Greetings from Vietnam! A year ago, it never even crossed my mind that I would utter those words in my lifetime, much less a year later. Our flight from Hong Kong was pleasant and uneventful but the long queue for the visa application at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City was a bit of a pain. Even though we had applied on-line and brought the ‘official paperwork’ and the tiny little (2″x 3″) photos that were requested for everyone in our family; the process still took about an hour and a half to complete including payment in new US dollars only for the fees ($25 per person for the normal single entry visa). While we were waiting for our turn at the counter, I heard a bit of grumbling from some of the more experienced fellow travelers (on the same plane) that many Asian countries have switched to on-line visa applications including pre-payment of fees or have dropped visa requirements entirely (Malaysia). We patiently completed the visa application process, checked in with Passport Control, retrieved our baggage (already having been unloaded from the conveyors), exchanged some dollars for the local currency ($1 US dollar is about 23,000 Vietnamese Dong). Then we found our driver (actually, two vehicles) and were on our way into the city. The driver that Devin, Scarlet and I were riding with got lost and stopped to ask for directions several times. The roads were clogged (it might have been rush hour!). I tried to communicate with the driver but he ignored me. I reasoned that he knew as much English as I knew Vietnamese (none) and I did not hold it against him. We did make it to the apartment finally, albeit 30 minutes or so after Tiffany, Eleanore and Grace had been dropped off. Thankfully, Devin recalled what the exterior of the building looked like and also spotted the girls at the same time from about half a block away. We motioned to our driver and he silently pulled over and dropped us off.
So here we are in the thick of the chaos that is called Ho Chi Minh City (aka, Saigon). Officially, the population is 13 million strong. Our Airbnb apartment is smack in the middle of it all in District 1. Maybe it’s just me, but a numbering system for urban areas (instead of names) has always bothered me. Tiffany explained to me that Paris also uses a numbering system. Since this was formerly a French colony, the numbers may be a hold-over from a bygone era. I don’t know exactly how ‘big’ our district is geographically or even how many ‘districts’ there are currently. I have never been in a country where it seems that the number of motor scooters outnumbers the population but I swear that is what it feels like here! There are few pedestrians here (except for unwary tourists)! Based on my observations and first hand experience, pedestrians have no ‘right of way’ here, not even on the sidewalks, which are merely another drive lane or a place to ‘park’ hundreds of motor scooters on any given block, after block, after block. We have been honked at by motor scooter riders while walking on the sidewalks as they attempted to pass us (on the sidewalk) or to get to a parking spot on the sidewalk. There is constant honking from the incessant traffic from about 6:30 am until well past midnight. I am sure that the countryside is a bit more tranquil but we won’t get a chance to find out on this trip to Vietnam.
In my observation, as ubiquitous as coffee shops and cafés are in Europe, that is the case with repair shops for motor scooters and tire shops here. Except for some major roads, there are no stop signs or yield signs at intersections. I don’t even know how to describe the phenomenon. The traffic including motor scooters, buses, taxis and trucks, pedal-powered carriages transporting tourists and (occasionally brave bicyclists) flows each way into any given intersection and somehow miraculously meshes and sorts itself out with a cacophony of horns. This is repeated over and over again. The discordant nature of it all defies western logic and certainly urban traffic planning. I can honestly say that I could not drive one block in this city without having a nervous breakdown. Even the mundane action of crossing a normal city street requires a bit of bravado since crosswalks (if there are any) are routinely ignored by all the motorists. One must step into traffic (literally) and begin the dance anticipating a small gap between the motor scooters that are coming towards you (usually from each direction at the same time), then advancing, then pausing momentarily again waiting for the next gap, of course all the while being honked at for having the audacity to cross a city street on foot (and not two wheels). If anyone recalls the popular video arcade game of “Frogger” (way back in the early 1980’s). This game would be an apt description of a pedestrian crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City. These streets would be fertile testing ground for the ‘driverless’ AI vehicles that are in the process of being foisted upon us by the ‘powers that be’. Good luck with that!
We read on a travel website that a ‘must see’ for any visit to Ho Chi Minh City is the Ben Thanh market and so we went. It was located about 6 blocks from our apartment, so we walked. The infamous enclosed market itself covers a city block but the streets on all sides of the market are also teeming with vendors and sidewalk shops. There are literally hundreds of vendors squeezed into tiny spaces and very narrow aisles. There seemed to be a lot of repitition of merchandise from one vendor to the next. Some of the stalls have signs posted stating that the ‘prices are fixed’ and prices cannot be negotiated. Grace spied an overpriced plastic toy kitchen set. I knew that it was overpriced since plastic childrens’ toys mass produced for pennies in China generally are overpriced. I figured the fair cost should have been about $2. The sticker price was 244,000 VND (slightly more than $10). The proprietor would not budge on the price claiming that the ‘company’ sets the fixed prices. We walked away. No sale. The next day we came back to the area since Tiffany and the girls wanted manicures & pedicures. We went back to the Ben Thanh market and surprised Grace with the toy that she wanted from the day before along with something that Eleanore had spotted as well. No sense in haggling this time. Tiffany just paid the sticker price for the plastic toys but caught an error that the shopkeeper had made by almost overcharging her for the already overpriced items. Judging from the duplicitous merchandise selection in this market, I suspect that this is market is likely a corporate enterprise set up to look like a hodge-podge collection of hard-working mom and pop proprietors and shop keepers. Honestly, we were underwhelmed by the Ben Thanh market and had higher expectations. I guess we just aren’t ‘typical’ tourists.
Ho Chi Minh City does boast some spectacular historic architecture including the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (completed sometime between 1860 & 1880 by French colonialists) and the 800 seat, Saigon City Opera House (built in 1897 by a French architect). We observed both of these buildings from the street during one of our self-guided walking & shopping trips thru District 1.
We also enjoyed some excellent, modestly priced restaurants in our ‘district’ featuring authentic Vietnamese home cooking and ‘street’ food. We also frequented the local Starbucks which is very popular with locals and tourists. (Sometimes, you just need to go someplace that reminds you of home to ground yourself.)
As a child growing up in the 60’s, I still have a very strong recollection of the Vietnam War which seemed to be in the news headlines almost every day. I had to go back to Wikipedia to get the dates right. The United States involvement in the war officially ended in January 1973 (45 years ago this month!). I was 20 years old. My draft number was 239. The last draft number called was 215. I was lucky. Some of my friends and cousins were drafted. Some enlisted. By the grace of God most of them made it back alive and in one piece. I admit that I had some trepidation about visiting Vietnam but I am not exactly sure why. We had done our homework and read that there are pickpockets working the crowded market areas and thieves waiting to snatch purses and cell phones from naive tourists even walking on the sidewalks. The local residents that we encountered at the restaurants and shops and around our Airbnb neighborhood were really very nice to us and we had no problems in this regard.
Searching the internet, I learned that tourism was only a trickle starting in the late 1980’s and has since become a huge component of modern Vietnam’s economy with many millions of visitors every year. Well, the Stroh Ohana made their contribution this year.
Fini. On to Kuala Lumpur!