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 of things.
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 about it.
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.