coaster - sort of scary, but also like flying!
We took a break to learn how to make Vietnamese coffee while watching some older gentleman gathered in a park playing dominoes and showing off their talking birds. Next we rolled through Chinatown and stopped at an ancient pagoda (to wish for a safe delivery of the backpack and my phone) and finally, after lunch we headed to the cab company.
Happily, we connected with the driver and in fact, hired him to take us home - on the condition we thoroughly check the cab for all belongings before he let us out.
As a side note, this isn't the first time we got my trusty green backpack from what looked like a lost cause. We'd left it hanging on the gate in front of our Airbnb on a busy road in Capetown, South Africa a year ago. We happened to be in a cab about a half an hour away when we realized it and panicked. Our driver was convinced it wouldn't be there and it wasn't worth turning around - but we did, and there she was, just waiting.
And so ended our time in Saigon. We were off to Hanoi next where, apparently, anything could happen. But fortunately, nothing went too terribly wrong. Our Airbnb was very modern and comfortable, but you had to brave a very dark entryway, scoot through the prep area of a restaurant and up some scruffy stairs to get to the front door. But once inside it was an oasis.
This is where I would like to remind fellow travelers to be brave. We’ve always found the beautiful Airbnb in the photos even if it's hidden inside a forbidding looking entryway. The owners often have no control over the exterior of their buildings but have used their resources to lavish their attention on the listing itself. So go on in and discover the miracle.
Unlike the more progressive southern part of the country, Hanoi has clung to its communist roots and has a reverence for Ho Chi Minh that was still palpable. After all, North Vietnam “won the war”. We toured the beloved Leaders' palace and grounds (although he eschewed the palace and lived in a more humble home tucked into the gardens) with two college-aged guides who were far to young to remember the war, or it’s aftermath. Still, they were very reverential about Ho Chi Mihn.
We enjoyed this smaller, less frantic city after Saigon. And we did, in fact, slow our pace down. We had some nice meals, took another great walking tour, and made several laps around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of the city. We even stayed in for an afternoon to watch The Royal Wedding from start to finish. And I enjoyed a cooking class where I learned to make spring rolls, Pho, and grilled beef in Lolot leaves.
Consistent with conditions in all three countries, our trip ended with downpour. This time it actually caught us by surprise as we were walking to an Airbnb Experience for dinner in a private home. We would have arrived just on time, but had to wait out a squall that came on fast and hard with rain that sounded like pachinko balls bouncing off the pavement.
As it grew later, we decided to we’d have to run the last two blocks and we arrived looking like we just stepped out of the shower with our clothes on. The other eight guests had started eating and we were sat at a tiny “kids” table in the corner of the room. We were served a dinner that had gone cold and I have to say, was inedible hot or not. Stringy spinach, murky soup, clumpy rice and mystery meat. The unadorned spinach was the best part, and that’s saying something. I had my heart set on the traditional family meal in the description, so I was near tears - which wouldn’t have mattered because I was soaking wet anyway. We left as soon as it was polite and soothed ourselves with ice cream. Works every time.
On our last night, dinner in the romantic, lantern-lit courtyard of Madame Hein's offered a hazy look back at what it must have been like when Vietnam was a French colony. Prior to dinner, we took in a show called Lang-Toi - my Village. A cultural performance that was part Cirque de Soleil meets bamboo, along with traditional music and dancing that depicted a day in the life of a small fishing village. It was captivating. Click the link to watch a short trailer of the show.
That's it for our adventures in South East Asia. We will take away fond memories and a few hard lessons from our time here. Time to pack up and head to Hong Kong where we had new friends waiting for us and another culture to explore. And, of course, a renewed commitment to keep our wits, and our things about us at all times! See you there.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads