Day 0 Chennai Airport
Okay, quite crazy. Several international flights leaving at the same time, and only one screening machine in place. Chaos and confusion and tempers running high. And piling crowds everywhere. Long long queues. It helps to travel with a kid - we get preference queue positions, shortcuts to counters, special lines meant for only families with young children. Who says travelling with kids is difficult.
The mistake we made is not doing the web check-in. So we actually dont get seats together on either flight. Lesson to oneself. My apprehensions about the visa approval form which looks like something run off on a hick computer proves unfounded. The immigration officer is not bothered as he waves us through. I did not know Malaysian flight seats are so small - but enough leg space. Awful food, but the flight is on time. Sanaa sleeps off across the seat with her head in the crook of my arm. I put on my eye blinds (thank god that I did not forget them) and actually manage to get some sleep.
Day 1 - Kuala Lampur airport.
Uneventful two hours. Our gate for the SGN flight was
right next to where we landed with the Chennai flight. Sanaa has barely eaten and is super tired. Somehow we manage to shove a bun down her throat. My exhaustion is really getting to me - I pass out for a while on the lounge seats.
KL to HCMC flight was uneventful - I am starving for some tea - turbulence and so no hot beverage. We are handed out forms to fill about the swine flu - whether we are suffering from any of the symptoms. And of course we also need to fill in our visa forms for the landing visa.
This is a good place to say a little about this visa on arrival thing we tried out. I could not find anyone who had used it, so I was a little apprehensive, though I read a few good reviews about it, and a few not so good (takes a long time - chaotic, etc). Anyway, the proper visa seemed too much of a hassle and actually a little expensive (3500 rupees through an agent who gave us a long list of stuff we had to provide). So on a hunch we researched the online
visa a bit, looked around for prices and then went ahead and paid the online agent to get the visa approval letters which needs to be procured prior to flying into Vietnam. 18 dollars per head for 3 single entry one month visa. We used Vietnam-Visa
, which looked quite official and gave us a fair price. My sister did one better - she sent a letter to myvietnamvisa
.com asking for a deal because they were applying for 5 visas at a go, even though they were different requirements (different ports of entry, some multiple, some single). They got a total deal of 90 dollars for all 5 visas which was even better than ours. For both of us, the visa approval letters arrived promptly within 2 working days and their support was superb. We got a letter with 29 other single entry visa applicants. My sisters got separate letters according to their requirements. It all seemed so easy that I was actually a little uneasy about it.
So as we landed in SGN, and passed through the heat sensors for swine flu detection, I looked around for the visa on arrival counter, and sure enough swankily built set against
the far end of the wall with a sign which said landing visa, the counter was there. We gave in our papers with the photographs (2 each), and were told to wait. In exactly 10 minutes they call us and issue us the visa - nice prominent looking sticker. Payment: 25 dollars for single entry one month. No hassles at all.
Passing through the immigration was easy after that, and we headed towards the baggage belt to find that our baggage had already arrived. Out through customs and baggage screening and in the arrival hall just before entrance there are ATM machines which we use to take out 5000000 dongs - an equivalent of 15000 rupees. ATM machines always give better exchange rate than money exchange places and we lose a lot of money in the double conversion. Just so much easier for us to directly withdraw rupees as dongs.
Now the conflicting report about getting into town was that one view went that there was really no option but to take a taxi. But my old Spanish Cser, who I accidentally found while searching for CS people in Saigon insisted that the bus (no. 152) was there
- starting on the outermost lane on the right of the departure gate. Which even wiki and a few other local CS people seemed to know nothing about. And so it was (god bless CS). We climbed into the bus - the only people. 3000 dongs to Pham Ngu Lau - the city centre and the backpacker area. A few more people got up along the way - all in all, a fairly comfortable way to reach the city from the airport if you are not pressed for time. Because the bus IS
slow. But for us, it was the first impressions of Vietnam, and I soaked in the unfamiliar language on the signboards and the all too familiar urban landscape. In scale and aura, Saigon can be Mumbai - though a little less rushed, less polluted, less crowded and a hell of a lot cleaner.
What struck us was that a lot of people were wearing the masks. It seems unlike in India, where we have been specifically warned not to use masks unless we are ill, the health advisory over here seems to have said something else. Or may be it IS a serious problem here.
Later we realise as we travel across the country - its a very done thing - more for pollution and heat than for anything else. Everyone seems to be wearing a mask
The city trundled on on both sides of the bus - which crawled and I mean crawled. If you have an appointment to keep - the bus might not be the right way for you. As we were let out just off the Pham Ngu Lau street - it was a bit of a walk to find the Vy Khahn guest house tucked away in an alley off the street. But find we did, and as Vy had warned me before - there was no space there. But this lady was kindness herself. Off she goes out with me to hunt around amongst her cousins, down the narrow lane where life seems to be lived more on the street than off it, looking amongst houses on both sides, most of which seemed to be letting out rooms for travellers, and atlast we find ourselves in a house which DOES have rooms - up a nicely done staircase off the entrance hallway were clearly the family lived, into
a very clean and pretty well finished air conditioned room with attached toilet but no windows. For 15 dollars and we are glad to take it. By this time Sanaa has already caste her spell and she is lording over at the Vy living room with TV switched to cartoon and everyone hanging onto her every word. As we walk down the narrow alley to the guest house we are staying - she gathers up smiles and hellos in her little kitty as easy as a pie, as if its all pre-ordained. Women pinch her cheek and ask her name and smile and wave at her. Vy cant get enough and wants photographs taken with her. By now Sanaa is quite tired and a little bewildered at her celebrity status, but puts up with all of it in a true hardened celeb style - smiling at her fans through her tiredness and allowing them to take snaps with her.
The alley is a wonderful example of intense tropical community living. The houses all open out to the street, and people live their lives on it. The street is where they talk to each other, exchange news, eat, work, sun
Leaves - familiar and unfamiliar ones
Even though Vietnamese food is almost strictly non vegetarian, the amount of greens and the almost lack of oil makes it so amazingly balanced.
their babies and ply their trade. Living rooms open out and you can look easily into people's houses as you walk by. And they call out to you with greetings, and smiles and waves. Its interesting to live off the main street - immediately you have shed the touristy feel and are actually looking into people's lives. Lives where you need to hop out next door to buy a packet of milk, as I realised when I asked how I could get a glass of milk for Sanaa. And then welcomed into the kitchen where the family stood around to help me warm up a glass of milk and refused to let me wash the pot afterwards. But that was afterwards.
After a quick shower we venture out for food as we are ravenous. Small stalls line the narrow alley - almost opposite ecah other with old ladies selling food out of little pots. Small low stools line the front of the table, and locals sit and eat a quick lunch. We decide that it looks awesome, and want to give it a try. No english compounds the problems even if neighbours are eager to help out. So we
point and pick (me with my no prawns is a problem) and atlast manage to figure out stuff which tastes awesome and feels really good and fresh and are really quite cheap. Total lunch cost: Rs 130 oddish, and we had a little of all that we could make out. The noodle bowl I had was truly amazing.
Hunting for a sim card and a few aborted attempts at trying to communicate brings us back to Vy's doorstep, who immediately sets off to find the sim card for us. And everything seems to be available within this magic alley! So off we go to another of her cousin, who is unable to help and so guess this - Vy gives me an unused sim card and just tells us to top it off for talk time. 100000 dongs talk time, but the charges seem to be steep - 3000 dongs/ minute for outgoing. We even get a 1000 dong back as change.
After a quick nap (we had to make up some lost sleep time), we move out by 6.30 pm to explore the surrounds. A fantastic bakery shop (ABC Bakery) on Pham Ngu Lau make us stop
and try several things - amazingly cheap for the quality and the ambiance. And they say they have wifi on the first floor. I think we are coming back here. We walk around and see the lives start up on the streets. People are out in great numbers - lovers and families with children out in the green patch. Food stalls multiply on the pavements and we walk around in the night market which sells all kinds of stuff to the tourists and the locals. Lovely smell waft from the food stalls and the eateries on the road as they fry and grill and steam and bake anything and everything that you can see. I am getting impatient to actually try out some properly.
David, my Spanish Cser meet us at 8.15 to take us to his favourite place for dinner. We start up with Green Saigon beer - 10000 dongs - which is about 30 rupees for us. He tells us the Bia Hai places are even cheaper. He orders a variety of dishes - noodles with prawns for Sanaa, pork spring rolls, Bun Chai, grilled fish, greens, sticky rice. All wonderful and all with these amazing sauces.
He instructs us in wrapping the food in leaves and dipping them in the sauces to eat. Sanaa is keen to try out her chop sticks and is enthusiastically digging in. I am limping with my chop sticks, but I want to do this, so I am unashamed. The food is delectable. The place is so busy with locals that you had to get that the food would be good. But its beyond good. I learn how to say no prawns - now I need to get the diction right. David is full of ideas about what we should do. We are really feeling that Cu Ci is something we can miss. Saigon seems to have enough to hold our attention for two more days.
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