If you are from Davao and it’s your first time to go out of the country on a vacation, I wouldn’t recommend Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. You see, it’s like going to Manila without the megamalls and we know how Davanoeños find Manila dirty, noisy and inconvenient. The streets of Saigon feel so much like strolling in Mabini and Binondo, except replace the jeepneys with motorcycles – lots and lots of them.
Neil and Vietnam’s motorcycles
Unless you take a reputable and reliable taxi (we liked Vinasun), you wouldn’t like the taxi drivers there. The travel guides and Internet are full of horror stories about taxi drivers in Saigon. We got to experience it not just once, but twice. The first one was immediately upon landing which we shrugged off and charged to experience but the second one really traumatized us.
We took a taxi from Ben Thanh Market to the Tax Mall, which is just practically a five-minute ride. When we got to our destination and I pulled 100,000 dong (10,000 dong is equivalent to 25 pesos, please do the math) from my wallet, the taxi driver locked us in and demanded that we pay more. He was hysterical and shouting words we couldn’t understand. He turned around (I was seated behind the driver’s seat) and grabbed all my Vietnamese money from my wallet, counted till one million dong and tried to keep it all. We were in a state of shock for a few seconds and couldn’t speak. Then the driver and Neil (who was seated on the front seat) had a violent tug-of-war over the wads of dong while the driver kept yelling. I was about to strangle the driver from behind when Mayie screamed, “Police! We’ll report you to the police!” And true enough, there was a police officer on the street corner. The driver must have seen the police, too, because he immediately calmed down and returned all the money. We paid him just what was on the taxi meter (which was probably rigged) and got out. We would like to think we’re not easily intimidated (Mayie and Neil are both lawyers and I work in politics and media), but that Vietnamese taxi driver really terrorized us. And, yes, we missed our Davao taxi drivers who are polite and give us back the exact change.
Shopping at the famous Ben Thanh Market
We in Davao always brag to our visitors that everything here is five minutes away but we never recommend walking around the city to see the sights. Because aside from we are probably one of the most pampered citizens in the world who liked to take rides and be dropped off exactly at the doorstep of our destination, we think it’s simply too hot and humid to be walking around sightseeing. For most Davaoeños like me, it’s not a vacation if you are walking under the heat of the sun. But in Saigon, we did exactly that. Because you would miss the whole Vietnam experience if you didn’t. Yes, Vietnam is essentially for backpackers and motorcycle riders. If you don’t ride a motorbike, then you walk.
Walking in style in Saigon in front of the Opera House
And how’s shopping in Saigon? If you’re a fashionista, it’s not a good place for you. Their fashion sense tends to be “barriotic” – the kind that you see on display in a dress shop of a sleepy town that does not have cable television or internet access. There were your usual knock-offs that seemed real but you can get those at Davao Chinatown for much less. Of course, Saigon is booming now and opening up to a lot of Western luxury brands. They have a Louis Vuitton and Gucci shop in Dong Khoi Street.
Patmei and Alexie before our most embarrassing moment at Louis Vuitton
At first, Mayie and I thought Louis Vuitton might be more affordable in Vietnam, considering that it used to be a French colony, so we bravely entered the shop. Mayie tried on a beautiful black purse and asked the sales clerk how much it costs. We heard: “Seven hundred dollars, madame.” Mayie and I looked at each other in sheer delight while converting dollars into pesos inside our heads, and said aloud: “We’ll take two!” The other shoppers looked in our direction, obviously impressed. Then Mayie couldn’t resist it, she had to ask the clerk: “Why so cheap?” At this point, the other shoppers started to raise their eyebrows and really paid attention to us. The clerk was a bit confused, he couldn’t understand what Mayie was asking him so I offered to rephrase it: “She means, why is the purse NOT expensive? Is it on sale or is there something wrong with it?” The clerk gave us a look of surprise bordering on shock: “But, madame, this is the most expensive item in the whole store at THREE THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS!” Embarrassed, Mayie and I mumbled what sounded like oh-no-thank-you-then and managed to make a quick exit to give the other shoppers and clerks a chance to laugh out loud. Well, it might as well, we rationalized, the style was so several seasons ago, anyway.
The tastiest and tiniest lechon biik we ever had
What Saigon lacks in fashion sense, it more than made up for the food. All our meals there had been delicious and very affordable. We tasted what probably must be the best seafood pasta and tiramisu outside of Italy. We also enjoyed good Thai food and steaks there. And, best of all, we had the tastiest and tiniest lechon biik ever! So that’s one aspect of travel to Saigon that would attract Davaoeños because we love to eat good food.
Unless you’re really into “war tourism” I strongly suggest you skip Vietnam for now because going there is so much like being in the Philippines without the English-speaking locals.