Ok, We Go! Jo Chi Minh City
Updated: Jun 16
First day in Vietnam... let the walking, the sore & blistered feet and the jet lag begin!
Today I explored... I have to admit, from the moment I woke up, life was a bit daunting... as one might expect it to be when you wake up in a foreign country and you don't speak the language... and you're all alone. But... it's go time!
I organized my belongings in the hotel room, got myself prepped for the day (or part of it anyway) and headed out on to the streets. I must have only made it about 15 metres down the sidewalk before it came time for my virginal crossing of the road. And believe me... this is a big thing. There are no street lights or traffic cops or stop signs (at least not many anyway!) - there is only chaos and a lot of it. I took refuge with an older Australian couple. As soon as I saw them, I scurried right up beside them and without shame, announced "I just got to Vietnam. I've never been here before and this is my first cross walk, so I'm going to stick with you two. Hope you don't mind." Very matter of fact. I think that I caught them slightly off guard, but they both turned and looked right at me- surprisingly enough without that 'you're nuts' look in their eyes (unless thoroughly disguised), and the lady said "We all glob together like sticky rice and go!"
With that, we all took off in to the traffic, dodging and weaving between cars and mopeds and other pedestrians. Surreal... yet safe. Once that first time cross was taken care of and well under my belt, the rest of the day crossing the streets became a breeze and I can quite honestly say that I can now cross these roads like a bad ass mo-fo. Don't believe me, just watch.
So, what did I do today?....
First off, I found the market. Actually, I take that back....
The Australians led me to the market, pointed at it and then set me loose. This market, mere blocks from my hotel, is ENORMOUS and they have everything from fruit, veggies & coffee, to chopsticks & rice paper magnets, to knock off high-end purses & silk shirts, to intestines, fish guts & live frogs to... to... everything... and then more stuff that you couldn't even imagine would be there if you were paid to imagine it would be there. Seriously. Walking through and trying to take it all in, while clutching my belongings, listening to;
Looky look! I have something for you. Lady! Lady! Lady! You must have kind with me and buy! Do me favour and lady look!
I didn't really want to buy anything, as it was my first day in Vietnam and anything I buy today gets hauled around with every single day until I fly out... But I did get suckered in to some cool chopsticks and colourful little change purses. Christmas done. The smells are similar to Ecuador... almost a cross between rotten veggies, rotten meat, exhaust, garbage, soup, diesel, fried pork... and dirty... yet with this almost sweet odour lingering... it's enough to jump start the senses... Things I've noticed so far in Vietnam;
The 3-story KFC that seems empty all the time. Why 3 stories? Who needs that?
The extensive use of the 'outdoor' free exercise park equipment. People love it! :-)
Full 2 piece women's patterned outfits. Usually the same gaudy & bright pattern for top and bottom. Sometimes 2 completely different gaudy & bright patterns.
There is a LOT of garbage.
I spent a large part of the day exploring the Independence Palace and learning about the beginnings of Ho Chi Minh City and the rise & fall of President Diem. It was really interesting and just as I was about to head over to the War Museum, I was hit with another bout of 'go to sleep now.' Back to the hotel for a nap. War Museum will have to wait. Although, I might add, the Independence Palace did have a few old Vietnamese tanks outside in the garden and there were a group of girls wearing slightly too tight items of clothing and doing the hand-on-hip sexy, 'look away' poses in front of them. It was strange. Here's my sexy tank photo. Hot.
I have booked the Floating Market Tour for tomorrow. They are (fingers crossed) picking me up at my hotel at 7:30am. I like to say 'fingers crossed' because who honestly knows. Maybe when I booked, I agreed to be picked up down by the river? No idea. Time will tell.
After my nap on the hardest bed on the planet... no joke... this bed puts 1990's Futons to shame... after this, I headed out to the Street Food Market. Guess what was waiting there for me when I arrived? Salad rolls and peanut sauce! My first peanut sauce of the trip. It wasn't exactly the North American version that I've come to love and adore... but definitely not turn-down-able...
I just had such a difficult time trying to choose between the Mushroom roll and the Shrim Roll... shrimp seems to be a staple of this trip. Shrim too :-)
At one point during the day, I suddenly got it in my head that I wanted an ice cream cone. It's hot and muggy here. Don't judge.
BUT... at that exact moment, right where I was standing, there were two options in front of me. McDonald's was on one side of the building I was standing in front of, advertising their soft serve cones... and the Postal Cafe Bar was on the other side.
It was like a real life choose your own adventure book...
Life time achievement of the day: Saving the planet from McDonald's one cocktail at a time. One more mention. There is a dead cockroach in my hotel room.
Now... spending a year in Ecuador served to desensitize my disgust of these creatures, but now I'm left to wonder, why did he die in my room?
I decided to throw caution to the wind, really embrace my time in Ho Chi Minh City and... Do a Motorcycle Street Lovers Food Tour.
It was on the brochure that I received from the hotel, looked somewhat interesting, wasn't toooooo expensive and just so happens that I was free in the evening... with no friends and zero plans.
Does the name seem funny to anyone else? Is it a food tour for people that love streets? Something to ponder... It was going to cost me 1,050,000 Dong... which might seem like a lot of money to some, but chump change to me. lol You have no idea how much I have battled with the currency since arriving (albeit not even 24 hours ago). There are TOO many zeros for my liking and I tend to have 'currency converter brain freeze'each time, desperately trying to figure out quickly in my head if I'm being ripped off buying a Diet Coke for $20 or scoring a sweet deal on a set of set of colourful silk purses for $1. The struggle is real. I'll tell you what else is real... and don't be bored because I've mentioned it before.
The CHAOS on the roads in this city.
Not only are there normal vehicles, taxis, vans, work trucks AND buses... but there are also about 79 million mopeds (all heading in completely different directions) AND pedestrians desperately trying to cross the road at any given point. If there is no room on the road, they veer up on to the sidewalk. They merge in just about anywhere they want, change direction, turn on a dime and basically, don't give a shit about anyone on the road. And the funniest part about it is that no one gives a shit. It just is what it is.
My tour began at 5:30pm and I was told to be in the lobby for pick up at that exact time. Jet lag had set in, so I'd come back from a walk in the afternoon and gone straight to hard bed. Set my alarm for 5:10 and it had literally JUST buzzed when my phone rang informing me that my tour guide was waiting for me in the lobby. Jump up, shorts, t-shirt, comfortable shoes, camera... go! Then I met Mai.
Mai was my motorcycle (more like moped) tour guide of the evening. She wasn't really what I was expecting. Actually, to tell you the truth, I have no idea what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn't a chubby little 24 year old girl with thick glasses and food in her teeth. She seemed nice- and above all - she seemed to have a confidence and capability on her moped that I would lack, so that gave me some assurance riding behind her.
I'll tell you one thing about Mai... she could talk.
In fact, Mai could talk so much that I had to stop listening and responding throughout parts of the evening because I got tired of saying Pardon? What? Excuse me? Missed that,
She would talk to me in traffic, through the continual honking and the hustle bustle of the boisterous city - she would talk with her mouth full of food - she would talk when she was looking away from me or metres away from me... she would talk... and then talk some more... and talk talk talk...
And on a scale of 1-10, her English was maybe a 4.5... which made not only having a conversation difficult, but understanding the conversation near impossible. What I did understand was "Ok! We go!"... which she said after every stop. This implied that we put down everything instantly, get back on the moped and back in to traffic to our next destination. At one point during the evening, she did inquire as to if I spoke any other languages... When I mentioned Spanish, she got very excited because she knows one word in Spanish.
"Vamos" - which basically translates to "Ok! We go"
Funny that. The food tour was fun. Our first stop (to eat) was Vietnamese Pizza.
Mai told me that it wasn't like the normal Italian pizza - because that pizza had too much sauce and cheese and mayonnaise...?
The mayonnaise part both confused and intrigued me, but I decided not to enter in to a complicated word war and just let it go. I'm definitely going to find an Italian pizzeria in Vietnam though and come to the bottom of this on my own. Vietnamese pizza was in essence, a thin ham & green onion omelette on rice paper. It was pretty good. Mai drenched it in chili's which gave it a bit of bite... we ate up... and then "Ok! We go!"
At one point, as we were walking through some random back alley of food, Mai asked me if I wanted to try baby duck. At first, I wasn't opposed, because I've had grown duck before. Right? I say, bring on the babies... Then the conversation got too weird for me...
"Is very good... you break open... you see small head and small wing. Is very good
Mai, you lost me.
I looked it up... it's called Fetal Duck.
Tempting... but maybe I was just too full from omelette pizza.
We'll go with that.
Next stop; Flower Market... hundreds of colourful flower vendors in this one area. I don't really know what else to say about it, except it was very beautiful. I couldn't really buy anything...
At one point, we drove through this area and Mai yelled out "Market for the ...(word I didn't quite understand)" - ....sounded like best... ??
Times like this, I would just take matters in to my own hands, look around and try to figure it out on my own. There were dogs and cats in cages everywhere, lining the streets.
Market for the PETS. It was a scuff of the hand to indicate we were there and just passing through without stopping. Thank God. Blaire's words of wisdom echoed, "Don't pet the dogs!"
At the beginning of the street-lovers tour, Mai had asked me if I had any dietary restrictions or allergies. No. I honestly don't. I have my daily suspicions that I might be a Celiac, have a dairy intolerance and a strong, abnormal intolerance for wine, but nothing has been medically confirmed yet. I said no. And I meant it. But... then as luck should have it, the second foodie stop was rice paper wrapped mushroom and pork. Ooops! Forgot to mention the intense dietary restriction & life-threatening allergy that I have to mushrooms. Second stop - Vietnamese baguette loaded with pork, chicken, carrots, some delicious mystery sauce and cilantro! Double Ooops...? I absolutely forgot to mention that if cilantro goes in my mouth, I will die right here in front of you. If this had been a wine tour for people that love streets, I would have been just fine! Must also mention that part of the tour included me 'learning how to cook'... though I can truly say, with the most utmost certainty, that anyone who watches this video probably won't be quite so eager to come running at me with a honorary Red Seal... but I'd like to think I'm on my way. Here it is... Joanna's Vietnamese Cooking Class. Please note that by this time, I'm full, I'm tired again and I've been on the back of a moped for almost 4 hours & legs are tensing up. Then I get the big question...
"What percentage your stomach?"
THAT... said to ME, with a Vietnamese accent and quite a mumbling, slurring twist, on a moped, while in heavy (and might I add, LOUD) traffic, in the middle of the city... does NOT make an ounce of sense. For this one, we actually had to pull over, because no matter how many times she said it, it wasn't sinking in. I honestly thought that maybe this was a Vietnamese round-a-bout way of asking me how much I weight... Finally we got it.
What she meant was; "How full are you?"
Who'd a thunk?
Yes... there was more food to come. I really didn't mean to be rude, but the percentage of my stomach was almost 100% and I didn't think that I was able to fit much more in. I know that I mentioned all the cilantro and mushrooms in previous locations, but these people cooking were so adamant on me eating that they'd made me substitutions, like bean sprout egg bites and grilled pork dipped in fish oil... we had also stopped for Vietnamese Iced Tea and some kind of green beverage...
But onwards and upwards.
One of our final stops was for a rice paper patty wrapped with a rice flour & turmeric concoction, topped with bean sprouts, shrimp and chicken. The plate was FULL of a variety of different types of lettuce, leaves and herbs. Mai made me taste each one to try and differentiate between them. Romaine, basil, mustard greens... there were a lot... One was hard to put my finger on.
"Shrimp and Shower."????? "Showwwww-er"
"Showwwww-er.... Showwwww-er... Showwwww-er"
Still at a loss... as I racked my brain trying to figure out what taste I was tasting. Did I recognize it? Was I desperately trying to recognize it just to seem cool and maybe get this part of the evening over with? Was it something from the shower? She was really throwing me off with the shrimp part.... Eucalyptus? Cilantro soap taste? GAWD... I don't know. Next quiz, please... Believe me... it went on for a while... The entire time, Mai sat there enunciating 'shower' over and over again... to no avail. Turns out it was Sweet n' Sour.
Also turns out that the Vietnamese can't wrap their tongues around the difference in pronunciation between shower and sour. No biggie. I can't speak any Vietnamese... so look who's winning now. Not me. A week before I embarked on my vacation, a regular customer at the pub I work at, made a point that I should learn a little bit of Vietnamese before I embarked on this journey. This was very good advice. The phrase that he felt very strongly about me learning was "Don't kill me," which perhaps wasn't particularly the stellar advice I needed... but who am I to judge? We all decided that it would be a much more pleasant & polite phrase to learn if we were to embrace our Canadian courtesy and add in 'please' at the end of it.
Don't kill me, please.
Đừng giết tôi, làm ơn.
Everyone had a good laugh, as we envisioned classic scenarios where this phrase might come in handy. Being on the back of that moped at in what seemed to be four hours of Ho Chi Minh City rush hour, I can't think of a better time for that phrase to come in useful. There were a few times it crossed my mind. I took this video and the only way that I could share it to this blog posting, was to YouTube it. Now, I fully understand that there may have been more intense moments on the road with other tourists and locals, but this was ME... on the back of the bike... Don't Kill Me, Please - Watch it. Know the struggle. Ok! We go...