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Published: February 3rd 2011
Locals Leave Saigon In Droves
A bit of pictorial license. Many locals head out of town during Tet to visit with family.
They came spilling out of the Le Loi darkness mounted on screaming metallic steeds. It looked as if the entire regiment was headed right for our position. The reflections of the decorative tree lights spun in their dark eyes like cigarette embers swirling down black holes. We saw an opening in their ranks and raced for it. “Karen! For the love of God baby, MOVE!” My shout was lost in the all encompassing, mind numbing roar. We froze like two befuddled deer that had stupidly stumbled onto an Interstate. Miraculously, the torrent of humanity cleaved itself around us and moved on. Welcome to crossing the streets of Saigon during Tet.
Tet is Vietnam’s most popular festival. It is Vietnam’s New Year celebration and marks the beginning of Spring and the renewal of the Vietnamese hopes for fortune in the coming year. Houses are scrubbed, children are dressed in new clothes, special foods prepared and the entire country is festooned with lights, banners, flowers, delicious smells and good will. For an unsuspecting tourist it can be purgatory on earth.
Traditionally, most Vietnamese return to their family homes for the holiday. Planes, trains and buses tend to be booked solid for
Ngh Hue Street
Major pedestrian mall in front of the Rex Hotel is decked out for Tet.
the three days before and after the New Year. The exact date is dependent on the lunar calendar. In 2011 the date is February 3rd. We have found that you’re pretty safe staying in Saigon during the holiday. Many of the city’s residents are away for celebrations. Hotel rooms are fairly simple to come by as long as you book ahead. Never come to Saigon in the evening looking for a bed as most rooms will be taken by that time. Hotel rates in Saigon are stable. Outside the city, rates can rocket upwards with the holiday. We have heard from reliable sources that $10 rooms in Da Lat are now going for $25. As soon as the party is over the prices go right back down. Many businesses are closed for the festival so you may have to look around a bit to find a restaurant that you are happy with. Karen’s and my favorite, Lam’s Café, is closed for the next week as the owner’s head back to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta for a well deserved rest. We are staying at the Nu Lan at 40/11 Bui Vien St in District One. (84-8) 38360566 email@example.com. We’re
Wedding Bells at Notre Dame
A regular tide of brides have their fotos taken in front of Notre Dame church in Saigon. This one was posing at 6:30 in the morning.
paying $15 US cash per night for a room with balcony, A/C, cable TV, hot water, private bath and great service. The street our hotel is located on boasts over two dozen places to stay. You’re bound to find something if you get here before noon.
The wide boulevards of District One are festooned with lavender lights and Red Communist banners. Ng Hue Street has been transformed into a garden of flowers and red archways stretch as far as the eye can see. Fortunately, everything but foot traffic has been banned from this area turning the boulevard into a large pedestrian common. In the evenings the place is swarming with Vietnamese and tourists, cameras in hand, all vying for the best place to take a photo. The people are courteous and friendly. Good manners are highly regarded during Tet and it shows in the happy smiles of the locals. It’s hard not to get caught up in their exuberance.
Flower markets abound. Potted Kumquat trees are particularly prized. Every home and business seems to have one prominently placed. The more fruit on the tree the better. Everywhere you look you can see delivery scooters and Pedi cabs carrying
trees to various destinations around town. Also for sale are cactus, Dragon Fruit trees, orchids, chrysanthemums, gladioli and lilies. The city is bursting at the seams with color.
District One covers the downtown area including Notre Dame church, the Rex Hotel, the Caravelle, the Central Post Office, the War Remembrance Museum and the old Presidential Palace. If you’re staying in District One, as we are, you will find everything within walking distance. Karen and I usually get up early in the morning and head out before the sun and the traffic make everything a sweat inducing slog. There are over 13 Million scooters registered in the city. They far out number cars and buses. The major city avenues like Le Loi are wide and long and swarming with two-wheeled vehicles.. Crossing the streets here is an art form as there is never a break in traffic. If you play by the customary western rules you’ll never get anywhere. You start your adventure by standing on the curb and focusing your eyes on your destination. Take a deep breath and step into the street. Keep moving at a steady pace. The traffic will work its way around you. Never hesitate
Hundreds of vendors walk the streets of Saigon selling character balloons to young and old.
and never ever stop halfway across as this will cause no end of confusion amongst the drivers. With a little practice you will find yourself navigating Saigon at will.
Besides the flower markets there are a number of local fairs to be visited where the Vietnamese display their best handiwork. There are flower competitions, and horticultural contests, childrens petting zoos and believe it or not, aquarium contests. Salt and freshwater. Its exotic and odd and a heck of a lot of fun. The food stands are amazing. Such a wide variety of things to eat and enjoy. Karen and I have always eaten from the myriad of push carts and stands that crowd the streets here and the answer to your question is an emphatic no! We have never gotten ill from anything we’ve eaten here so be adventurous and give it all a try. You won’t be sorry you did.
We’re going to hang here in Saigon a bit. Later we’ll be moving north to the coastal city of Mui Ne but you can be sure that we’ll stop back in Saigon on our way out for one more taste of this fantastic town.
Prize Winning Bonsai Tree
Tet is a time for good natured competition amongst the Vietnamese. We attended a fair where the best horticultural, gemstones, floral arrangement and, yes indeed, fish were on display to be judged. We saw hundreds of bonsai trees here.
Saigon Hotel: NHU LAN at 40/11 Bui Vien St. Dist. 1, HCM City (84-8) 8360566 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Balcony rooms for $15/ nite. This street boasts at least 30 family run hotels all of which are competitively priced.
Our friend Truc turned us on to a great Banh Xeo place in Saigon. It's called the Long Huy, Banh Xeo and it's located at 129 Cach Mang Thang 8 - Phuong 5 HCMC. A Vietnamese secret. The best Banh Xeo we have eaten. Wonderful staff and very inexpensive. Three of us stuffed ourselves to bursting. Total with drinks and food came in at $11 US. It's in District 1 so it's easy to get to.
If you are getting a visa on arrival in Saigon you need to have $25 in US cash. Note that I said US cash. They will accept no other forms of money and that includes Yuan and Pesos and Canadian Dollars and Euros and Baht and US travelers checks and… well, you get the idea. The night Karen and I arrived over half the people at the visa window were forced to wait until a customs officer could escort them to a money
exchanger to get US dollars. And credit cards you ask. Forget about it!
Bring US currency if you can. The US dollar is king here. While the official exchange rate is 19,500 Dong/ Dollar, on the street we have gotten as much as 20,900 Dong. Hotel managers are much easier on prices if they know that they will be paid in US dollars, so bring lots with you.
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