Getting to Saigon during the Holidays 2010

My alarm began to buzz faintly at 6:30 am like any other Thursday, yet unlike most late weekdays, I was already awake. It’s been 10 years since I’ve crossed a major ocean for travel, but more exciting was today I was leaving for the first time to Asia and the first major trip with my new wife on our Honeymoon.

We’d planned this for months, a 3 week trip to south Vietnam to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) and southwest Thailand islands. Coming from New York, there weren’t any direct options so we booked an 11 am flight through Narita, Tokyo Japan to Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam. On the day of, the car service was on time and it seemed the traffic parted ways for us all the way to JFK this chilly December morning. Neither of us packed jackets, because soon we’d be in 80 degree weather and eating soup from a cart.

Saving money on the travel, we booked economy on American but with fingers crossed we weren’t fortunate enough to get our own row. No matter we had two types of little pills from the doctor, one being a prescription for long term rest. Over the first sixteen hours we both wrestled with sleep. Sometimes watching movies like the Social Network and Temple Grandin and other times waking up to random meals of various quality.

We landed in Narita starving – I guess we missed our morning breakfast. Like lost children at a county fair, we wondered around the airport amazed by the new land we were discovering, yet confused about where and what to do next. We settled on a Japanese ramen bar and each picked a soup dish for our late lunch; she had a miso broth and I the pork noodle ramen. It was 4 pm local time and I was having the best meal I had all weak in the airport for $12 USD a bowl.

We loaded up on various mochi, candies, obscure teas, and all the flavors of Kit Kat I could find. Much like my Europe trip, I’m finding familiar brands in foreign countries with exceptional flavors I can’t get back in the States- I got Green Tea, Dark Chocolate, Strawberry Cream and Wasabi flavors.

Back on the plane we we were becoming increasingly uncomfortable from anxiousness as we were from the long bouts of confinement. The 2nd leg, we had roomier seats but still didn’t get good rest. After another 7 hours of flight we landed in Saigon on Christmas eve. It was just after 11:30 PM local time and the airport was packed. Following the masses we found our baggage carousel and the Law began telling me about the last time she went through customs in Vietnam. 15 years ago, travelers were getting their bags, gifts, and personal belongs inspected roughly and anything of interest or value seemed to be open for confiscation by the “authorities”. Then a full carton of Marlboros and a demure smile whisked her and her Mom through with out a fuss.

Today it seemed just as easy without having to bribe with smokes – we were through in minutes. We pushed through the doors to the outside and immediately we’re brushed over by the humid midnight air. I wish I had my camera within reach, as my entrance into Saigon was that of a subdued crowd hanging out the backstage of a Rain concert, only thousands of Vietnamese locals with flowers, balloons, signs and excited smiling faces waiting for their loved ones to come out the doors for the holidays. With exhaustion setting in, I could barely figure the exchange rate accuracy when I handed over a $100 for change. The last thing I wanted to do was haggle for a taxi to our hotel, but I knew being the first one out to the street, I’d have to fight off the throngs still stuck in customs soon. With the cab stand guy in support I agreed on a 300,000 dong fare to our hotel ($15 USD which later in the week I discovered was still over payment).

We had just traveled 23 hours and barely slept yet we were like kids in the backseat of the car with our heads out the windows checking out the city. There were thousands of young kids out in the night, many taking pictures near a Christmas display erected next to on of the People’s Army helicopters or just hanging out at local stalls. The scene brought me back to Australia a bit where the seasons are reversed and Christmas is celebrated in shorts and oddly decorated trees. The city was busy with helmeted scooter drivers, bustling night stalls and older men playing games later into the night.

We arrived at our hotel, The Windsor Plaza Hotel in District 5. Walking up there was a few hundred scooters parked for the kids out on the town in the area – some hanging out at the American Discotech nightclub attached to our hotel. the hotel was bright and lavish with chandeliers and red marble stair cases. We took the elevator to the 4th floor check in lobby and was greeted with more faux Christmas deco including a 14 foot Christmas tree made of green crystals.

The hotel had upgrades us to a large suite at the end of a long hallway, away from other guests, smokers and kids. Along with robes and slippers, they provided a congratulations cake, flowers and complementary water for our stay. A bite of the cake wasn’t going to satisfy our hunger cravings, so we switched gear quickly and wondered back down to the street to have our first meal of the trip in Saigon. We had no idea where we were and the hotel concierges recommended we not wonder around if we didn’t know exactly where to go – great…

Just around the corner past the club was a small Pho Ga (chicken soup) and some kids were hanging out barbecuing and drinking 333 (Ba-Ba-Ba, a cheap vietnamese beer). The lady managing the stall arose from her cot and put together 2 bowls of soup with fresh vegetables and chilies. Here was the moment of truth. My first street meal of the trip. Was it going to make me sick? Was it going to be good? I felt this was going to set the trend for the rest of the trip. I wiped my communal chopsticks and spoon with napkins and began adding lime, bean sprouts, chilies and several green vegetables like mint, basil and other varieties I didn’t recognize.

Elysa slurped up the noodles eagerly like a home cooked meal she’d been missing for years. I was hesitant but steady. I hand known that Asian grown chicken was leaner and a little tougher from the birds being truly free range, roaming around. It wasn’t bad flavor but I didn’t enjoy the tough texture. The soup on the other hand was hot, spicy and very flavorful. We both finished at the same time, despite my slow start out the gate and I took down another Heineken to cool the extra chilies I had added to mentally kill any bacteria. Adding a large bottle of water to the tab, I paid the woman now half asleep on her street cart 55,000 dong. Still confused about the exchange rate and wondering if we got a decent deal here, however, later I figured it to be about right, about $3 for 2 bowls of pho, 2 beers and a water.

Before heading back to Windsor to catch up on sleep, we stopped by a night market to pick up some dragon fruit and lychee for the morning. There was so much fruit and a third of it I didn’t recognize – I wanted to go Andrew Zimmern on the stalls but it was still early and the jet lag was already kicking in.

We showered and tucked into a firm, lightly covered queen bed around 2 am; smiling, fat and delirious from the time zone differential. Looking forward to a great trip.