Friday, March 13, 2015

Celebrating Tết in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta

Husband & I travelled to Saigon airport from Taipei on the evening of February 17, the day before Tết. Tết is the solar new year, also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Holiday. This year it was officially six days, from February 18-23, and our first chance at an international trip since Husband's English school, along with most everything else in Taiwan, was closed for the duration.

We chose to visit Vietnam due completely to airplane ticket prices. It was simply cheaper to travel to HCMC than anywhere else and, since this was our first international trip since relocating to Taiwan, we really had no constraints except that it be somewhere we've never been before. And that list is short; Hong Kong and Manila.

We flew on VietJet Air, one of a number of discount airlines found in this region. Nothing like RyanAir or EasyJet in Europe though. Much closer to JetBlue or Southwest Airlines in the States. Meaning, prices aren't ridiculously cheap. Prices can be inexpensive, however, but nothing only a weekend could justify. One needs, at a minimum, four days to justify the cost of air travel over here. In this case, because we had specific dates we wanted to travel, our tickets were reasonable. We paid US$725.88 for two, including seat reservation costs (US$3.96) and mandatory booking fee (US$20.00) but excluding any baggage costs since we travel light (read: carry-on luggage only).

After booking our tickets we read up on what we should expect in Vietnam over Tết. Basically, the country shuts down. Most everything is closed because most everyone celebrates the holiday with family. Similar to Thanksgiving in the US and Christmas / Boxing Day in the UK, everyone goes home and the country supports this (or enforces it) by shutting down to accommodate the migration from the cities to the villages.

Though we found the preponderance of closed shops frustrating at times, we were thrilled with our overall experience. Additionally, we had memorable experiences we wouldn't have had otherwise had we visited at any other time of year. And, because we visited at such a special time of year, visiting again at any other time of year should elicit a very different experience, which is just another reason to return.

HCMC or Saigon (both are used, though I'm not sure when to use one and not the other) is a lovely city. I read Graham Greene's The Quiet American before traveling, providing me with a little background to the city which I found extremely helpful and fun. Walking the former Rue Catinat was one of the highlights of my visit and one I'm not sure I would've experienced had I not read the book prior to visiting.

Bến Thành market
Bến Thành market closed at noon the day after our arrival, the first day of Tết (new year's eve, Feb 18), and remained closed throughout our stay. Unfortunately, only a few shops within the market chose to open that morning, so we didn't get to see it in all its glory, but at least we did get to go inside. We even had our first Vietnamese meal at one of the stalls; bún thịt nướng (grilled pork & rice noodles), summer rolls, seafood fried rice, and Vietnamese coffees. This meal would be the first of many delicious items we tasted during our stay.

It's true what they say about Vietnamese food; it's amazing. We ate a lot, and at a lot of super dodgy places, but didn't have one bad meal. At one spot there were so many chicken bones on the floor, Husband ate the entirety of his delicious meal with a drumstick perched on his toe (he was wearing flipflops) and didn't even care. Because the food was that good.

Our first meal
We stayed at Madam Cuc 127 in the backpacker's district which is an area we would normally have stayed far away from but served us well on this visit because it was the only area of the city that stayed completely open during Tết. Our hotel was fantastic too. There were a lot of stairs but the staff were super friendly and breakfast was free (baguette with butter and jam and coffee). Staying here also provided us with an indisputable reason for visiting during Tết, unbelievable hospitality.

Upon returning to our hotel after midnight on new year's morning (Feb 19) the owner and staff were celebrating with ceremonial offerings plus a delicious and generous meal for their guests. Not expecting to be invited to a celebratory late night dinner, we had already eaten and weren't terribly hungry. But we ate anyway. Because the food was, per usual, delicious.

On new year's day we found ourselves at the Saigon Zoo. We had ventured out expecting complete solitude, which proved nearly accurate, so we had just intended on wandering the city aimlessly. The map had a large park area near the river marked as a botanical garden, which sounded lovely, so we headed in that general direction. Upon reaching what we thought were the botanical gardens we were greeted by a zoo instead. And it was having a party. So we ventured forth and spent the better part of the day visiting with the animals.

gibbon at the Saigon Zoo
Now, it's true that some of the exhibits made me sad for the animals (which is often the case) but there were also a few exhibits that were awesome, like the gibbon exhibit which had a large section of the zoo fenced off so the gibbon could swing from trees over a river, seemingly uninhibited by boundaries. The gibbon looked so happy. The enclosure appeared makeshift, like the gibbon had escaped its cage and found this refuge instead and the zookeepers had decided it was just easier to fence off this area than to recapture it. It was very cool to see an animal so seemingly thrilled to be in a zoo. Also, the elephants were really close to the crowd. And when was the last time you saw kids feeding them? New year's day in Saigon for me. (I'm not advocating for this, I'm just saying this happened.)

elephants at the Saigon Zoo
When traveling abroad we usually spend a good deal of time pre-trip learning important phrases in the local language. But, because we've been spending all our time trying to learn Mandarin in our new home country, we didn't even attempt to learn any Vietnamese prior to this trip. I'm not proud of this, it's just a fact. We did pick up a few things once we arrived but not enough to do anything complicated on our own. Luckily, staying in the backpacker district helped bridge the language gap a bit, since they cater to tourists there and know English very well, but for more complicated transactions we had to rely completely on our hotels.

I'm usually quite wary of hotel tour booking services. The only other time I tried it was in Costa Rica in 2006 and the whole thing just felt like a dirty tourist trap. I resolved to never do that again. But, because we were traveling lazy this time, and I knew exactly what I wanted and had researched prices, we asked our hotel for help. The whole process turned out to be so simple and convenient and stress-free that I may begin utilizing these types of services more often.

Our hotel in HCMC helped us arrange bus travel to Cần Thơ in the Mekong Delta. We just wanted the normal public bus, which should have only cost us US$6 but, due to the holiday, wound up costing twice that. Whatever. The bus was air conditioned with reserved seats and even came with a pickup from our hotel and a free bottle of water and moist towelette. We felt like kings.

Saigon bus station
The bus station itself was a bit intimidating but we successfully navigated it and made it to Cần Thơ without incident. Upon arriving we found our bus ticket even came with free transportation to our new hotel. Score! What a system!

In Cần Thơ we stayed at the Kim Long Hotel. This was also a great experience. The location was perfect; right on the waterfront and only a few blocks away from all the action. Additionally, on our last night in Cần Thơ we were treated to hospitality similar to that of our HCMC hotel, a staff / family dinner. Such a great experience!

As soon as we arrived in Cần Thơ, knowing our return trip to HCMC on a Sunday night would be popular for those returning home after the holiday, we asked the hotel to book our return travel. Additionally, we knew we wanted to visit the nearby floating market and asked about that too. Unfortunately, due to the holiday, the floating market was closed. But, we really wanted to get out on the river anyway, so we booked a 3.5 hour tour for Sunday morning, hoping the market might be open that day. The tour was only US$9 per person.

Cần Thơ
With our tickets booked, we ventured out to explore our new surroundings. We had read that Cần Thơ was the largest city of the Mekong Delta. In addition, with most people returning to their village roots for the holiday, we had expected it to be much livelier than usual. If that was indeed the case, my expectations for the population density of the Mekong Delta are vastly inaccurate. Cần Thơ is a sleepy village. It's lovely. But sleepy.

We spent our days wandering the streets, grabbing the occasional beer and Vietnamese coffee, and stopping for the plethora of cultural diversions. In both cities, perhaps due to the holiday, we were surrounded by events. There were stages with performances (dance, singing, music, comedy), there were fairs and festivals, there were fireworks. It really was a wonderful time to visit such a lovely country.

Floating Market
One of the highlights from our trip was definitely our river tour. Though the market had decided to open that day, it was still very quiet. Despite that fact, seeing the area from the water was a great experience on its own and one I would repeat.

We were picked up for our tour at the ungodly hour of 5:30am but it was nice to see the area come to life. It's something I've noticed in Taiwan too; there is an entire early morning economy that I am absolutely oblivious to. Perhaps it's due to the heat but I have observed that most activity happens when the sun is down, both in the morning as well as in the evening. For instance, when the market is up and running, it is usually over by 9am. I don't typically wake up before 10am. That means an entire business day has passed before I even open my eyes. Astounding.

I really enjoyed our trip to Vietnam. I loved everything about it; the people, the food, and the culture. I look forward to returning often.

For more pictures, please visit here.

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