Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ho Chi Minh City vs. Bangkok

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Bangkok, Thailand have quite a bit in common. They are both large cities with crazy traffic. They are both a little overwhelming to a first-time visitor. People who live in smaller towns nearby generally dislike them. Scams are prevalent in both cities. They are both hard to avoid when you are traveling through Asia.

In less than 48 hours, we were able to compare these cities almost side-by-side. After our overnight bus from Nha Trang, we spent almost an entire day exploring Saigon. That evening, we caught a short flight back to Bangkok. We spent the night in a dark, hot hostel dorm room near the Bangkok train station, and then we had most of the day again to explore before catching our overnight train north. We found a lot of differences.

Transportation: In Bangkok, we have taken every form of public transportation available to us. Sky Train, subway, riverboat, tuk tuk, taxi, and even public bus. On this particular day, we spent our time on the Sky Train and the subway. These trains are easy to navigate and cheap, and for everywhere they don’t reach, we would usually take a tuk tuk or public bus. Even walking around Bangkok is relatively easy with elevated walkways protecting you from the crazy traffic below.

Saigon’s public transportation was nearly non-existent, as far as we could tell. They had the cyclos, of course, more for ripping off tourists than actual transportation, and you could always find a taxi, but they had no metro system, and we didn’t see many public buses (to be fair, we didn’t really look for them). We got around on the backs of motorbikes by booking tours and took a taxi when we needed it, but mostly, we relied on walking everywhere we wanted to go, even though each street crossing was a near-death experience. If we had a specific destination in mind, I think we would be able to find a bus that would take us there, but the simple exploring we wanted to do was not particularly easy.

Tourist Attractions: Fortunately, we stayed in a hotel in the middle of Saigon’s District 1, so we could walk to the main tourist attractions. Many (not all) of them relate to the country’s civil war. Like the Vietnamese boy we met in Da Lat told us, Vietnam has a violent history of war, war, war. On our last day in Vietnam, we visited the War Remnants Museum, a reminder of the horrors of what they call “The American War.” We spent a sobering morning learning about Agent Orange, tortured prisoners, and the American invasion of Vietnam. It was healthy to gain a perspective different from the one we learn in high school history class, but it was depressing to see the combination of atrocious acts and such a negative view of our own country.

Thailand, on the other hand, seems to be the only country in this region that has mostly avoided modern wars. There are no war museums. Their King is the longest-reigning monarch in the world today, and everyone we talk to adores him. It is a country familiar with peace, and the big attractions in Bangkok reflect that. You can visit the palace where the King used to live (unlike in Saigon, where the “palace” is the Reunification Palace, where the former southern government was located). You can see Buddhist temple after temple. Or, you can do what we did our first day back in Bangkok, which was head to the local cinema and watch Iron Man 3 in 3D for $6.

Downtime: Remember that bus ride into Ho Chi Minh City where I couldn’t sleep? I was looking forward to a nap in a park somewhere the next morning. It didn’t happen. We convinced the hotel we stayed in last week to store our packs for us and went for a walk. Vietnam takes good care of its parks, which meant that nearly every patch of grass in the two parks we walked through was either wet or being watered. Instead, I decided to lay down on a bench while TJ read a book, but a polite policeman quickly spotted me and waved for me to sit up. Even the museum employees frowned at me for taking a seat in the air-conditioned part of the museum and pointed me toward a few chairs outside, in the heat. Finally, we stumbled across a shopping mall with a bookstore, bought our status as customers by picking up a copy of the newest Jack Reacher book, and spent the afternoon on their comfortable sofas reading. In the air-conditioning.

In Bangkok, we already know where the big malls are, so we headed straight there for a cheap food court meal and the movie I already mentioned. We know we can leave our packs at the train station if we don’t have another option, but in this case, we left them at our hostel. Even if we weren’t headed for a shopping mall, the Sky Train provides short bursts of air-conditioning that give us breaks from the heat, so we’re not as desperate while we’re out and about.

Food: We enjoyed Vietnamese food, but since we were still new to the country, we hadn’t quite figured it out yet. We were still gravitating toward the fancier, more expensive restaurants with English staff and menus. We were caught off guard when we passed restaurants that served dog and cat dishes, and we weren’t sure what to think when our tour guides in Da Lat told us they liked horse meat (they were serious). We stuck to safe dishes in nice restaurants when we were alone, and TJ fell in love with a dsih called Beef Loc Lac. Whatever we ate tasted delicious, but we were paying extra for the comfort.

We’ve gotten familiar with Thai food, though, and we love it. We can order our favorites in any restaurant. The little stand behind the train station that charges a dollar per meal and has Thai words spelled in Roman letters on the menu? No problem. The food court that deals in “coupons” and allows you to point to the food that looks good? Even easier.

Language: Before we left Thailand, we speculated about what the other countries in Southest Asia would be like. Obviously, they would be different, but how different? We suspected it would be a lot like going from the US to Canada – different to a resident of one of the countries, but not all that different to a visitor.
Instead, we discovered the difference was more like going from the US to Mexico. Every country we visited has its own language, its own currency, and its own culture. They even each have a different alphabet! The Thai alphabet is a complete mystery to us, despite the weeks that we have spent here. We can sometimes recognize familiar words like “Singburi” or “Baht” in the right context, but we can’t even begin to guess at how to pronounce other words. Orally, though, Thai is starting to sound familiar to us. Even though we don’t know what they mean 99% of the time, the sounds are soothing. And we get excited when we hear someone use a word from our limited vocabulary.

Vietnam was basically the opposite. Orally, we were completely lost. Our entire Vietnamese vocabulary consists of Bo (beef) Loc Lak, Bahn Mi (bread), and the toasting refrain of “Mot, Hay, Baa, YO!” Nothing else sounds remotely familiar. However, their alphabet is based on Roman letters, so we could awkwardly try to pronounce words from menus and street signs. More importantly, we could make sense of directions and transportation. If someone pronounced the name of a street or city, we could generally recognize it once we saw it written down. That was a pleasant change from Thailand!

So, after a night on a bus, a day in Saigon, an evening on a plane, and a night in a Bangkok hostel, we are officially back in Thailand. And even though we very much enjoyed our week in Vietnam, we couldn’t be happier.

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