8. Once again HCMC

08.08.2015 – 11.08.2015

For the 10 hour train journey from Quy Nhon to HCMC I got the upper berth on train S1. It seems the indication at the station to get a lower berth got lost in translation. The train was busy, with the my cabin being filled at the next station.
Still, I had a comfortable journey, managing to sleep through most of the journey, and we arrived in HCMC at 5:30. I lost counting how often I have arrived in HCMC by now.

Arriving that early in Europe would mean a nearly deserted station – but not in HCMC. Leaving the station you are welcomed by a busy street, people offering motorbike rides as soon you step outside. I queued in front of the taxi rank trying to get a MaiLinh or Vinasun taxi. Again I can only advise to ignore everyone approaching you, including the guys in official looking uniform – they are part of a group trying to get tourists to the mototaxis. actually saw a foreign family following one of these guys. I tried to advise the girl leading the group only to take the official taxis, and as a reward I got a look saying how dare to talk to her. Well, I hope they got ripped off!!!
I finally managed to get a MaiLinh taxi through the official staff there, but though it took another 5 minutes to establish where to go. The problem was, I had no idea where I was going. I was invited by an Australian comedian Dirty Pierre (ok, he is actually called Pierre and is originally from New Zealand) to stay in area where he and his partner lives. I was actually looking forward to stay in a more non-touristy part of HCMC, I just had no idea where it was. So after a few calls between the taxi driver and Pierre’s partner Kim I finally arrived at the Ngoc Louis hotel in the Quan Phu Nhuan district.

The hotel is located on a main road, Truong Sa, that follows the canal in that district. The location is great, many places for drinks and good food are there. The ensuite room was spacious, clean, had international TV, A/C and even a little balcony, with a great view over the area. An additional benefits are the owner – the family is just lovely. They made me feel so welcome throughout my stay. For 500.000 Dong it was a very good place.

After staying in District 1 last time I actually enjoyed Quan Phu Nhuan. It is very centrally located, close to District 1, the airport and train station. The canal running through the area adds a relaxed atmosphere to it – despite the usual heavy traffic of HCMC. Without knowing, I was here during my first trip, when friends took me out for some food and drinks.
The area itself is nice, no tourists, only locals. You can find little markets, as well as great places to eat and having a drink or two. In the streets were filled with locals enjoying the nice atmosphere along the street. I would stay here every time again. This is much more HCMC than District 1.

Pierre was looking after me, and I got some good insight about non-touristy places, but also the great variety of food. People always highly recommend the XO Foodie tour, which is not cheap. I got my food tour with a Comedian….

It started with breakfast when I arrived, and after a little rest (instead of reading I fell asleep in my bed – getting up before 5:15 is clearly not acceptable for me!!!).
Soon enough I was back on a bike in HCMC – and Pierre drove to District 1 and 2. It felt good to be back, enjoying the crazy traffic of HCMC while in the middle of it. Obviously soon it was time for lunch, stopping at place along a main road – a place I would have never stopped. But it is well known for the caramelised pork – and I fully understand why. It was good.
Next stop was China Town (Cholon) for a massage. This is one of the non-dodgy places, and the massages there are great – and a good way to relax.
After a quick stop at the Russian market (a mall aimed for western people) Pierre showed me another little gem in District 1. Not too far from the Opera House we stopped at a beer hall. It was similar to the Bia Hoi places in Hanoi, just indoors. And instead of little glasses they serve 2 litre jars – for a whopping 24.000 Dong…that is around $1,10. Clearly tourists do not know about this place, as only locals were there. And as usual the locals were friendly, bringing some of the food they ordered to our table to share. I cannot say it often enough, having these encounters with the locals is the main reason why I love the country so much.

The food tour as briefly stopped in the afternoon for a little break in the hotel. But soon we were out again. After mentioning that I like Dim Sum Pierre took me to a little street stall in an alley – they served a dish called Mi Sui Cao. It was similar to Dim Sum, and very tasty.

Later that evening I was glad to catch up a friend I met during my previous trip to Vietnam. Tuan picked me up from the hotel, and instead for a coffee he brought me to a little food place serving a noodle dish I never had before – and unfortunately I cannot remember the name of it either. I only know it was delicious. This was followed by a few drinks in a nice café, where we were able to catch up. It was really good to see him after 6 month.

For the next day I agreed to help Pierre with some of his charity work he does every Sunday – delivering food to the elderly and homeless people of HCMC. So off we were at 8:30 to drive towards the outskirts of town, near the main expat area. Unfortunately there was a breakdown in communication, as there was no food delivery that day. It was a shame, as I was looking forward to it. Instead Pierre showed me a little bit around the expat area (I realised very quickly that this is the last place I would like to stay). Though I have to admit, there are some stunning houses there.
As a contrast we headed to one of the poorest areas of HCMC (district 8). It was interesting to see the busy streets there, full of life with people (in comparison to the clinical feel in the expat area). We stopped at a retirement home, where the food should have stopped, just to let them know that we wouldn’t deliver any food. It was interesting to speak to some of the people living there. Apparently I met a famous Vietnamese actress – obviously I didn’t know here, but she was such a lovely woman to talk to. It was a great experience.

We stayed in the area as Pierre wanted to show me a very good food place for some chicken. So far he delivered food wise, so we stopped at a little stall with a barbeque outside on a busy street – in an area of HCMC that felt like a world away from the touristy areas. I know you should be careful when praising food, the grilled pork was fantastic, but nothing in comparison to the chicken – it was probably the best grilled chicken I had in my life. I quickly understood why this stall is selling out very quickly. I slightly regretted having the pork, and just had another piece of chicken…it was too good.
After the great lunch break we explored the area a bit more, and crossing a river I got a view that caught me – from the riverfront you can see several nice houses and tall buildings, next to several shacks along the river – seeing the development of the city, and the people who are left behind. It is a common view everywhere, but it doesn’t make it any easier to see it.


Along the river we stopped at a café overlooking the waterfront. It was a good place to escape the midday heat, sitting down, watching the life on the street and the water pass by, and just having a chat.

After the break Pierre showed me a bit more around in the outer districts of HCMC, far away from the touristy areas. Though it meant we got lost a few times as well. Just when sat down on the street for an afternoon drink we got a call asking us to head over to an English class – in the middle of HCMC. No problem you would think, but it is when the fastest route is not known, and worse, the rain suddenly starts. But like every local in HCMC Pierre was prepared, and soon we looked like locals with the double raincoat. It did a good job at the start, but the rain got so heavy that my feet were swimming in my shoes and shirt and shorts were soaking when we arrived. I think we made a good impression when we walked into the cultural centre. Still, the guys running the weekly Sunday English class were delighted to see foreigners turning up – and after a very short briefing we were put into different classes.
“My” class consisted mainly of young university students and employees from hotels, with the exception of one elderly lady, all of them here to improve their English. The plan to have a chat was to join them in their current chats, but soon I was surrounded by everyone who asked me question about Europe, my visits to Vietnam and football. I was able to ask questions about life in Vietnam. It was great to have these conversations. I spend over an hour with them, until the guys running the classes joined. I didn’t expect it, but suddenly everyone was singing – including me…
It was a great experience, and something I would love to do again. They are really happy to have native speakers (or people like me) coming along. On the positive side I learned that there is IKEA in Vietnam and a Vietnamese phrase I wish to know earlier. I started to use it over the next few days, resulting in some blushing and giggling. I guess Vietnamese women didn’t expect a foreigner to give a compliment in Vietnamese…

In the evening I got picked up by Tuan and Thuy for dinner. We didn’t had to go far for food, we just stayed in one of the many food places along the canal. As usual I let them order food, and once again I was treated to several nice dishes served. It was great to sit in a busy place, enjoying the food and cold beers, watching the world goes past, and catching up with both of them.
After dinner we headed to one of the main roads away from the canal, sitting down in a busy street café that served some great fresh fruit juices. Obviously I couldn’t say no to a coconut shake, but the highlight was the avocado shake. I didn’t know you could use avocado for juice, but it actually tasted very nice. While there are places to have beer, it always amazed me that the cafes and juice bars are also always busy during the night – and offering a great atmosphere. Seeing the amount of karaoke bars nearby I might have mentioned that I would be interested to visit one to the karaoke bars – I didn’t know then what I have done!!!!
I was back at the hotel soon, but instead going to bed I ended up sitting outside the hotel, talking the children of the hotel’s owner, where I learned a few more Vietnamese phrases.

 

The plan for my last full day in HCMC was to head out of HCMC with both Pierre and Tuan. Initially I considered heading to Ben Tre for a day, but it would have been a rushed trip.
Unfortunately Tuan didn’t feel to well in the morning, so he couldn’t join us. Instead Pierre and I headed off alone – after having a nice Pho in one of the many food places you can find in that area. Who needs a kitchen or restaurant if you have so many food stalls and places!!!

We headed out of town, following some of the busy highways. You could immediately see the traffic getting less and less the further south we got (well – it was still busy), and I enjoyed to sit back and seeing more of HCMC. After a while we arrived at a port of HCMC where the Nha Be River spreads into two arms- the plan was to cross the river by ferry here. Unfortunately the weather had different ideas, and it started to rain. So we quickly stopped at a food place to escape the rain, and having a coffee. There are always ways to avoid getting wet
After the heavy downpour stopped, and we were back on the bike for the short ride to the ferry – loaded with lots of bikes and a few lorries.
Arriving on the other side of the river it felt like we are a world apart from HCMC. Even the town at the ferry point felt more like a place from the Mekong Delta or central highlands, and not close to a big city. The contrast became even more obvious as soon we rode out into the rural area, and it seemed to be a nice area to explore. Unfortunately it started to rain a bit – so we stopped a café to wait for the weather to clear, but even when the rain stopped the sky remained grey, threatening with more rain at any time. Worried about the road condition we turned back to the ferry point – with a quick stop to buy a tasty Banh Mi from a food stall.

Back on the other side the rain finally came. Not just rain – it was more like my first ever monsoon rain. Soon the streets were flooded, and we got a free shower whenever a car or lorry overtook us. As it was impossible to get any wetter (fish would have enjoyed the water levels in my shoes), Pierre decided to take a detour back into HCMC, so instead of getting into the centre via the tunnel, we drove on a little side street – with the bonus of a great view towards District 1 from the other side of the river. Then a bold move was made – we continued the road, not sure if the road was still accessible. It was an interesting ride through some very muddy sections, but we made it to the other side for a bridge over the river. It was a good laugh, and the locals seeing us must have though that we are some crazy foreigners….well, they were right I guess!!!

In the evening I met Tuan and Thuy again for dinner – and I didn’t even need a lift, as we went to place only 2 minutes away from the hotel. There I met Thuy’s brother, his wife, and a couple who are friends with them. Not everyone could speak English, but it wasn’t a problem at all. We got along just fine. Food was once again great – a tasty hotpot and some nice side dishes. I also had frozen beer – a partly frozen. Refreshing but you need a straw to drink it.
After dinner it was time for the highlight of the evening – a visit to the Nnice karaoke bar. I expected to sit down in a big room with all other guests – instead everyone get their little private room. Soon enough beer was brought in, together with a plate of fruit (!!!!) and the singing started. It was nice to get to know some Vietnamese songs, unfortunately the selection of English songs was somehow limited to the 60s and 70s. I tried my best – though at some point they gave me the microphone, and suddenly I was singing a Vietnamese song with Thuy’s brother. And I can proudly say now that I managed to do just fine. They were rather impressed with my pronunciation, and even without knowing the song I managed to stay in tune. And the result? We achieved a whopping perfect score of 100!!! In addition to pride we were allowed so select a reward downstairs when we left (for every song with 100 points). It was just a great night with lots of laughs, easily one of the best night outs I had in SEA.

This was the perfect finish for my stay in HCMC, as I was heading to the airport for my 6am flight to Con Dao (who needs sleep!!). The airport was thankfully nearly empty, so dropping off the bag and going through security was a breeze, and soon I was on my way to the next destination.

It was another nice stay in HCMC, and it was great to stay away from the tourists area – it makes the stay in HCMC just more enjoyable. It is always an advantage if you people living there, as you will see and experience things normal tourists won’t. It was good to catch up with friends again, and I must say that Pierre and Kim looked well after me during my whole stay, making sure I enjoy my time in HCMC once again. The unofficial foodie tour I got was a big success as well, enjoying the vast amount of food I got (my waistline might disagree!!).  People, food and seeing local life – that is what travel is all about

Accommodation:
Ngoc Louis hotel is a nice place to stay, centrally located in Quab Ohu Nhuan district. The room was spacious, clean, and had a nice bathroom. The family owning the hotel are just super friendly. Can only recommend the place.

Recommendation:
I would love just to recommend all the food places I have been to, but I have no idea what the name was and where they are. So I can only recommend to leave the touristy District 1 to visit some of the other parts of HCMC, and trying some of the local food place. It will add so much more to the time spend in HCMC. Seeing those places really makes me enjoying every day I spend in this lovely, buzzing city

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