Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

April 22, 2008

It was my first trip overseas in five years. I had always loved to travel, but financial constraints kept me off the road. This time, I decided not to let my poverty get in the way of my dreams. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, but who said they couldn’t be travelers? I convinced some colleagues to pool our meager resources and planned for a DIY trip. I was like a (travel) virgin all over again, overwhelmed by that giddy combination of anticipation, anxiety, and awkwardness. The trip was truly a milestone, a turning of a page in my life.

A journey begins by looking out of the window. Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica from Saigon Central Post Office.

The Merry Mix

Indochina, a culturally related region of Southeast Asia consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, among others, was our destination of choice for its proximity to the Philippines (read: cheapest to fly to); also, we could do several countries all in one go.

The travel party was composed of four eclectic/eccentric travellers: OC travel organizer Ayee, traveller-in-style Donna, first-timer Ikin, and yours truly, the token testosterone. We had eight days of roughing it out and less than $2,000 in our collective pockets. Clearly, this trip was fated to be Amazing RaceSurvivor, and Big Brother rolled into one (mis)adventure!

Awesome Foursome

This was a backpacking trip. Shorn of travel agency trappings, we operated on our wily wits, and at times the lack of it, and increasingly limited wherewithal. The itinerary had been laid out by Ayee down to the littlest minutiae. It turned out she was more a detail dominatrix than your typical travel guide with a megaphone and an imaginary whip for slowpoke tourists. She whipped up an eight-day trip with touristy items divided into hourly chunks; by sundown we would all feel like a ton of bricks. Damn dehydration and heat stroke! We were wasted tourists with no time to waste.

Forget welcome drinks! There’s no room at the inn!

Tan Son Nhat International Airport

The red-eye flights of Cebu Pacific Airways, which made going abroad more affordable than going a-Bora, were made for budget travelers like us. We deplaned in Saigon past 2 AM, Indochina time. The airport was spic-and-span; it all but told arriving visitors that this was not the war-torn Vietnam of Hollywood war flicks. It was seemingly downhill from there, though. We were accosted by overzealous cabbies outside the airport. With the proverbial grain of salt lodged in our throats, we took one to our hotel.

We would soon discover that small hotels in Saigon literally closed their doors at night. Imagine our horror when we saw our digs boarded up completely. We thought the hotel had closed down after we called for reservation a month before. The formerly suspicious cabbie, sensing our growing desperation, selflessly fished out his cellphone to call the hotel number. A shirtless concierge emerged from the pull-down door and, apparently, from his sleepy stupor only to inform us that we had to wait for daybreak to get in. Then it hit us: we were homeless in the wee hours in a strange land with an even stranger tongue.

Digs for the Dispossessed

Saigon’s District 1 (De Tham St.) at Night

Thank goodness, the shirtless one had a solution. He housed these accidental hobos temporarily in a nearby hotel. We never bothered to get its name; all we wanted was to get in. Luggage dragging ensued past red-light bars with a smattering of grungy Caucasians still swigging beer.

The concierge at our temporary digs was a woman with disheveled hair, also roused from sleep. She must’ve been sleepwalking the whole time as she strapped ALL our suitcases in one pile with a flimsy-looking pulley to hoist them up to the fourth floor! Fearing our things smashing into smithereens on the FIRST day of our trip (Donna’s hair iron would certainly bear the brunt), we flexed our tired muscles and opted to haul our luggage up the dark spiral staircase. All four of us packed into one small double-bed room. I took one bed (being the token testosterone had its benefits), Donna and Ayee shared the other, Ikin hit the floor.

It may not have been as auspicious as I had hoped, but this memorable first night ushered me into Indochina and out to the world, DIY style.