Sunday, August 31, 2014

The View From Above: Saigon Skydeck

The tallest and most distinctive building in Ho Chi Minh City is the 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower. On floor #49 is the Saigon Skydeck, with a 360-degree birds-eye view of the city. Admission is about $10 US, which is pretty good compared to comparable attractions in other cities.

Yesterday I took the Kiddo to have a look at the city from this vantage point. We took the bus in to District 1 and walked from the Ben Thanh bus station.

It's pretty easy to figure out where to go, as the Bitexco Tower is a rather distinctive landmark.

The tower's first four floors house an upscale mall, a movie theater, and a food court where we stopped for lunch, figuring the food at the cafe on the 50th floor would probably be overpriced. Food court proved to be quite good.

The Skydeck has its own entrance, so we headed back out to the street, taking a moment to look up.

From there, it was up the "fastest elevator in Southeast Asia" and up to check out the view.

It was pretty spectacular.

We got a different view of some familiar places.

Ben Thanh Market.

And the Ben Thanh Bus Station.

The world-famous Majestic Hotel.

Which does not actually look all that majestic from this angle.

(We've been inside it, though, and it is quite lovely).

Here's another of Saigon's famous hotels, the Rex (foreground left), along with Saigon City Hall.

Boats on the Saigon River.

And some views of the city, stretching to the horizon.

 This cluster of buildings includes the Lan Lan 2 Hotel, where we stayed when we first arrived in Vietnam.

The foot-bridge over a branch of the river.

Another view of City Hall.

After making our way down the elevator, we visited some of the sites we had seen from above to check them out at street level.

The Kiddo had a great time checking out the sites through the telescopes (which were free to use, as opposed to the pay versions you find in a lot of attractions).

The foot bridge.

 The Thuong Xa Tax department store.

The Rex Hotel.

 City Hall.

 And here are a couple more views of the Bitexco Tower from the streets.

This was a nice day trip, not too costly, and a good way to experience the city from a different perspective. More photos from the Saigon Skydeck can be found in this Flickr Album, and this album contains pictures from all over Ho Chi Minh City taken this month.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mekong Delta Tour

We've slowly started to see some of the sights in Ho Chi Minh City. Last weekend, we decided to head out of town.

The Mekong Delta tour is one of those prepackaged tourist things that everyone does. That being said, it ended up being pretty awesome.

Some co-workers had passed along the information for an agency that set them up on the tour the previous week. I looked at the options available on their website. There was a one-day tour to see the floating markets, but it left at 6 AM, which I was a bit iffy on after my first week at the new job.

So I ended up going to the agency's office to talk to them in person. In addition to Gynn and the Kiddo, there were two co-workers interested in going. The agency assured me that they could arrange a one-day tour private tour for five, leaving from our neighborhood in District 7 at a time of our choosing. So I decided that we should set out at the more civilized hour of 8 AM.

Our party gathered the next morning and there was some confusion with the guide trying to find our location, but after some back-and-forth, the van arrived and we were off on our first trip through the countryside.

Our guide, Nhi, was awesome, and it turns out that the tour guides are freelancers, so we got her contact information and she is going to be our first go-to person for future travel planning within Vietnam.

It was about a 2- hour drive to the Delta. We made one stop (at the "Mekong Delta Rest Stop"!), before our first actual tourist destination, a Cao Dai temple in the town that would be our river port.

Cao Dai is a relatively new religion in Vietnam that combines elements of Catholicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The temple was beautifully decorated.

Outside the temple in the side alley, we were like, "Look! Random dragon!"

As it turns out, the dragon was affixed to this vehicle, which Nhi explained is used in funeral processions.

Which immediately makes Vietnamese funerals way cooler than western ones. Because dragon.

After exploring the temple a bit (and Gynn buying a plant pot at a local shop), we returned to the van and headed to the river port.

We got on a boat and set out among the traffic of the Mekong.

This is a catfish-boat heading down river and out to sea:

We crossed the river and docked at a coconut candy-making place. We were used to this from some of our tours in China. There are always a few stops to give the chance to spend money. That being said, the coconut candy was delicious and not very expensive. We also got coconut rice paper, which is absolutely awesome as a crunchy snack. Here is the rice paper being made:

From there, we rode horse carts through a local village to get a snack of fruit and tea and hear some traditional music.


Next up we were paddled down a narrow canal back to the docking area by these awesome Mekong Delta oarswomen.

From there it was lunch time (the fruit snack and lunch were included in the cost of the tour; which was pretty reasonable at $50 per person). The main course: Elephant-ear fish from the Mekong river!

The server peeled the skin and took the meat off the fish and rolled it with rice paper and vegetables into spring rolls for us. There was tamarind sauce and chili sauce for dipping. The meal also included some deep fried spring rolls and fried rice, all quite delicious.

From there it was time to head back across the river.

We sipped some freshly-cut coconuts on the ride back to the dock and then boarded the van back to HCMC.

This trip definitely had a tourist-package vibe to it, but none of us minded. The scenery and food were lovely, and we had fun the whole day. We missed out on seeing the floating markets (they close at 10 AM, so you really do have to be up at the crack of dawn to catch those), and there is a ton more to see on the Delta, so we well definitely be back there at some point.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Oddities, Absurdities, and Quirks

A few little things I've noticed after a few weeks of living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

  • People carrying ridiculous amounts of things on a motorbike.

  • Lizards on the walls at night. Roosters wandering the streets. Giant snails.
  • The guy on the bus this morning who was carrying a live chicken in a bag.
  • The reaction of my co-workers when they find out I use the city bus system
  • And speaking of the bus... Back in the USA, we have a thing called a bus stop. Here, they have something that might more accurately be called a bus "stop". Or maybe a bus-slows-down-enough-that-you-can-risk-life-and-limb-jumping-on-or-off.
  • People (very rich people, presumably) here who own  Lamborghinis in a city where they're never going to get to drive over 40 MPH (and I hear the country roads don't get much faster).
  • Spam is kept in a locked case in the local grocery store.

  • Apparently, it's perfectly fine to ride your motorbike on the sidewalk or to ride it the wrong way up a divided highway or one-way street, but you had better wear your helmet or use your turn signals, or you get pulled over. Fines, by the way, are paid in cash, on the spot.
  • Speaking of cash, the exchange rate is 20,000 VND to the dollar. Who wants to be a millionaire? A million is what you withdraw from the ATM for a night out with friends.
  •  Frog porridge. Original Singapore frog porridge. Since 2006.

These are just a few of the quirky things we've encountered here. In the meantime, the job is off to a good start, I've been enjoying daily pool time, and we've been having a great time eating awesome food that is very inexpensive.

We haven't tried the frog porridge yet. But it could happen. We live two floors up from the restaurant that serves it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Moving In

We signed the lease on a Saturday morning and got sick that afternoon. Gynn was pretty much up all night with congestion. I did a bit better, but not much, and the Kiddo mostly just slept, which was the best thing he could have done.

So, by 4 AM on Sunday, we were all wide awake, still sniffling and sneezing and miserable, and just waiting for breakfast to open because we all skipped dinner and barely ate any lunch.

We had a whole day to kill, because we couldn't move in until Monday, and aside from a few logistical details like working out the time for the move-in, we really had nothing to do. Since Kiddo was the most rested, he was not about to do well sitting in the hotel room all day, so I went for the simplest approach to killing time that would get him out of the house so Gynn could rest.

We walked to the Saigon Zoo.

Now, this would not have been my first choice for tourist destinations. It does not treat its animals with anything close to Western standards. But "zoo" was something the Kiddo could understand and readily agree to, and it was 25 minutes away walking, and there was enough to see there that the trip would easily use up at least half the day. Also, it opens early in the morning, even on Sundays (Sunday is pretty much business-as-usual here, being that the majority religion is Buddhist).

So off to the zoo.

As expected, I cringed a bit at the less-than-ideal conditions the animals were kept in (not horrific, as I said, way short of US standards). However, the zoo also had plenty of amusement rides, which were pretty reasonably priced, plus lots of plain walking through the botanical gardens portions.

We got lunch at Subway on the way home (easy, and air-conditioned), and ended up skipping dinner again, and once again waking up in the pre-dawn hours to pack for the move.

We had our last hotel breakfast, loaded everything into a cab, and headed out to D7.

After some time spent dealing with setting up cable and wifi, we found ourselves in our new home. First stop was the pool! Did I mention it's on our floor? I've been in it every day since we mvoed in except one, and I made up for that by going in twice today. SO nice! Kiddo loves it too!

Now that we were settled in, we were faced with a new problem: Money.

Let me digress a bit to tell you about the VND, or Vietnamese dong. That's their unit of currency. GZo ahead and giggle. We did. I'll wait.

So, the exchange rate is approximately 20,000 dong to the dollar. There is no bill smaller than 500 dong that I've seen. Everyone just deals in thousands. If you want to buy a Coke and the cashier asks for "Eight", they mean 8000 VND. $50 is about a million dong

Now the apartment requires first, last, and security deposit, just like in the US. The landlord was happy to take US dollars, so we paid him $1200 in cash when we signed the lease, which was slightly less than half of what was owed. The landlord is an elderly gentleman who seems very nice, but has no idea how to deal with electronic fund transfers, and we were essentially out of US dollars in cash.

So the solution was to pay the rest of the upfront costs ($1350 US) in VND. Starting to see the issue here? That amount is over 28 million dong. And the withdrawal limits on the local ATMs were almost all 2 million. Now there is apparently no limit to the number of transactions you can make, but I was being cautious about not wanting to just stand there making withdrawal after withdrawal all at once.

About fourteen trips to the ATM later over the course of the next two days, and we finally paid off the deposit and I felt like the apartment was offically ours.

Here are a few pics of the new place.

The den, AKA the guest room, AKA the war room (so named because I am in the process of hanging maps on all the walls).

The master bedroom:

The pool (!):

Of course for the place to truly be home we needed the whole family here. Melody was delivered later that afternoon by the gentleman who had kindly taken care of here while we were in the hotel. And when I say she was delivered, I mean by motorcycle, of course. That's how just about everything gets delivered in this city.

Melody was a bit frazzled upon arrival, but is settling in nicely. We all are.