Landing in a foreign country for the first time is always exciting. I was a little skeptical about going to Vietnam because I did not know much about it. I researched about it a bit, read a lot of blogs about the Vietnam war and Pho, but could not really form an opinion about what it would be like.
It was around 11 am when I landed in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, and made my way through the immigration counters. The first thing that I noticed after landing in Vietnam was that the officials at the visa counter were wearing military uniforms. When I got my passport stamped, I smiled and thanked them. They did not smile back, they just stared at me. I guess they do not see many Indians in Vietnam. I moved on quickly before they could think of a reason to arrest me.
Outside the airport, I tried to find the bus that went to Benh Tanh Market, which was near the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao Street where I had a room booked in a small family run guest house, My My Arthouse ( Weird name I know, but that was exactly the reason why I booked a room there in the first place). Thanks to the directions given by an old Vietnamese lady, I managed to find the bus and bought a 4000 Dong ticket to Benh Tanh Market.
I watched as we passed karaoke houses, roadside Pho stands, shops and shacks of all kinds, along with a sea of two wheelers. There was so much life in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. It looked disorganised and chaotic, but I was sure they were all following some weird Vietnamese traffic rules, because they were not crashing into each other.
At Benh Tanh Market I asked a few locals about the directions to My My Art House. Most of them did not know, and whoever did know had different theories about where the guest house was. Someone pointed to a park, and told me that it was located on the street on the other side of the park. When I reached there, I was told that the guest house was located near the bus stand. My My Arthouse was apparently a sand dune that kept changing its location.
“I just came from there. They said it was over here somewhere.”
I was carrying a very heavy backpack and the humidity was unbearable. I was sweating profusely and badly needed a shower. That is when I met Tamh, a moto cab driver. He was small and boney like most Vietnamese I had seen till then and was wearing a checked brown shirt and a baseball cap.
He greeted me with his ear to ear smile, revealing a lot of empty spaces between his teeth and showed me a diary, which had testimonials from his customers. He proposed to drop me off at my guest house for free, if I went sightseeing with him afterwards. It was a shady deal, but I was tired and more importantly, I was wasting a lot of time trying to find that stupid guesthouse. So, I said yes.
My My Arthouse was located in a small damp alley, behind the backpacker shops and bars of Pham Ngu Lao Street. The owner, who was a guy in his twenties, and his parents ran the guesthouse. He was a busy guy handling all the guests and their whimsical needs, while his mother chatted with the neighbours, read newspapers and ate half boiled eggs. His father was sleeping in a bed placed beside the reception table.
After a nice long shower and a change of clothes, I decided to find myself some lunch. Since I wanted to find some authentic Vietnamese food, I skipped the KFCs and McDs and entered a small roadside restaurant where I saw a lot of locals, eating, smoking and talking loudly. There was an old man with a thick mustache sitting at the counter with a mean looking stick.
“Pho?” I asked
He barely even looked at me. He was busy writing something on his small notepad. Finally he looked up from his desk and said something in Vietnamese. I smiled and shook my head, hoping he would understand that I did not know the language. He did, and after a lot of hand movements, I managed to order the famous Pho with chicken.
Pho is served in a bowl, and is basically a soup that has rice noodles, various vegetables, herbs, spices as well as beef or chicken. I was served in a big steel bowl, the kind that they have in prisons. It was hot, and the broth was spicy yet not spicy enough to make you sweat. It was delicious and super cheap.
When I came back to my guesthouse after lunch, I found Tamh waiting for me outside my guesthouse. It was time for my sightseeing tour. We decided on the pagoda hopping tour, where we would go to Chinatown and see a lot of pagodas, and visit the famous China Town market. I made two mistakes while booking this tour with Tamh.
First was I forgot to bring my wallet which had my credit and debits cards, so we had to turn back and pick it up after we were 10-15 minutes into our route to China Town. It must have been frustrating for him but still, was pretty harmless. The second one was not.
As the motocab dodged and swayed its way through the sea of two wheelers and small cars, with cool evening weather lifting up my energy levels, I saw kids returning home from school, chickens running on the road as their shopkeepers risk their own lives to save them from the speeding vehicles, the evening rush of locals trying to catch a bus or grabbing a quick bite at the numerous food vendors all along the sidewalks. There was constant honking of vehicles, and hawking of street side vendors. Pure Madness..Loved it!
I visited five pagodas during the tour and I had to ask Tamh to take me to the China Town market, and skip the rest of the pagodas because all of them seemed the same to me. Yes, they were peaceful and a great respite from the smoke and sweat of the streets outside, but every pagoda seemed to have the same few things. Quaintness, few holy Chinese idols, smoke and smell of incense sticks, and a few quiet devotees. And then I would come out and try to find Tamh, who would either be sitting in a corner smoking a cigarette or chatting with other moto cab drivers. After a couple of these pagodas, I was bored.
(I know Pagodas are holy places and people go there to worship and in no way do I intend to disrespect their importance or sanctity. It is only because I am ignorant about them that I found them boring.)
If that was not bad enough, by the time we reached the China Town Market, it had closed. So, I decided to end the miserable little tour and asked him to drop me off at the Benh Tanh Market. The sun was about to set and the sky was turning into bright orange when we reached the Benh Tanh Market. There were hawkers selling fruits, flowers and vegetable on the roadside, near the main entrance of the market. The whole place smelt a lot different as compared to the stink of traffic infused exhaust fumes in the afternoon. It smelt like flowers, spices and meat. There were a lot more people in the market as well, probably due to the pleasant weather.
As our moto cab reached the market, I realised my second mistake. I did not fix the price of the tour beforehand.
Tamh asked for 600000 Dongs.
“No Way! You said 100000 Dongs” I lied. I wanted to sound confident and mean. But Tamh was adamant. He wanted 600000 Dongs. It went back and forth for a while, calling each other liars until I decided to try the oldest trick in the book.
I put the 100000 Dong note on his bike and starting walking away. I knew what I was doing was not nice, but Tamh was being unreasonable. I walked quite briskly for around two minutes, not looking back even once and just when I thought the whole mix up was over, I heard his voice again. I turned back to see that he was running towards me.
When he reached, he was panting and took a moment to catch his breath.
“3 more.” He said, panting, and holding up the 100000 Dong note that I had given him.
“No.” I said a bit more aggressively. Clearly being aggressive was working.
Finally, after another session of negotiations, we decided on 100000 Dongs more, which was a price I was prepared to pay.
That night, when I was coming back to my guest house after having another bowl of Pho in a hawker stand and exploring the variety of goods on offer at the Benh Tanh Market, I thought about the lie that I told Tamh. I knew what I did was not cool, but strangely I was glad that I was able to get out of the fix without being scammed. I felt a bit proud that even though I was travelling alone and so far away from home, I managed to hold my ground and deal with the situation.