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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Breakfast on the road — Go native or bacon and eggs?

Written by admin on October 16, 2009 – 4:35 pm -

When you’re taking a trip, whether it’s business or pleasure, what foods to you want to see at the first meal of the day? There’s a reason, it’s called break fast.

Do you prefer buffets over menus? How much time do you usually allot? Do you eat and run or do you find it’s a good time to conduct business?

Some hotels offer breakfast as part of the room rate. How much does that impact your housing decision? Do you have lower expectations if breakfast is included in the room price?

If you’re in a foreign country, e.g., Japan, are you ready, willing and able to eat steamed rice, miso soup, and side dishes such as broiled/grilled fish, tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), onsen tamago, tsukemono pickles orseasoned nori (dried seaweed)? Or do you want Corn Flakes? How local are you willing to go?

Some people don’t want to eat the same breakfast they would were they at home. If they’re in another country, they consider eating what the natives do a cultural experience. The most extensive buffets I’ve ever seen have been in Asian hotels. If you have the fortitude to eat just a few of the selections and don’t appear at the crack of dawn, you can make the meal breakfast, lunch and (almost) dinner. Dim sum anyone? That’s only the beginning if you want to pig out.

American travelers do appear to have expectations no matter where they’re staying.

Coffee – and plenty of it. Some people like it stronger than others so if there’s an espresso machine, so much the better (milk, cream, sugar and a low/no calorie sugar substitute).

Decaf coffee

Tea – there should be a selection from which to choose

Juices – and could the orange juice be fresh please

Fresh fruit and yogurts

A selection of hot and cold cereals

It goes without saying there should be a copious selection of breads, bagels, muffins, croissants and pastries. Bring on the butter, cream cheese, jellies and jams

Eggs, glorious eggs and they shouldn’t be too hard or too runny. Ditto for sausages and bacon. Undercooked, overcooked – it’s all so subjective.

Bob Murphy, a senior software engineer from the San Francisco area, is an authority when it comes to breakfast. He has personal favorites and isn’t hesitant about sharing them.

• “The Lotte Hotel, Seoul. Go to the big restaurant underground for breakfast and get the buffet. It’s insane – every major world cuisine is represented. One of my favorite combinations is American bacon and link sausage, croissants, Norwegian smoked salmon, oshinko (Japanese pickles), and kimchi. He eats this accompanied by a cafe latte.

• German hotel breakfast buffets are also great. A half-dozen different kinds of bread, cold cuts and sliced cheese, muesli, and fresh juice. For a change, skip the coffee and try Trinkschokolade. Or grab a cold cut sandwich and a coffee from a vendor at the train station.

• French hotel continental breakfasts range from sucky to marginally okay. They really haven’t figured out the breakfast thing the way the Germans have. A croissant and a cafe au laitare decidedly are too small for me. However, if you stay in Paris in the Quartier Latin, go wander around the streets just off the Seine. There are all kinds of little boulangeries with fresh cold-cut sandwiches that make a great breakfast, plus innumerable Turkish, Moroccan, Greek, etc. cafés. If you can find a restaurant with Breton food, try a galette complète (buckwheat crêpe with egg, ham, and Emmental cheese) and some cidre (hard cider) for breakfast.

• Continental breakfasts at British hotels, range from awful to merely okay. However, if you leave the hotel, you may be lucky enough to find a restaurant serving a traditional English breakfast with eggs, streaky bacon, beans, grilled tomato, chips.”

I guess I’ve lived in France too long and only want very strong coffee and (possibly) a slice of baguette to begin the day.

Bob is clearly a man who looks forward to breakfast. What do you crave? Will you select one hotel over another because it puts on a better spread?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris


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