Vietnam Adventures: Hit or Miss Saigon

Okay, so “Lunch” turned into “the rest of the Saigon leg”. Funny how “blah” turns into busy.

Anyway, I left off with a plan, baggage and a well-prepared immune system.

I started my trip with a weekend in Melbourne. As is often the case, timing issues meant I didn’t get to do as much catching up as I wanted, but I turned out to need that time for repacking, reorganising and emergency Vietnamese cramming anyway.

I’ll elide Melbourne details, except to say thankyou to all involved, and that I was fed lots of tasty food, priming the pump so-to-speak.

I flew out of Melbourne Airport with Malay Airlines. Due to having done the web-checking, and being relatively early, I arrived at the airport at 10pm and was through checkin, security, border control and duty free by 11pm. I figured I’d upload some photos but the 3G connection in the terminal was awful. Given they charge for Wifi there, I suspect this was not a coincidence… I spent the entire wait trying to upload photos and update my voicemail message.

The flight was pleasant. I managed to get dairy-free meals and slept most of the way. My DS game was “Hotel Dusk”, which is quite good and fairly interesting story-wise. It’ll last me the rest of the trip, I reckon. And if not, Professor Layton awaits. ^_^

Kuala Lumpar airport was an airport like any other, I guess. (In my limited experience) I’ll gloss over that and my connecting flight too. (I managed to sleep for most of the domestic flight too, so I’m not glossing over a lot…)

So I emerged from Vietnam Customs at 10am or so, somewat concerned that I couldn’t see the promised airport transfer from inside the terminal. Turns out most transfers wait where the fencing ends, which was out of sight of the glass doors.

Along with me on the transfer bus, a lady named Helen arrived on the same flight and was on the same tour as me. Her friend Lorraine was also on the schedule, but had been too ill to fly out.

Sadly, the transfer bus took us to the wrong Hai Ha Hotel. Once we established this, the hotel flagged us a taxi to the correct hotel, which is no longer named the Hai Ha. (The tour guide told us today it’s now under new management)

Safely arrived, showered and feeling the heat less than I feared, I ventured out for a brief walkabout to locate food and drink. Herein I discovered probably my least favourite thing about Saigon (and probably travelling in general) — people who won’t let me be. My first trip out had me followed for a fair distance by two different cyclos, telling me how cheap it would be to go with them, and showing me recommendations from other Australians.

I don’t mind being asked (well, I don’t _like_ it, but it’s the way of street markets in tourist areas, it seems) but I really don’t being followed and reasked after I’ve said no. >_<

I think it’s one of the reasons I don’t really travel much; I really hate feeling like a tourist, that everyone is looking at you as a transient potential income source. It’s easier in groups, but I find it a little soul-wearing alone.

Anyway, despite (or because) of the above, I ended up back in my hotel room with a Viettel SIM and a bag of bread rolls.

At this point, a note on Facebook filtering in Vietnam, learnt through much more effort than I expected…

The ADSL hotel connection (and hence the free wifi I discover later in the story) simply blocks Facebook using DNS, and only blocks, leaving and whatever the Facebook Android App uses operative. This is trivially bypassed by using the Google Public DNS service. On android, in a root shell:

setprop net.dns1
setprop net.dns1

However, the Viettel 3G connection is much more thorough. All the subdomains are blocked in DNS, the IP adresses I found are blocked in port 80, SSH is blocked and it appears they have a transparent DNS lookup proxy as requests to the Google Public DNS servers above reacted exactly like the Viettel DNS servers. I was able to get to Facebook using Orbot, a Tor client for Android.

Anyway, by the time I finished all this, night had fallen, so I thought I’d give Saigon another chance.

This went much better. I didn’t go very far, but I did enjoy where I went more, as there was a distinct lack of cyclos, or in fact anyone paying me more than passing attention. ^_^

Anyway, that evening I retired to my room to enjoy my further spoils (iced tea drinks) and bánh đậu xanh for dinner, and spend some time trying to tune my ear with the magic of television.

Side note: I’m writing this in my room in Hoi An (spoiler: I don’t get mugged and killed in Saigon) and a live commercial has come on, with Mr T dubbed into Vietnamese. It’s fascinating.

I found what appears to be a highschool drama I’ll probably write more about in a separate post.

And I slept well that evening, which was a relief.

On the second day, I rose again (having gotten up early to use the toilet and gone back to bed) sometime before lunch. I was feeling rather demoralised, and wrote the first part of this series.

Just as I was weighing up whether I could hide in my room all day, I got an unexpected phonecall, and was told in no uncertain terms that I should be out exploring the city.

I took the wave of confidence this brought and walked over to the Revolutionary Museum. I didn’t go in, but I did talk to a nice pair of young people who wanted me to take a five minute taxi to meet their sister who was a nurse wanting to move to Austeralia. I declined, and did a lap around the Museum instead. I exchanged a wave with the same pair during the lap, and ended up buying expensive water from a guy carrying a styrofoam box.

I looked at a barbecue place across the road from the Museum, and was pleased that my nativisation had reached the point where I looked at the 100,000 dong price (about AU$5.30) and thought “too expensive”.

So I went to the bakery on the way back, and scored three bready treats for under 50,000 dong instead. I also borrowed a power adapter from the front desk, and saw the free wifi sign around this point, having just bought another 200,000 dong Viettel topup since I’d burnt through 30,000 dong using 3G already.

It was around this point that I realised I have no idea how to entertain myself when visiting a big city, and I don’t remember what I did between this and the initial tour group meeting at 6pm.

At some point during the morning I had been to the ATM for my first million dong, and met a gentleman named Tri who will appear again next episode.

And speaking of the next episode: I meet my tour group, get down and dirty in the Cu Chi tunnels and all dressed up on the Saigon River, and eventually bid Saigon farewell in a blaze of jet fuel.


Vietnam Adventures: Backgrounder

This is the story of a story, the background to my current Vietnam trip (in both senses of the word) and how I came to be sitting on a bed in a Saigon hotel watching daytime soaps and blogging.

Enormous text wall coming. The short summary: I’m in Vietnam. But you knew that from the preceeding paragraph…

If you read my Facebook feed, you will probably have heard all this before, in pieces over the last six months. Consider it a refresher. It’s also a chance for me to test that my Facebook profile’s syndicating my blog correctly since I migrated to for blog hosting.

So, without further ado…

At the start of April 2010, one of my closest friends married a Vietnamese girl. (A specific one, not the first one he happened across) As is traditional in such cases, this happened in Vietnam. It also happened a month earlier in Melbourne, for paperwork reasons, but that’s not relevant to this story.

So I found myself with an invitation to a wedding I couldn’t miss, in a country I had only the vaugest impression of from Robin Williams and Martin Sheen. And where they not only don’t speak English, they don’t even colonially speak English. (The French are the European colonial power in question. Thankyou Martin Sheeen)

This was compounded upon by my almost complete inexperience with world travel. I had been to a conference in Los Angeles and a conference in New Zealand, and this prepares you for real international travel like watching daytime soaps teaches you Vietnamese. That’s not a lot, in case you’ve fallen into the immersion/osmosis fallacy of language learning.

As is typical, I left my planning to slightly past the last minute, I arrived in Vietnam underprepared, underimmunized and without even a phrasebook to my name.

The actual trip and wedding went really well, so I’ll gloss over it here, with only the notes that this was my first chance to try learning a language by read signs in shops (fun but not really efficient) and the important (pivotal!) point that I’d only organised to stay for the wedding itself, since I didn’t know any of the other guests well enough to organise anything with beforehand. This led to my makng the solemn promise to return again for a proper holiday.

And so the seed was sown.

The soil for that seed was already fertile. Back in the heady days of studying Computer Science and Japanese Linguistics, before I discovered the joys of tax debt, company finances, insolvency and full time employment, I had a plan. I was going to get my degree in Japanese (didn’t happen), move to Japan and work as a programmer (didn’t happen), learn Chinese (didn’t happen), move to China after five years, learn Korean… etc. The plan was to learn five or six languages and work my way down Asia.

Returning to the narrative, having recently turned 30, it seemed that my life had finally settled down into a happy, comfortable place. So it was time for a change. And being filled with confidence brought on by now being old enough to be considered an adult without having to prove myself (which is also how I got my pen license…) I decided to make it a big one.

So my sojourn plan was resurrected, with some minor modifications.

Firstly, I’ve been a video games programmer for over four years. That’s pretty long: it indicates you were either at one of those rare studios which was around for four years and were never laid off, or you were hired as a video games programmer on multiple occasions. The latter’s quite hard. It’s hard to get hired the first time, but the industry’s small enough that anywhere you apply, someone knows someone who knows someone who’s worked with you. A written reference from Kevin Bacon and Paul Erdős lets you bypass this stage of the interview…

Anyway, I’m an experienced and hirable video games programmer, an industry which seems to be quite strong and growing throughout SE and E Asia.

The other difference is that I am now friends with one seventy-millionth of Vietnam, and thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I’m doing a lot better at staying in contact than I did with my Japanese friends… (Sorry guys!)

So, germination! I returned home, impressed with the kindness, generosity, and general positive attitudes of the Vietnamese we met, as well as having enjoyed thoroughly the chance to apply my linguistics studies.

I was on a complete Vietnam trip. I bought a Teach Yourself Vietnamese book and CD, started buying my takeaway from the Vietnamese place next to my former haunt (Dickson Asian Noodle House) and even managed to enroll in a Vietnamese evening class at the ANU.

I was advised that Oct/Nov is a good time of year to visit Vietnam, which co-incided with the scheduled end of a project stage at work, and everything started to come together. I booked my trip, got my immunisations, and bought new luggage.

The actual trip plan: A few days in Melbourne with friends, fly to Saigon via Kuala Lumpur, a day and a half there before the tour starts, then ten days on the Intrepid Spirit of Vietnam Northbound tour and a weekend in Hanoi with a friend.

Anyway, that’s the background. I think I’ll go find some lunch, and then write up the first actual live-fire trip report.