First Impressions of Vietnam
I'd never visited is Vietnam which is kinda surprising given how long I've lived in the region, how much I like travelling and how the pursuit of good food is a big part of the travel experience for me.
Vietnam is but an hour and a bit on the big bird from Bangkok and with opportunities for street photography said to be first class it was time to right a wrong.
On a whim I decided to get out of Bangkok and visit the country many long-term Westerners in Bangkok still refer to as 'Nam.
The trip to Ho Chi Minh, AKA Saigon, was made with little research.
Despite recommendations from friends of places to check out, and even knowing some Stickman readers live in Ho Chi Minh, I chose to do it my own way.
There's little more rewarding that discovering things on the ground yourself.
And going solo means I can do my own thing, go where I want, when I want without having to consider anyone else.
Travelling alone you reach out more and make a greater effort to engage people - and I've also found that the locals seem more likely to get chatty with someone on their own than someone with a companion or two in tow.
I finally made it to Vietnam this week and what follows are a few snaps along with a brief description.
This is very much a brief look, and my initial impressions of the city.
A more detailed look at Ho Chi Minh will follow next week.
When I think of Vietnam, I think of conical hats and ao dais, the national dress worn by Vietnamese women. Conical hats could be seen everywhere, but the ao dais were harder to come by.
The children are all smiles but something seems to happen when they get older when smiles are only seen when you would expect to see them.
Smiles aren't overused or abused, as they are somewhere else...
There's much Western style architecture to be seen in the downtown area, the influences of once being a French colony easy to see.
Phnom Penh hotel
But getting around is not nearly as easy as Bangkok.
There's no skytrain or underground, no pedestrian bridges and traffic is equally bad with its own unique rhythms that take a little getting used to.
It does rather seem that, just like in Thailand, it is women who do a lot of the work, even menial labour.
Vietnam might be officially socialist but there are few reminders.
Whenever you look the people of Ho Chi Minh are pursuing opportunities and seem to be capitalistic by nature.
I didn't see one beggar.
You want money?
You go out and earn it!
What a nice change from Bangkok.
That awful phrase "same same but different" applies.
Thailand has tuktuks, Cambodia has motodops and Vietnam has cyclos.
Food on the street appeared clean and whenever I saw someone eating street food I found myself looking more closely at the food and then over at the vendor where I would be impressed by their workspace and how the food was prepared.
Whereas in Thailand street food may taste ok even if the vendor's hygiene looks questionable, on the streets of Ho Chi Minh the food looks great and you actually want to try it!
A vendor in the main downtown area has current edition magazines and yesterday's newspapers from all around the world.
The downtown area has a very cosmopolitan feel with a lot of high-end shopping but an absence of US fast food restaurants.
If McDonalds, Burger King or Starbucks have branches in Ho Chi Minh, I didn't see them.
Slim, fair-skinned, tramp stamp-free, superior English, a ready smile and miniskirts in abundance.
Need I say more?!
There's not a lot of meat here and a full article with more thoughts and something of a comparison between Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok will run next week.
I need a bit of time to get my head clear on this, but what should be a slam dunk victory for Bangkok in almost every respect is not that at all...
Before I round off, let me say this.
I was chatting with the owner of Tilac a week after Songkran.
He and a few mates had had a couple of weeks in Vietnam and when asked about it, his eyes went wide, a big grinned appeared, a bunch of superlatives followed with his closing words something to the effect that if Thailand didn't have gogo bars, the equation would be very different...
Reflecting on Ho Chi Minh City
I was looking forward to visiting Vietnam as I look forward to visiting any country I have yet to step foot in.
But truth be told, I wasn't looking forward to it that much.
I'd never cared for Vietnamese food, had heard the locals weren't as friendly or welcoming as the Thais and then there was the war.
My boys played but a bit part which I quietly hoped would have been long since forgotten.
After the atrocities of that war, how could I expect to be well-received?
Prior to visiting Vietnam I had mixed feelings.
What I'd experienced and heard of the country hardly inspired me, and friends who had visited hadn't been enamoured by the place.
I was to be pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly surprised.
Back in Bangkok after a wonderful few days in Ho Chi Minh City, I've been reflecting on a trip to a country which made quite an impression...
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City isn't as built up nor does it have a skyline like Bangkok's.
Modern buildings sit next to colonial architecture and the city is going through a period of rapid development with construction sites everywhere.
The suburbs are bland and feel feature soulless with shophouse after shophouse and less greenery than downtown.
The streets are busy, with motorbikes making up maybe 95% of traffic but unlike Bangkok the traffic actually flows.
Downtown is clean with street cleaners in bright orange uniforms studiously going about their duties around the clock.
With its wide boulevards and high-end European fashion outlets, a few blocks in District 1 almost feel like Singapore.
Vendors sell the usual food, trinkets and junk on the streets you find all over the region, but the city's sidewalks are much less congested than Sukhumvit or Silom.
There are no soi dogs, and when you do see dogs they appear to be well looked after.
There's always been something about the way Thais treat animals and the condition of many that has never sat well with me.
Overall, HCMC is cleaner than Bangkok and the quality of the air is much better.
The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh feels neither as developed nor as cosmopolitan.
The Vietnamese remind me of the Hong Kong Chinese, keenly going about their business, something they seem to have a natural disposition towards.
People seem to be more industrious than the Thais, and when it comes to providing a product or service, customer satisfaction seems to be a priority.
Yes, they want to make a sale but they want you to be satisfied, something which it's easy to feel is not always the case in Thailand.
The Vietnamese seem to have a better idea of what customers want.
Quickly working out that no, I wasn't looking for a lady, a motorbike taxi rider suggested a tour of some markets.
No, all I want to do is roam and take photos, I said, and immediately a different itinerary was presented - a visit to a slum where photographic opportunity abounds.
The Vietnamese seem keen to satisfy the market, rather than shape the customer and try to convince them of what they want - refreshing!
Physically, the Vietnamese are noticeably slimmer than the Thais, for which there is probably a multitude of reasons.
The local diet includes more vegetables and other than KFC and a single branch of Burger King at the airport, US fast food chains are conspicuous by their absence.
Apparently this is because the Vietnamese government insists all ingredients must be locally sourced and presumably the Golden Arches and co. haven't been able to find suitable local suppliers.
Of course the Thais as a nation are wealthier - and generally wealthier nations have bigger people.
I had heard that the Vietnamese were intense but I saw no real evidence of that.
#In fact I found the Vietnamese people easy to warm to and while they don't have the ready smiles of the Thais, actually getting them to smile became something of a challenge.
When they smile, it feels real.
I was approached one day by some friendly local 20-somethings while walking through one of the city's many parks who were keen to practice their English with a native speaker.
Finding myself surrounded by a group that slowly grew in size, I couldn't help but be impressed by their intelligent and well-thought out questions.
They were friendly, interesting, engaging and very keen to learn, both about English but also the world outside their country. What a pleasant change!
One group had been chatting with me for about 20 minutes and we'd jumped across a range of subjects, some of which you'd never broach with people you'd just met in Thailand when one, very perceptive guy says to his friends, "I think we have taken enough of his time.
He looks like he wants to continue on his way taking photos.
Sir, we don't wish to bother you any more.
We're very thankful for your time and we hope you enjoy your stay in our country."
What a delight they were!
Quality accommodation is widely available and reasonably priced.
For less than $40 you can get a very well-appointed room in a new hotel in the city's commercial district with a decent view, a fantastic breakfast, and the sort of amenities you would only find in 5-star properties un Bangkok.
Internet speeds are significantly faster than Bangkok and free wi-fi connections are everywhere.
Many of the big hotels are in the main shopping district on one side of the downtown area, which is known as District 1.
$40 seems to be the sweet price point where you can get a room that reminds me of miniature version of a room in a Bangkok 5-star hotel.
The backpacker area seems similar to Khao San Road with the usual mix of guesthouses, travel agencies, eateries and bars.
I enjoyed venturing into the shadows of the area, wandering the labyrinth of alleys, some so narrow that two people could not possibly pass each other at certain points.
Exploring these dark alleys late at night, I found some open up into wider alleys full of neon lights, with hotels with but a number for a name and dubious characters milling around outside.
You don't have to have been in Asia long to know what that means.
In terms of long-term accommodation suitable for expats, HCMC is similar to Phnom Penh in that prices far exceed what you would pay in Bangkok.
Quite a few expats live long-term in hotels, with those keen to save a few dong staying away from the centre of town, or what is known as District 1.
Vietnamese food in both Thailand and my homeland has always left me unimpressed.
Ask me what I'd like to eat and Vietnamese would never be on the list.
But Vietnamese food in Vietnam is fabulous!
Eating well in HCMC won't break any budget.
On the street and in the backpacker area, prices are ridiculously low and you can wash your food down with a San Miguel for less than $1.
Fancy something Western?
A fresh bread roll with pate, meat and vegetables can be had for under $1.
The quality of the produce is at least on a par with Thailand.
It might even be better - at least if you compare what is readily available on the streets of Ho Chi Minh, compared to what is regularly available on the streets of Bangkok - from where I suspect the best quality produce is exported.
The Vietnamese don't lather their food in spicy or pungent sauces and flavours come from the main ingredients, not primarily the sauces as is so often the case in Thailand.
When it comes to Western food, the Vietnamese stay true to the original recipes.
Local spices aren't used as they are in Thailand where, say, Italian or German dishes often have the original spices and seasoning replaced with Thai variants altering the flavour.
Bakeries produce breads and cakes of a quality that exceeds what you get in Bangkok 5-star hotels - and for less than half the price.
And the coffee? Heavenly!
Be it Vietnamese style coffee at small streetside stalls or coffee in the cafes which are ubiquitous, Vietnam is rightfully known as a producer of high quality coffee.
The most popular beers appeared to be much the same international brews available in Thailand - Heineken, San Miguel, Tiger, Beer Lao along with a few local brews, none of which I tried.
There's a good selection of French wine too.
Drinks prices in bars are similar to what you'd pay in Bangkok, although in the backpacker area prices are lower than in Bangkok.
A bottle of San Miguel beer could be had for 16,000 dong, or about 25 baht - in a small restaurant, perhaps 2 - 4 times that in a better bar.
HCMC is an inexpensive destination.
Accommodation, food, tours and entrance fees are all cheaper than what you get in Bangkok.
Locally made products are cheap, but Western brand names are expensive.
Taxis charge about 3 times what they do in Thailand, but given that the longest distance most will cover is from the airport to downtown, a journey of just 7 km will set you back $7.50, or about 230 baht.
If you can't afford that, you should stay at home.
I never did work out what the story with tipping was.
I personally tipped when service was good and didn't when I felt little extra effort was made.
Street food seemed to incur dual-pricing where foreigners paid 2 or 3 times what locals do.
Still, paying 10,000 dong (15 baht or about 50 cents) for a wonderful iced coffee won't break the bank.
As a tourist, a few extra baht here and there won't hurt but if I was an expat resident I probably wouldn't see it that way.
Nuisances, Menaces & Scams
Locals tell me that Ho Chi Minh is safer than Bangkok, but I'm not convinced.
I walked around with camera in hand and frequently received comments from expats and locals to be careful.
I was even told by some people that I shouldn't take a camera into the popular Apocalypse Now bar because I might walk in with it, and leave without it!
That seemed a bit far-fetched but I'm not quite arrogant enough to think I know better than the locals.
A dozen or more people told me about the problem of snatchings, where a motorbike whizzes by and the pillion passenger grabs the strap of your bag, camera or other valuables, just like the bag snatching I reported in soi 11 a couple of months back.
The passenger grabs the strap and either the strap breaks or the owner lets go of it.
In some cases the victim is dragged along and is badly hurt. I
heard so many reports about this happening that I would only venture out with one lens, leaving the rest in the hotel safe which was a little frustrating.
Much is made of the difficulty crossing the road and while, yes, the traffic is bad, getting across the road is not that difficult.
The idea is to wait for something of a gap in traffic and move at a steady pace from one side of the road to the other.
Motorbikes will veer around you.
Maintain a steady pace and don't stop and you should be fine.
Locals told me that police hassling foreigners in Vietnam just doesn't happen.
The police simply don't wish to do deal with foreigners.
Do something wrong, public affray or and you will be arrested and taken away.
Keep your nose clean and you have nothing to worry about.
A Filipino tried to scam me while I was sitting at a roadside vendor enjoying an iced coffee.
I immediately pegged him as a Filipino from his accent, yet he claimed to be a local and would like to teach me Vietnamese.
I told him I was fluent in Vietnamese and said a bunch of Thai to me. He responded by saying that my Vietnamese was indeed excellent.
I then let the cat out of the bag and told him to fxxx off.
I reckon he broke the land speed record in the next few seconds...
A big nuisance was vendors claiming they had no change.
This happened many times.
Telling them that you would come back and pay them the next day saw change magically appear!
Annoyingly it even happened in the Apocalypse Now Bar.
Green-uniformed officers with a Tourist Security badge can be seen everywhere tourists go.
A division of the police or merely another government department, I do not know, but they are there to help tourists. Deployed in significant numbers, they are highly visible.
On more than a few instances I saw them helping (often older) tourists to cross the road.
Nightlife, Bars, Vietnamese Women & Dating
There are plenty of places to drink in HCMC, and many nightlife options.
Many venues close around midnight and a special licence is required if a venue wishes to remain open later.
There are some expat-themed bars, with the Australian-owned and managed Bernie's a pleasant spot.
Figure a British pub-style venue with a good menu and a friendly Aussie with 6 years in HCMC in charge.
Blanchy's Tash is one of the hot spots of the moment, just a few minutes work from Bernie's and nice enough, if not really anything special - at least by Bangkok standards.
There are a number of high-end bars and nightclubs and more opening all the time.
Venues are scattered around the city and I didn't see anything like Bangkok's RCA where you have a strip of club after club after club, right next door to each other.
Smoking is more prevalent than elsewhere in the region, and I think only in Jakarta have I come across more smokers. If smoking in bars bothers you, HCMC at night might not be for you.
On the same street as Blanchy's Tash are various girly bars, most of which have a number in the name, such as Club 49.
The women seemed hard and the bars were very dim inside - never a good mix.
What was perhaps unusual is that they are located right in the heart of the commercial district - and in what is a very conservative society.
OK, I hear you say, Patpong in Bangkok is right in the commercial district and the Thais are conservative too.
But Patpong is its own soi whereas these bars are located alongside decent restaurants, shops and legitimate businesses. They are dark and you can only see inside when the doors open. Exactly what the format is, I don't know, but I got the distinct impression that staff were available.
As far as foreigner-oriented bars go, the most famous is Apocalypse Now.
Expecting something like a cross between Gulliver's and Thermae, I found a 19-year old venue showing its age.
150,000 dong ($7) gets you inside a venue with an eclectic crowd and one free drink.
Girls with easy smiles were amongst the least attractive I saw in my time in Vietnam, which I guess is consistent with working girls around the world.
Pretty girls have options and needn't resort to selling themselves.
Apocalypse Now was a major disappointment.
A lot of the naughty stuff can be found at massage houses. Motorbike riders offer to take foreign men to massage houses and leave you in no doubt that you will leave with a smile on your face for $30 all in.
Massage houses seemed to be located everywhere, with signs in English.
In the backpacker lane one girl tried to entice me inside with a line I will never forget, "$7 for a 70-minute massage and $50 for hand job" caused me to involuntarily erupt into laughter, leaving her confused and probably thinking I was a couple of chilies short of a good som tam. Crazy prices are frequently offered to foreigners.
If you find yourself walking around late at night, expect to be approached by girls on motorbikes offering to accompany you to your hotel.
What little I saw of the girls in the bars in Ho Chi Minh, they were for the most part better looking than what you find in Bangkok although I should predicate that by saying that if fair-skinned girls aren't your thing you might disagree.
Hardcore naughty boys tell me that Vietnamese working girls are mercenary.
Girls in the industry struck me as softer in looks, but much harder in attitude than what you find in Thailand.
As far as dating regular girls goes, the Vietnamese are conservative and while many would like to meet a foreign guy, I was told it takes time for the relationship to develop.
Many regular girls are knockouts, with a natural beauty beyond what you commonly see in Thailand.
Public displays of affection are even less common in Ho Chi Minh than in Bangkok and not once did I see the stereotypical image of a foreigner in a wife-beater pawing a lovely in public.
At night young local couples can be seen in parks sat atop a motorbike, arms draped around each other, few words, just sitting there.
I can only guess they don't have enough dong to go to a hotel.
I would not consider Vietnam a prime destination for naughty boys.
For nightlife, naughty or otherwise, Thailand is better in every respect.
Phnom Penh hotel
Comparing with Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh does alright.
Ho Chi Minh is cleaner, appears to have a better educated populace and there seems to be more pride in the way the Vietnamese go about things, like they really believe that if you're going to do something you might as well give it your best shot.
The tourist attractions are really well done and the information provided, unlike Thailand, often answers exactly the questions you would have asked.
You don't get gouged at tourist attraction with ridiculous entry fees and the staff speak excellent English.
At the Reunification Palace, the level of the English of the tour guides was just brilliant and commentary delivered in a most engaging way.
What a breath of fresh air!
Asking the guides questions did not require you to grade your language at all.
With that said, some of the commentary was delivered with the sort of nationalistic fervour that would make even the most die-hard patriot swell with pride.
While locals are proud to espouse how safe the city is, I was constantly being tapped on the shoulder and told to be careful of my camera.
Even right on the backpacker strip, crouched down next to a lamppost shooting down a dark alley opposite, I had people come and tap me on the shoulder and tell me to be careful of passing motorbikes.
One of the receptionists at my hotel ran out after me to suggest I not sling my camera over my shoulder as I would be vulnerable to having it snatched.
Many motorbike taxi riders told me exactly the same thing. As a keen street photographer, this is a real concern.
There's a real energy in Ho Chi Minh and people go about their tasks with vigour.
There's not the infectious sanuk that makes being around Thais fun, but rather a drive, the pursuit of work and making money.
Unlike the Thais, the Vietnamese are keen to hear what you think about them and their country - what you really think - and they are willing to take on board suggestions.
I've been hearing for a good few years that when Vietnam finally wakes up it is going to overtake Thailand economically. With 90 million Vietnamese, the population is bigger and younger.
They study hard and appear to have a much better work ethic. The infrastructure needs work but you get the feeling Vietnam is a sleeping giant.
Ho Chi Minh feels like a city on the way up.
Expats told me the economy has slowed but I like what I saw and can see the country clocking up serious growth in years to come.
Massage houses sit next to art galleries, pretty Vietnamese women glide past in their ao dais, the smell of fresh bread fills the air and the 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower stands tall and proud.
The traditional and the modern, the Vietnamese and the foreign, all converging to create an atmosphere nothing like you find 1,000 km to the west.
Possibly it's a case of the grass appearing greener, but I feel I could fall in love with Vietnam, and I could fall in love in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh reminds me of the Bangkok I arrived in many years ago, a city with a relatively small expat community and a city on the move.
Ho Chi Minh City is shrouded in mystery and part of the fun is in uncovering its secrets.
It's a city I'd really like to explore and get to know more.