Great hotel and travel tips for SE Asia

In the comments posted at the bottom of this New York Times advice column:

Q&A: Southeast Asia Budget

Travelers have listed budget hotels and guest houses in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and other great places.

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A word about phở

After years and years of eating phở in America (spelled “pho” here, and often pronounced like foe, but it should be fuh), I finally got to eat phở in Vietnam. The very first bowl I had was at Phở Vuông on Giang Vo Street in Hanoi. It was very tasty, but despite being surrounded by Vietnamese diners, I felt like a complete tourist in the clean, well-lighted, air-conditioned restaurant. As written in the Vietnamese God blog in 2006:

It is a bit pricy but it is worth it for the comfortable chairs, high tables, and air-con which is great in such a hot summer.

Pricey: 28,000 dong for a bowl of phở bò tái (or pho tai, my fave, the one with thin slices of raw lean beef that cook to perfection in the steaming hot broth); 21,000 for ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee, one of the finest things on earth), and 3,000 for a plate of quay, my new discovery — a Vietnamese riff on fry bread that you drop into your phở to soak up the fragrant broth — YUM!

That’s a grand total of 52,000 dong — about US$3 at today’s rates. It is pricey compared with street phở (about 12,000 dong, which is less than one dollar), but it sure is nice to be sure you’ll get the lovely tái and not the nasty tendon, tripe, or even more exotic variants that local people may prefer.

Yes, I’m a wimp when it comes to eating organ meats, or other parts of animals not commonly seen in U.S. supermarkets (even though my German ancestors love munching on tripe and pig’s stomach). So I never did get around to eating phở bò tái in Saigon. Next time around.

Jodi & Co. and I ate twice at Pho24 in Hanoi — one branch at 3B Thi Sach St., and the other at 61 Van Mieu St. (that one was full of Western tourists! But the phở was lovely anyway). We found that the outlet mentioned in the current edition of Lonely Planet (at the southeast corner of Hoan Kiem Lake) has disappeared. Three of the Vietnamese journalists in Hanoi told me that Phở Vuông has replaced Pho24 as the top phở restaurant in the capital city. I don’t know, but I thought Pho24’s broth had more flavor, more like the Saigon-esque versions we get around Washington, D.C. (where you can find branches of Pho24 too).

One big surprise for us was the lack of salad (or rather, a plate piled high with basil, mint, and bean sprouts) to accompany the phở. That’s a southern thing, I was told, and not common in Hanoi.

I have not a single photo of a bowl of pho. Every time it came to the table, I was so happy to see it and smell it, I forgot everything else except eating it.

Read more about phở at the Noodle Pie blog.

Our cyclo ride in Ho Chi Minh City

One of many highlights of my visit to Vietnam in June was our late-afternoon ride (all 12 of us in separate cyclos) through rush-hour traffic. If you go to the YouTube page, please look for the link “Watch in High Quality” below the video. It looks much better that way.

This video was shot on a small still camera, the Canon PowerShot SD700 IS 6MP Digital Elph (about $200), and edited in Final Cut Pro. The music comes from the Internet Archive. It’s the work of a librarian who lives in Singapore.

Street life, Hanoi and HCMC

People sit on the sidewalks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Children, old people, working men, teenage girls. Everybody is on the sidewalk, often squatting on teensy plastic stools, about 10 inches tall.

Jodi asked Cong if all of these people are selling stuff, or are some of them just sitting outside their homes? Cong confirmed that yes, many of them are simply in front of their homes, relaxing. Drinking tea. Playing Chinese chess. It can be a little hard to tell because often there is a small plastic table with bottled soft drinks, or a clear pitcher of golden iced tea, and it’s not so different from the people who are selling stuff — including the women who carry two baskets, one on each end of a long bamboo pole, and set up a hot kitchen on the curb. They dish up bowls of steaming hot soup, or grill meat or fish over red burning charcoal. The cluster of diners slurping around a makeshift restaurant is hard to distinguish from a family hanging out. Barbers cut hair on the sidewalks. We even saw a man welding metal, sparks flying, in the middle of a city sidewalk in Hanoi.

Today I watched a video about an old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and I realized, suddenly, that American cities are no more than two generations removed from that same street life.

It looked a little different in New York — I saw the tail end of those days in the 1980s when I lived there, when whole families would still sit on the stoop (the front outdoor steps) of apartment buildings in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Lower East Side — before all the gentrification. Old people or young guys would play cards there, on the stoop. Sometimes they would sit in lawn chairs on the sidewalk. They might have a coffee cup on a saucer, or a glass of cold beer. In those days, I lived in an apartment without any air conditioning. Summers were brutal. We sat outside in the evenings, hoping for a cool breeze off the river.

In Little Italy, the old Italian men would sit on metal folding chairs in front of their social clubs, a tiny cup of espresso on a small wooden table, looking like characters in an early Scorsese movie.

Yeah, people in American cities used to sit on the sidewalks too, back in the days before air conditioning, before condos, before gentrification.

The Vietnam I saw this year will slowly disappear. Already the government has announced a ban on street restaurants, but I heard that public outcry has forced a reprieve. No doubt that will be temporary.

Air travel in and to Vietnam

If only I had found out about Jetstar before I went to Vietnam!

Flights on the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, are nice enough, but booking is a giant pain in the neck — because you must pay cash. Yes, the national airline does not accept credit cards! Even inside the country, when I booked a flight through my hotel, I had to get 2 million dong in cash to hand over for my ticket. (The same hotel accepted my credit card for my hotel bill.) Ridiculous. Especially because many of the Vietnamese banks’ ATMs would not give me cash, even though they recognized my card.

Jetstar is a budget carrier, a joint venture between Australia and Singapore. Like the fabulous AirAsia (which I recommend very highly!), Jetstar offers bare bones service, charges for extras, and has nice new planes that make travelers feel perfectly safe. I have flown on AirAsia at least six times, including recently from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh — check out their wonderful fares. Unfortunately, they don’t fly domestic legs within Vietnam.

I guess I didn’t search hard enough, because before I left the U.S., I didn’t find out about Jetstar. We flew from Danang to Saigon on Jetstar last week, and it was a perfectly nice flight — for about US$40. (The hotel charged me $103 for a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Hanoi; Jetstar has it for $53 t0 $84.)

Vietnam Airlines does not publish ticket fares on their Web site. This enables travel agents to totally gouge travelers — like the taxi drivers in Hanoi, I might add. (All the taxi drivers I encountered in Saigon were honest.) The first travel agent I contacted in the U.S. to try to buy a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City wanted $198 for it. Another agent (TNK Travel) wanted only $110 for the same ticket, same day and time. (Oddly enough, the first travel agent, VINA Travel in San Francisco, was recommended by Vietnam Airlines, which will not sell tickets directly in the U.S.) I had to wire TNK the money via Western Union because they too do not accept credit cards (unless you fill out a crazy form with way too much personal information on it and MAIL it to them — yeah, right). They wanted a bank transfer, but my U.S. bank charges $35 for that; Western Union charged $4.

Jetstar (like AirAsia) permits you to book on the Web site and pay with a credit card (like any normal airline, ahem).

Watch out for extra baggage fees if you fly on the cheap carriers — weight limits and number of bags are strictly enforced. Both AirAsia and Jetstar make this transparent on their Web sites.

Another departure, with regret

Sitting in the business-class lounge in the Hanoi airport, using free wi-fi and drinking a can of passionfruit juice imported from Malaysia (huh?!), waiting for the second leg of the seemingly endless journey from east to west (although my route is eastbound, from Seoul to Atlanta). I’m sorry to be leaving Vietnam — would have liked more time in Hue, in Hoi An, in Saigon.

Tuesday night in Saigon, I walked around and watched people eating, drinking, and just generally hanging out on the sidewalk, as they always do. While I felt pretty fed up with the helter-skelter motorbike traffic and the almost impossible task of walking on the sidewalks (too crowded with seated people and motorbikes to permit much walking), I also thought I could really get to feeling comfortable in Saigon. Much more so than Hanoi. Saigon seems warmer, less harsh. Maybe I just didn’t spend enough time in Hanoi.

Our Intrepid trip leader in Vietnam, Cong, lives near Hanoi. He said if I had one month in Hanoi, I would grow to like it. But he also said, as we sat in the giant colonial-era post office building in Saigon’s District 1: “If I could live anywhere, I would live here.”