Monday, March 21, 2011

Saigon, Vietnam

Aka Ho Chi Minh City Aka the City of Too Many Motorbikes

After a wonderful week in Bangkok we flew east to Saigon, Vietnam. We weren't exactly sure what to expect and were surprised by how few people there were in the airport and how easy it was to get through customs. Without incident we found the driver for our guesthouse and made our way through what can only be known as motorbike madness. It is estimated that there are 10 million people living in Saigon and nearly half of them have motorbikes. They are everywhere... but more about them later.

We arrived at our guesthouse and were thrilled with such amenities as air conditioning, a bathroom, a TV, and free breakfast (Woohoo). Our guesthouse was located in the backpacker area so we were surrounded by travel agencies, motorbike taxis, and vendors selling everything from baguettes to pirated movies. I don't think we ever walked more than ten feet without being asked if we wanted to take a motorbike taxi.

We didn't have much planned for our arrival, but after a little research we decided a city tour would be the best way to make sense out of the madness.

City Tour

On our first full day in Saigon we started our tour at 8 AM. Our guide Viet (who explained that people often called him Vit which means duck, and we could also call him either Donald or Don and his wife is named Daisy... funny guy) was great and we took a quick liking to him.

The city tour was a great way to see the sights of Saigon without trying to navigate their crazy intersections and argue with motorbike taxi drivers. The first stop on our tour included the War Remnants Museum (the Vietnam War, which here is known as the anti-American War). I won't say much about it, but it was very eye-opening and very depressing. The effects of the Vietnam war are still very evident in Vietnam today and although we were glad we went it was a sad stop. To us it is something we learned about in history class but it effects many peoples everyday life here. When asked about how Vietnamese people feel about America today our guide Viet said, "We cannot look back, we can only look forward. Young people want to make our country great and all we can do is create work for ourselves so we can feed our families. We want to look to the future. I say please leave the terrible images you see at the museum inside those walls, they are not good and they will give you nightmares." After the museum we went to the Handicapped Handy Craft Center. This Center was set up to give work to people who were born with defects due to agent orange (from the war). There were many beautiful crafts using paint and crushed egg shells. We bought a small picture of a fisherman on a river. We also visited the Post Office and Vietnam's Notre Dame Cathedral (a fifth of the size of the one in France). They were elaborate Western buildings that made French history here evident. We sat outside and were discussing how scary it is that the side effects of war still effect millions of people here today. As we were chatting we noticed the women sitting next to us was carrying her teenage son in a sling like backpack. He was missing one leg and his other was very short. His hands and face were physically deformed. We had heard about agent orange before, but we were not prepared or expecting for the effects to be so visible.

We also got to visit a huge wholesale market that sold everything from fabric to dried fish. Near the wholesale market was a Chinese Buddhist Temple. Outside of the temple we noticed a cage of little birds. Our guide informed us that when people go to the temple to repent they believe it is good luck to set a bird free, so they buy them here. Sadly, the vendors like to reuse the birds and clip the wings so that they can go pick them up later. Last was the Reunification Palace celebrating the reunification of North and South Vietnam. It very much reminded me of visiting the White House in Washington DC. There were lots of interesting rooms and we got lost a few times as we were exploring. After a long day of touring we dined at a cheap roof-top bbq. It had some major advantages... a great view of the city and street vendors couldn't approach and insist you buy something from them. A good finish to a good day.


Megan loves Pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) and enjoyed at least one bowl every day we were there. I partook in a Vietnamese pancake (stuffed with shrimp and veggies). We also visited a few street carts and tried the "McDonald's of Vietnam." McDonald's is not allowed to open stores in Vietnam because they were not willing to use Vietnamese beef. Viet informed us that that street carts that serve baguettes stuffed with various meats, pate, and veggies are the most popular fast food here. I got to enjoy many a Saigon beer as well.

Urban Chaos

Back to the motorbikes... there are many features that make this city feel overwhelmingly crowded. It seems as though everyone drives a motorbike, and it is amazing that they can fit as much on them as we can fit in our cars. Traffic rules seem to not apply to motorbikes and they often weave in and out of traffic, on the wrong side of the road, on the sidewalks, and even in buildings. Another feature of Saigon traffic is their love of honking horns. The first night I observed that perhaps they weren't honking their horns, rather continuously honking and occasionally letting off. Crossing the street on foot is an adventure in and of itself.

We quickly developed two games... First counting the seconds between hearing a honk (six seconds was the record, average under one second). Second, and most fun game, was "How much can I fit on my motorbike?" Winners include: six sacks of rice, about 30 buckets, loads of boxes, a queen size mattress, four kegs, a refrigerator, a family a six, six garbage cans, eight cases of bottled water, two full grown pigs, and a live cow.

The female motorbike drivers were often covered from head to toe. Most people wear medical face masks due to the pollution. Many females, however, cover their entire bodies. This is because it is very favorable to have light skin as it implies higher status (working inside instead of out in the fields). They were long sleeves, long pants, glove, and large hats in very hot and humid weather. Also, the grocery stores carry all kinds of skin lightening products and lotions. Interesting contrast to the multitude to tanning salons back home.

Another thing that adds to the craziness is their electrical wiring. Never have I seen so many disorganized wires connected to a power pole. Each pole looks like a spider web with so many wires going off in various directions. I had to snap a picture and send it to my old work buddies back home. We even saw an electrician crawling along the wires like a sloth, tying them together. Wow.

The street vendors here are much more aggressive than any we had seen before. One man even slammed Megan's taxi door because we refused to ride on his motorbike. We noticed a linear progression of the products vendor's will approach you to buy on the street. In the afternoons it's sun glasses and lighters. Around dinner it's pirated DVDs. After dinner the movie salesmen start to offer drugs as well. After dark anything goes and they put away the sunglasses in order to offer drugs and girls. No thanks.

For our last couple days we explored the city on foot and spent some time at the Thai Embassy sorting out our Visas. After several days we became overwhelmed with busy crowds of the city and decided to move on. We knew our next big stop would be Cambodia so we were very happy to find a tour that would take us down the Mekong River by boat and end in Phnom Penh, Cambodia... but that is for another post.

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