Best Place to Stay in Saigon-Park Hyatt At Your Service

Lobby is warm and inviting with music in the evenings
Lobby is warm and inviting with music in the evenings

Yes, I am a hotel snob. I spend months every year staying in hotels for business so in many different cities so I consider myself very picky in my hotel standards. I have stayed at glorious hotels and ones that make you want to take a bath after sleeping on the questionable linens. Just thinking about that makes me itch and want to scratch all over. Thank God I don’t travel with a blacklight—it would be a nightmare to discover what else is staying with me on hotel surfaces in China.

But on to a happier review-The Park Hyatt in Saigon is THE place to stay. First and foremost, the service was ridiculous from the multiple smiling faces to open the large doors at the entrance to the desk clerk to the pool guy to the restaurant staff. All happy, smiling, engaging and over the top with their friendliness. All spoke great English as well which makes everything easier for us when we travel. We appreciate it, Park Hyatt!

Now, as a Diamond Club member for Hyatt due to my frequent travel, I do get special perks that I do so appreciate. We were upgraded to a suite mid-way through the visit as one became available—all at no charge. The regular room was very nice but, oh my, the suite featured a huge living room, bedroom and massive marble bathroom. When we came down for our huge complimentary buffet breakfast (another perk), we had to share our room # with the hostess. The difference in service from the regular room # to the suite # was very noticeable. The manager was summoned and ran to our table before the coffee to ensure that we were happy and he even came back again at the end of our meal to get reassured again that all was good. Mr. George—What can we do to make you stay happy? It was F*&!ing amazing! My motto is always, Expect Nothing/Appreciate Everything, so we just grin like silly kids and soak it all in—the cold skewers of fresh fruit served poolside every day and the fresh fruit platter that magically appeared daily in the room as well were all immensely enjoyed.

Pool was warm with cold fruit kabobs served every afternoon-delightful!
Pool was warm with cold fruit kabobs served every afternoon-delightful!

Although there was construction going on at the spa next to the pool, it wasn’t too distracting as we soaked up the ambience of an urban outdoor setting with palm trees and a delightful pool-not too hot or cold and large enough to do some laps. The Park Hyatt is definitely not a kids/family hotel so it was fairly quiet as well, unlike the Grand Hyatt pool in HK that was filled with kids.

The lobby was gorgeous with tall ceilings, lush upholstered chairs and couches and live entertainment in the evenings as you sipped your cocktails. The business center was staffed with eager to please staff who helped us research some business information. The concierge assisted us with information needed on taxi’s and shows. There is a beautiful Opera House across the street that has a running show “O” that we wanted to see but just didn’t have time. Next Time!

Every room in a hotel in Asia has complimentary water because you can’t (or shouldn’t unless you want to get very, very sick) drink the tap water but when we got to the suite, we discovered that the chosen few get even better bottled water when you are a suite resident. Perk! Thom was fascinated with the metal Vietnamese one cup coffee press so we ended up buying several at the airport gift shop to bring home. We love our coffee! We picked up some Vietnamese coffee too at the airport with our last Dong.

Enjoying room service in our fabulous suite
Enjoying room service in our fabulous suite

The view of the street from the suite (we could now see the river) was always fascinating, though we learned to keep the windows closed because there were several birds very interested in coming in to join us in the suite. One morning we woke up to very spirited singing as the business across the street started the work day with the guys (in black pant/black tie/white shirt) and ladies in traditional green Vietnamese tunics/pants singing loudly what could have been the national song as the video playing above them on the building façade showed the Vietnam flag. They ended their chorus and filed into work at 7:30 a.m. ready to start the day fully energized. Awakened by their lovely voices, we were ready to being our day in Saigon as well!

Thanks to the Park Hyatt for your truly World Class Customer Service. It was appreciated and will be remembered.

Saigon Eats

I am definitely NOT someone who enjoys going out to restaurants.  Thom and I rarely go out back in Shanghai and can be very happy eating cereal for dinner.  However, we enjoyed sampling the local cuisine in Saigon very much.  There is no lack of LOTS of amazing restaurants in Saigon so off we went to enjoy the bold flavors and diverse selection plus the price is right!  A multi-course meal at a nice place will set you back $40 US or 880,000Dong and that includes the necessary wine to accompany.  Cheap!

Shrimp cracker anyone?
Shrimp cracker anyone?

We learned quickly to plan our excursions outside to include an umbrella as every day the clouds open up in the late afternoon and it dumps lakes onto the crowded streets. Our first full day, we encountered a huge thunderstorm so we managed to just make it across the street from the hotel to at Tandoori, a Middle Eastern place.  We’ve become huge curry fans so we had a bold chicken curry with cheese nan and spicy grilled shrimp with saffron rice. As we watched the scooters navigate the water outside, we dug in first to the crisp veggie samosa with pungent sauces to dip into and practically licked the plates. I would have loved to try a new dessert but no room at the inn regretfully.

Not so the next night! I made sure to reserve room to try the strawberry custard while Thom took on the mango sorbet to end our evening. The Vietnamese restaurant where we went, Hoa Tuc, has a cooking school on the top floor which I read is quite good though we didn’t have time to try it out.  This restaurant was tucked away with many other fine places in the Refinery, where they used to produce Opium and now just produce awesome food.  For the main courses—we tried several out to sample. The coconut milk rice pancakes filled with shrimp and rolled in lettuce leaves, dipped in sauces and eaten with our hands was messily amazing. Are your mouths watering yet??? Then, the mustard leaves rolled with crunchy vegetables inside and a prawn secured on top were next.  They disappeared fast.

Mustard leaves roll with prawn
Mustard leaves roll with prawn

Thom tucked away his barbeque chicken pieces and I had Vietnamese brown rice with green onions and shrimp. I have never had such wonderful rice—it was dark brown, nutty tasting and so moist,having been cooked in a clay pot. I ate every grain. I could eat a bowl of that every day and be very happy and full.

Our last night in Saigon, we tried to get the energy to go out and try another new place but we had been upgraded to a huge suite at the Park Hyatt so we opted for a quiet room service dinner to enjoy our luxurious digs. The food was adequate but sitting in our living room in our robes while we ate was priceless.


Room Service after a long day spent walking Saigon Streets=PRICELESS!
Room Service after a long day spent walking Saigon Streets=PRICELESS!

Saigon Street Scene

We went to Hanoi earlier in the year over Chinese New Year and did the city scene and a cruise on Halong Bay.  Now, we are checking out Saigon on a long Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival weekend. Not only is it extremely inexpensive by most standards for hotel, food, etc. but very easy for English speakers. We love it!

Vietnam kitchens are on sidewalks, eating on tiny plastic stools and tables
Vietnam kitchens are on sidewalks, eating on tiny plastic stools and tables
Sleeping away the morning in a hammock on the streets of Saigon
Sleeping away the morning in a hammock on the streets of Saigon

We enjoy getting lost and exploring the culture in Saigon.  Around every corner, you never know what to expect so we try to just wander a new street every time we go out.

This morning we saw people squatting on their little plastic stools that are everywhere here on the sidewalks around teeny tiny tables, enjoying their Pho for breakfast.  Everything is done on the sidewalks here-eating, shopping, sleeping, gambling–you name it.  The apartments are probably very small and without full kitchens so most meals are eaten with friends and family at these sidewalk kitchens.  Fruit is sold everywhere with the favored form of transportation big baskets balanced with a pole over the shoulders of sturdy women working hard to sell peaches, oranges, coconuts, etc.  I saw one woman today cooking waffles on a small burner on one side of her basket with the finished product in the basket on the other side of the pole.  Crazy!

Balancing act-green oranges in large baskets on a pole that she will wear across her shoulders as she walks and sells her fruit
Balancing act-green oranges in large baskets on a pole that she will wear across her shoulders as she walks and sells her fruit

While Thom takes much better pictures than me with his super cool camera, I have enjoyed capturing the uniquely Vietnam street scenes with my Nokia phone camera which shoots great pics and videos.  As the rain once again pours down in the afternoon,  a daily occurrence, Thom and I are listening to top 40 hits at the Coffee Bean and enjoying our coffees while we wait out the rain.

Waiting out the storm at the Coffee Bean in Saigon
Waiting out the storm at the Coffee Bean in Saigon

Coffee shops are EVERYWHERE.  While Starbucks doesn’t dominate on every street corner, there are Costa, Coffee Bean, etc. as well as the local Vietnam chains.  For a tropical climate, the coffee culture is strong here.  I’m guessing the balance of sales is heavy on iced coffee products but it also looks like espresso is huge.  Sitting here enjoying our Americano, we could be in NYC or Seattle but the minutes we step outside and are assaulted with the scooter traffic and people living their lives on the sidewalks, we know we are in Asia.

Fashion Forward in Saigon

Silk dress Marilyn Monroe style with fan flowing out skirt on display
Silk dress Marilyn Monroe style with fan flowing out skirt on display

When you peel back the layers of fashion in Vietnam, you discover that besides the Vietnam traditional outfit for ladies which consists of a flowing tunic with pants, the fashion here varies widely with trendy boutiques offering truly fashion forward choices for shoppers in Saigon.  Of course, you’ll pay to be unique so you better load up at the ATM with millions of Dong ’cause you are going to need it to take home one of these outfits.  Hot Damn, let’s do some shopping!!! Not only are the stores decorated with trendy touches from statement art to  industrial chic with stained concrete floors, steel lighting plus the visual displays make you want to touch and buy their products.  One chic store had everything from b/w Vietnam portraits screenprinted on iPad covers to brightly colored recycled vinyl bags and sandals to handmade necklaces.  Hold me back–my luggage is already too heavy! Lured in by the outfits in the window featuring men’s pants with a studded fly (for dudes who want some attention I’m guessing), this gallery of fashion finds featured garments that were works of arts accented by the dragonfly wire hangers they were hung from.  Very expensive and probably too nice to actually wear  in my lifestyle, I admired the artist’s embroidered shirts and wraps as well as her one of a kind necklaces.  Thom shot off some photos for me while I tried to distract the shop girls because I knew they wouldn’t allow it–sure enough, they shut him down quickly but not before I got a few to share.

Studded fly for the man who wants a little attention
Classic Lambretta scooter on display with fashion art
Classic Lambretta scooter on display with fashion art

At yet another gorgeous showroom, the beautiful silk prints in heavy brocade fabrics draped just right were set off with huge statement necklaces.  I wouldn’t dare buy silk because I would almost surely dribble coffee on it or, God forbid, sweat while wearing it.  Still, I appreciate the gorgeous styles that are too expensive for most folks here in Vietnam.  I was surprised to see as many luxury retailers here with the large showpiece stores-LV, Chanel, Hermes, etc. all are represented here in Saigon by our hotel.  Our last day is today so I’m off to pick up a few more items to remember our great stay in Saigon.

Statement necklace aceents silk print top
Statement necklace accents silk print top

Scooters Rule in Saigon

Scooters rule-they even have their own traffic signal and lanes
Scooters rule-they even have their own traffic signal and lanes

Scooters rule here in Vietnam.  Everywhere and always–they serve as the family mini-van and commuter car.  I have seen families of five on one small scooter.  Helmets required here which is cool to see after the helmet-optional China scene.  I see more air masks on most riders too than in China, though the air pollution is far less.  Ladies ride side saddle, dressed to the nines with their sparkly high heels and crossed legs perfectly comfortable and toddlers hold on for dear life between their parents legs, standing up on the floorboard by the handles.  This is life in Vietnam.

Vietnam's version of the mini van--scooter for 4!
Vietnam’s version of the mini van–scooter for 4!

At least scooters have their own traffic signals and designated lanes on most streets.  You don’t see the luxury cars here that you would in China.  It’s mostly taxi’s and scooters.  Not even really bikes-just a few “seasoned” folks riding old school.  When it poured in a torrential thunderstorm yesterday with high winds, the scooters went into hiding until the weather calmed and then they flooded the streets to resume their commute.  They sell special scooter rider poncho’s everywhere–hood, extended arms and headlight coverage as well.  Still, those poor riders had to be soaked to the bone yesterday with the waves of water coming down so heavy.

Today the weather dawned clear so as Thom and I checked out the boardwalk by the Saigon River, I shot this video–at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday when we thought the streets would be deserted, making the crossing across the wide boulevard by the river much easier.  We went by there yesterday and didn’t even attempt it.  NOPE!  The scooters were out in full force early so we had to be super nimble and scoot our asses across the street dodging the masses.  That’ll wake you up!  I don’t advise most people to try this–last night we saw our doormen escorting some tourists across a small street by the hotel to keep them alive. Not for the fainthearted! 

Saigon Street Market

As the navigator in charge of map duties today, I promptly got us lost on our first full day in Saigon.  Lucky us, we managed to stumble into a cool art gallery open house complete with artists giving interviews and free wine.  SCORE!  The paintings were very diverse from the Vietnam water buffalo to striking portraits and colorful murals.  I love these type of unexpected surprises when out travelling in new cities.

Gallery show in Saigon
Gallery show in Saigon

While we were the only expats in the place, everyone just smiled at us and let us admire the art at our leisure.  Rounding a corner where one store had 12 feet of nothing but mooncakes for sale, we found a local market where Saturday shopping was in full swing.  This wasn’t the tourist t-shirt market.

The stalls sold veggies, fruits-lots of coconuts ready to be capped and a straw inserted to drink the water-as well as very unrefrigerated meat just hanging out with the flies.  YUM!  Maybe there was so much hard liquor for sale as well to chase down and kill all the germs from eating the street meet.  My Gma Hannah believed in the medicinal properties of Jack Daniels–one shot is a cure for what ails you.  Quick and effective home remedy!

Street meat-yum!
Street meat-yum!

At the market, you could stock up on most of the basic needs–a fan, socks, undies and most grocery items with lots of USA branded snacks available as well.  The scooters, of course, kept us on our toes as we took photos and browsed.  Though there seem to be less scooters on the sidewalks than in Shanghai, in general the scooters dominate all streets.  As we crossed a busy intersection, Thom yelled, “I’m going.  Follow at your own risk”  BAM–He boldly stepped in front of and between the barrage of traffic to get to the other side.  He is fearless and perhaps a wee bit stupid as well, all good traits to have to navigate here.

A couple beside me laughed and I commented that Thom was from NYC and could navigate almost any busy street without dying.  Turns out, the Australian couple I talked to were going to Shanghai next so we traded China best practices (don’t buy street or PC Mall electronics, buy pearls from Sarah’s Pearls at AP Market) and they encouraged us to see Melbourne soon.  Australians are such friendly mates!  I can’t wait to check out their country.

Liquor stall at the market
Liquor stall at the market

As we found our way back to the hotel for pool time, we realized that the shop we had gotten lost looking for was very close by but, had we not got lost, we would have had a very dull morning.  Getting lost is our way of soaking in the local culture and discovering new and exciting places.  May we always enjoy the journey and, with me navigating our adventures, we will surely always get lost along the way.

Arriving in Saigon

After a delay sitting on the tarmac waiting, waiting, waiting (nothing leaves on time in Shanghai), we were off to Saigon!  As the plane neared the ground, the first thing I saw was the cluster of headlights illuminating the sky at an intersection–20 scooters across–what fun we will have trying to stay alive as we cross the streets here!

Ben Thanh market at night-can't wait to see it when open
Ben Thanh market at night-can’t wait to see it when open

Upon arrival, with passengers exiting fast out of the front and the back of the plane, we all ran to the buses that would take us to the small terminal.  The Visa process here is fairly simple with all non-Asian citizens herded into one area for processing.  We paid for “speedy” process and personal assistance but next time we’ll probably skip this extra fee we paid and do it ourselves.  Didn’t seem to get us through any faster and it was very simple.  The people watching was so interesting while we waited–huge diversity of visitors.   Vietnam attracts the hippy backpackers in droves-Bob Dylan shirts, dreadlocks and all.  It’s cheap and fun here.  We love, love Vietnam–everyone is so friendly and almost everyone speaks great English so it’s just easy.

We had paid also to have a private car take us to our lovely hotel, the Park Hyatt, and that was worth it as it is chaos outside the terminal.  Interesting that the waiting area is all outside with a canopy thus saving on A/C bills for the airport but making it fairly miserable for all in the hot tropical conditions.

Enjoying wine at outside café-lots of night life here in Saigon
Enjoying wine at outside café-lots of night life here in Saigon

Throwing the bags into the room, we immediately ventured out and went in search of an ATM.  Got to get us some Dong!  At 22,000 Dong to $1 US, you can get put off thinking something is terribly expensive at 2 million Dong but really not so much.  Dong in hand, we were off to explore Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon–either name seems to work here.

Crossing the street among all the scooters is challenging but when Thom went on ahead, leaving me to cross by myself, I just waited for a group of young dudes to venture out into the crosswalk and I inserted myself into their pack.  There is safety in #’s and they graciously shielded me from harm.  Thanks, guys!

Along the way, we managed to find some beautiful buildings, interesting stores and a Moroccan belly dancing club.  Who knew?  Something I never knew–Thom is freaked out by belly dancers but I’m trying to get him to go just for the experience.  After a glass of wine and some snacks at an outside café, we called it a night, eager to get some rest and explore Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow. More adventures to come!

Monkeys Make Me Smile

Wild monkeys in Ha Long Bay

Experiencing the adventure of gliding through a stone cave at low tide to access the secluded inner sanctum of the tropical forest sprouting out of an ancient rock formation in Ha Long Bay was magical.  I expected to see a dinosaur at any moment because it reminded me so much of a scene from Jurassic Park.  In of itself, that would be an awesome memory.

Gliding through the cave at low tide to reach the monkey kingdom
Gliding through the cave at low tide to reach the monkey kingdom

Layer in the wild monkeys of Vietnam strutting their stuff among the treetops and shoreline and you now have a once in a lifetime rare glimpse into a private world unchanged by civilization.  These adorable creatures have probably been part of the animal culture here for millions of years and would make even the grumpiest person smile to see them tearing through the canopy of vegetation to joyfully play with one another.  Enjoy this private glimpse into my short video of our great adventure.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay shrouded in the morning mist

Ha Long Bay in Vietnam is just as beautiful as all the pictures you will see.  That being said, it was a terrifying trip there from Hanoi.  Probably 50% of the time, our van was on the wrong side of the road careening straight into the oncoming traffic of other crazed drivers.   That we survived is a miracle.  I would never do it again..ever.

Our cruise on the Princess Luxury Cruise Ship was so special and memorable, especially after our life or death experience getting there.

Ha Long Bay bathed in sunshine

These stone formations jutting out of the green water have been around for 500 million+ years and we got to see them in the sunshine and also shrouded in the morning mist-both were spectacular.

We stopped on the way here at a tourist rest stop.  There, they had many ladies doing hammered egg shells in and coat with lacquer many layers and then paint beautiful pictures on top.  There was also jewelry, clothing, scarfs and embroidered pictures.  So many to choose from that I couldn’t make a decision.   Most cost less than $50.  The lady selling said all the people doing the artistic work were disabled but you tend to be skeptical when told that here.  Either way, the craftsmanship was amazing and I hope the artisans were paid decently for their lovely art.

Gorgeous new hotel restaurant by the bay

In the “van from Hell”, we shared our adventure with a couple from England and a couple from San Fran.  We exchanged stories of China for their travel adventures around Vietnam.  In general, the houses we saw in the villages are much nicer than in rural China.  Made of concrete and bricks, they are usually three stories high, narrow in design with patios and beautiful wood doors.  The interiors I could peer into looked quite nice with tile floors, circular metal staircases and almost all with large screen tv’s.  However, their infrastructure is seriously lacking in Vietnam.   Roads are broken concrete messes with many bumps and sections of unpaved roads.  By contrast, when we got to Ha Long Bay, it felt like Miami Beach with new condos by the water and modern sleek hotels and restaurants, fueled by the almighty tourist dollars.

Princess Luxury Cruise-very nice!

Our boat had just 18 cabins, filled with mainly Europeans and some Chinese folks.  The meals were lavish with pork, chicken, seafood, lots of vegetables and impeccable service.  During the safety announcement, Jimmy, our steward, showed us a hammer and told us that it was to be used in case of emergency only, i.e. to break out the windows to get out of the boat.  In other words, you are ON YOUR OWN!  He encouraged smokers to smoke outside (this is on a totally wooden boat mind you) and not to smoke inside as it would set off the smoke alarms.  No shit…However, doubtful that those hard core smokers paid attention but, just to scare them, Jimmy warned the passengers that everyone would break out their hammers and it would be complete chaos if they smoked inside.  To recap, if there is an emergency, grab that life vest, use the hammer and out you go into Ha Long Bay where the jellyfish are as big as a Labradors and good luck climbing those steep cliffs once you reach shore.  Luckily, we didn’t need the hammer as we couldn’t even find one in our cabin.

Boat Merchants selling snacks and booze

As our Head Steward urged us to keep the bartender busy, who am I not to comply???  Seeing our pale white skin glistening with tanning lotion was a welcome if creepy sight after a winter of grey polluted China skies.  Need an Oreo or wine?  Small junk boats, merchants selling pearls and snacks and booze come alongside the  bigger cruise ships selling their wares.  You put your money in a net and in return you get your goods.  A tough life for these merchants rowing their boats all day with babies in tow.  Thom’s brother told us that he swept this bay near here in 1971 on a mine sweeper.  Hard to imagine this commercial tourist attraction was once a war zone but the people who live here still lead a meager existence in contrast to the beautiful cruise ships.

Thom aka The King of the Squid

Thom spent the late evening hours fishing for squid off the back of the boat.  The crew was impressed with his results-two squid, scared out of their “ink” which they proceeded to jetson into the green waters of Ha Long Bay as he reeled them in.  Thom didn’t eat the squid for breakfast, as the crew suggested, but he will be boasting for many years to come of his prowess with the hook.  Whatever!  I stood at a distance and took the pictures to document his expertise–I don’t do the “squid” thing.  Anything that ugly can stay in the water and certainly shouldn’t be eaten.  Holy.  Hell.  No.  Way.

Park Scene in Hanoi, Vietnam

Flowers are blooming in Hanoi!

It was lovely to see the ladies dancing in Vietnam just like they do in China.  They had their loud speakers going and were working it!  Our only day to enjoy Hanoi, we decided to  walk around Hoan Kiem Lake today and enjoyed the warm weather.  This lake is in the heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi and seems to be enjoyed by all the locals.  From the lovely pagoda in the middle of the lake to the bridge over to an island,  the flowers were blooming everywhere.  This is the one public space we have seen in Vietnam that is in good repair and maintenance.  There is a nice walking path around it and we are looking forward to enjoying the lights that are strung up between the trees tonight as we plan an evening walk.  There is a café on the lake as well as several restaurants with a view of the lake for everyone to enjoy.

On the first walk around the lake, we not only saw ladies dancing but many families out taking a walk and street vendors selling their wares.  After we had gotten almost the whole way around, Thom turned to me and proposed an adventure.  We would  walk back, find the “seasoned” lady selling wooden children’s toys and buy them all.  Thus, she could enjoy a well deserved day off and we would then spread some love around the park by giving away the toys.  Done and done. 

Oh what fun we had on this Vietnam “pay it forward” project.  First, several gentlemen came to the lady’s aid when they thought we might be trying to swindle her.  No, we reassured them that we really wanted her to have 500,000 dong to buy all the toys she had to sell.  They were shocked and laughed.  She smiled.  Then, off we went around the park with Thom approaching any and all children and giving away the toys.  Another vendor selling cards found out what we were doing and encouraged us to find the children from the “working” families and give them the toys.  This, we tried to do.  While we mainly got smiles and nods, Thom did manage to scare a few children with his goofy smile and outgoing positivity. 

Thom giving away toys in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hopefully, stories will be told of the tall smiling Laowai wearing the bright green Xbox Sounders shirt and the joy he tried to bring to the children in the park.  For us, it will be a very fond memory and may become a new tradition of spreading joy throughout the world as we enjoy great adventures wherever we go.