Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, or to many, Saigon

Written by admin on November 9, 2009 – 4:22 pm -

Karen Fawcett, our intrepid traveler, is back in Asia. On this trip she has decided to head to Vietnam. Here is her report on the road, so to speak. She has just landed this weekend.

Welcome to Vietnam. It’s now possible to get a visa when you arrive at the airport rather than doing it before leaving home. Definitely try to avoid this unless you’re in a pinch or have no other choice. An E-Visa can be a savior if your trip has been re-routed.

This kind of visa would have been the perfect solution last year when the airport in Bangkok was closed and my traveling companion and I were forced to go to Singapore rather than eternally be in transit. However, getting a visa at the airport is cumbersome and if the paperwork isn’t in order, you’ll be out of luck. The Vietnamese government really wants visitors to get visas in advance from a local consulate or its embassy prior to boarding the plane.

Our 100-percent-full flight arrived after 10 p.m. One would have thought it was mid-day in Miami. Besides being hot and humid, there were thousands of people greeting friends and family. Even though it costs extra, it was a godsend to spot someone holding a sign with our names waiting to shuttle us to the hotel.

There are taxis. But since last year’s airport renovation, locating them is chaotic and forget finding  an organized taxi line. The confusion is compounded after traveling for hours and sagging from jet-lag, which is probably the case if your trip originated in the U.S.

Collecting checked luggage is a challenge. Those coming to visit family, or returning to Vietnam, don’t appear to worry at all about excess luggage fees. Bags and boxes come rolling, one after the other, off the conveyor belt. People appeared to be transporting everything including the kitchen sink.

Even though most locals probably speak minimal (if that) English, one woman was fast to ask if I wanted cold water. “One dollar.” she said with a heavy accent. Clearly a capitalist, she had a good gig going. Locals generally accept dollars to such an extent you don’t need to change much money into the local currency. Good thing too, since the local currency has so many zeros one would have to be a human calculator to figure out the exchange rate. Even with a calculator or a currency cheat sheet conversions are mystifying.

What a difference three years makes. That was the last time I was here. Saigon felt like a quiet French Colonial city then. It’s now assumed more of a boomtown feel. What else is new in Asia? At least, there’s no Starbucks, McDonald’s or Baskin-Robbins – yet. There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants galore and places with free WiFi reign supreme.

Motor scooters whiz by (and don’t be surprised if you see a family of four perched on one) but progress means more cars as well. Not that driving here could be compared to driving in Paris. It’s not that scary – yet. Mind you, that’s not a recommendation to rent a car.

When taking a taxi, be certain to get the driver’s number.  If he takes the scenic route, inform the doorman at your hotel and he’ll spring into action. We were amazed when the guilty driver returned the majority of the fare after we showed the concierge the circuitous route we were taken. We felt more guilty after discovering it was the driver’s first day on the job and he was lost.

The newest hotel destination is the Asiana Intercontinental. The 300-room hotel is barely open and it’s already known for having some of the best restaurants in the city. Asians like buffets and it has one (for breakfast, lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch) that goes on longer than the eye can see.

Don’t expect to encounter solely quantity rather than quality. The hotel’s largest restaurant, Market 39, has seven open kitchens. Diners can choose from French, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisines.

At the Sunday buffet brunch, shellfish lovers, will think they’ve hit the jackpot when they see the mounds of oysters, crayfish and other choices. This is just the beginning. The pastries and breads would put any French baker to shame. All of this (and much more) is served with luscious Laurent Perrier champagne. While you’re if Vietnam, learn to like local beer to quench an alcoholic thirst. Wine costs a small fortune since there’s a 50% import tax on liquor and wine.

Shopping in this city runs the gamut. Visitors can bargain for nearly anything in some of the outdoor or smaller stores that are frequently in alleys.  Don’t miss Ben Thanh, the city’s central market.

Many upscale stores such as Louis Vuitton have opened recently — there, expect to pay the asking price. I haven’t been here long enough to get into serious shopping but have had a quick overview. I did bring a few clothes to be copied in silk for next to nothing – especially compared to French prices.

One of the city’s most respected tailors, Lam Couture, said a custom-made man’s suit including top quality fabric would cost $300.

There’s much more to Vietnam than shopping and eating. The country is full of culture and history that’s especially meaningful to many Americans. In a short vacation, don’t expect to do more than scratch the surface. But any visitor can try and should.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

(Photo: Primetravels.com)

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Returning to Hong Kong – the Ultimate Playground!

Written by admin on January 22, 2007 – 3:07 pm -

Before I started Bonjour Paris, I was a trailing spouse who was easily bored and needed permission to ask “none-of-my-business” questions. I lucked out and snagged writing some “Expat Abroad” columns for the international edition of USA Today.

The joke was that while my husband was hauled up in an office (he could have been in Newark), I was out exploring and having the time of my life. He’d set off for his day of back-to-back meetings and each evening, we’d compare notes. We’d both agree that I was having a better time!

We’d been to Hong Kong numerous times in the mid-90s. Hong Kong is now even sleeker, more aggressively modern and well managed than it was then. The idea of living there was appealing at that time. It’s even more so now. During our recent stay, I began looking at real estate ads checking out apartment rentals.  For Expat-suitable apartments, rents are comparable to those in New York City.  But I’m told that other services and stables cost substantially less than comparable items in the Big Apple.

We returned to “our” old hotel, the Hong Kong Conrad (in the upscale group of the Hilton chain) that’s attached to Pacific Place, a mega-shopping center of elegant, chi-chi boutiques.

Driving up to the Conrad was a bit like going home again. Some floors have been remodeled and all will have been redone in the coming year. The hotel prides itself on excellent service and does not let its guest down. We settled in, enjoyed a sumptuous tea in the lobby and then took a walk on Hollywood Road, famous for antiques – real and probably faux. Whichever, we were sorry we hadn’t purchased more when Victor’s consulting work had us spending a lot of time in Her Majesty’s Hong Kong. Prices have since sky-rocketed and everything we lusted for was well beyond our means.

The US has nothing quite like Hong Kong: smooth-running, super-efficient (not to mention, well marked) subways, pedestrian overpasses to avoid traffic jams, covered moving sidewalks and escalators everywhere, cars zipping along via in-town highways and clover leaves – an amazing sense of being in the city of tomorrow. And oh yes, great food, so much nightlife, shopping, glitzy hotels, etc.

Heavy traffic and increased demand for office and retail space is prompting the government to embark on an extensive reclamation project to meet the demand.  Even the Star Ferry terminal, built in 1955, will be a casualty and will be replaced by a new landing on the end of a landfill.

HK is and isn’t China. It was an English territory until 1997, when it was turned over to China. The UK honored its promise to cast HK loose, much as it did for India 50 years earlier. In HK’s case it was absorbed by China, but with semi-independent status – at least for now. Democracy is flourishing in HK, as does business and tourism.

Talk about small world. I had sent   Born to Shop Suzy Gershman, a Bonjour Paris contributor and dear friend an email mentioning where we were. We’d compared our schedules but missed that we were going to be in Hong Kong at the same time.

Within seconds, there was a return email. Thirty minutes later; Suzy and I were having coffee at the Peninsula, the most elegant hotel in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong. The Peninsula is a legend in itself. Built 75 years ago, it’s the most historic hotel in city. The Peninsula’s extensive renovations a few years ago managed to update its facilities and furnishings, while preserving the Colonial elegance that has made it a favorite with discerning people coming to Hong Kong for business or pleasure.

While Suzy and I went and shopped until we dropped, Victor attended a dim sum class. He’s always loved Chinese food and frequently pulls out a wok and cleaver. Suzy and I ran all over the city unearthing bargains (and some NOT). The two of us bought unlimited one-day subway passes (approximately $5 each) and navigated the city as fast as we could. Boy – were there bargains. I literally had to pry Suzy away from buying more than six dog outfits – one for every holiday.

Hong Kong is a more than small world. It turns out other friends from Provence were there. George and Johanne own Al Forno, a much-admired restaurant in Providence, RI. The four of us had a fantastic seafood dinner at the Victoria City Seafood in Wah Chai (852) 2827-9938, and staggered out into the night, convinced that Hong Kong is the ideal Asian playground. People speak enough English to make Anglophones feel at home and there’s so much to see and do.

For those who want to see what Hong Kong used to look like, climb onto the Outlying Islands ferry that will transport you to Cheung Chau – a traditional Chinese community that has 18th century temples and is car-free.

For stellar views of the city, don’t miss tasking the Peak Tram. On a clear day, you can see forever and there are lovely nature walks.

Asia is changing so quickly ….. What’s here today will not necessarily be here tomorrow. If people consider Asia a “difficult or trying” destination, take my word, many cities cater to travelers who aren’t the rough-and-tumble type. For that matter, Asian hospitality is some of the best in the world.

Bonjour Paris

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Posted in Around the World |