tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:/posts Smarterbysharing 2017-05-14T03:25:36Z Rai tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1148772 2017-04-24T04:06:12Z 2017-05-14T03:25:36Z Saigon Travel Notes Welcome to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Following are some notes for the first time traveler to our city. 


A quick orientation 
The map shows the districts in Saigon. District 1 is where most travelers end up staying -  along the Pham Ngu Lau street. This district is walkable and houses many tourist attractions and historic areas. 

District 5 is called Cholon. This is the Chinatown of Saigon. This district is worth visiting for pagodas and the Binh Tay market. There is good night street food too.  District 2 is where many foreigners live and District 7 has many Western and Korean establishments. 

The airport is in the Tan Binh district, about 7 kilometres from Pham Ngu Lau area.

Getting to the city

Once you are out of the airport, there are four options to go to the city center where most of the accommodations are. 

1. MyLinh or VinaSun Taxi (the two most reliable taxi services in Vietnam)

There is a taxi stand at the airport, the trouble is that you may be pointed to a random taxi. Insist on a MyLinh or a VinaSun taxi, ignore the other companies. These taxis are metered and it might cost you about 1 to 1.5 million VND to the city center or Pham Ngu Lau area. You can also book a prepaid taxi at several counters that are located just after the customs check counter. 

2. Uber or Grab - At the international airport, you can request for a Uber (of Grab) ride. The app will ask you for the pillar number. The Uber app uses the pillar number to locate you. The big round pillars support the top floors of the airport and have the numbers prominently painted on them. Usually it costs me around 80,000 VND from airport to the city center on Uber.  Uber and Grab are also good for traveling within the city. 

3. Airport  Bus - There are three companies that offer bus to the city.  As you get out of the arrival area, past the crowd of people waiting, you will see the small bus counter (the small red box in the photo below) There is an counter each at international and domestic airports. The staff here speak English. Show them your destination and they will recommend the bus to you. If your destination is Pham Ngu Lau (the budget tourist area), you can take the bus number 109 or bus number 49. They are both inexpensive and will get you to Pham Ngu Lau area in 30 to 50 minutes depending on the traffic. Prepare to pay around 20,000 VND. 

4. Xe Om (the motorbike taxi) for the more adventurouS. Walk to the domestic airport, walk out from the airport. Before you are out, motorbike hustlers will come to you. A ride to the city should cost your around 50000 - I would say don’t even bother (Uber probably costs just 2 USD more) unless you are really in a hurry to get to the city. 

Where to stay ?

(Tap or click on the image to expand it)

The Pham Ngu Lau neighbourhood in district 1 is a popular place to stay. There are hundreds of hotels and hostels here ranging from 5 USD a night to more than 100 USD a night. The best deals are in the small alleys - street 241 and 283 shown in the map above. You can get a comfortable and safe place for about 15 USD in one of these alleys. The cheaper places will not have lifts, and they will surely not have 24 hours reception. They are usually family run business with the family staying in the same premises as the hotel. They will lock the place around midnight. If you return late, you will have to ring the bell and wake them up. Same goes if you are checking in late at night - it is better to call them earlier in the day and let them know that you will be arriving late. The rooms are simple affair, they are clean, have aircon and wifi. The alleys have good, inexpensive food and the vendors can often speak basic English. 

If you want one solid recommendation, I will point you to Diep Anh Guesthouse inside street 283 Pham Ngu Lau (around 20 USD)  https://www.lonelyplanet.com/vietnam/ho-chi-minh-city-region/hotels/diep-anh-guesthouse/a/lod/8ba6b522-9727-457f-9c8d-050f8dbcd9d2/357847. You can book one night here. Check out neighboring guest houses/ hotels next day - the owner or managers are happy to show your the rooms. You can choose the guesthouse that suits your budget and move into it. 

The area behind the Ben Thanh Market has good mid range hotels (30 USD and more). If you are booking on Agoda,com or Booking.com, look for hotels with rating 7 and above. Read the recent guest reviews to make sure that there is no current construction activity next doors.

Hotels will keep your passport with them until you settle your bills and check out. If you want to hold on to your passport, just pay them upfront and remember to take a receipt. Most hotels will also accept credit cards with small bank fee added on. If you trying to pay via credit card, do it at a time when the owner or the more experienced staff are around. You don't want to be stuck with an groggy and un-experienced night staff who is trying to figure out the card machine, while you are rushing for your flight early in the morning. 

In recent years I have been using AirBnb, Some of my favourite apartments listed below

https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/16510352

https://www.airbnb.com.sg/rooms/14590718 (request for a lower floor if you don't fancy climbing stairs)

Best places to change your money and buy a SIM card

Before you leave for Vietnam, check the exchange rate using Google. On the Google search box type in the text 100 USD to VND. 

Google will return with the current exchange rate. This will give you an approximate idea of the current exchange rate. The exchange counters will always give you less than this official rate but it should not be much lower. If you do not have any Vietnamese currency on you (for taxi, bus etc.), I recommend that you change change about 20 to 50 USD at the currency exchange counter just after the immigration desk (before you take the escalator down to the baggage claim area) at the Saigon airport. This counter has better rates compared to the currency exchange counters elsewhere in the airport. This counter is also a good place to buy a SIM card. Viettel has good coverage across Vietnam and costs 200000 VND at this counter. It is good to have a local SIM card as you can call your hotel if the taxi driver has difficulty locating the address.

Once I am in the city, I go to a specific exchange shop preferred by the locals. It is locate on the junction of Nguyen Anh Ninh and Phan Chu Trinh streets, just across the street from the West exit of Ben Thanh Market. This place is about 15 minutes walk from the Pham Ngu Lau area. 

Every street has a couple of ATMS, but you may have to pay a 4 to 5 USD ATM fee and suffer low exchange rate when you withdraw money from a local ATM. 

Is Saigon safe? Can I get by with English?

Yes, mostly it is safe. Just keep you phone and money close to you.  Don't worry about language. Most local business persons are able to put tougher some English and sign language to aid basic transactions.

Some tips about street names and directions

Many Vietnamese streets have similar first and second syllables and often have numbers that may include sub streets - for example 241/31 Pham Ngu Lao. What this means is that this particular address is inside an alley that splits off the main street 241 Pham Ngu Lau. Check the entire address before you book Uber or show the address to a taxi driver. I often load up my destination on the Google Map app on my phone and take a screen shot of the screen. Once the destination and its surrounding are stored as an image on my phone, I can zoom the image and show it to the taxi, the Uber or the Xe Om (motor bike taxi) driver. Often the XeOm drivers are elder gents and they have weak eyes - larger text makes it easier for them to read. Vietnamese is a highly tonal languages, and very often the locals may not catch your pronounciation. Also keep the phone number of your hotel and local friends on your phone. You can always call them and request them to explain the directions to your transport person. 

What to do in Saigon?

Other than visiting the regular tourist attractions, you can just explore the city. The downtown area is walkable. You will find many cafes and street food vendors operating all night. 

Explore the cafes - there are hundreds of pretty cafes across Saigon serving local coffee and other drinks. Try the cafe apartment at 42 Nguyen Hue street. 

Explore the alleys - the alleys are where you can experience the local life. 

One set of interesting bunch of alleys is in the Japantown, it is like someone magically transported Japan into South East Asia. 

Try Saigon and Vietnamese food -  Check the websites linked below to find food and other activities in Saigon

Make local friends  - Saigon is a friendly city, and it is very easy to make friends with the locals.

Explore Saigon at night - Saigon is beautiful and cool at night. I love exploring the city late at night. The availability of Uber and Grab makes  night exploration accessible for people who do not have motorbike or don't feel safe on a Xe Om - motorbike taxi.  

Buy souvenirs - I ignore the Ben Thanh market (you can visit for fun or for some food, but avoid buying here unless you are prepared to bargain). I head to a complex called Lucky Plaza. There is a supermarket on level 03. They sell small packs of local teas, coffees and candies - make for nice souvenirs. Try the Gingy candy. 

Recommended resources 

Any Saigon article on this web is a gem: http://vietnamcoracle.com/. For example check out the series on Saigon Midnight Loop. http://vietnamcoracle.com/saigon-midnight-motorbike-loop/
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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1141598 2017-03-26T12:41:21Z 2017-03-27T01:46:49Z Tree makers of Mui Wo

The tree tending crew of Mui Wo hikes up a hill. In their bags, they have shovels and organic fertilizers. On the top, they care for the baby trees. A circular moat is dug out around the little tree and it is filled with dry grass. This helps trap water for the tree.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1141596 2017-03-26T12:36:06Z 2017-03-27T01:46:56Z The OpenSchool in MuiWo

OpenCamp in Mui Wo. An un-conference in an island. Many of the participants stayed set up camps and stayed overnight. 


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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1126594 2017-01-18T04:00:00Z 2017-03-24T13:47:12Z Make a dog sound louder

When I was a kid, I used to think that people fixed such cone around their dog to make the bark sound louder.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1102556 2016-10-27T06:51:34Z 2017-03-22T04:22:06Z Let's get some coffee

Mobile cafe, run by a student, outside a campus near the Turtle lake in Saigon. I asked her if her shop is part of some school project. She said that it is her own venture, she runs it when she has no classes.

Later on It turned out that this student was a friend of a friend. Small world indeed. 

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1102552 2016-10-19T04:00:00Z 2017-03-22T04:22:35Z 差不多 In Vietnam

What is the Vietnamese word for 差不多?I was just commenting yesterday at old Asia hand post that some experiences in Vietnam remind me of time in China in the early 2000s.  Today I walked into a neighboring hair dresser to get a shave. The girl did not have a razor, but that did not dissuade her, she just unpacked a safety razor blade, and wedging the blade in her fingers, made my stubble disappear. 

 差不多 (chau but duo) Is a Chinese phrase used to describe the process of just getting something done via a hack. A bit like jugaad in India. 

In 2002, I was at the Indian consulate in Shanghai, renewing my passport, and I realized that I needed a clean shave for a new photo. I walked into a small saloon in the next building. The ladies there too, made short work of my facial hair with bare fingers and a blade. The girl later told me that I was the first customer who had walked in asking for a shave, and no one says no to an economic opportunity in China.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1102601 2016-10-17T06:57:00Z 2016-10-27T10:11:25Z Childhood fights with the Karonda bush

Often travel brings back really old memories. When I was a kid, I used to fight the thorny Karonda bush to get to its bitter/sweet berries. How lucky to find this bottle of Karonda juice at K Village in Bangkok.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093022 2016-09-24T15:53:55Z 2016-09-24T16:04:23Z Rainy day for nostalgia

Rain, for me is a good excuse to find a new hiding places. This cute cafe, at Nguyen Trung Truc street in Saigon, had a 50 year old reel to reel tape machine, playing songs by Khanh Ly, a popular singer from the early 1970s. Back in those days, Khanh Ly used to run a cafe at the the nearby Dong Khai Street. The cafe was a lively gathering place for students, artists and musicians. Bui Vien (the current evil backpacker area) was where they had many local clubs, and singers like Khanh Ly used to sing there. She also performed impromptu concerts on the stairs in front of local universities - singing songs lamenting the war. I hope the tape machine could turn into a time machine and teleport me to those days. Khanh Ly had some following in Japan too, here is a song in Japanese.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093023 2016-09-14T15:55:00Z 2017-03-22T04:23:48Z Shocking Pink in Downtown Yangon

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093024 2016-09-04T15:57:00Z 2016-09-24T16:01:51Z Street tofu in Saigon

Walking into the alley is always wonderful. Fresh tofu with coconut, ginger and tapioca garnish - costs 25 cents.  For the less adventurous, there is always the Doraemon tofu at a supermarket.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093026 2016-09-04T04:00:00Z 2016-09-24T16:07:22Z The Saury fish festival in Meguro, Tokyo

Just as I land in Japan , NHK shows a documentary about cats in a small town in North Vietnam. Now I miss Vietnam again. I better not turn on the TV today, they may make me miss more of my homes. Today Meguro (my home in Japan) is smokey, but we needn't fear. There is no fire but it is the Sanma Matsuri (saury fish festival), where people come outdoors and grill saury fish. The festival is based on a Edo times story about a lord who got addicted to the taste of grilled saury fish served to him by local farmers, while on a hunting trip over here - Meguro used to be farmland and hunting area for the nobility then. When he got back to his castle - his chefs prepared the best saury fish in the land, but for the lord, the taste could not compare to the one that farmers in Meguro grilled in their humble settings.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093573 2016-08-26T11:11:00Z 2016-09-26T11:11:20Z Paper and Pencil, I like sketching

I am a fan of the Paper app on iPad. And the Pencil made by the same company.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093030 2016-08-18T04:00:00Z 2016-09-24T16:16:45Z Should I draw the strange dark object?

In Singapore, my sometimes lunchtime places are in the Korean enclave. There is a little mischievous kid who darts in and out of a cafe I am at. I try to speak little Korean with her. Though amused (she must wonder what is this large dark object making familiar sounds), she hardly has patience to listen to a full sentence before she darts out to slay another monster. The kid came by and left me this drawing. Now, I am wondering what to draw for her.


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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093025 2016-08-16T04:00:00Z 2016-09-24T15:59:58Z The Drunkard's alley in Tokyo

I like cities that have secrets. Not too far from the world famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo is a hidden away place that not many go to - the drunkard's alley. This alley has dozens of small bars - a bit like Golden Gai. It's like you are back in the 1960s.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093027 2016-08-15T04:00:00Z 2016-09-26T07:16:27Z Have an affair with my city

I encourage you to have an affair with Saigon. I promise I won't be jealous. You walk into a narrow alley at 14 Ton That Dam, climb up a decrepit staircase, with the rain water dripping, and an odd cat playing hide n seek with you. Explore the little shops and cafes, say hello to the holdout residents. 

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093184 2016-08-14T04:00:00Z 2017-03-25T08:28:50Z My home in Saigon, the Japantown

Your are born of flour and octopus bits. Born as a shapeless dollop, the woman keep prodding you, turning you and shaping you. You are so happy to have such a lovely mom. But just when your heart swells and you turn brown, the mom packs you in a box and off you go.

The takoyaki maker is one of the many Japanese businesses in my neighborhood. My neighborhood is probably one of the last remaining Japantown anywhere. I love such places where two or more worlds collide and function in a zen like balance. This is where I eat more Japanese food, speak more Japanese,and make more Japanese friends compared to Tokyo. 

The Japantown is easy to find, the entrance is at 15B Le Thanh Ton. I will not recommend any places, rather I will encourage you to explore the alleys. 


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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093574 2016-08-09T04:00:00Z 2016-09-26T11:12:49Z Teru Teru Bozu for sunny days

Meet the Teru Teru Bozu or Shine Shine Monk. He is a home made amulet that you hang outside wishing for a rain free day - a custom popular with farmers in old days Japan. These days kids hang this to have a rain free picnic days. When I was a kid, I wished that it rains and floods on picnic days - that way we would have an even bigger adventure.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093575 2016-08-01T04:00:00Z 2016-09-26T11:14:08Z The Coming War with China

I will offer no resistance and defect, as long as they promise to bring the cuisine along.


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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093028 2016-07-31T16:12:00Z 2016-09-24T16:14:17Z Jakarta's Chinatown

I love to wander Jakarta's Chinatown. Always colorful rusting buildings, nice treats, and odd lion dancers who still think it is the new year time. 

不要问我从那里来
我的故乡在远方
为什么流浪
流浪远方流浪.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093576 2016-07-26T04:00:00Z 2016-09-26T11:15:45Z Dead drop in Saigon

In which my Airbnb host is perhaps a secret agent. I forgot my phone adapter and she found an unique place to hide it for me to pick it up later. In the old days, before electronic transmissions became a norm, we often made use of such dead drops. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_drop

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093577 2016-07-23T11:18:00Z 2016-09-27T11:54:46Z Tra Chanh and Umeshu

I think it was Vikram Seth who wrote in what is probably one of the finest travelogues about China, words that flow something to the effect of "I think I travel just to collect material for future nostalgia". In my case, I travel probably to find things that make me miss other lands. Like I found this preserved lemon drink along Le Thanh Ton street in Saigon. Here in VN this is called Tra Chanh (lemon tea). This is a month old preserve of lemon in salty base, a small quantity is poured onto the cup with generous scoops of sugar , one preserved lemon or two - if you are nice and smile a lot, and then diluted with tea or water and topped with ice. Now I am missing Umeshu - the preserved plum wine that we at home in Japan (the last photo).

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093582 2016-06-20T04:00:00Z 2016-09-26T11:25:58Z Gift at the corner of every street in Saigon

"if you keep your heart and your eyes open, there is a gift waiting for you at the corner of every street" (if you are curious about the quote.. its from Edouard Boubat, a French photojournalist)

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1093580 2016-06-05T04:00:00Z 2016-09-26T11:24:50Z Jakarta's little Tokyo

Jakarta's Japan town may not be as large as Bangkok's or Saigon's but it is more gritty.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1103010 2016-05-18T10:09:00Z 2017-04-24T13:35:55Z What website to use for Vietnamese online visa and some tips
Vietnam has probably the best food in the world, and a simple online visa system. The catch is that you need one of the online agencies to process the visa for you. It is tedious to figure out a  reliable agency.  I will recommend the following two agencies that I have tried.

1. http://vietnamvisapro.com - this is my current agency of choice. They are quick. I usually get my three months multiple entry visas from them but they will also do single entry visas. 

2. https://www.myvietnamvisa.com - I use to buy the visa from them from 2007 to 2011. 

Note that you can only use this online visa when you arrive by air (any of the three airport - Hanoi, Saigon - Ho Chi Minh City, DaNang). If you are coming in by land, contact a travel agent in Thailand, Cambodia or Lao for the visa. 

The procedure

1. You fill in the online form and make the payment via their online payment link. 

2. Look out for their email that acknowledges your submission and payment. This should arrive within an hour. Check your spam folder. If you don't see the email, just email them back. 

3. The agency will send you an email in a day or two with the invitation letter. Usually the first page is a text acknowledging that the persons listed in the following pages have been granted the arrival visa. The following pages have a list of names, including your name. Print all the pages, even the pages that do not have your name.  Most agencies will also include a link to the arrival form. You can print and fill this beforehand to save time. This form is also available at their Visa on Arrival counters. 

This is how the immigration area looks like at Saigon's (Ho Chi Minh City) Than Son Nhat Airport. Walk over to the visa stamping counters. They are marked as A in the illustration above. Submit the passport, invitation letter, filled arrival form, photo and the visa fee. They take about 10 to 20 minutes depending on the volume. You can rest at the waiting area (B). They will then call out your name and return the passport and a receipt for your visa fee payment. Walk over to the immigration counters (C) in the figure. Theofficer here with make an entry stamp on your passport.  You can then go down the escalators (D) to pick up your bags and walk out after a customs inspection. 

The procedure is similar at other airports where this facility is available. 

Just after the immigration counters there is a currency exchange counter. I have found their rates to be better than the counters elsewhere in the airport. They will also sell you a SIM card. Though  it is easy to find WI FI in Vietnam, I would recommend getting a data SIM card - they are inexpensive. 

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1051188 2016-05-17T02:50:01Z 2016-05-17T02:54:03Z Takoyaki laments

Your are born of flour and octopus bits. Born as a shapeless dollop, the woman keep prodding you, turning you and shaping you. You are so happy to have such a lovely mom. But just when your heart swells and you turn brown, the mom packs you in a box and off you go.


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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1048445 2016-05-08T15:31:00Z 2016-07-23T07:16:10Z The cutest bookseller in the world

A part of my heart is lost in Rangoon, somewhere between street 27 and 28, across the Scotts market on Montgomery Street. This is where I met the world's cutest bookseller. Every visit to her bookshop ended up in me finding a book on Burmese history, and trying to negotiate the price down, and the cutest bookseller always winning. Don't tell her that I let her win, just to see that victorious smile. One more week, and I would have ended up as the leading authority on the nation's history.  You can travel half the world but there is no point, if you can't make a little girl smile.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1035523 2016-04-17T23:01:23Z 2016-04-29T02:47:13Z Beach combing in Niigata

Back in 2008,we went beach combing in Niigata (North West Japan). We found a bottle that had floated in from North Korea across the Sea of Japan (North Korea, China, Russia and South Korea are on the other side of the sea). We went back today to see if we can find something interesting. Nothing from North Korea this time, but enough stuff from China and South Korea.

The giant concrete tetrapods are breakers used to reduce the energy of the waves to prevent soil erosion.

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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1031476 2016-04-12T05:53:58Z 2016-04-29T02:47:34Z Books and Trips and down by the delta

I like the Mekong delta, specially at night. Everything burns in the day. Your shirt is a rag with sweat. But at night there is a cool breeze, distant thump of a motor boat crossing the river, It is like the whole universe was made, humans evolved and split into cultures, just so that on a night like this, you could overload your senses with lovely faces reflecting the glow of street food lights and sticky-rice-spicy-chicken.

Back in Saigon, we had yet another session of Trips and Books. "The Little Prince" and "Old Man and the Sea" were most discussed. As for destinations - Burma seemed to be everyones favourite. One of our participants bakes some cakes for us. 


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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1031494 2016-03-26T04:00:00Z 2016-04-29T02:47:44Z Missing the Krasue

Anyone up for a horror movie? I miss the floating severed head with hanging entrails ghost in Cambodian movies. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krasue


We also had a readcamp, discussed books on economy, education and some fictions that deal with the theme of living away from ones birth country.
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tag:smarterbysharing.com,2013:Post/1004250 2016-03-01T01:28:28Z 2016-04-29T02:48:04Z Come..ours is not a caravan of despair, the ethnic enclave in Kuala Lumpur

My hobby is collecting secret places in the cities I frequent. On some days, when the sky is deep blue, and if some little kid smiles at me, I feel magnanimous, and reveal my secrets to the folks around me. Last Sunday, I shared some of the ethnic enclaves in Kuala Lumpur with a colourful bunch - some residents and some travelers. We went to a Burmese place, where ladies in thanaka and lyongi served us tea and mohinga. Next we climbed up a narrow staircase past a Rambo Supermart (perhaps they sell supplies to take over a small country)  for some Nepalese momo. For desserts, we explored the Filipino enclave for halo halo. The survivors of this intrepid trek ended up at what is probably the cheapest and most colourful watering hole in KL. Next time, I am in KL, I will reveal the only Cambodian cafe in the city. Come if you are keen, ours is not a caravan of despair.

Earlier, I was in Saigon, yet another city that is full of secret places. I met some more lovers of leaving, and talked about getting lost in far away lands. 

And in Djakarta, I miss the conversations in the park.


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