GOOD MORNING, SAIGON!
I get restless the night before every travel, which is not a good thing. On my 4th backpacking trip this year and nothing’s changed so far. No matter how hard I try, I just toss and turn and wind up with barely an hour of sleep. It’s the adrenaline pumping overtime. But the rush really starts the moment my feet touches the tarmac. To say the least, I hate the immigration formalities. Though I have never had any problems before, there have been horror stories, and I always come ready not to be flustered. As expected, the proceedings were uneventful. Not even a single question, and darn, I was ready to shove my return ticket to the immigration officer. (That’s the most common that they ask anywhere, I guess.) Haha!
Tan Son Nhat International Airport is a medium sized airport, and most arrivals, I was told, are bussed to the main terminal, except for some flag carrier (Vietnam Airlines) arrivals. I came prepared and didn’t have to change my dollar to the irrepresibly named Vietnamese Dong (PhP 1= VnD 356 or $1 = VnD 16,000). It's supposed to be Nu Dong, I was told. Unlike the Indonesian Rupiah, the dong is exchanged at that stable rate. (Indonesian exchange is exasperatingly AND notoriously subjective. If there’s a slightly imagined fold at the tip of your dollar, then your rate is decidedly marked down, no matter how new and crisp your full dollar bill is.)
Communist countries like China and Cuba do not sell their currencies abroad – I guess this is ideologically based. Vietnam, being a socialist republic is the same, so, unless it is black market, you cannot find dong in legitimate establishments (banks, etc.). It’s a good thing that I stocked on small dollar bills (which isn’t easy – took me a month to get enough small bills) as the dollar is widely accepted. Problem is, if you purchase with a US$100, THEN be prepared to receive a box-load of dongs for your change. I was a millionaire when I changed my $70!!! (VnD 1.25M)
I arrived before noon so I had enough time to “experiment”. Skipped the mad rush of taxi touts outside and looked for the green bus no. 512 outside. To my pleasant surprise, there were 2 empty 512’s waiting outside. I stepped in, asked the lady assistant “how much” and she enunciated rather emphatically, “Three fou-zund dong!” Of course, I wasn’t too sure where that would take me, although my readings assured this would take me to the backpacker’s area in Pham Ngu Lao St. Though I had 3 hotel names in mind, but with no hotel reservations, I decided to wing it. I had daylight and I had time to choose – IF I do find the street! The ride was long, a good hour, as traffic was moderately heavy. There is an ocean of motorcycles like you’ve never experienced in Manila: noisy and chaotic.
I read the street signs until I saw Pham Ngu Lao. I didn’t know where – or how to go about alighting from the bus. I signaled to the assistant, and she just nodded, BUT the bus went on for a good 20 minutes. It turned along De Tham Street and made a stop, so, with my 12 kg bag ( I know, I know – am supposed to travel light!) and took a walk to the street parallel to Pham Ngu Lao- Bui Vien Street! It has been my experience that backpacker areas are ironically pricier - like KL’ Bukit Bintang. I meandered along Bui Vien, trying to look like I wasn’t lost until I found a place I sensed was alright. Phan Lan Guesthouse 70, which would then become my refuge for the next 2 weeks of constant transfer. My room was way up 6th floor, newly renovated, with a fresh coat of paint – split-type aircon, ref, cable TV, newly tiled and spanking clean bathroom. I had a window too though the view wasn’t spectacular. Tall but thin buildings jut out for a cityscape. This is typically Vietnamese, I noticed much later. From afar, they looked like pencil towers.