Saigon – First Impressions

Although the visit to Shanghai was too short, we left anxious to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and our first encounter with Vietnam. The flight, our third consecutive day of airports and flights, was uneventful and we arrive at our destination on time. Yeah! I’m also happy to report that MyVietnamvisa.com  really does work. The idea of filling out an on-line application and receiving the visa upon arrival at the airport in Saigon sounded a bit crazy to me when I first found the web-site, but could find no evidence that it shouldn’t work. No reports of scams or other mishaps. It is a much easier and less expensive alternative to applying for a visa in the US.

The taxi ride into town was our first encounter with the shadier side of Vietnamese culture. The guidebook says that a metered taxi should cost about $5 to $6US and warns to make sure that the driver uses the meter. Ignoring the other touts offering taxis, we head straight for the taxi stand where an official looking young man finds us a taxi informing me that the ride should cost about $15US I don’t think much of this – guide books are wrong, rates go up, he’s just being nice and giving me an approximation. Of course we will insist on using the meter. But no, the taxi driver tells us that this nice looking young man has told him that we will pay $15US. We quickly say no and threaten to get out of cab. Everyone calms down and the driver reluctantly throws down the meter. It starts at 20,000 dong or $1US. (In the end the ride will cost us the $5US stated in the guide book.) Then starts the long slow drive into town, made more painfully long by the driver’s endless chatter in an English so monotone that you have to strain to parse the words. Most of the questions are directed at Don. His way of practicing English and making pleasant conversation. I’m jet lagged and still steaming from the scam we just wiggled out of. I hate airport taxis!

The air is soft and warm and the streets are crawling with motorbikes. Actually, literally crawling as no one is moving at much above 25MPH. As we get closer to downtown the shops and restaurants become more refined with the tree-lined streets lit in an elegant combination of florals and streamers, all in a soft lavender with the occasional yellow for contrast. This is Communist Asia? When did they get such good taste?

The Majestic is an old colonial hotel that sits on the river front at the end of this quaint street. Our room, facing the river, is large and old-styled with dark wood furniture, parquet floors and high ceilings. With double-paned windows, it’s a relaxing oasis above the vroom of the motorbikes below.

Dead tired but wanting a nice Vietnamese diner we head to Lemongrass. Unlike Shanghai the restaurant is mostly filled with foreigners. The downstairs dining room is small comfortable, tasteful but not overly decorated. We ordered fresh spring rolls with shrimp, a mango salad with beef, stir-fried rice with seafood and a clay pot with braised eggplant, prawns, and tofu. Although the dishes are served family style, they were brought out course style, one at a time to share. Green mango is eaten like a vegetable and makes a nice combination with the Vietnamese beef with flavors of five spice and fish sauce. The stir-fried rice was not greasy, perfectly cooked with bits of seafood and a generous amount of black pepper. The braised vegetables and prawns, although well cooked, was a mild dish whose flavor became lost after the intensity of the black pepper in the previous dish. Overall a nice introduction to the flavors yet to come.

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