Saigon and the Single Man

Uncle Ho, forever waving in the city center.

I’d like some dong please. Yes a lot of it. How much dong can I get for $100? More than 2 million? That sounds great. Love me some dong.

Dong of course is the national currency of Vietnam. Fifty bucks makes you a millionaire – but a sandwich or a beer costs you twenty grand. That’s a bargain for sure, as its twenty thousand dong for a dollar, but it’s still somewhat alarming to be presented a bill for 80,0000 at McDonalds.  And hearing people say dong all day will bring out the Beavis and Butthead in the best of us.

I can’t remember the last time going to a new country was so easy. The flight was just an hour from Bangkok, which helped, as I wasn’t a disheveled wreck on arrival. I’m forever jealous of those guys who cross the Pacific in a suit and look as fresh as a daisy upon arrival. I always look like they’ve let a homeless person on the plane. When you sit on a plane 13 hours or more, the usual amount of time it takes to get from the east coast of the U.S. to Asia, any delay or inconvenience is magnified. This plane, however, is nearly empty, and shorter than the flight from Cincinnati to Chicago.

Unless you want to spend a day or so at your nearest Vietnamese embassy, the best way to handle the visa here is to go online and find a travel agent who can send you an invitation letter via email. The cost is 15-20 dollars US. Print the letter and present it with a couple of passport photos and an application form (also available online) upon arrival and pay a $25 fee. You’ll have your visa in 15 minutes.

It’s all strangely quiet after passing through immigration / customs. I suppose that’s because I’m arriving on the first day of TET, the Chinese New Year, so no locals are traveling. I change a bit of money – should’ve changed more since it’s a 3-day holiday – get a SIM card for the phone, and arrange a taxi at the same desk. Five dollars more than what the guidebook said – but hell its a holiday and the total is still only $15.

I’m headed for a backpacker ghetto known as Pham Ngu Lao. It runs along a narrow park that I’m told used to be a rail terminus. I’m disappointed at first as it looks a bit gentrified – I’m looking for that cheap, smelly backpacker vibe. (BTW, I’m going to have to pile on the Lonely Planet series along with numerous other critics. They were the go-to guide for the hippie crowd 20 years ago, but my Lonely Planet Vietnam is little different from Fodor’s or any other mainstream guide. I need a Lonely Planet to find out that the Park Hyatt is the best place in town? Gonna be hard to say goodbye, but I may have to see if Rough Guide or some other book can provide more info than TripAdvisor).

But not to worry. The alleys and backstreets are alive with that southeast Asian grotty thing I love so much. I booked ahead because of the holiday, but could’ve probably got a place for half the price. However, it does look to be the place of choice for people “my age”.

Shall I digress on what it means to be a single traveler at my age?

First of all, people in their 50’s want comfort. I’m ok to sleep on a futon in a ryokan for a few nights, and I don’t need a gym or business center when I’m on holiday. But I need the shower, the air-con, and the heater to be in good working order. Paying an extra 10 bucks a night to get those things is worth it – if you’ve got it. If you’re spending the last of your student loan money on an overseas adventure because you can’t get a job, you tend to forego the extra few bucks and stay with the tie-dyed set in the dorm.

Secondly, especially in most Asian cities, to be a 50 and by yourself means that you are viewed by the locals as a walking ATM machine. Backpackers are notoriously cheap, young couples spend most of their time in their rooms, and package tourists have paid for most everything in advance back at home. This means you, my grey-haired single friend, will be accosted at all hours of the day with offers for all manner of services. Legit masseuses, not so legit masseuses, outright prostitutes, bar touts, tailors, “copy watch” purveyors, tour guides, etc. – all of them stop you as you’re trying to navigate your way down the street. In busy areas you’re accosted every 10 yards or so. It’s as if the entirety of the tourism industry depends on you.

Unfortunately, being older also means that if you begin your trip alone – and are not interested in acquiring one of the professional services mentioned above – you will probably spend your trip alone. When I did my first long term backpacking trip 20 years ago, I was as alone as I wanted to be, but could easily become part of a group – or a couple – pretty much whenever I wanted. Now though I’m finding that older travelers usually have tight schedules with everything planned out – there’s not as much making it up as you go. And you can’t expect the twenty-somethings to want to hang with you. If you want company you’ll probably have to bring it along.

To be fair, you might not want to hang with the youngsters either. I mean how much can you say to a guy with a face full of shrapnel, wearing a hoodie when it’s 90 degrees outside? I can only say dude and clink glasses so often. Hell, the older I get the less I’m willing to put up with – I probably couldn’t travel with Rick Steves for more than a day or two without telling him to piss off.

I’m pondering all of this at a street bar named Trinh in the chaotic alley just behind Pham Ngu Lao.  All the chairs at streetside cafes (ca phe in local parlance) and bars face the street – different from other places I’ve been. Perhaps the French gave them the idea that watching the crazies go by is about the best way there is to spend an evening. I know I certainly love these streets in Asia where it’s still the 70s – people wearing tie dye and listening to Marley, getting their hair corn-rolled, choosing a new tattoo. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade pales in comparison.

The weather this evening is unseasonably cool for SE Asia. Maybe I shouldn’t judge the kids for wearing hoodies. Must be only 80s in the day, 60s at night. I send a text with that information to my brother back in the States, but a typo in the message makes it that I’m enjoying 80s during the day and 69s at night. He is intrigued, to say the least.

The first beer is ice cold, second  one decidedly warmer, third room temperature.  Time to move on. When I ask for the bill, the waiter asks me if I have a girlfriend. I say no. Encouraged, he asks if I have a boyfriend. Again, kinda seeing where this is going, I say no. He asks if I’d like to have a boyfriend – him. I tell him I’m not gay, but thanks anyway. Just the check.

And keep the change- no dong in return please.

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