Just like a rap album from the early 2000's, a bonus track was added to the regular listing. Indeed, I learnt last week that I would spend a few days in Vietnam to visit a newly settled factory around an hour driving outside of Ho Chi Minh City. This business trip within a business trip was not originally planned and I only had a little amount of time to figure out the visa, flight ticket and accommodation. Alls well ends well, I managed to book everything on time and off I flew from Guangzhou to the city locals still refer to as Saigon. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I've been through much more while planning my short-term assignment in China. Therefore, a small last minute travel with only three documents to gather was a walk in the park! Having said that, I personally believe that unplanned getaways are often the most fun ones. Once again, this statement was proven to be very true!
The Golden Lotus
My commute started a day before as I finally concluded the chapter at the factory in Lushan after spending the second month there and living the operations life day-in-day-out. I only had time to touch base in Guangzhou for 6 hours as I decided to fly out earlier, on Saturday morning, so I could enjoy the city for a full weekend before getting into work-mode. The next morning I woke up at 5:00am to catch my early flight scheduled to depart at 7:15am. My friend Janine who transferred from our headquarters to our Liaison Office in Vietnam relocated earlier this year. Of course, this trip also meant an opportunity to reunite and have tons of fun together. She generously offered to host me for the first night and volunteered to be my very own tour guide as she is definitely a local now. When she asked me what I wanted to do, I provided her with a list of sights I have visited during my first visit to HCMC last year. I told her I wanted to do everything but what is on that list and perhaps experience something more local this time. So we started by going to a local joint around her apartment to eat a bowl of authentic Phở - the Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and beef fillet. With the "itis" slowly hitting us, Janine proposed that I go to get a massage while she goes to her tennis practice. With the several back-to-back commutes I've gone through and very little time to rest at night, the massage proposition came on point. So she brought me to the Golden Lotus Spa & Massage Club - a centre she highly spoke of and recommended the 90-minute Vietnamese Massage + Hot Stone Body Massage for the very tempting price of 510 000 VND (about 30 EUR). As I was just about to get into the massage area, Janine dropped me a line telling me that her practice was cancelled due to the heavy rain that started as soon as she set foot on the court. "Come get a massage!", I said. It didn't take long to convince her. She came right back and took a 60-minute massage so both our sessions ended simultaneously. Believe it or not, it was the first time I really got a full body massage. Pretty hard to believe with all those years of active living and sports adding stress to my muscles and joints. The massage on its own was absolutely amazing as the lady used burning hot stones and oil to rub every single muscle from my nape to my heels. Although, the after-feeling was even better as I could experience a substantial positive change to my posture while enjoying a cup of herbal tea served with dry fruits in a dimmed resting area. I felt like new, ready to make the most out of my unplanned trip, so off we exited the club in search for a local gastronomic experience. Conveniently enough, just out of the club we found a Vietnamese BBQ terrasse by the name of 5KU. We took seats at a low table as we witnessed the very long queue taking shape very quickly at the entrance. Our timing was perfect. We enjoyed a variety of foods to grill on the sizzling charcoal placed at our table including eggplants, ocra, salmon and marinated kangaroo meat! It was the first time for both of us to try kangaroo and I have to admit it was absolutely delicious! We both couldn't get enough of it. Sorry, vegan friends and animal lovers. Sometimes, the cutest animals are also the most delicious ones.
Getting Crunk and Funky Balls
After dinner, we went back to Janine's apartment for a quick nap before heading out to explore some of the nicest skybars Saigon has to offer. Skybars are indeed very trendy in South East Asia as we can enjoy a nice breeze up high while the ground floor remains very humid and sticky long past midnight. So we barhopped from one venue to another by taxi. The whole evening we almost fell asleep during each taxi ride and regained energy as soon as we heard music inviting us to climb a few 40 stories up to join the party. The last stop was planned to be at a club called Glow Skybar. We entered the building from the main entrance as we noticed a lady leaving at the same time on a wheelchair and surrounded by her friends. We got into the elevator nonetheless and up we climbed to the 40-somethingth floor to reach the rooftop terrasse. On our way to climb the last stairway we changed plans very quickly as we could hear Hip-Hop playing from one floor down at a brand new club called Play Nightclub. No further argument was needed to convince an Atlanta girl a Montreal boy to jump on the dance floor and move on some current hits and classics from the Dirty South. Nothing could stop us from getting crunk until we noticed many (I mean, many!) LED glowing ballons being distributed around us. We were so intrigued that we thought we'd ask the man standing by the bar what these balloons were all about as he was inhaling the air off of them. Apparently, the so-called "Funky Balls" are very common in Vietnam since a few months already. Although they look totally fun and harmless, and eveb add colour to the party, I was shocked to learn that these innocent-looking balloons are in fact filled with nitrous oxide - a gas that is highly addictive and damageable for the nervous system if inhaled. The clueless party animals get into a euphoric state as they inhale the balloon filling - also know as laughter gas - in order to stop the oxygen supply to the brain and therefore feel "high". Janine and I forthwith made the connection with the lady exiting the building on a wheelchair. I highly doubt that the young consumers are fully aware of the long-term effects of this new trend. Sad, but true.
Grab it for coffee
The next morning we thought we'd go for brunch before I checked into my hotel. Janine had the idea of bringing me to her favorite spot for such a meal, but she was very surprised to learn it was out of business a we just got in front of what used to be the main entrance. Apparently, the restaurant turnover in HCMC is very high. We walked a little bit further and found a small restaurant that served American-style brunch. I was very happy to find my eggs benedict and Janine to reunite with her beloved Southern biscuit. Oh, did she look happy to have stumbled upon this restaurant! During brunch, she asked me if I ever had "Ca Phe Sua Da". Question to which I answered: "I've had Vietnamese coffee. Not sure if we are talking about the same thing, though." She instantly added: "Ok, you did not have Ca Phe Sua Da! Otherwise, you would know!" She proposed to go to a famous coffee garden called Du Mien Garden - a famous coffee garden only frequented by locals. Only problem was that the garden was located at the other side of town. To get there we had to order a taxi, but Janine had a better plan in mind which was to "Grab it"! Grab is a very popular phone app in South East Asia which allows you to commute by car or motorbike from Point A to Point B - kind of an Über, if you will. The price to cross the city from end to end was ridiculously cheap! It was around 25 000 VND (1 EUR). Janine insisted that we used the app to commute Saigon-style, on a motorbike. For those who don't know, motorbikes are quite famous as bikers take the streets of Saigon by assault by the thousands on the city's main arteries. They go really fast in between cars and even on the sidewalk while taking ridiculous risks to get to their destination as quickly as possible. I have to admit I was quite nervous as this was the first time I used a two-wheeled mean of transportation since my bicycle accident of last year. The drive went well, although we did drive very closely to cars merging onto our route and even crossed other motorbikes coming from the opposite direction by only a few centimeters. I was relieved to finally arrive at our destination to enjoy the traditional Ca Phe Sua Da in an enchanting café built on a network of suspended galleries. Walking from one patio to the other, I could clearly distinguish different areas which provided very different atmospheres for every occasion going from the "mellow coffee drinker" to the "fancy jetset dinner".
On Monday, my day started with a pick-up from the Reverie Hotel, the hotel that was booked by the company - a beautiful hotel inaugurated a year ago. To be honest, I admit it was a beautiful hotel with amazing food, but it was a little too fancy for my taste. The pictures I've taken clearly demonstrate it. The driver picked me up with his minivan and off we went to the first factory which was the newly built sister factory from the one I was based at in China for two whole months. The purpose of this visit was to share some knowledge with my colleague who is managing the operations at this new factory. After a full day visiting the workshops and meeting with the management on the supplier's side, we drove back to HCMC during rush hour in the usual crazy traffic which built up my appetite very nicely. Janine mentioned quite a few times the idea of spending an afternoon on a rooftop swimming pool. When I learnt that my hotel was equipped with a very nice rooftop pool, I thought I'd bring my friend there before dinner. She had plans to bring me to restaurant a restaurant I've tried last year which I really enjoyed, but just outside my hotel - a little but higher on the Nguyen Hua Walking Street - the food smell and cozy atmosphere drawned us into another restaurant we've both never tried before. This was pretty much the theme for the week: go with the flow and enjoy newness. As we were once more enjoying a dinner rich in both flavours and colours, rain started pouring very heavily on the walking street and Janine wondered how the hell would she get back to her place without getting wet - another common theme throughout my stay. Luckily, she didn't live too far, so she grabbed both her umbrella and her courage and walked for about 10 minutes to her apartment.
Alternate Guided Tour of Saigon
When I knew I was going to spend three months in China I immediately contacted Chau, a colleague who used to work in HR from our HCMC Office during my business travel of last year. Unfortunately, she quit the company a few months later, but we kept in touch nonetheless and exchange messages from time to time. We were discussing the possibility of spending a weekend in Vietnam. At that time we were both very busy and failed to carry on that conversation. When my hiring manager in China informed me that they were sending me to Vietnam, I saw it as a sign that Chau and I definitely had to meet. So, I contacted her again and we agreed to meet on Sunday afternoon right after the Ca Phe Sua Da with Janine. Last year, Chau spent a full day with me and made it her mission to show me around the most beautiful sights of the city. I found it very generous of her. No surprises there, as she is a very philantropic person who donates a lot of her free time to volunteer on the country side and help children in need. A quality I have always admired in her. This time, I've asked Chau to bring me to her favorite spots in the city. Whether it was a coffee place, a restaurant or a park, I was up for everything as long as I could once more get closer to the local experience. We met in the hotel lobby and walked from there up the Walking Street toward her favorite coffee place. I've already had a Ca Phe Sua Da moments ago and was already shaking from the caffein, sugar and Grab ride! Good thing the coffee place was closed on that day for a reason that remains unexplained. We could see the entrance to the City Zoo from where we were standing, so we decided to go there as we agreed it would be fun to walk in a park with animals to admire around us. Chau's usual kindness surprised me once more when she pulled a box wrapped in a bag out of her purse. It was a gift for me. My birthday was only in two weeks, so what could possibly explain such a gesture? "Open it and you will understand.", she said. It was a set of assorted teas, something I was desperately trying to find last year at Saigon Central Post Office. My search was unsuccessful at the time as the store I was hoping to buy the tea from was out of stock. She remembered! We only met once, a year ago. In reality, the tea episode happened very briefely and yet, she remembered. Those are the generous attentions that make Chau such an admirable person. We then walked through the Book Street while telling each other about our favorite cartoons. We then had dinner at a Thai restaurant just in front of a live music bar I really enjoyed last year. The place is called Acoustic Bar. Oddly enough, we ended up going there with the team last year after a full day workshop and ran into Chau who was there on a date. It was a funny coincidence. She remembered that funny episode and had it planned to bring me there after dinner. Surely enough, we headed there after paying the bill and enjoyed great music while reminding ourselves of some nice memories from last year. At the end of the evening, we left it up in the air that we might meet again right before I flew back to China. With that wind of uncertainty she "Grabbed" it back home and drove away in the darkness of the night. I'm not sure when we will meet again. All I know is every time we met she made sure I had a perfect day.
On my last day I worked from the Bitexco Tower until it was time to go to the airport. I made sure to grab the coffee my colleague asked I brought to the Guangzhou team. As I said, we are like family. Just a few minutes to say goodbye to everyone in the office and off I went to try and catch a cab. Of course, Murphy's Law working once more against me, rain instantly started pouring violently. Despite the help of the steward at the entrance of the building walking me to the cab with an extra-large umbrella, I was still soaking wet to the level that people could have easily believed that I just jumped in a pool with my clothes on! The flight still departed on time and off I flew to Guangzhou for the final stretch of my assignment. I can't believe it has been already three months!