Friday, March 29, 2013

Adventures from Nam

So as you know, we are leaving Nam... and we are now in holding mode. Its shocking how many companies are pulling out of Vietnam this year. Big companies who have already invested so much time and money... but its very challenging working here with all the red tape and what have you. Companies like MGM and Chevron.. are out.. so if you remember my post on the the MGM casino... you can imagine what a big shock this is. 


So now we have a significant amount of expats in holding mode... waiting to see where they will all go next. And now I get it... why everyone was so surprised we brought all our stuff with us from Pakistan.  So word of advice to anyone who is jumping into expat life.. DON'T!!! Seriously, it is very limiting when you are looking for a space to live in and makes you a lot less mobile. Only bring the necessary stuff... like maybe a blender.. or food processor... or whatever you think you can't live without. The rest of the stuff.. put it into storage.. which is what we are now doing with all our stuff. 


Since we knew we would be leaving I felt we should have at least one adventure here.. and get to know a country that is right next door. Cambodia. I had no idea what to expect.. and I was super surprised. First of all .. don't use a tour agency to book for you. Seriously you will save so much money doing the work yourself. And with the internet ..things are much easier.. or you can do what we did and just wing it...if you are up for that kind of experience.. but you can avoid the pain of looking around on foot by simply spending some time on the net. 


Trip Advisor is a great resource.. you get real people's reviews and gives you a feel for what to expect. They usually have a contact for the hotel as well, and you can also look at restaurants, things to do etc. Definitely worth checking out. I was lucky to have spoken to my dear friend Barbara who taught me many of the travel tips I am sharing with you here. Another fantastic site to check out is 


Great resource for information. Do check them out as well. Now for the part where I tell you about travelling to Cambodia from Vietnam. Its a lot simpler than one would imagine .. and super cheap to get there ... 

So if you are an expat... carry your Resident card with you. If you are simply passing through, most countries can get a visa at the border for a cost of $25. Many sites say that a tourist visa costs $20 but I just got back and can tell you that has changed. Your visa will be valid for a month. If you plan on going towards Thailand from there be careful which border town you enter through as some areas do have low level threats .. Siem Riep to Bangkok is what was advised to me. The only bus service I would use after my experience is the one from Sinh Tourist


They are located in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand which makes it very easy. They have a beautiful clean bus service and they offer the best deals as far as transport is concerned. For $10 I could get from Ho Chi Minh city to Pnomh Penh. Another $7 got me to Siem Riep. You board the bus, they give you a bottle of water for your trip, collect your passport from you and basically take care of what needs to be taken care of. You just need to walk through the border control and get your passport stamped where and when needed


Its an hour and a half approx from HCMC to the border. The bus leaves at 6:30 am which puts you in Pnomh Penh at around 12:30 pm. It will be hot. VERY hot.. so wear light clothing. Do remember to bring shirts with some sleeves as entrance into pagodas in sleeveless shirts are not allowed. Shorts are not allowed either so make sure you pants are at least calf length. Accommodation is fairly cheap... you can go as low as $12 for a tiny but clean room at the Nordic house on street 136 or up to $89 at the Foreign Correspondent's Club by the Riverside, which is beautiful by the way. 


The room above at the Nordic House has a rate of $35 but you can bargain.. so best of luck with your negotiation skills. But even at $35, its a pretty good deal. They have free wifi too, so its quite a steal for that price. Or if you want something a little more fancy...


This room at the FCC (Foreign Corresondent's Club) would put you back about $90, inclusive of breakfast and wifi. Both the above hotels are very close to the museum and the Royal Palace. Many places to eat around here too... so its a great location. Or you can walk around that area and check out the many places and try and find yourself the best deal. Another great place to stay is the Golden House International hotel on street 136. May not look like much on the outside but the rooms surprised us. They are right opposite the Nordic House. Ask for their room rates and then bargain. Always check the rooms and bathrooms before you agree to stay anywhere. If you get a dodgy feeling from the place.. don't stay there. 


Cambodian food is fantastic!!! It is really super delicious and super cheap. Much cheaper than Vietnam. The people are super friendly too and most people you will come across speak English. I travelled with both my teenage daughters there and for three of us we could comfortably eat for $10 collectively for each meal. Street food would be even cheaper I am sure.. we ate at the riverside restaurants. I would have eaten at the street food stalls but my daughters were not quite up for that yet. 



To get around.. you will find plenty of tuk tuks. The drivers will probably call out to you.. Bargain with them.. most places can be reached for $2... the max we spent on any tuk tuk ride was $4 to get from our hotel on street 136 to Sinh Tourist which was a bit of a distance away. You will be approached by hawkers and if you don't want to purchase something from them ... simply say no and walk away...They may even enter the restaurant you are eating at.. but say no and they will leave you alone. Here is how I would plan the trip if I were to go again. 

Take the Sinh Tourist bus from Saigon to Pnomh Penh at 6:30 am for $10. Pay $25 for visa at border. 


Arrive at Pnomh Penh by 12:30, Check in to hotel of choice and rest for a few hours after lunch. Its sizzling hot so make sure you have plenty of water on you at all times! Get to the Royal Palace by 3:45 pm which gives you plenty of time to explore the palace before it closes. You could go in the morning as well..but I found the evening cooler and more manageable


The Palace is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. The King actually lives there but his portion is obviously not allowed visitors. You will be able to peek at his quarter from afar though. The Silver Pagoda is within the palace grounds and not to be missed either. It is called so because the floor is made of silver. It is all carpeted now.. but they have left a portion open so you can see for yourself. No sleeveless shirts or shorts allowed here. Some places you will be allowed to take pics, others you won't.  There is an entrance fee of $6.50 


After you are done with the Palace, you can take a cyclo tour ... or a tuk tuk tour for an hour and let the drivers show you around. Find a place to eat, and just chill and walk around. Depending on how many days you have the next day early morning go see the museums. There are two major museums, the National Museum and the Genocide museum. I didn't get to them as I didn't plan my trip as well for myself. But now with the experience when I go back.. this is how I would do it. If you are only there for a day...once you are done with the museums get back to Sinh Tourist and book a bus for Seim Riep. Their bus leaves at 2:00 pm I am sure you can find other companies that take you there too... but theirs was the cleanest and cheapest bus.. can't beat the price of $7. I tried... so I know. Try and get there early before you hit the museum to get your spot on the bus. 

if you plan to stay another day in Pnomh Penh, you can check out the Killing Fields and of course the markets. Central market and Russian market to be precise. For me it was way too hot and the museums would be enough for me. 


Siem Riep is slightly more expensive than Pnomh Penh. The city has been built up solely for tourists.. so you can see why. Having said that.. its more expensive than Pnomh Penh but its still cheap. Do not get tempted and book a tour with an agency. Your money will go further if you do it yourself. So if you have taken the 2:00 pm bus, you should be in Siem Riep by 8:00 pm. Again, use the internet to find yourself a decent hotel. Try and stay around the night market area.. you can find hotels here for about $35 a night inclusive of free wifi and breakfast. There is a Foreign Correspondent's club here too.. and yes its beautiful if you don't mind shelling out almost $100 per night to stay there. Another recommendation was the Angkor Riviera which will put you out about $60 for the family suite


So its 8:30 pm in Siem Riep what to do... ? go check out the Night maket..you may find interesting knick knacks to buy.. lots of pubs and bars and eateries, the energy is amazing!! 


I had the best noodles ever on Pub Street near the night market. Its street food and so delicious and cost me $1.50 for a nice big plate of the stuff..yummilicious!! 


Now if you are in Siem Riep naturally you will go see the Angkor Wat


Entrance fee here is $20 per person. So if you are travelling as a family that can work out quite expensive. But its one of the wonders of the world so if you are on a budget.. stay in cheap places and splurge on this. I made a massive mistake and didn't go at the right time. Get there by sunrise. That is the best time to visit. Yes of course the lighting makes it beautiful, but its also much cooler. You will be suprised how quickly it becomes very hot and you will have a fair amount of climbing to do.  Carry plenty of water with you, though outside the temple you will find stalls where you can buy bottles of water. It is a large area... so do take the time to around the whole area. Get a tuk tuk to take you $15 and if you want you can hire a tour guide for $12 on the spot. Take a break for lunch from 12:00 to 2:00 to cool off a bit.. and then you can see the rest. If you are not templed out you can see another temple that was made famous by the Lara Croft film.. Beng Melea temple.. 40 kms away as advised by my twitter friend  +Robin Wylie . I was templed out so didn't go.. maybe next time :). For me one day was enough and then book your bus back to Pnomh Penh which leaves at 6:30 am


Enjoy the city again.. and book bus back to HCMC which leaves at 1:30 pm. We made the mistake of missing the Sinh Tourist bus and went to another company to book our bus back. We paid $10 for a public bus that stopped every so often to pick up passengers... was not clean compared to the $7 we could have paid for getting up early and getting back. You could take a VIP bus as well which is supposed to be a clean bus and that is $12. If I had known about that I would have definitely taken that one. But now I know and so will plan better for our next trip there. Last parting note.. try to travel there during the weekdays.. you will find things cheaper thank on weekends specially in Pnomh Penh. The reason being that many Vietnamese tourists hop over on the weekends to gamble... so prices tend to go up a bit :)

Hope you found this helpful.. please feel free to leave a comment or write to me at ayeshahalam@yahoo.com

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Things to Do in HCMC

So trying to do quick run downs of whatever pertinent information I have for you before I get busy with the move and then forget... Its always helpful to have a reliable resource, which since I have become an expat ... know all too well. First of lets say you are a tourist and you want to visit HCMC. Visas are about $25 which one can get at the airport except for a few nationalities, who will need a sponsor letter. You can check HERE to see what the latest developments are on that

Having said that...there is a lot of corruption here and people have faced difficulties with approved visas. Sometimes the immigration official can give you a tough time.. basically in a ruse to get some money out of you. If you are an expat, and you have a business visa you most likely won't be bothered but if you are a tourist...you may actually fare better by getting your visa on arrival. Those of you who need Pre approved visas may need to pay a bit extra... not worth the fuss...just do it as one really may not have a choice. 


The ONLY  kind of taxi you should be taking is either Mai Linh which is pictured above... though some taxis look like this..


Be sure to read the sign carefully on the taxis as some of them pretend to be these credible ones and will completely rip you off. The other credible taxi company is Vinasun


These two companies run on a meter and won't rip you off. For Vinasun you can dial 08 38 27 27 27 and for Mai Linh its 08 38 38 38 38. Try to avoid taking any other cab if you can. Cabs are easily available and the max waiting time for a cab would be 7 mins. At the airport look for the guys wearing the green shirts who will flag down a cab for you. They may ask you for a taxi card.. which if you are a tourist you won't have but don't worry about it. 


Accomodation is varied. You can choose to stay at a resort which is right outside Saigon for $250 a night to staying at a shared bunkbed accommodation for $5 a night. It depends, are you single? are you adventurous? do you want a luxury trip or do you want to join the back packers? For luxury travellers there are many options. The An Lam Villas which are beautiful, and they even have a speedboat service that puts you in the center of town in 15 minutes. Or you have the Hyatt , the Sheraton and the like.  You could even just drive around and see where you want to stay.. by the riverside or in the city .. and see who gives you the best deal. You will be better off pre booking of course and if you book online... one generally gets better deals. Try http://www.agoda.com for some decent deals. Or you could always go the Airbnb route. Want to stay someplace for free...? try couch surfing but be sensible and make sure there is plenty of feedback on where and who you decide to stay with


You can go ridiculously  cheap as well. In the back packers district you can find accomodation for one for about $30 for a single room with a relatively clean bathroom. Or you can bunk down with others if you are single .. for a bunk bed space you can pay as little as $5 a night. No ensuite bathroom. Word of warning. Back packers district is an exciting area as there is action happening there till the wee hours of the morning. Its the place where, as the name suggests.. all the back packers hang out .. cheap accommodation, cheap alcohol, food, weed, and sometimes women. So if you are coming with the family, pay a little bit and stay at a decent hotel. 


There are two seasons in HCMC. Hot. and Hot and Rainy. The hottest it will get is about 34 but the humidity levels are crazy so pack light clothing. Bring an umbrella with you as showers can come unexpectedly. The rainy season is from April to about November latest. and when it rains... it pours. for about half an hour to an hour at a time. Doesn't matter how sunny it looks outside. If you are here during the rainy season.. bring your umbrella as the sun is a deceptive thing that suddenly disappears as the sky darkens and you are rained upon. 


If you are a foodie...  you will have a blast in Ho Chi Minh City... there are oooooodles of restaurants and cafes to choose from. High end to street food.. all depends on how adventurous you are feeling. You will find all kinds of cuisines here... Singaporean, Thai, French, Continental, food from Laos, Cambodia, Malaysian, Indian, Brazillian, Greek and of course Vietnamese. You can skim through the Ho Chi Minh Food Forum on www.facebook.com to see what the locals are recommending. Its a great forum, even if I do say so myself which has both locals and expats contributing their fav spots to eat at. 



Whether its street food you are looking for or high end restaurants .. its all there on the forum. My advice.. take a food tour. Its a great fun way to meet fun people and eat street food. If you have been following my blog you know that I highly recommend www.saigonstreeteats.com 


They really helped me get comfortable with the local food. If you have any issues.. for example I don't eat pork.. let them know in advance and they will sort that out for you 


If you visit HCMC... you have to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. I think I may have mentioned them on my blog earlier. Go to Sinh Cafe and ask them to book you a tour. You may be able to do it online before you arrive. Ask to be taken by boat as its a much nice way to get there. You will leave early morning but should be back by 1:00 pm. But check with the agency.


If you are coming with your kids... take them to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre . Trip Advisor suggests you book tickets a day early... click on the link above to get details. Do take advantage of technology. If you don't have the app get it. Trip Advisor is a brilliant resource. What has been a lifesaver for me as an expat and as a tourist is another great app called Foursquare. If you don't have a smart phone don't worry .. as they are on the net as well. Use them. Ad nauseam. You will really find some very helpful tips and tricks which other members of the community contribute to. And please don't forget to contribute your tips as well 


Ben Thanh market is worth a visit. You will find everything there.  From wigs and  fake flowers to coffee and dried sugared fruits to ceramics and lacquered objects. Little tip... usually when one goes to a market... the deeper in one goes... the cheaper the prices get. The opposite is true here as the shops on the outside are government controlled so you will probably get better prices. Do not go to shop early in the morning as the Vietnamese people are superstitious and if you walk away from a sale... you will get dirty looks as they believe their whole day will now go badly. But you can also strike up the best deals in the morning as they are eager to start their day off well. Shops open at 8:00 am .. so go around 9-9:30 is my suggestion. 


Everything should be bargained for. Vietnamese people love to bargain and expect it. So don't go for the first price they put out. whatever they say ... start at at least half of what they say and stick to your guns. You will sense then how high or low you can get away with. 


You can go dancing at a number of the clubs in town. Best bet is to check out anyarena.com to see what's happening while you are there. Another resource for entertainment is http://www.wordhcmc.com . Maybe your hotel may have a hard copy of the Word. Pick it up... that will list many of the happening events . Some of the happening clubs... 


There is Blanchy's Tash  very close to the Backpackers district...though it can get a bit sleazy... downstairs one finds the tourists and the old men trying to hook up with young women scene.. upstairs is a bit better which is where more of the expats hang out...


There is Xu bar which is more loungy than a club but the music is far too loud for any real conversation... but if you just want to hang and enjoy the music... that is an option


If you want to just hang out and listen to some Cuban music .. head down to the Caravelle hotel and on the top floor is a restaurant called Saigon Saigon . Food isn't special here... but good to go for drinks and maybe some salsa dancing . That's it for now folks... hope you find this information helpful . There are many tidbits I have shared throughout my blog but the last two posts have been more comprehensive. Till we "meet" again.. have a wonderful day or night.. depending on where you are in the world. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to leave a comment here or write to me ayeshahalam@yahoo.com

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The End of the Reign of the Khaness of Nam

The title says it all... sadly my time in Vietnam is up as we are moving to other pastures...not sure where yet... but wherever I go ... will of course be blogging about that too...



In the meantime I have every intention of trying as many places here as possible...so that if any of you ever visit Ho Chi Minh... you will have a fair idea of what to do...first things first..if you are an expat about to move here or thinking about moving here .. quick run down


First thing you will need of course is accommodation. Try to avoid going through an agent if you can. On google mail join a group called An Phu neighbours and that will be a great resource for just about anything you want to know about settling in to Saigon. Sometimes people even post when a house or apartment is going up for rent. Or .. drive around and look for signs outside apartments or houses saying they are up for rent. Agents only get paid by landlords, not the tenants so they will only do what is beneficial for the landlord. Make sure you have everything taken care of in the contract down to the last detail.. as once the contract is signed... that's it... you are done!


The local currency is Dong... and like the old Italian Lire, you will be dealing with hundred thousands and millions. Don't let that scare you... just do the conversion and you will breathe easy. As a family of four you can live comfortably on about $1200-$1500 a month. That includes groceries, utilities, internet, cable tv, a helper... I had this lovely Phillipino lady called Lizelle, who we will miss very much. This is being written in 2013 so you may want to check. I know that inflation is an issue here.. imported good are of course expensive. 


If you are lucky and have the company taking care of the rent of your accomodation guess you don't have to worry about it... but rents can vary from $500 all the way up to $5000 depending on if you get a house, villa, apartment and of course which location you are in.. and how many bedrooms does it have. Rents have gone down considerably this year as a lot of expats are leaving due to the hit the Vietnam economy has taken, but they say 2014 is when they expect things to take off again. Sadly we won't be around to see that happen 

If Halal food is a concern for you, Halal restaurants can be found in the street behind the Sheraton mainly .. as there is a mosque there. You can also order Halal meat .. speak to the Imam at the mosque and he will make sure you are sorted. 


A lot of the expat children go to schools in District 2 which is the An Phu neighbourhood. There is ISHCMC, which is a fantastic school that offers the IB program. My kids are going there and they have loved every minute of it. If your kids are used to the American system this may be a better option. There is also the BIS which also offers the International Baccalaureate, and if your kids are used to the British system, this may be a better option for you. The Australians, Germans and Americans have schools in this area too. There are a number of options for you to choose from, but the top two are extremely expensive so try to work that into your contract when you are negotiating. The school fees, depending on how many children you have will eat away a major chunk of your salary. 


There are some good hospitals... but for minor stuff. FV Hospital, Family Medical, Victoria Hospital and SOS. They are all expensive so make sure you get medical insurance ...though most expat packages usually have that covered. Just be sure. For serious ailments you will need to fly out to Bangkok or Singapore. The medical field in Vietnam is not advanced enough yet to handle the serious cases. 

Everyone always told me how great the shopping would be in Vietnam. They lied. There really isn't that much to shop for here. Yes you can find some great household stuff and you can get some great bargains in certain items. Will take you about  a year to settle in and finally figure out where everything is. I will be divulging all details bit by bit here before I leave and hope it proves helpful. Things to keep in mind...


The Vietnamese people are petite... so unless you are petite too.. finding sizes here are ridiculously difficult. The good news is that its  getting better but for the most part finding clothes, shoes and underwear can be a nightmare or in some cases impossible. 

Payless just opened up at Vincom 1 and mercifully they have large shoe sizes too, but are very limited in choice of shoes so you may want to bring those with you as well as lingerie which is practically impossible to find here. 


Naturally you will be excited about moving to a new place and will want to do all the exploring you can. My advice... Do it. Don't keep putting it off like we did.. we kept saying to ourselves... we live here now.. we can go anytime.. you never know when you will be posted out again.. so take advantage of every long weekend you can and get out. There is a lot to explore, Cambodia and Laos are right next door... so don't lose this opportunity or you will regret it. Vietnam itself has much to explore. Hoi An is supposed to be amazing and I hope we make it up there before we leave. Nha Trang is supposed to be a great beach destination too. If you can.. try and make it there too. 


Look for The Sinh Tourist, they offer fantastic deals and their service is really pretty good. If you are not happy where they have placed you as far as accommodation is concerned, call them right there and they will change it. They are located in the backpackers district of Saigon also known as Pham Ngu Lao pronounced as Farm Noo Laoo

Well that's all I can share with you today. I will keep adding tidbits when I can that I think will be helpful to you. If you are just moving here, let me tell you it is a wonderful country with much to offer. Can be hard at first to live and work here because of the language difference, but if you have an adventurous spirit, I hope you will come to love Vietnam the way I have. I wish you all the luck and best wishes as you start your journey of discovery here. 

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