We had planned to stop over in Ho Chi Minh for a couple days on the way back from our honeymoon last year. That plan was thwarted. (Side note: While you can get a visa upon arrival, you actually have to organize that in advance…usually. It seems to vary per traveler. We learned our lesson the hard way!)
So I was thrilled when I was hired by Semester at Sea and found out I would finally be seeing Vietnam after one missed attempt and many years of wanting to see a country so beloved by travelers.
But here’s the thing: People—many people at that—had told me Saigon was, well, less than awesome. So I wasn’t so stoked to visit the city itself. In fact, I made other plans to go everywhere but Saigon–Cambodia, the Mekong Delta, maybe even Halong Bay. And then I arrived in Saigon to find that everybody had been lying to me all this time because Saigon is, in fact, awesome.
I adored every last thing about it: the food, the crowds, the traffic, the shopping, the people. I’m not really sure how one can go to Saigon and not like it.
The first day we got into port was the first day I didn’t have to work in a long time. So we set out with two of our favorite couples on board, Layne and Brian and Andrew and Jane, in search of what every first timer to Vietnam seeks: a quality tailor. We even had a list, made by a former local. But after a wild goose chase and several missed attempts at getting directions from locals—Vietnam tip #1: don’t always listen the locals when it comes to directions in English; while they’re very friendly and attempt to be helpful, they often directed us to places that didn’t exist!—we finally just wandered into a random one on Pasteur Street where the dudes all had suits made.
In subsequent days, SVV wound up having two suits, three dress shirts and two ties tailor made, while I designed and had five dresses whipped up. More on that process here!
By then, we were famished—shopping is a laborious undertaking, y’all—and we shuffled down Pasteur to this open-air Vietnamese restaurant, Quan an Ngon, we had passed on our missed tailor attempts.
Naturally, we washed down our meal with some Vietnamese libations. When in Vietnam, y’all.
I love how, even in a nice restaurant in Vietnam, you can get a starter, a main course and a drink for the whopping total of $6. I had some variety of bánh mì curry, which would become my dish of choice for every meal in the coming week.
Layne’s sister Abby and her cousin Kate were flying in from San Francisco that afternoon so we killed some time at Bến Thành Market before meeting them at their hotel. Then, the dudes decided to branch off to His Salon where they each purchased spa treatments and got their collective pamper on. While SVV is quite the spa veteran—he gets a massage or two every week on the ship! such is the life of a SAS dependent—it was Andrew’s first time. Let’s just say he didn’t know what to expect, and a massage in Vietnam is vastly different than a massage in the United States.
Vietnam tip #2: If you’re a guy and at a (legit) spa and a woman ushers you into a room and does obscene gestures because her English is less than stellar, she’s likely offering you tea rather than a…well, you get the picture.
As His was off-limits to the ladies, the five of us headed to Jasmine Spa instead, where we all opted for massages, too. Jane, Layne and Kate were escorted upstairs first, while Abby and I were made to wait in the lobby for a half an hour. When they were ready for us, two therapists ushered us up a narrow staircase…and into a room with two side-by-side tables. I wasn’t sure what to do as they didn’t speak English and I assumed they would be directing one of us to another room, so I looked at Abby for guidance. She gave me a blank stare back, as one of the therapists followed behind and motioned for us to take our clothes off. Not only would we be getting a “couples massage”—as it turns out, most treatments in Vietnam are done in rooms with other people beside you—but she wanted us to strip down to our birthday suits in front of each other, her and the other therapist, not even a towel for privacy.
I looked at Abby once more and shrugged, as we took our clothes off. That’s one way of getting to know someone you’ve just met. Luckily, each of us had lived in San Francisco long enough to shed any ounce of modesty we’d been born with.
Vietnam tip #3: If you’re not comfortable with nudity—or getting naked with someone you don’t know—then maybe a spa treatment in Saigon is not for you!
Each of our hour-long massages were about $24 each, which is considered “expensive” for Saigon. Still, I went to an even cheaper place the following week, and I’d say pay a little more to get better results. SVV and I tried out this place called Oasis the last day, and I had a 60-minute deep tissue massage plus a manicure and pedicure and he a 90-minute treatment, and our grand total was $61, but I won’t say either of us felt particularly relaxed after the treatments.
Vietnam tip #4: Fully expect your therapist to climb up on the table, straddle you, and use her knees, elbows and sometimes even feet to work out the kinks. I’d like to think it’s because the Vietnamese are so petite, they really have to get their full body weight in there to make any progress.
From there, it was back to the ship to clean up before a night out on the town. And that was just our first afternoon in Vietnam, too. I would constantly be impressed by how many activities we could cram into each daylight period while in Saigon. It’s as if the days were longer there, which is something I’ve always said I would wish for should I stumble upon a genie in a lamp during my travels.