Team Clempner Do South East Asia: Chapter 7

Saigon vs Bangkok


Throughout this trip we’ve needed to make a few tough calls. When we decided upon it, requested the time off work and bid farewell to family, a month seemed like a really long time. When in ‘see the world’ terms, it’s very little. Quite aside from the time ACTUALLY travelling, inevitably there is no end to what you want to see. Not that we are ungrateful for our month. Quite the opposite. But we have needed to accept that we can’t see and do it all, we need to take care of ourselves and to try and cram in as much as possible negates the deeper reason why we came away.

Ho Chi Minh (still referee to as Saigon by many, which I prefer) was one destination we decided to cut our time there, in favour of Hoi An. We flew into the city at 3pm Saturday afternoon and departed for Bangkok at 1.10pm the next day. The unexpected benefit of this was that we were hugely motivated to make the most of our time there. After our experience of the city of Hanoi we also felt prepared for the impact of the capital of Southern Vietnam. We had been told they were very different but we didn’t want to count our chickens nor be too cocky with it, so armoured ourselves with plenty of water, wet wipes, antiseptic gel and a change of t-shirt for James.

Our only regret about the lack of time we had was being unable to see the war museum, as the impact of the French Revolution is so startlingly evident in the architecture, layout and culture of this city. Dare I say it is enormously more sophisticated than Hanoi. The first thing we noticed was the city’s love for boutique cafes. Within 500m of our hotel we found 5 beautiful, characterful and ‘trendy’ coffee shops. The first we found was the ever so friendly Chat Roasters, owned and run by Dee Dee (clearly an abbreviated name for the sake of us ignorant Brits), who spoke English fluently and was clearly a very savvy businessman. He helped our taxi driver locate our hotel and of course took the opportunity to entice us into his establishment. It worked. It may have just been the relief of stopping travelling but his iced Vietnamese coffee was literally to die for. We resolved immediately to return once we had done our round of the city.

We next hit Ben Thanh Market, or otherwise known as Den of Thieves… We meandered, sweatily, through the maze of knock off watches, silks pyjamas and nut based snacked goods. In Hoi An I had feebly attempted to barter for a silver bangle with engravings similar to my wedding ring, but with a dragon-esque pattern to it which reminded me of the descending dragon story in Halong Bay. I’d been quoted 50 dollars (*numeorus expletives*) for it, when I knew full well it was only silver plated. I found the same bangle on a stall in this market and bartered for it for £9. James shook his head at me as I handed the stallholder my card, knowing full well it’s likely not even worth that much, but nonetheless I became that happy little girl with my trinket from a foreign country (see my blog on Venice for further elaboration).

We then walked to the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral. The former was difficult to see and appreciate in the twilight plus has some significant renovations currently underway and the latter was much smaller than its Parisian twin but extraordinary in its own right. We arrived during the evening Eucharist. It was an other worldly experience hearing the Latin prayers sung with the familiar choral evensong arrangement, but in the Thai language.

Before long we both got the shakes from lack of food, so stopped for peanuts and water at a bar. The menu was difficult to follow and pretty expensive so we told ourselves we could find somewhere better and cheaper to eat. Turns out, we couldn’t. An hour and a half later we had wandered back to the region where our hotel was and found that places to eat, that weren’t Burger King or McDonalds, were very sparse. There were your usual “are they selling street food or is this just home for them?” places but we knew we needed something slightly more substantial (and reliable) than Vietnamese street food. We spotted what looked like a nice, quirky, air conditioned little joint called ‘Duck Deli’ and angled for it. The menu was duck curry, cabbage salad, boiled duck or thigh of duck. What possessed us to order 2 portions of boiled duck, I do not know, but there it was, swimming in traditional Vietnamese Pho (stock and noodles). We ordered ‘a load of bread’ (as written on the menu) which helped a little but it’s safe to say it wasn’t my favourite cuisine on our travels.

Slightly traumatised by the boiled duck experience we headed back to Chat Roasters cafe for drinks. James was overjoyed to find they had football showing. I was overjoyed to find they served a good red wine. Not only that but, bless them, the barmen who barely spoke English had never served wine in their lives, so brought me a large empty glass, carefully laid it down and just poured until I said stop. Needless to say, I left it as late as possible.

First thing in the morning the next day we made a third visit to Chat for a couple of ‘to die for’ cappuccinos and lattes then went back to our hotel to shower and pack before our taxi to the airport arrived. I stepped into the shower to find it was freezing cold. I called reception to report it and 10 minutes later they apologised and said it would be fixed in 45 minutes. Our taxi was arriving in 20. We hadn’t washed since our 5 hour long sweaty trek around the city the night before. We felt gross. A rather cross James went down to reception to communicate our distress and five minutes later returned with a full refund for our room and our airport taxi paid for. Good grief my husband knows how to challenge customer service!

For the sake of not creating an excessively long and boring blog I’ll jump straight to Bangkok… We departed Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, at 13.30 and arrived at our hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, at approximately 16.00. Not bad for a jump from country to country.

Our first evening in Bangkok we set out with the vague plan of walking to the infamous Khao San Road (better known as the backpacker area, teeming with boho teenagers, drunk or high), where my husband spent some time in his formative early twenties, eating one meal a day from the street stalls and wandering the streets with a bottle of beer – an image that utterly breaks my heart. We exited through the back of our simple two star hotel and wandered the backstreets of Bangkok’s locality. At first we said it would be unwise to return this way after nightfall, but found ourselves retracting our judgements. It was obvious the locals were not at all threatening and in fact had absolutely no interest in us white western tourists. I’ve found there’s a very fine line between being wise about your safety in a foreign country and being prejudice about the inhabitants of that country.

For the sake of attempting to be more concise and less rambly, here’s a countdown of our ten discoveries in Bangkok over 2 days:

10. Death-Cab Roulette: After being warned constantly about getting into non-private vehicles in Vietnam, but paying through the nose for transfers to and from the airport, it was a nervy transition to jumping in a cab at Bangkok airport. We had to persuade the driver to do the journey on the meter, we kept hitting toll roads high we had to fork out more cash for, and the rules of the road, although more adhered to than in Vietnam, Bali and KL, are still pretty iffy. And we did all this because we were too tired to figure out the BTS (Bangkok metro), brave the longer airport shuttle, and risk walking for miles with our backpacks. Ah the roulette of catching taxis in South East Asia!

9. Street Food Heaven: (and here I should refer back to KL, when I first wrote about ‘street food’, which I now understand was NOT street food, but merely a cafe fashioning itself as serving ‘street food’) in Bangkok is AMAZING. James encouraged me to have some Pad Thai (stir friend noodles, egg, vegetables, soy sauce and a meat of your choice) from a street stall for 30 Bart (about 60p) and it tasted divine. I survived to tell the tale.

8. Bar and Street Food Collaborates Heaven: We found a bar where all menu food came from the street food stall next door. So they would take our order and when it was ready Mr Local came shuffling into the bar, straight from his stall, top off, apron on and plonked our order down. It was only 10 Bart more than buying direct (so still only £1) and was equally amazing. Plus, we got to drink £1 beer whilst enjoying it.

7. Khao San Road: …makes us feel old… Really old. James had uncomfortable memories of himself post-teens and I felt a rush of maternal anxiety for all the youths stumbling down the streets, painfully unaware of themselves and of their safety, and lost in their boho backpackers world.

6. NOT seeing The Grand Palace: We saw the famous grand palace and reclining Buddha…from the outside! We walked for an hour to reach them, not with any particular intention of going in, but it was so blisteringly hot that when we saw the swarms of tourists lining up we cowered away. Some might call us a cop out… I think it was just sensible. Plus, we encountered far more of the ‘real’, gritty Bangkok, without paying £30 for the pleasure.

5. Trustworthy Thai: We found the Thai people way more friendly (and seemingly trustworthy) than the Vietnamese. Perhaps there’s something in our history with them that doesn’t make them quite as angry with us (as the Vietnamese sometimes appeared to be), maybe we help them to sustain a booming tourist industry, maybe, just maybe, it’s culturally more in their nature to welcome foreigners to their country.

4. Western Morons: I’m going to deliberately speak out of turn here… I just can’t understand ex-patriot westerners who have migrated to Thailand to ‘find themselves’ walking down filthy streets in bare feet. Thai locals don’t even do that, it’s not even a ‘thing’. They can afford reams of tattoos and a full hippy boho attire courtesy of Khao San road, why not a basic pair of flip flops? It’s a blatant statement of ex-pat rebellion at its worst and looks quite frankly ridiculous.even the Thai people laugh at them. So grow up and put some flipping shoes on!

3. Bartering Failure: I went into a short term shopping frenzy on Khao San Road and unsuccessfully bartered for jewellery, dresses and sandals. The stall holders are ruthless and get pretty miffed off if you stick too low in your price for their liking. Again something I was really uncomfortable doing, but felt too guilty spending both our hard earned money on stuff we had to traipse back to the UK with and that I’ll likely not wear again for at least another 12 months.

2. Slow: We found a brilliant little wine bar called Slow 5 minutes from our hotel, in the backstreet local district away from the main streets, owned and run by Phillipe, an Italian in his 30’s passionate about good hospitality. Obviously frustrated with the lonely life for him in Bangkok, we enthusiastically applauded his set up there and discussed the west meets east culture clash and differences in attitudes to hospitality. He also gave me a damn good Pinot Grigio which I was SO grateful for.

1. Broken Oldies: We walked everywhere from 11.30am until 8.30pm. Might not seem like a great deal of time, but in 35* heat and only 3 stops, I’d say that’s pretty tough going. We mostly meandered local areas, observing how they live and feeling the contrast between that and the main sights. The Tuk Tuk (mini golf buggy sequel transport) drivers thought we were absolutely mad. They tried desperately to tell us how far it was to a, b or c, but we just kept walking. Don’t get me wrong, by the time we got back to our hotel, we were utterly beat. I mean, really, embarrassingly, worryingly broken..

 We are realising we are a a bit older and a bit more fragile these days. Which makes us more grateful for the time we have and more wary of taking care of our bodies while we can.

The case of Saigon vs Bangkok, the score stands at 1 : 1.


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