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Jan 21, 2014

Sài Gòn, Random Thoughts Phần Ba (Part Three)

A couple days after I got back to HCMC, one of my new friends wanted to go to the Ben Thanh market for dinner. Really? This indoor market reminds me of the Preston Henn Swapshop in Fort Lauderdale and any of the bazillions of cavernous buildings across the world with 1,000 individual very small businesses each in its own tiny cubicle. They're actually rectangles, so would they be recticles? Neither time I've been there have I seen anything I would categorize as 'food'.

I was very surprised when we arrived and sat down at a number of restaurants that materialize each night, at least one of which is almost a block long. The one we visited features GREAT fresh seafood prepared just about any way you'd want it--and at Viêt Nam prices.

One of the items on my very short list of things to do before departure is to enjoy another dinner there.
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"Hello Girls" is my new term for the dozens of bar girls (there are also boys and lady-boys at at least two places I've passed) in the tourist areas. It sounds more forgiving than "Bar Girls", at least to me. These very attractive, though understandably a bit hard-looking, women sit at tables flanking the streets and call out "Hello!" to virtually every male who walks by without a female companion. The greeting may also be accompanied by, "Come sit/talk with me." or "I'm bored..." They are at times insistent, though always polite. Although I have yet to succumb to their siren call, I have a few ex-pat acquaintances who have. They tell me that the girls are mostly uneducated, from poor families in small villages, and find this the best or only way to earn a living. 



Unfortunately, they work on straight commission--a percentage of their customers' bar tab, including the high-priced sugar water the girl drinks--and, if they choose, whatever they can make by getting invited to a customer's room for an hour or all night. I say unfortunately, because most nights the great majority of the Hello Girls I see are without customers.

It's a lousy way to make a living... I may even stop in one night, limit my spending to a couple glasses of sugar water, and thereby contribute a little more to the very local economy.
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It occurred to me that of the 15 to 20 people I've met who have made or are making HCMC to Hà Nôi or Hà Nôi to HCMC journey by motorcycle, the oldest one is 31 years old. So yes, especially when considering that I've completed 60 laps around the sun, making it to Hà Nôi was one hell of a accomplishment!
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During a conversation with Mimi from Cần Thở, I mentioned that one of my ex-pat acquaintances is continuously telling anyone who will listen about the many, many women he beds--ocassionally with no up-front money. Mimi said, "He's a butterfly". He is now known as Butterfly, though we haven't told him. Yet.
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There are a couple places I've been shown in the area that serve excellent snails, clams, and crab, and I've returned to them both. The first is a no-name street kitchen that manifests every night in the front of a parking garage between 149 and 155A Bùi Viên Street. It's run by a couple and their daughter and they display the evening's fresh selection street-side. 


The place is full all night, every night, and the three of them barely slow down until well after most of us are asleep.

The second is Ốc Đào, a regular restaurant at 132 Nguyễn Thái Học Street. I recommend the upstairs seating area.
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Also very good:

Little India, 135 Bùi Viên; Best Indian food in the area
Lâm Café, 175 Bùi Viên; ~American breakfast
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One place I suggest you avoid is Saigon Kitchen & BBQ on Bùi Viên. I ordered their Seafood Fried Noodles and they were very greasy with only 6 pieces of calamari and no other seafood. There are enough good places at similar or lower prices that this place gets a D+ only because I didn't get stomach cramps.
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A few posts ago I wrote about the tones determining the words' sound and therefore meaning. What just now occurred to me is that it happens in English, too. For example: read (reed) and read (red).

At least Vietnamese warns you with those little marks above and/or below some letters: à, ả, ã, á, ạ, ă, ằ, ẵ, ắ, ặ, ẳ, ấ, â, ầ, ẩ, ẫ, ấ, and ậ. 

For example: Tôi ăn tỏi (I ate garlic).

"Khách sạn" is pronounced "hek sa" and means hotel.

My head's spinning, how 'bout yours?
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The energy drink Red Bull is available at many sidewalk restaurants here. In Vietnamese it's Lon Bò cụng (ask for "Lone Ba" and you'll get one)
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Some of the many menu items I've seen here include "well-stirred egg"; "flaked fried snake head fish"; "deep fried pig stomach"; and "blanched pig heart with onion" and many choices of how you can have your snake. Did not try any of the above, so I have no favorite... though I'm guessing it would be the first which is probably simple scrambled eggs.
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"Hello Girls", a Butterfly, and now a massage reevaluation...

I was recently told by someone who should know that the young women who give massages work for tips only. That means that if someone is very generous and tips 50%, she makes US$5 for the hard physical work that is a $10 massage. Since there are often more than 10 massage shops in a single block of the touristy areas, none of them are overflowing with customers and there are often six or more waiting masseuses. These are, again, mostly uneducated women from poor rural (redundant) families with few options and a societal need to send money home. I can understand why many resort to selling their bodies.

I now tip 100% or more for every massage. The most recent got a $10 tip for an $8 massage.
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Another first... tomato juice from fresh tomatoes! I was not surprised by banana juice that tasted just like liquified bananas or watermelon juice that tasted like watermelon sans seeds and crunch. I was, therefore surprised to be surprised by tomato juice that tasted just like tomatoes with neither sugar nor salt added AND that was thin--like someone had just put a few ripe tomatoes in a juicer. 

Go figure...

Bếp Viêt Vietnamese Kitchen, 113A Bùi Viên. The food is good, too.
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Took a side trip to a small city this week that is not served by an airport...
Taxi 20 km from the airport to the bus station for 343,000 VND @ 16.5/km
Bus 60 km for 50,000 VND
Train 65 km for 38,000 VND
Taxi 20 km from the train station to airport 274,000 VND @ 11.0/km

The train was the least expensive, smoothest, and most comfortable of the four. 
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If you stick with VINASUN or Mailin Group taxis in HCMC and Mailin Group taxis in Hà Nôi, you'll be fine.  Upon international arrival at HCMC's airport (SGN), don't fall as I did for the "the published rate into the city is US$35" for which they even show you a laminated card. Take a metered taxi and pay less than 200,000VND (~US$10). It helps to have VND, so change $50 at the airport to hold you until you get to your hotel. Yes, you'll pay a little higher rate (bank and hotel rate is 20,500 to 21,000 per US$), but it's worth it and you'll be a millionaire within 30 minutes of arriving in Việt, Nâm <smile>
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One evening last week I started having extreme discomfort on my left side. As usual, I figured it would go away on its own. My morning, it was unbearable and I decided that I had to see a doctor. While still in bed, I called Travel Guard, the company from whom I'd purchased a medical policy for the length of my trip... or so I thought. Although after extensive searching shevcould find no record of my purchase, the woman with whom I spoke offered to help in any way she could, including finding a local doctor or hospital for me. I thanked her and told her I wanted to try one other option before asking her to work for free--which she was happy to do.

My next call was Global Rescue, whom I did pay in case I need medical evacuation from anywhere to the U.S. hospital of my choice. Matthew James picked up my call and was incredibly helpful! He listed to my symptoms which, as I detailed them, sound a lot like how I've heard appendicitis presents with the possible exception that it was on my left instead of my right. After we talked for a while, he asked if he could do a bit of research and call me back in 20 minutes.

Less than 10 minutes passed before Matthew called me with an appointment at a clinic less than 20 minutes from my hotel. That's service!

The staff and doctor at the Family Medical Practice Vietnam speak English and were very solicitous. They found a bed for me to rest more comfortably and started a saline IV. 

After examining me further, the doctor ordered an ultrasound. This allowed him to rule out appendicitis and present me with the opposite diagnose many of us have had abroad... I was seriously stopped up and that was causing my heavy cramps. Now that I've had both extremes, I think I "prefer" this one.

Now that it's passed (pun unintentional), I certainly prefer it over appendicitis!

Thank you Michael James and Global Rescue!!!
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One more place to skip... A large bar called Allez Boo, on the corner of Pham Ngõ Lão and Dế Thám Streets, which is one of the more interesting nighttime traffic corners. During my final visit, I captured this home-made motorcycle with my phone:

The green you see on most surfaces is glued-on artificial leaves, giving it a jungle look. Quite impressive, actually. I love the creativity!

Back to Allez Boo (NOT going back, that is), the food is mediocre, the drinks crappy and over-priced with the added insult of a 5% service fee. I can only hope that since most people don't tip in Vièt Nâm, that the service charge goes to the help.

If you want a big, loud tourist bar, go one block away from the park to the corner of Pham Ngõ Lão and Bùi Viên Streets where there are two from which you can choose. The Crazy Buffalo is classier (?) but GO2 has better music.

Did I mention yet that just about everything here is LOUD?


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