Hilaw na Vietnamese: My 4-day trip to Saigon (15K all-in)

No more intro, let’s start!

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First time at the exit row

IMMIGRATION

Yes, I’d like to mention this particular thing. But I deleted the almost one paragraph I had already typed because I might just make a separate post for that. Not that I’m a frequent traveler.

I was nervous. I’m traveling alone. That was my first time traveling alone outside of the country. It’s my first time to be interrogated at NAIA. I didn’t have a COE or an LOA approved. I didn’t have a hotel reservation. I somehow felt that my interrogation was longer than the previous ones before me. But—hallelujah! It was really how I felt when the IO stamped my passport and let me through.

SLEEPING AT THE AIRPORT

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My medyo effort na sleeping-kuno shot.

I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport—I don’t remember the time honestly but that was somewhere 12-2 AM. There’s a one hour difference between Philippines and Vietnam, the latter being one hour behind. The plane arrived a few minutes earlier than the estimated time. It wasn’t normal but I wished our flight was delayed because then, I will spend less time sleeping at the airport.

I think sleeping at the airport is practical if you really don’t mind much the discomfort. You save one night’s worth of accommodation. It’s safe there than taking a cab very early in the morning. The transportation is cheaper during the normal working hours. And if there’s someone to fetch you, it would save them from worrying about fetching you at unholy hours.

Good: I found electric plugs to charge my drain-fast cellphone! I found one just next to the restroom.

Bad: Not a lot of benches inside to sleep on. I didn’t find an open food shop (but I guess that’s great to control my appetite).

At around 7 AM, I met Kan, a university student who I met at Couchsurfing.

Brief intro: He’s not hosting/surfing but the website is a good platform for his thesis about travelers’ travel motivation to Ho Chi Minh. I responded to his questionnaire and somehow struck a conversation. He offered to tour me around the city. =)

MONEY CHANGER

Vietnamese dong not available in Iloilo. Naubusan din sa NAIA. So one of my priorities that morning aside from breakfast was to change my money.

I had money in my EON Visa Card so I thought I’ll just withdraw from the ATM. I read that was an easy way to change money and the exchange rate was okay. But I had a few pesos with me. While waiting at the airport, I read articles that they advise changing your peso to US dollars then to VND for better exchange rate. Too late for me.

I had my P 1,000 changed to VND at the airport just in case. The exchange rate was PHP 1 =  405 VND. I know that it’s supposed to be somewhere around 450 but it’s in the airport so I somehow expected the exchange rate to be not favorable. Though, it was good that I had it exchanged at the booth right after immigration and not the one outside, the only money changer open at that time. I asked and their rate was 385 VND.

Kan took me to Kim Mai. I changed my peso bills with 440 VND exchange rate. I thought it was fine.

During my last day, I changed my VND to PHP at Agribank with P 1 = 450 VND exchange rate. It’s somewhere in the backpacker street.

I’m not a really “finance-oriented’ person nor I’m good in math to tell if it’s a good rate or not so it’s up to you.

HO CHI MINH CITY TOUR

We toured around the city to the places that I have mentioned to Kan during our previous chats. He rides a motorbike, like all the other Vietnamese as I have discovered. I was quite surprised about it, the parking spaces, and the motorbikes at the streets.

I mean, I watched a video from a blog about crossing the streets in Vietnam is quite a big deal. I thought it would be easier for me since I’m used to the “patintero” with vehicles in the Philippines. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Kan told me the trick is not to walk fast but to walk slowly. If you’re crossing the street, the bikes will not stop for you but slowly walk so that they could adjust passing you by.
  • Parking spaces for motorbikes are everywhere. Some sidewalks are made to have small ramps for those. At my host’s home, they have a ramp so that they could easily drive the motorbike inside their house.
  • There are places where they have a parking fee. Around 5,000 VND usually.

We ate breakfast first.

Kan dropped me at the Notre Dame Cathedral because he had to meet a friend. Since I didn’t have Internet access yet and didn’t have a SIM card, we just agreed we’ll meet there after an hour.

It was a Sunday so there’s a mass going on and I entered. The mass is in Vietnamese. During the communion, I know it’s not advisable but I left my bag and asked the girl beside me to watch for it, and went for communion. After the mass, the girl introduced herself as Tua. She was from Hanoi but had work at Ho Chi Minh for a few days. I learned from her:

  • Vietnam has a number of Catholics/Christians too and not just Buddhists.
  • After that mass I attended, there is another mass in English for the foreigners. She told me at some churches, they also have French mass.
  • If you’re lucky, it’s safe to leave your bag with strangers and make friends with them, LOL.img_20161120_092746

Eventually, we said goodbye and I went around the cathedral. I realized why they had a mass in French. Just outside were a group of tourists with a French guide.

An hour later, good thing Kan saw me walking on the streets. We went ahead to Ho Chi Minh Museum and I learned:

  • Ho Chi Minh is a person! (I need that exclamation point) Yeah, I’m surprised because I thought it was simply a name for the city. Turns out, the place was named after their famous leader Ho Chi Minh.
  • There are two Ho Chi Minh museums, one about Ho Chi Minh, the Leader and one for Ho Chi Minh, the city.
  • Kan bought the entrance fee. And if only I hadn’t spoken in English, I could have only paid 4,000 VND instead of 10,000 VND because the one behind the counter thought I’m Vietnamese.
  • Nothing is as precious as freedom and independence.

Then we went to the Jade Pagoda simply because I want to try praying at a temple. I bought incense and Kan taught me how to pray. He said, Buddha might not understand me since I don’t speak their language so he taught me introducing myself to Buddha in Vietnamese. I’ve learned:

  • I’m not good at grasping Vietnamese words.
  • There are people who pray at temples. And like Kan, there are people who have mini shrines/altars (sorry, I don’t know how to call them) within their homes where they do their worshipping.

We had lunch and we rest for a bit.

We went back to the city center to watch the Japan Vietnam Festival. It was the last day. There was a fashion show, a cosplay contest, and performance from Japanese and Vietnamese entertainers.

Kan then took me to a travel agency to buy tour tickets. My Couchsurfing host is working at daytime so I figured taking tours would be easier for me. I only had a few days so I just bought the 1-day Mekong Delta River tour and  ½ day Cu Chi Tunnels tour. I also bought a ticket for the Water Puppet Show which was one of my main objectives seeing that from PBB. I was tempted to buy the tours online but they were expensive and it was better I bought the tours at Vietnam.

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Then we had dinner. I learned:

  • Rice is served, apart from the main dish, with vegetables and soup. Cold tea is free! I can live with that. I don’t drink tea aside from Sharetea and Dakasi but their tea is great! Fish is served with green mangoes.
  • Again, there was discrimination in the pricing. Kan told me the meal we had would usually be around 20,000-25,000 VND but since I was not Vietnamese because the vendor heard me speaking English, the vendor charged us 30,000 VND.

It was really a good thing I was with Kan. My phone was dead and I could not contact my host. But prior to the death of my phone battery, I gave my host’s number to Kan so he called Thuong. She ordered a Grab Bike for me to her place. And so it was goodbye Kan. But not really =)

Brief intro: I had contacted a few people and a few people offered to host me. Thuong offered me her place which was not within the city center. Thuong lives with her husband and her kids were in the care of their grandparents on weekdays.

It was my first time to be a guest and not a host so I’m kind of anxious as to how to be in the shoes of the couchsurfers I’ve hosted before. We talked for a while and Thuong showed me my room. I took a most-needed shower and slept in supine position at last.

MEKONG RIVER DELTA TOUR

Thuong and I ate breakfast and since she works somewhere at the city center, she offered me a ride, helped me buy a SIM card and dropped me at the travel agency. Regarding, and in relation to the SIM card, I’ve learned:

  • Internet is faster in Vietnam than in the Philippines. I had only two bars but I can stream online videos without interruption whereas in the Philippines, four bars doesn’t guarantee flawless online streaming.
  • There’s a SIM for Internet only and there’s a SIM where you can call and text. Usually, they ask for your preference.
  • Make sure that the SIM is working before you leave. Once the SIM is inserted on your phone, let them do their magic because they have to adjust some settings for the SIM to work. When I saw that my phone had a signal after inserting the SIM, I hurriedly left the store to catch up with my tour. I can’t connect to the Internet and I can’t figure out how to connect. When I went back to the store later that day, the girl I talked to in the morning wasn’t there and the store attendant doesn’t understand English. I didn’t use that SIM.
  • Kan actually advised me I don’t need a SIM because coffee shops have WiFi. That day, I just connected to the travel agency’s WiFi.

Okay. So it was my first time to join a tour with strangers. In the bus, there were mostly couples or group of friends. Another solo traveler, Michael from Hong Kong, sat beside me and we became the tour buddies, to watch out for each other during the trip since we came there alone.

It was nice that weeks ago, he had been to the Philippines as a volunteer. He talked about the food and his experiences in the Philippines and I talked about my Hong Kong experience.

Notes:

  • English-speaking guide named Ming. He’s funny.
  • Free water
  • The bus is airconditioned. It can pick you up from your hotel if it’s nearby but I suggest if you want to choose your seats, do not opt for pick-up. You will sit at whatever is available and if you have company, there are chances you will not sit together.
  • Bring your receipt or else…
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The British guys happily joining the groufie. Michael on the right. And the Swiss pair at the back, one from the French area and the other in the German area. That’s why they speak English to each other despite coming from the same country.

We were back at the city at around 5 PM. Thuong ordered a Grab Bike from the travel agency to her workplace so that from there, we went home. Thuong cooked dinner and she had me take a shower while cooking. She didn’t let me help with the cooking so I offered, and we agreed, that I wash the dishes after. We had dinner together and talked some more. I also met her brother who just happened to drop by.

CU CHI TUNNELS and WATER PUPPET SHOW

We didn’t have time for breakfast and again, I hitched a ride to the city center with my bag. Thuong thought I’d stay one more night but I decided to stay at the backpacker street to have the feel of Ho Chi Minh by night. I said my thank you and goodbye and gave her piaya, pop rice and candies for her kids. Unfortunately, I hadn’t met her husband who had different working hours from her.

The tour that day was a bit lonely for me. I felt like I was the only Asian although there were an Indian couple and there’s the driver and the guide. Somehow, having the same tour guide again, Ming, was good.

We were back at backpacker street at around 3 PM. I walked around and looked for a place to stay.

Notes:

  • There were a lot of hotels, hostels, etc around backpacker street. The first hotel I saw, the room was $25/night.
  • The next one, there were no more small room available, only the room that can accommodate 3 people for $25/night too. It has its own CR, refrigerator and TV. They’d give it to me at $18/night since I’m alone but I thought that it was too big and would be lonelier for me.
  • The cheapest I saw probably was a room at $6/night. I haven’t checked out the room since I already booked a hostel before I saw this and I think it’s a bit far from the backpacker street.
  • I decided to look for Sigoong Hostel which I knew about from AirBnB. I couldn’t book through the app so I just walked there. I chose it to experience shared room accommodation and mainly for the rooftop.

SIGOONG HOSTEL

I tried to look for a place just really around backpacker street because I really don’t have a good sense of direction. It was bit quite a walk from the backpacker street but it’s fine. They had a bar so upon entering, there was this chill vibe.

I was greeted warmly so I felt at home even before I was checked in. There were no more available bed in the female dorm so I had a bed in the mixed dorm.

Notes:

  • Their shared CR was clean. Free shampoo and soap, yay! I haven’t shampooed for days! And there’s a hair dryer.
  • Good thing that despite having guy roommates, they weren’t really the loud ones.
  • They have cabinets below the beds but no padlock. So I guess a padlock is a must next time I travel, just in case. Anyway, you can use that in your bag if you’d like.
  • Free breakfast from 7:30 AM to 9 AM

I took a quick shower, a quick nap and then I walked back to the travel agency. They arranged a motorbike to the Water Puppet Show theater. Since I already paid for the ticket, the driver bought the ticket for me. It’s a good thing I was given a seat in front, at the 4th or 5th row. Those who are on tours were seated at the back.

Notes:

  • The show is in Vietnamese but you can somehow understand the story just by watching. It helps to get a brochure outside and see the line up of the show for you to have an idea.
  • Beware of splashing water if you sit on the first row.
  • I love how the musicians and voice actors are also visible. Most of them are already in their 40s and 50s, so I assumed they had been playing and puppeteering there for many years already.
  • It has two show times, 5 PM and 6:30 PM. It is about 50 minutes long.

After the show, I went for a walk around the park nearby and discovered the Jollibee that we passed by earlier during the Cu Chi Tunnel tour. I once have seen a show on TV how fast food, when branching out in different countries, adapt their menu according to the local taste. So, I tried something Vietnamese in their menu.

When I entered and ordered, the cashier didn’t understand English so she called someone who can understand English to take my order. I ordered the spicy chicken meal with coleslaw-like vegetable side dish with soup and green milk tea. It’s new to my taste buds but it really had the taste of fast food, you know.

After dinner, I tried to walk from there back to backpacker street. I had it in the first few blocks but eventually, I got lost. I thought of ordering Grab Bike but I saw a local bike driver just at the corner and thought it would be cheaper. When I asked how much to backpacker street, he told me 100,000 VND.

What?! I’m pretty sure it’s not too far. So he tried to guess my nationality and I haggled some more. I can’t accept that 66,000 VND can even take to a place outside of the city. It went down to 30,000 VND. I felt I should have haggled more.

And I was right, backpacker street is just a few blocks away. From there, since I don’t want to get lost some more, I just went around the street along the park in that area. I think it was named 23/9. Kan told me they named their parks after some significant day in their history.

I was back at my hostel around 8-9 PM. I stayed at the hostel despite my previous plan to go around the city that night maybe because I’m afraid to get lost again. Haha! I spent some time at the rooftop then back to my room.

I looked up the Internet for other things to do in Ho Chi Minh and I remembered about the 3D art gallery. I also thought of watching a Vietnamese movie since I found the Galaxy Cinema next to Tao Dan park during my walk that afternoon. Kan messaged me about something and thought of treating him to the cinema as a thank you. And maybe also in case I really can’t get the story of the movie, I have someone to interpret for me, haha!

I watched the first episode of Legend of the Blue Sea then slept the night away.

FREE DAY: ARTINUS 3D ART GALLERY and VIETNAMESE MOVIE WATCHING

I decided to wake up early and walk around the park and around the city. Honestly, I planned to be very early so that if I get lost, there will be a few people to notice that I’ve been going back and forth the street.

I went back to the hostel and went up the rooftop to eat breakfast. They were served chicken soup that day.

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I slept for a while and checked out. I left my bag at the hostel and ordered a Grab Bike to take me to Artinus since it’s a bit far from the center. And it’s kind of difficult to locate because it’s somehow within a subdivision.

GRAB BIKE

  • I’m alone and I enjoying riding motorbikes so this option is great for me. If you’re a group, then you can save riding a taxi.
  • Well, the city is after all, in my opinion, 5% bus, 5% private cars, 90% motorbikes.
  • I think Grab Bike is safe since they have a tracking system. And in the app, you can send them a message or call them.
  • Drivers also get lost. When Thuong ordered the bike from the travel agency to her workplace, the driver was not familiar with the address so we kind of went around. So she called the driver and gave him instructions to reach her workplace.

Same when going to Artinus, the driver first dropped me at a different museum. Good thing I held him back and asked around because I had a feeling that was not Artinus. Same when I ordered a bike, I waited for a bit because the driver had a hard time finding the gallery.

I loooove the gallery so much! I was worried because I’m alone and I thought maybe I’ll just ask other visitors to take a photo of me. I was really glad when they had one of their staff follow me and take photos of me.

Her name was Chi and although she was younger than me, I felt like I’m the younger one because I was like a child jumping around, excited with how the photo turned out. It was also great having her because she knew the place and she’s telling me where to stand or what to do. For me, it was worth it.

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Then, just in time, I met Kan at the Galaxy Cinema. I decided on 4 Nam, 2 Chang, 1 Tinh Yeu which Kan translated to me as 4 Years, 2 Men, 1 Love. The other Vietnamese movie was also a love story but was a war film. I had my dose of war already and I was in the mood for a rom-com. We bought the tickets and I asked to eat lunch first.

We went back to watch the movie. My gosh, I was so happy when I saw English subtitles. Although the story was a bit cliché, I don’t think I’d be able to understand the story with no subs. And it would be a bother to Kan if I keep on asking him to translate, I realized. I had some comments regarding the movie but I’ll save that to myself and my sister because when we’re together, it’s nonstop critiquing. But I enjoyed the movie especially the funny parts and I think Kan enjoyed it too.

After, Kan brought me to Ben Thanh Market to buy souvenirs. I don’t want to take much of Kan’s time  so I bought at the area where we first entered. It’s just so sad it happened to be the fixed price area. We went around some more and we found the area with music to the ears, “How much you buy?” which means they’re open for negotiation.

We then ate dinner, exchanged my VND to peso and went back to the hostel and to the airport.

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27,000 VND

I’ll just have to mention that be careful when you’re sleeping at the airport waiting for your flight. I almost didn’t get into my flight home. Good thing one passenger who shared electric plugs with me woke me up.

ROXAS

I tried the Manila-Roxas route because that was cheaper than the Manila-Iloilo and I thought I might go on a sidetrip. But I was too tired and I still have to go on big night duty that I decided to go straight to the bus terminal.

As what was suggested at an article I found in the Internet, I took the tricycle parked outside of the airport. There’s no taxi there, my friend from Capiz laughed at me when I asked if there is taxi when I asked about the airport. The trike from the airport to the Ceres terminal was P150 and I was surprised because I know the bus fare would be around that price too. I haggled only up to P30. I wasn’t really good at haggling.

(When I asked my other friend from Roxas, she told me it’s really expensive because the terminal is far but thinks that P100 should be reasonable. She advised that if there’s a next time, I could take a trike to the mall (I forgot what mall that was) or from the plaza(?) and from there ride the jeep to the Ceres terminal.

In the end, I tried to total the cost of the direct flight versus the Roxas route plus the bus and I saved P200. But I really didn’t regret it because it was a new experience for me.

While riding the bus to Iloilo, I can’t help but miss Vietnam. I had such a wonderful time there and I love a lot of things about Vietnam that my sister labeled me as “hilaw na Vietnamese.” Some locals mistook me as one of them.

Just like what I told Thuong and Tua, I’ll try to go back and visit Sapa, Dalat and Hanoi. I’ll definitely meet Kan again who had become a close friend to me. I’ll remember this trip not only because it was my first solo trip out of the country, but also because Vietnam is a beautiful country.

Here’s my itinerary and a list of expenses. Because I was quite undecided with the trip, I didn’t get cheap flights. It’s also an added expense that I had to buy ILO-MNL-ILO/RXS flight.

I also love food and I want to try something new all the time. Also, you might spend less if you’re good at haggling. I also gave some tips to save money, I guess.

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