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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — May 2005

July 6th, 2005

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Vietnam was an interesting experience. Candice and I were not there for long enough to see much outside the city center — still called Saigon — which encompasses the old French city. We stayed at a French colonial era restored hotel a few blocks from the Hotel de Ville, and just beside the old Opera house.

Ho Chi Minh itself is a view into the birth of a noisy Southeast Asian city, like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur must have been 20 years ago. Ho Chi Minh has started in the mid 1990’s two decades behind it’s neighbors because of Vietnams self imposed isolation after the American Vietnam War. Today the city streets are overrun with motor bikes, countless motor bikes that outnumber the cars in an inverse proportion to the way cars outnumber bikes in the US.

Everything in Vietnam is ‘one dollar US’ or ‘ten dollar US’ and if it’s more you can bargain them down. Get in a taxi to go down the street — one dollar, across town: one dollar (Well sometimes five.) And the greatest thing is that if you try to pay in Dong, it’ll cost you 50% more than in dollars not the other way around.

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I got offered the most famous ten dollar commodity in Vietnam one night. I was sitting on a sidewalk waiting for a good chance to photograph something. Candice was sitting in the coffee shop behind me (they have amazing coffee in Vietnam — just beware the ‘weasel coffee’. While I was sitting there a girl came up and sat next to me and stated talking to me. Very quickly she asked where I was staying and if I needed company. Unfortunately Candice paid the bill and came out before the young lady could offer ‘ten dollar, love you long time.’

We didn’t get out of the city very far. One trip to Chu Chi tunnels (it’s not worth it) and a trip to the Mangrove swamps, which are all young growth trees. They were all planted in the late 70’s after Agent Orange defoliated and killed all the old growth mangroves, some of which were more than a meter in diameter. The one place I really wanted to go, the Mekong Delta area, we didn’t make. The problem was I didn’t want to take a pre-packaged tour, both the other trips were with a local tour company and I thought they were a bit lame. I guess I am too used to setting my own schedule and doing what I want. I don’t like itineraries and schedules. So I looked online and found a travel report by some people that said to use a hydrofoil boat service that left Ho Chi Minh at 7 AM. That way you would make it to Mytho before the tour groups and see more ‘authentic’ life in the delta.

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So on our last full day we dragged ourselves out of bed at o’dark hundred hours and make our way down to the pier. There were three hydrofoils at the pier but no ticket counters no captain, no crew, no nothing. After wondering around for an hour and trying to understand the broken English of the crew who apparently sleep on the boat (they opened the doors and were brushing their teeth while we were trying to figure out what was going on) we met the captain of one of the boats. He told us that while they used to run the service I had read about they were recently bought out by the same tour company that we had used to see the mangroves and Chu Chi. Apparently these guys don’t like competition and had shut the service down, turning the boat trip into part of yet another pre-packaged tour.

So I didn’t get to see the Mekong Delta but I did get to try Bia Hoi!. Bia Hoi is the local ‘fresh beer.’ You have to go a bit off the beaten tourist path to find it but it’s worth it. Served, at least in the place I found, in one liter plastic jugs, Bia Hoi is a social event. Candice and I went to Sai Gon Bia Hoi several times and it was always crowded. I was the only westerner we ever saw in the place and there was much staring but it was great. The girls who work — and live — there were fascinated with us. They only spoke a little English but they hovered around our tables quite a bit to speak with us, look at the camera and laugh when we tried to say something. Of the things we did and saw in Ho Chi Minh Bia Hoi was the most memorable.

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