Sunday, January 2, 2011

Wanderlust: Vietnam Day 1

December 25, 2010-- Ho Chi Minh to Da Lat

This post took longer than I intended because I was distracted by the Liverpool-Bolton match [which we won]!

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh in the early morning even though we were to take a bus at 10PM the same evening for the 8-hour drive to Da Lat City. There wasn't much to do except take a look around and  shop.

Be warned that there aren't many tourist spot photos in this post just yet, which means it'll be heavier on words. I'll be writing about some observations about Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam in general.

One. If you ever wondered where the motorbiking capital of the world is, look no further. I would guess that the ratio of cars to motorbikes in the city is about 1:3. They could well form an army and invade the free world. This photo by a friend of mine, Vic Sison, proves the point. The riders have this stop-for-no-one-and-nothing attitude. There's a running joke that the technique to crossing the streets in Vietnam is suicide by closing your eyes and just going straight forward. It's a little like being in Frogger.

Two. How do I describe tiếng Việt? It's a little difficult to pinpoint the origin of their language what with their letters full of diacritics. At times, it sounds like Cantonese and Korean thrown together. According to Wikipedia, Vietnamese is borrowed from Chinese/Cantonese but has changed over the years due in part to French influences during their approximately 100 years of colonization. To give you an idea, in Mandarin, the Romaji word for "middle" is "zhōng", while in Vietnamese it is "trung".

Three. Whenever I visit new countries, I enjoy taking their Subway or trains. Vietnam is not there yet in terms of development, so your best bet to going places is by taxi. The cabs come in two sizes: smaller ones can seat four people while the bigger ones can seat around seven. There are a lot of rumors about cheating cab drivers in Vietnam so always check that you're meter starts from the base rate, which at the moment is at 10,500₫. According to a Vietnamese friend, when choosing your ride, always pick the cabs that have repeating serial numbers (ie. 356 88 88 88) as these are the more legitimate cab companies. Personally, I like the VinaSun Cabs as they also have agents wearing bright blue polos and red neckties who assist you. Another good company is the Mai Linh Cab Company.

Most cab drivers cannot speak English so it's better if you have the name and the address of your destination written down for him. Ask for your hotel's calling card if you have to. There are around 24 Districts in Ho Chi Minh. Note that some establishments may have several branches located in several different districts.

Four. If you want to be a billionaire that badly, this is a good place to fulfill that fantasy. The currency is called the Vietnam Dong (VND/₫), and their denominations are in the 000s. The smallest amount they have on coin is 200₫ (I don't think you can buy anything with that), and the largest is 500,000₫. Php1 is equal to around 445₫, or about 19,500₫ to a dollar. I'm not used to such a huge denomination and so I always carry a small calculator with me to compute between currencies. Take note that most establishments in the country do not accept credit cards, so make sure you always have at least a million Dong in your pocket, and lots more if you're planning to go on a shopping spree. Food and most items in the flee market are extremely cheap.

Five. Since we're already in the topic of shopping, Vietnam is very famous for its imitations of luxury items, mostly because the quality of their products are much better compared to those made in China. However, some luxury imitations are priced higher than others possibly because they are overruns. The secret to any flee market is haggling like there's no tomorrow. Chances are you can get them to go down by at least 30% of the sales price. I reckon that's what my Mum loves most about shopping in flee markets-- the challenge of getting the seller to surrender to the buyer's demands. However since most Vietnamese don't speak English well, haggling is a little difficult (and mostly funny), but manageable.

There are two popular shopping areas in Ho Chi Minh, both located in District 1 (also known as the wealthiest district). The first one we went to is Saigon Square. There are actually two, an old one and a new one, aptly named Saigon Square 1 and 2.

As you can see, Saigon Square 1 is less spacious and modern than the new one. Also the air-conditioning is much better in #2, not to mention there is FREE WI-FI. Among the "brands" that are sold here are Zara, Mango, Gucci, Burberry, Aldo, Esprit, Armani and the like.

One of the interesting things I found here is the Quilling Paper products by the company VietNet. They have small stalls on the second floor of both Saigon Squares. These handicrafts are very pretty and uncommon and would probably make for good gifts. On the right is a photo I set up for fun of the Chinese Zodiac Quilling Paper statues my Dad bought. Aren't they just adorable to collect? They are all made of paper rolled into small circles. Quite intricate and impressive really. They also have bookmarks, keychains and decorative pictures made out of quilling paper. Very nice works of art, in my opinion.

Another shopping spot is the Bến Thành Market where you can buy dried foods and herbs. The dried jackfruit chips are one of my favorites. A well-known brand in Vietnam is their Trung Nguyen Coffee, particularly the one they call G7 3 in 1 Coffee Mix. It's in no way related to G6 of the Far East Movement (Was that supposed to be a joke?). The iced coffee is one of the most sought-after treats in the country. Most people would buy coffee beans to brew on their own, and then add a little bit of condensed milk and ice. Thumbs up!

Again, bargain. Bargain. Bargain.

In case you're wondering, it's best not to buy "original" branded items or gadgets in this country because they are really expensive. Your best bet remains to be Hong Kong. It's also good to remember to always keep your belongings where you can see them- just to be safe- especially when you're walking through crowded flee markets or even the streets.

Six. Vietnam is very famous for its Phở. For lunch, our Vietnamese friend took us out to eat some Beef Pho in some noodle shop (the name of which escapes me). For dinner, we went to a restaurant called Co Do Restaurant in District 5. I cannot attempt to name the dishes because my attention span for Vietnamese words is low even if I tried lol. I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves. Click for the BIGGER, YUMMIER version.

*Co Do restaurant 361 An Duong Vuong St., Ward 3, District 5, Ho Chi Minh city


  1. Vietnamese is part of the Austro-asiatic langauge family. I think Vietnamese is the most "famous" among its family members. Due to historical encounters with China, as you said, they borrowed many words from the Chinese. Vietnamese even borrowed the Chinese written langauge, added some words that the Vietnamese invented, and called the written langauge "chu nom." Due to the French colonization, chu nom was "abolished" and in turn, led to the Vietnamese writing their langauge in the Latin script.

    It can be observed that the language has many diacritical marks. These diacritical marks either show the degree of nasalization of the a specific vowel, as well as the tone of the word. By combining diacritical marks, even people who are used to reading Latinized scripts will be intimidated by the highly-decorative Vietnamese Latin script. :D:D:D:D I hope this helps!!

    Chuc mu'ng nam mo'i!! :D:D:D:D Happy New Year!!

  2. Hi Gilbert! Thanks for commenting! :D