Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dear Traveler

In honor of my parents coming for a visit later this month, I decided to post some helpful traveler tips based on my own observations since being here. I might edit this post later with anything else that comes to mind. Edits will be in bold.

-If its in a popular guide book with one price, its already gone up after publishing.
-In tourist areas, the prices quoted are usually twice what they should be. Its better in local areas, but haggling is still acceptable.
-Don't haggle over anything involving service, like food or tailoring. Street food usually doesn't advertise their prices, but they rarely rip you off. You can politely ask your tailor for a discount if you're making a bigger purchase. In general, when it comes to service, you pay for what you get.
-In general, if something is quoted in dollars and you have dong, you should convert at a rate of 18,000VND to the dollar. However, if you're buying something expensive, they might insist on the black market rate, which will cost you more.
-Its best to bring large US bills to convert to VND. And always at a jewelery store, where you can get the better black market rate. No, its not illegal, its just that Dong isn't tradeable on the international market, so local investors need to buy large amounts of US dollars from tourists, as the state owned banks won't convert Dongs to Dollars. Is it that big of a difference? If you have $1000 dollars with you, you'll profit $80-150 just by converting your money at a jewelery store instead of a bank or post office.

-Taxis. The best options are either Vinasun or Mai Linh. They are metered and fair. Many other taxi companies don't use a meter and charge too much, or if they do use a meter it counts faster.
-Xe oms, or motorbike taxis. Travel within the same district is 5-15,000VND, 15-25,000VND to get to the next district over, depending how far. Rarely should a trip cost 30,000VND.
-Always have your direction written down, be sure to include all accents and District number[District can be represented by Q.] If you try to say it, they probably won't understand your accent, or they'll think you said something else and take you in the wrong direction.
-They'll always claim to know that they know where it is even if they don't. Don't be surprised if they stop along the way to ask other xe oms for directions. And don't bother pointing to it on a map, as many of them don't know how to read a map.
-Agree to the price of a trip with a xe om before you get on.
-When crossing the street, move at a steady pace, and with confidence. Traffic will move around you. Whatever you do, don't run, and don't make any sudden stops or movements. The traffic will move around you just fine so long as they can read and understand how your moving across the street.
-For cheap flights in SE Asia: Jetstar, Tiger, Airasia, Vietnam Airlines.

-Bring a pack of dry napkins, many places only have wet napkins, which they charge you for[only 1,000VND]. With all the spicy food, a wetnap won't do the job for your nose.
-You don't always get what you think you ordered. For starters, don't try to read Vietnamese, just point and clarify. Also, you come into a place and order a fish from the menu that you end up really liking, then you come back the next day, ordering the same fish, and getting something completely different. Also, always have a backup ready on the menu. Its not uncommon for them to come back five minutes after you placed your order saying, 'sorry, finished.'
-If you find a hair in your food, observe, and let it pass.
-There are no refunds, no free dessert, and its hard enough to get them to take back the meal if they brought the wrong thing.
-Service. It sucks. But there's also no tipping. On occasions when you do tip, don't do percents, just tip between 10-20,000VND.
-Fights. Don't get involved. It might seem like its just between two people, but if you interfere, so will the whole neighbourhood.
-If your food comes first don't wait for the other person's food, just start eating. Your food will get cold.
-No, those aren't free samples, its a shrine with an offering of food. Don't touch it.

-Most practical items you may need on your trip are readily available here and can be bought for cheaper. So save your luggage space for the souvenirs you'll be bringing back.
-Sunglasses. Not just for the sun, but to keep dust out of your eyes while on a motorbike. Applicable near a beach, construction areas and the dry season[now] in general.
-Face mask. Not for disease. Again, dust on the motorbike. Though, I never wear one, I find it too stuffy. But my throat has been scratchy since the rains stopped, so you may not want to follow suite.
-Sunscreen and mosquito repellant. It's pretty useless in the big cities but there are parts of it that are exceptions. Bring small bottles just in case.
-Drugs. No prescription needed and they're cheaper too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

From Goat Barbecue To Sheraton Ball Room

I've been getting more comfortable with planning lessons over the months. No longer do I need thirty minutes to an hour the day before to plan my lessons. Now, I just open the book fifteen minutes before class and I know what I'm going to teach and how. This has really helped having a social life, too. So even if I have to wake up at 5:30am to get ready for school, I can still go out on the weekends.
After class on Saturday, Daphne and I went to meet our friend Rob[the one that crashed my bike a couple months back] and some of his work friends at a local goat place. It was a big place with a very small menu: steamed goat, roasted goat, grilled goat, sour mixed goat. The food was really good, we ordered the steamed goat which came in a large clay hotpot with goat meat, goat brain, and some other parts of the goat we couldn't identify but were delicious none the less. One of the guys notices that a lot of the servers are at the doorway watching some drama going on outside. As we're debating what they could be rubbernecking about, I decided to be nosey and go have a look. Just outside was a tow truck with a very familiar motorbike loaded on the back. I run up to the tow man yelling, "My bike! My bike! What are you doing to my bike!" The towman and the officer nearby were more than a little surprised to see me. They were expecting to tow conflict free, and in that area of town they least expected to see a foreigner come out yelling at them. Neither of them could speak English, and the towman was already making movements to unload my bike, keeping his eyes on the officer for the go-ahead. The officer was confused, tried to explain something, but failing through the language barrier. I hand him my ownership papers. A nearby local who speak some English asked the translated question of whether the bike was mine or a rental. I lied, saying that I rented, as I am unlicensed I would surely have gotten my bike taken away if I admitted to owning it. Thankfully, the bike was lowered and my papers handed back to me. Apparently, where I parked it was for a food stall that had closed up since I had been eating my goat and all the other bikes had left with it, leaving just mine. There was an official parking lot across the way that I was supposed to park in. What luck. To have noticed the servers watching when I did, and to have been nosey enough to inquire about it. I would've been rather sore to have come out of there and not had my bike anywhere in sight? Where do you go if your bike gets towed here? How do you even know it was towed and not stolen? Not a clue. And I'd be happy if I never had to find out.
Last night we had our company Christmas party. They had it at the Sheraton with a massive buffet and free flowing open bar. It was nice event and the food was excellent, but the down side was that since the school had so many employees and the Sheraton was so expensive, we couldn't bring any guests. Daphne talked me into going anyways and made dinner arrangements with our friend Rob[of crashing motorbikes] so I wouldn't feel guilty for going without her. Luckily, instead of stamping hands when we entered, some people got stickers on their shoulders that didn't do a good job sticking. It wasn't long until stickers were finding their ways off of ILA shoulders and onto those of Daphne and Rob. When we were heading home, the garage security was asking for another 15000VND on top of the 8000VND I had already paid for parking. The average price of parking in the city is 3-5oooVND. I kept a smile, shook my head and told him, 'no, pay already' over and over, pretending that his English wasn't good enough for me to understand. When he finally said, 'you pay more, you know, you foreigner,' the smile came off my face and the engine turned on. He quietly moved himself out of my way and pretended not to notice. Up the ramp we went and into the night.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New Home

We've finally settled in our new place in District Five, though as you'll see from the pictures, the place still needs a personal touch.

Okay, so it has plenty of personal touch, but not our own. Frankly, photos of heart shapes and baby hands aren't our style. So I'm going to find a photolab and get some of my pictures printed to take over the frames on the walls. As for the rest of the furnishings, we're rather happy with it. Not only was the place fully furnished, as though made to model for an Ikea catalog picture, but it also came with plates, bowls, silverware, pots, pans, and other kitchen necessities that we won't need to buy now. Not to mention a fake Christmas tree which you can see for yourself if you come to our Christmas Eve housewarming party.
We're still getting acquainted with our neighbourhood, which is very different from where we lived in District Four. District Five is pretty much China town, consisting of most of the ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese population of Saigon. A couple of the main differences we've noticed here is the large amount of Cantonese food[including my new favorite, Duck Noodle Soup] and Daphne can actually talk to people now. One of the downsides we've noticed, however, is that there are more westerners here, which means that the locals aren't as warm to us as they were in D. 4, where westerners were few and far between. We found out later that apparently a lot of teachers actually live in our building, from ILA and other schools as well.
One dissatisfying element, however, is the millipedes we keep finding in the house. They aren't many, they're easy to get rid of[much easier than the ant problem of my last place] but its always disgusting to find them crawling around on the floor. We're not exactly sure where they're coming from, but the little garden that lives on our balcony is a likely culprit.

We'll be making a shopping trip for pesticides soon. Aside from that, we're quite happy. The place is cozy and cheaper than our last place. Daphne does miss the wardrobe space we used to have, but not the fluorescent lighting. And we definitely miss the old neighbourhood, we still go back there to have lunch now and then at one of our old haunts. But we're also having fun discovering this new area, and what secrets its hiding.