Ho Chi Minh City - "Independence, Freedom, Happiness"

On May 11, 2014 I was assigned by the Japanese company that I work for to Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) for 41 days to work on a project at the local project office.

The skyline of modern Saigon from the window of the project office, a rapidly changing city. What will it look like 10 years later?!

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Although no stranger to Vietnamese people and their food because of the numerous numbers who live in North America, this was my first time to experience Vietnam live and uncut.

For some reason all the flights from Japan to Vietnam are all scheduled at hours to "maximize" working time, for example, the flights departing from Japan or Vietnam either were all overnight flights (so you could get into the office once you get off the plane) or early in the morning (so that you could get into the office in the late afternoon after you arrive!).

I took Vietnam Airlines and it seemed that most of the passengers were going back and forth for business purposes. The flight from Tokyo to Saigon took around 5 hours and 30 minutes. Including all of the airport waiting time and access to the airport, it took like 7-8 hours in total.

The meal from Vietnam Airlines, this was advertised in the menu as a "western" meal but it definitely did not taste western at all. The taste is like all other economy class airline meals but unlike stingy Japanese airlines which give small portions, at least Vietnam Airlines was generous with the portions! (the secret is not cheaping out on the rice!)

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After one week of staying in a hotel near the project office, I found a serviced apartment for the rest of my stay there. The cost per night was around US$40-50 at a so-called 3-star/4-star hotel which was quite reasonable, but the serviced apartment was cheaper overall per night. It cost me around US$700 for the studio room and it included laundry service everyday so I would just put my dirty clothes in a bin and it would come back ironed and cleaned at night (including the underwear).

The only bad thing about the serviced apartment is the lack of privacy as the cleaning person usually came in the early morning to pick up your clothes and would just come into your apartment without letting you know, even if you were sleeping. Also by the end of my stay, they were showing potential renters my room before I had even checked out!

The small kitchen area of the serviced apartment. I did not even bother to cook because it was just cheaper to eat out. Also, because tap water is not drinkable, bottled water is usually provided everywhere you go.

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For some reason, there was very little water pressure and at night the water would flow to a trickle compared to the morning, this made taking a proper shower hard.

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The actual room, it was bigger than the shoebox apartment that I rent in Tokyo.

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The neighbourhood where the apartment was located. This area mostly served Japanese salarymen who were assigned to work in Saigon. One bad thing is that there were some karaoke places located nearby and just like Japanese apartments that are built with paper-thin walls, it was the same in Saigon. At night there was constant noise from the bar/karaoke places on the ground floor and in the morning there was the constant annoying sounds from motorbikes.

The entrance to the neighbourhood.

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The project office was located in this building in the "Japanese area" of Saigon, an area concentrated with Japanese restaurants, all designed to serve the expatriate Japanese salaryman population. My service apartment was only a 5 minute walk to the office.

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The skyline of Saigon from the 16th floor of the project office.

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The night view. I should have used a real camera instead of using a smartphone.

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The typical day during the rainy season which lasts for half the year in Saigon from around May to November. The most unusual part about the rainy season is that almost everyday it would rainy heavily for around 1 hour or less and then stop and become sunny again!

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The street in front of the office. The traffic would just flow like water down a river. The only way to cross at areas out of the intersection with traffic lights was to basically jaywalk "Saigon style", that is, you just keep walking and the traffic will swerve around you. Cars and motorbikes would never stop or slow down for you but will honk at you instead!

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One thing I noticed about the buildings are the prevalence of skinny tall buildings.

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The environment at street level, total chaos. People on motorbikes driving on the sidewalk, street hawkers selling their wares, people just hanging around on the street...

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One of the streets north of the office. Basically anything goes at this intersection, it is a wonder that there aren't more accidents, but that is probably because the speed of traffic is really low inside the central area.

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Basically, because of the heat, traffic chaos and the space hogged by motorbikes on the sidewalk for parking, it is not comfortable to walk anywhere in Saigon. That's why there wasn't much foot traffic anywhere in the central area of Saigon.

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Some typical street scenes. Notice the crazy electric poles and wiring!

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Its amazing what people can carry on their motorbikes. This guy was carrying pipes I think.

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Motorbikes everywhere.

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During the weekends, I had a lot of free time to go exploring, however because of the heat and poor conditions to walking, I could not go to as many places as I would have liked to.

The central area of Saigon, still full of beautiful French colonial buildings.

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The Saigon opera house.

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The Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee building, basically its city hall.

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The square in front of the building with a statue of Uncle Ho.

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This area is where all of the city's high end shops and department stores are located.

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One thing good about Saigon are the abundance of trees on the streets unlike tree-less Tokyo.

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Even in the central area there were a lot of street hawkers.

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On this day, I was walking on the way to visit the former South Vietnam Presidential Palace.

The Notre Dame cathedral built by the French during the colonial period.

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The French style central post office.

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Always under the watch of Uncle Ho. I would have stayed longer to explore if there was air conditioning but there wasn't and it was boiling hot inside!

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The central post office seems to be a popular photography site for wedding photos.

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Typical street hawkers selling the typical "pop up cards" that you see everywhere.

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Despite the capitalist economy now, there are still socialist propaganda on the streets.

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Tons of them featuring Uncle Ho.

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The former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam. I arrived at 11 am and it closes everyday from 11 am to 1 pm, so I had to come back later!

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The grand boulevard in front of the former Presidential Palace.

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The tanks that crashed through the gates during the fall of Saigon.

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The building had a very 60s feel to it but it was much smaller than I imagined for a Presidential Palace.

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One of the interesting things was that the building was not enclosed, all of the rooms lead to an open space. As you can imagine it was boiling hot and I was sweating like crazy while walking around.

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The formal dining room.

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The cabinet meeting room.

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The hall, not with a bust of Uncle Ho in the front.

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Taken from the 2nd floor.

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You can really feel the 60s architecture here.

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The formal meeting rooms.

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The private apartments in the back. I was surprised at how sparse they were, just 3 rooms in a courtyard.

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The war room.

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The presidential office.

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The helicopter pad on the roof.

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The presidential entertainment room complete with a mahjong table.

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The rooftop complete with a 60s-style dance hall.

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Brochures from the former Presidential Palace.

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Since Vietnam is the birthplace of Pho, I also tried went to some famous restaurants.

This is Pho Hoa Pasteur.

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The menu. I ordered a bowl of Pho and spring rolls. A bowl cost around 60,000 dong which is around US$3.

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The soup was really clear and the flavour was really good. If this place wasn't so out of the way, I would have come here again. I had to take a taxi to get here where the fare cost almost the same as the meal!

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The interior of the restaurant.

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Another place I went to was Pho Le in District 5 near the city's Chinatown area. There were no menus at this place, and when the Vietnamese waitress noticed that I couldn't speak any Vietnamese he referred me to the owner who started speaking to me in Mandarin and then in Cantonese when he realized that I didn't know any Mandarin.

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Giant plates of bean sprouts on each table. I wonder if they reuse them?

While I was waiting for my bowl of pho to come, a Chinese funeral procession complete with a mini parade came by on the street facing the restaurant.

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The soup was sweeter than the one from Pho Hoa Pasteur.

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After eating, I walked around the edge of the Chinatown area but left after a short while because there wasn't much to see and it was just too hot.

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Most of the time, I went to a local chain called Pho 24 to get my pho because it was much closer to where I was living and it was located in the Vincom Center mall.

The place where I ate two of my three daily meals out, at the Vincom Center mall.

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At the B3 level, there were many restaurants and this is where the Pho 24 that I visited frequently was located. Although not as good as the famous restaurants, the price and taste was acceptable.

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This small bowl only cost 29,000 dong (US$1.50).

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In addition they also serve "broken rice pork chop".

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At the Vincom Center, I also noticed the largest durian I had ever saw. In fact the entire shop smelled like durian!

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Some other things that I ate include the following. One of the things Vietnam does well is that they don't seem to alter Western cuisine to suit local tastes. Here I had steak frites at a French bistro for around US$10.00.

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Later on while walking around I also discovered a Hong Kong-style BBQ meat shop.

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Another one of Saigon's tourist attractions is the Ben Thanh Market, basically an open market selling various things. I don't really like these types of markets so I just quickly walked around and left.

The area around the market.

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Some kind of drink with scorpion inside.

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Inside the market.

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The giant roundabout in front of the market.

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The tallest building in Saigon in the background, the Bitexco Financial Tower.

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The front of the market.

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The 2nd ever McDonalds in Vietnam!

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Area in front of the McDonalds.

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The view from the 2nd floor of the McDonalds. This will become such a prime location in the future.

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The interesting thing about this McDonalds is that the kitchen is on the top floor and they have a vertical conveyor belt to bring the food to the counter on the 1st floor.

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This being Vietnam, there are some special Vietnam-only features like a take out window for motorbike riders.

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Lastly one of the areas I went to on one of the weekends before I left was a new development in District 7. Quite a change from the chaotic environment of the central city.

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Inside the mall, I noticed an HP store, I never knew HP had their own branded stores?

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The whole area was quite deserted compared to the central city.

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Finally on the day of departure. Because my flight was at 5:55 am, I decided to go to the airport at 11 pm the day before and just wait out my time. Unknown to me, the airport actually closes for 2 hours from 12 am to 2 am or something for cleaning but no cared to kick me out and the cleaners just ignored me.

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One of the weird things that I noticed about this airport was the layout. You could not access the restaurants which are located on the 2nd floor from inside the check-in hall but had to access the escalators to the 2nd floor from the outside. Also weird were the two fast food joints (Burger King and Dominos's Pizza) that were located at the ends of the drop off curb and also the number of local people just hanging out at the entrance of the airport terminal!

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Before you go through security when departing, you have to go through customs again and it seems like the purpose of this is to check how much money you are bringing out of Vietnam. I had to put my bags through a scanner and they were purposely checking for cash and once they found the cash, they asked me to take out my wallets so they could count the bills!

After looking up some information on the Internet, it seems that you are not allowed to bring out more than US$5000...I guess the rest will just become the customs officer's "coffee money" if you exceed the limit and did not know? (there were no forms to fill out either)

PS: The Socialist Republic's motto - "Independence, Freedom, Happiness"


1 comments:

Bom Kritin said...

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Thank you again and keep writing! You got more fan now! Cheers!