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I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours(ish)

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Street action in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Stepping into the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), your senses are overtaken by the cacophony of whirring motors from scores of motorbikes zipping by, and car horns blowing at pedestrians and cyclo drivers on the chaotic streets where traffic rules seem nonexistent.

Your skin dampens after mere minutes of exposure to the powerful sun and relentless humidity. In every direction you look, people occupy space, whether it’s working in one of the many retail shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, street kiosks, businesses, and residential units that flank the roads, or pedestrians – some wearing masks covering their nose and mouth – boldly darting across the hectic roads from one side to the other.

Sidewalks are scant and the few that exist frequently serve as parking space for motorbike riders out eating or shopping.

My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) – Vietnam’s largest and most populated – where I spent less than 36 hours this past December, left me a bit dizzy and unsure what to make of it all.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Happy New Year 2016!

Other tidbits about HCMC:

Pho tastes about the same there as it does in California

I had one goal for my short visit to Vietnam: eat a bowl of pho – that delicious noodle soup in a flavorful meat-based broth – in its homeland. Goal: met.

Living in California I’ve had the good fortune of tasting some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam. After all, outside of Vietnam, more Vietnamese-Americans live in California than any other state.

For lunch on my first (and only) afternoon in HCMC I ordered a traditional bowl of beef pho aaaaaand….it tasted no differently from what I’ve had here. To confirm my unscientific finding, I again chose beef pho for dinner later that evening. Aaaaannnnndd….same result. I guess that’s good? I get good pho at home.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
This bowl of beef pho, including the coriander and bean sprouts, along with the 7UP (I like the snazzy can) cost me less than $4 USD! Pho is considered the national dish of Vietnam. It makes a great comfort food, and is eaten for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner depending on the region.

Cyclo drivers deserve major kudos

Having arrived in Ho Chi Minh a day earlier than my tour began, I used the extra time to explore as much of the city as I could. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, I opted for a cyclo ride around HCMC. What’s a cyclo? Imagine an oversized tricycle with a bucket seat in the front to hold passengers.

My driver spoke very little English – enough to communicate the names of the landmarks we paused to view – which is more than the Vietnamese I knew (“cám ơn” or “thank you”). At various points along the 2.5 hour ride, I’d close my eyes and inhale deeply, while with the ease of a pro, he steered us through the frenetic tide of vehicles careening in all directions  – as I mentally reaffirmed my desire to live a long life.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
So much to see in this photo: Of course, the motorbikes (and notice the drivers are wearing helmets), in the background center you see a woman wearing a conical straw hat, known as a “leaf hat”, most likely to protect herself from the fierce heat; the bundles of low-hanging power lines; and background left: a man wearing mask over his face, which could be because he’s sick, scared of getting sick, or is protecting himself from the visible air pollution.

It’s difficult to gauge the age of my cyclo driver – I think he’s at least older than I am. His skin was worn with sun, smoke, and life lines, but he exuded youthful energy. He pedaled that giant bike – with me on it – for nearly 3 hours. Granted we took brief breaks here and there, but still.  Good for you, dude. Just goes to show that you can be fit at any age.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
You can see the French Colonial influence in the architecture of the Saigon Opera House, built in 1897 by a French architect.

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
As seen in Ba Thien Hau Temple, a temple in honor of Thien Hau, the “Lady of the Sea.”

 

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Bitexco Financial Tower, with a design inspired by the lotus flower, rises to over 860-ft (262m) and is currently the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City.

Being Black gets you noticed

Did you know that I’m kind of a big deal in Vietnam? The minute I walked out of the airport, I noticed so many eyes fixated on me that had I not been prepared for this, I’d have thought that maybe my blog had taken HCMC by storm. Finally famous in this bitch. Everywhere I went, I attracted attention. They never mention this phenomenon in the travel guides..

None of it was meant to be rude or to cause me discomfort. It’s just that some people have never ever in their whole long lives seen a black person IN REAL LIFE. Generally, when I would smile at the owner of the gawking eyes, they’d return the greeting with a sheepish grin.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Hey! I’m Black and in Vietnam! (This really isn’t my favorite photo, but my cyclo driver insisted on taking it and it’s the only picture I have of a cyclo. I am sitting in front of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.)
I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Is this man mean-mugging me? Just staring right in the middle of my photo. Anyhow, this is Saigon Square, a large market packed with stalls where everything from jeans to tourist knick knacks are sold. (The guys in the ties are parking attendants.)

Even though Vietnam is one of the least religious nations in the world, Christmas is a thing.

Albeit in a secular sense and no doubt influenced by “Western” culture.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
With Christmas less than two weeks away, decorations were up all over the city.

That final evening in the city, I met my tourmates – the 6 other people I’d be spending the next 10 days with. At dinner, the conversation flowed easily as we dined, until it ended abruptly as a scene grew directly in front of the open-air restaurant. When the crowd drifted away, we were shocked to see a terribly disfigured man dragging himself across the pavement.

It’s hard to know how to react or what to say in that moment. My mind reeled with conflicted thoughts and questions. Our group fell silent for several counts as we all processed what we’d just witnessed. The images will be with me for awhile.

—-

The next morning, we said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and hit the road shortly after the roosters crowed – I could hear the cocky birds from my hotel room. Within a few hours we’d reach the border of Vietnam and cross into Cambodia.

I’ll have to return to Vietnam. My visit was entirely too short and I hear good things about Hoi An, Halong Bay, and Hanoi.

I spent a little less than 36 hours in Vietnam's bustling Ho Chi Minh city and there's a lot to see and do there. | Read more in "I Survived Crossing the Street: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 36 hours (ish)
Exchange rate at the time: 22,130 Vietnamese Dong = $1 USD (approx.)

Stay tuned for more in my series on my travels throughout Southeast Asia!

Have you ever been to Vietnam? If not, is it on your list of countries to visit?

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Christmas in Copenhagen

Nisse elf for sale Det Gamle Apotek CopenhagenChristmas is kind of a big deal in Denmark. In Copenhagen giant wreaths adorn formidable wooden doors, twinkly lights border shop and restaurant facades and add sparkle to trees and foliage; wishes of “God jul” (Merry Christmas) in ornamental fonts cover storefront windows, and the requisite Christmas fir trees dot the town. On Strøget, a man with an accordion plays melodies that would make the perfect musical backdrop to a romantic comedy.

Every Christmas season, Tivoli, the second oldest amusement park in the world, transform their grounds into a majestic Christmas wonderland making it a perfect destination for families, friends, dates and tourists alike.

Copenhagen begins to quiet down during the week of Christmas. We took advantage of the calm and boarded a train for a 45-minute ride to the city of Helsingør. The city’s most famous attraction is Kronberg Palace, known also as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The expansive grounds are magnificent and the atmosphere serene (aside from the occasional piped-in recorded sounds of incoming Calvary). The surrounding town offered its own bright charm.

Keisha on train to Helsingør

Had we done a bit more advanced planning we might have joined the ranks of the Danish and tourists filling the city’s restaurants for Christmas Eve dinner. Every restaurant we contacted was booked for the evening.

We stumbled around the nearly soulless streets of Indre By looking for signs of restaurant life. We found our oasis in the form of Sultan Palace and soon other hungry, reservation-less diners joined us for the Turkish buffet.

Christmas morning we awoke to a super gift: snow! A fun treat on our last full day in Copenhagen, especially after endless rain.

This city and its people showed us a great time and we’ll miss the more relaxed pace of life and sense of calm. Now it’s on to the next country’s adventures!
Friends in snow Kongsten Have Copenhagen

Exploring Copenhagen’s Beauty & Culture

Despite the cloudy skies and ever-present rain, Copenhagen is still quite beautiful. We spent our third day in the city exploring stunning views of the city and some of the art culture it offers.

Just around the block from our hostel we found plenty of architecture and design to marvel over.

Almost everywhere you look the scenery is beautiful.

Seeing Copenhagen from above was a must-do, so we visited the 110ft+ high Rundetaarn (“round tower”) and climbed the unusual spiral passage to the observatory.

 

After seeing the magnificent Copenhagen cityscape we ambled over to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an impressive museum filled with paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Often our excursions took us down Strøget – one of the longest pedestrian-only streets in Europe – the Fifth Avenue /
Champs-Élysées / Bond Street of Copenhagen with a splash of Melrose Place. Up and down Strøget are shops, restaurants and boutiques hailing from many countries ranging from the most upscale like Gucci to more wallet-friendly options like Zara: a shopper’s paradise. Side note: the Danish are really tall; at 5’1″, I feel like a toddler clumsily climbing onto stools that are too high and ducking the flailing hands of passers-by in conversation.

 

For dinner that evening, we opted for a Danish meal at a restaurant within the freetown of Christiania, Spiseloppen. To say that the restaurant’s location is sketchy would greatly understate the level of anxiety we felt as we climbed each narrowing step, rising higher and higher away from safer ground, bypassing a group of thuggish-ruggish looking twenty-something men I named the “Danish Get Fresh Crew,” one of whom whistled at us as we passed by. Happily, we avoided our own Law & Order: SVU-type tale when we opened a heavy-wooden door to a perfectly respectable-looking restaurant with an affable host/server and warm and comforting dishes.

At the end of our meal, our server informed us that it was the last night the restaurant would be open until January 17th. “We’re taking a much-needed break for the holidays.” I told my friend I couldn’t imagine a restaurant in the United States closing for almost a month to give everyone time off. We’re opening up shops on Thanksgiving Day now for goodness’ sake!

In honor of the occasion he comped us free pints of the Danish seasonal holiday beer, Tuborg Julebryg, along with a traditional Danish Christmas dessert or rice pudding topped with a cherry sauce. Tuborg, isn’t my favorite. I must admit, I prefer German and Belgian ales and lagers, but the gesture was kind nonetheless and a lovely way to end a great day.

 

Tuborg Julebryg Beer Copenhagen | The Girl Next Door is Black
Tuborg Julebryg, seasonal Tuborg brew