Saigon On My Mind

The plane landed on the wee hours of the morning, there was nothing to see, and the empty streets could be compared to Recto during summer. It took time to find a cab whose driver would not rip off travelers who, though not Western, still had a few dollars in their pockets. The persistent warnings in travel forums has made us wary and this weird excitement that came out of it turned into a “Will we be scammed?” game.
Thirty minutes later, we knocked at the gates of the hostel located at a small street right behind a market. A sleepy receptionist welcomed us, ushered us in, gave us a map, and shoved hand-outs of group tours straight into our accepting hands. The next thing I knew, I was in Dreamland.
Although still lacking sleep, we started out early and found Saigon in its waking, bustling state. It may be the biggest city in Vietnam but that did not stop us from deciding to walk its streets and not take any form of transportation for the day. 
We first ventured into the streets near Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers area, to find some decent place to exchange money but were surprised to find stores with reprints of travel guides sold at half the price. The streets in this area are lined up with establishments catering to both local and Western tastes. Different as they may be, they all had one thing in common. The restaurants had tables set outside on the sidewalk, with all the chairs facing the street. 
Farther into District 1, the trees became taller than the buildings, the roads were busier, and the foreigners were lesser in number. Every now and then, we would pass by groups of people sitting at a street corner drinking iced black coffee, chatting and staring right into the streets. 
I have a pretty good memory but it was no match for the street names in Saigon. How can you remember Cong Truong Lam Son, Nguyen Trung Truc, or Chu Manh Trinh after a single glimpse at the map? Only two names stuck with me: Pasteur, the only Western sounding street name that we walked on, and Le Loi, because it only had 2 syllables. 
We found all the places we have marked with an "X" in our map and our feet were more than happy to tread back home. The day ended with us sitting at a bar looking like it was plucked straight from Boracay (weird beach-y vibe), each of us with a bottle of Bia Saigon in hand. It was not a leisurely walk but it was exactly what we needed to see Saigon within a day.
Far from the nice and efficient cities that can leave you feeling stiff, Saigon is a breather full of roaring (literally) life. The streets may not be litter-free and following the stoplight is optional, but I found the warmth and festive mood of the city more comforting than that of highly-urbanized cities. Compared to busy Hanoi in the north, I found Saigon more endearing.
However tiring the day was, I drank my Bia Saigon with satisfaction. I like Saigon. Well, except for the bland food (and beer). Ask me to explain why and I would probably not come up with concrete reasons. Maybe it’s because of the motorcycles, maybe because of the parks and architecture, maybe because it’s just what it is. It’s easier to stop being rational, forget about putting reasons to words, and just say exactly what it makes me feel. 
Oh and about that "Will we be scammed?" game? It happened exactly at the moment this photo was taken. My sweet tooth must be blamed.



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Baguio Rediscovered

The Bustling Stop-Over in the North, Baguio.

Baguio means downing a couple of beers at Ayuyang while waiting for the bus to Manila. Or having a quick boodle dinner at Kalapaw with a bunch of hungry and exhausted people. Or strolling at SM to buy sweets because you can't find them in the other parts of Benguet that you just came from. It's too crowded, too touristy, and too typical that NOT going further up north is unthinkable. It's Manila minus the humidity and the temperature a few notches lower. 

Over dinner on a hot holiday night, an idea came up.

Let's go to Baguio? Day trip? Tara. 

And off we went.

Who would have known that in this rare chance to see Baguio as a destination it would slap me in the face with its beauty?
Rainbow to welcome even the most ungrateful of visitors
Serves me right for labeling the city as ordinary.

The sweet misty scent of the morning welcomed us along with two rainbows painted across the clear sky. It was such a nice welcome that I found it especially hard to refuse buying taho from the first vendor I saw right after stepping out of the terminal.

The road down to the cathedral in a quiet, misty morning
From the terminal, we walked towards the general direction of Session Road with the goal of finding the cheapest place to charge batteries. It was such a nice experience walking along Session Road without having to rush and without having to avoid bumping into people.
I never thought Session Road could be this lovely. It reminded me of a photo of Dutch houses lined up on the side of a street. The only people on the street were the ones in their sweatpants, out to jog in the still empty parks.
Session Road - lovelier when the streets are empty
We took time walking along Session Road, looking up every now and then to see signs of cheap hostels. We passed by Pizza Volante, open 24 hours. Inside a couple of tables were taken by groups of weary travelers who by the look of their faces seemed like they came from the bus terminal at the wee hours of the morning too. Pizza Volante was the only place with some sort of activity. (While passing by we quickly decided that we were going to eat there sometime during the day).
As much as I wanted the city to stay this way, the world moved on and half an hour later, the city woke up and the streets were filled. Slowly it became Baguio, The Bustling Stop-Over again. It may never be completely erased in my mind how I am always just transiting in this city but at least now I have a few minutes of its charm etched in my memory.
A few minutes past 7AM, we had to ditch our task of finding a place to crash since our tummies were begging for a much needed breakfast. It's now time to put the hours spent in this city into good use, after all, stop-overs mean two things: food and rest room breaks (which Baguio, of course, has an awful lot).