We're in Saigon and loving it. Apparently Saigon is the worst place
in Vietnam, so it's only going to get better from here.
Vietnam is an incredibly interesting place to travel. A communist
country, it has fully embraced capitalism with all its class
distinctions that brings about. Vietnam airlines will happily charge
extra for you to go into "Upper Class". Capitalists rent passenger
bicycles, cyclos, to incredibly poor drivers for US$1/day and kids are
put into service selling books, cigarettes, chewing gum and all sorts
With capitalism, and with extensive tourism, comes robbers, rip-off
merchants and danger for people like us. Vietnam has its share of
people who will overcharge those who don't know the local prices by a
few bucks but the other dangers of places like Thailand don't seem to
be a problem. People are incredibly friendly and helpful. Even those
trying unsuccessfully to sell you something are cheerful and polite
So what have we been up to? When we arrived around 4pm it was 32
degrees with all the humidity and just beginning the afternoon
storm. Our trip into the city by taxi was uneventful, although of
course the driver tried to hook us up with accomodation at his mate's
place for a tidy kickback. We managed to extract ourselves and found a
nice, clean, cheap place in the centre of the backpacker district.
Yesterday we got ripped off by a cyclo driver who took us to the
War Remnants Museum, formerly the American War Crimes Museum but with
a changed name to not scare off the Yanks. We made the mistake of
bargaining in US dollars which don't give you much leeway up and down,
and US$1 is a lot of money. The dong, with 14,000 per $US is much more
flexible, allowing you to juggle a few 1,000 very well worn
banknotes. The markets were interesting, though more for locals than
us farang. Lots of weird produce, fake designer clothes and te like.
The War Remnants Museum was disturbing, but worth the visit and the
10,000 dong entry fee. Tanks, planes, guns, mines, ammunition and lots
of other American and French war machinery left at the fall of Saigon
were on display. As well there were displays of disgusting brutality
perpetrated by American soldiers, information about the effects of
defoliants like Agent Orange and an exhibition dedicated to
photographers who died during the war. The whole thing was quite
one-sided and talking to not particularly pro-Commie locals there were
plenty of nasty things done by the North's soldiers.
In the afternoon we arrived at a much more reasonable rate and
wandered around the expensive tourist area looking at stalls. It's
amazing the stuff they have here to buy, though we have to remember
that we'll be lugging anything we buy 1,700 kilometres North to Hanoi
and through Paris before we touch down in London.
Lacquerware seems to be a bit of a specialty with beautiful bowls,
boxes, chess sets and the like available for a couple of bucks. This
is the sort of stuff that sells in Pentimento on King Street, Newtown
for $100. There also seems to be a lot of Tintin merchandise, a
hangover from the French influence, including t-shirts and posters of
a non-existent "Tintin in Vietnam" book.
Finally I'll leave you with a description of what it's like around
here. You first have to understand the noise. There's a constant hum
as hundreds of bicycles, noisy and dirty motorbikes and cars bump,
roar and toot their way down the street. Every few metres in the
backpacker area you're asked to buy something, go into a cafe or jump
on a cyclo. The footpaths are crowded with cafe tables, motorbikes and
bicycles for hire, mobile food and cigarette stalls and people sitting
going about their business. This necessitates frequent stumbles out
onto the road itself.
Now the traffic is incredible. There are no rules, no correct side
of the road other than a rough tendency to be on the right more than
the left and vehicles and people heading in every direction. To cross
these roads you can't wait for a gap, there won't be one. You have to
stride out slowly but pointedly and the traffic will flow around
you. It's pretty terrifying at first but works surprisingly well
considering the volume of traffic. That said I won't be hiring a
bicycle in this town.
Everyone moves about smoothly. There are no traffic jams, mainly
because everyone is happy to swerve around each other and the fact
that the majority of the traffic isn't road-hogging cars. The slow
speed helps, you wouldn't want to negotiate this sort of traffic at
high speed. In general it moves at between 0 and 40 km/hr.
Tomorrow we're heading off on a half-day tour of the Cu Chi tunnel
network built by the Viet Cong during the war just outside Ho Chi Minh
City (the name of greater Saigon). In the afternoon we'll check out
the Reunification Palace. For dinner we'll have Pho Bo (beef soup) at
the soup bar that served as the Saigon headquarters of the Viet Cong
during the war as American GIs stuffed themselves downstairs.
On Thursday we head to Dalat on the first leg of our open-ticket
tour to Hanoi, allowing us to stop anywhere along the way for as long
as we like.
It's gonna be a fun four weeks! Not sure when I'll get to a net
cafe again. We'll see.