Tuesday, April 21, 2009


((Part Two, Saigon-Siem Reap-Hanoi-Halong vacation)

Part of what makes travelling to other countries fun and not-so-fun are the different customs, beliefs and practices one encounters, which leave one either open-mouthed with amazement, or shaking one's head in disgust, or exasperated by the absurdity of the locals, or all of the above.

I've come up with a partial list of stuff to expect in Saigon and Hanoi, so future first-timers to these wonderful cities have an equally wonderful experience. Here goes:

1. Money exchange

When changing money upon arrival at the airport, some banks offer a more favourable US$-VND exchange rate, but with a 3% service charge written in the fine print.

Better choose a bank which clearly states "No service charge", even if their exchange rate is less. You will come out ahead.

2. Crossing the streets

In these cities, the motorcycles rule the streets by sheer number. It constantly amazed me that there were hardly any accidents involving these vehicles.

Crossing the main streets can be problematic. Make slow, firm steps, while putting out your hand to signal "Stop!" to the onrushing motorcycles. Under NO circumstances is it advisable to do the
cha-cha ("double-double-single"), as this is a surefire way to get hit.

While the motorcycles seem like ready to run you over, just stay rooted on your spot, and they will part like the Red Sea and weave around you. Take my word for it.

3. Shopping

Bargain hard, but always with a smile. The old trick of walking away when the vendor doesn't agree to your price works surprisingly well, but do not squeeze the last VND from them. Hey, they probably need the money a lot more than you do.

The lady vendors at Ben Thanh market in Saigon are particularly aggressive, to the point of pulling at your shirt and whacking you on the shoulder if you inquire about prices, but fail to buy.

4. Language

Surprisingly, English comprehension is not that good. It is best to learn some basic phrases, such as:
"Xin chao" (hello), "Cam on" (thank you), "Bao nhieu" (how much?), "Mac qua" (too expensive!), and "Co dep qua" (you're beautiful).

5. Etiquette

According to Frommers, "any show of anger is a definite no-no", as this causes the locals to lose face.

Of course, if the taxi drivers are taking the long route to your destination; or the coffee shop waitress forgets the condensed milk when you ordered the "Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk"; or they tell you a can of bottled water costs 15,000 VND when it is clearly stated as costing 10,000 VND on the menu (all of which happened to us), then go ahead by all means and raise your voice a bit.

6. Food & Drink

Speaking of which, not to try the "Iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk"
(Ca phe sua dac) even once during your visit is borderline criminal!

7. Sights

When visiting the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon (a must-see, in my opinion), bring insect repellant.
I repeat, bring insect repellant.

8. Money matters

Be extremely careful when buying stuff and getting change, especially if you pay in US Dollars and the store will give change in VND.

The various denominations of the VND notes tend to look alike (the green-colored 10,000 VND and 100,000 VND notes are deceptively similar-looking), given that they all have Uncle Ho beaming at you, making them prone to mistakes (intentional or otherwise) on the part of the seller.

After all, one must not give up one's millionaire status by being careless, right?

(Many thanks to May Ibalio and Diederick Helder for the lovely photos)


Anna said...

hi! me and my friends are booked to Saigon next year. We would be staying there for 6d/5n. Would u recommend us the faster and easier tour between HCMC-Hanoi or HCMC-Cambodia?


grumpyurbanslacker said...

hey anna,

thanks for dropping by! Hmm...this is a bit tricky to answer. In both cases, i recommend you take a plane...no sense spending hours and hours riding a bus, esp. for HCM-Siem Reap where the border/Customs control adds to the delay.

So it really boils down to what you want to see :D