Saigon First Impressions

Luckily I had someone from the hotel meet me at HCMC airport or I would probably still be there.  When you emerge from the terminal you are faced with a throng of hundreds all trying to get the attention of a particular traveller.  But even though I had emailed ahead, requesting a car to meet me,  I soon realized making the connection wouldn’t be so easy, especially when faced with the massive crowd all staring and waving their name cards at the emerging passengers.  As I made my way through the crowd, I wondered how I would ever find my driver. I wandered around the periphery and realized I would have to wade through the crowd again with my luggage cart. But it’s not as easy as it sounds – there were police in the middle of it all,  with one posted at the two openings where people would make their way out.  The police were pushing back anyone who wandered into the open space for a spontaneous welcome home hug or kiss, so after my first pass through the crowd I worried how I would ever get through again.  But when the guard turned his attention to one family I made my break and walked back into the crowd.  When I finally saw my name on a card I nearly wept with relief. 

As we started to make our way through the busy streets to the hotel, I became overwhelmed. I had always dreamed of this and now here it was, laid out before me.  I immediately began drinking it all in, with a huge smile plastered on my face, the blaring cacophony of horns.  Everyone rides their horn and they have to, traffic is a jumbled mess that seems to work.  Traffic consists of some cars and trucks and taxis, but by far the overwhelming vehicle of choice is the motorbike, motor-scooter, or bicycle – in that order.  The streets are teaming with them, and they don’t discriminate, you see everyone from infants to seniors, from monks in flowing robes, to women wearing the traditional au dau outfit. And it’s not rare to see entire families on the back of a motorcycle – mom, dad and two kids all riding through the streets.  Everyone is supposed to wear a helmet and while you see the drivers wearing one, usually the passengers even if they are kids, don’t. Most also have a face mask, and some women wear gloves to protect their hands.  You also see the motorcycles and bikes loaded up with everything you could imagine – furniture, bricks, big plants, and boxes and boxes stacked on the back.  They are all over the street, weaving in and out of traffic, and dodging the occasional pedestrians.   There really are relatively few people walking the streets.  Sidewalks are crowded, but by all the motorcycles parked everywhere, and the thousands of street vendors who set up shop in the middle of a sidewalk.   But you don’t have to worry about the street noise keeping you up all night.  While any other big city of this size has a constant buzz of traffic,  in Saigon (central Ho Chi Minh City is still referred to as Saigon) they roll up the sidewalks early.  And they really do ‘roll up the sidewalks’ figuratively speaking.  Around 7pm you see all the shopkeepers and street merchants packing up their wares – whole families join in to fold up the fashions that have been displayed on the street, laid out on plastic sheets right on the sidewalk or hung from every available bit of space of a shop opening.   I woke up at 4am and looked out my hotel window, and there wasn’t a single motorcycle or person to be seen, and certainly no horns honking.  So while the streets are crowded, there are not a lot of pedestrians.  Crossing the streets of Saigon takes on a whole new meaning.  It has been the biggest hair raising adventure so far on my journey.  What you have to do is watch for an opening and then step off the curb and start making our way across – very deliberately and without fear. 

Vietnamese don’t even look at the oncoming traffic once they step off the curb – they just trust that it will avoid them, and it usually does.  As a westerner though, who had it drilled into them to ‘look both ways before crossing’, it wasn’t going to be easy.  You are supposed to walk at a steady pace, not too fast, not too slow, just enough for drivers to anticipate your next move and swerve around you. You shouldn’t stop either (they won’t be expecting that) .  The first time I did it, I wandered around the block looking for someone I could follow (in fact I walked around the block of my hotel, so I wouldn’t have to cross any streets). When I couldn’t find a saviour I steadied myself and stepped off the curb, my heart pounding in my chest, my face flush with a mix of excitement and fear!  As I made my way across, with horns blaring at me, and all manner of vehicle swerving around me – I did break the number one rule and looked into traffic.  I was able to time my pace according to the flow.  As I stepped up onto the curb on the other side of the street, I beamed with pride… and a sense of relief.  I had done it.  This was going to be okay.

My next decision was what to eat.  My body clock was completely screwed  up, I couldn’t tell if my body felt like it was day or night and what I should be eating. I decided to have lunch – it was noon – and I saw a big lively bar restaurant just up the street from my hotel.  They seated me at a table for four (even though there were lots of smaller tables scattered throughout the restaurant) and I was front and centre.  I was the face people would first see when they walked in.  No hiding in the shadows for me, I realized I would be ‘on’. I felt eyes on me the whole time – people were downright staring at me.  Normally this would give me a complex but no, this time I only smiled.  The staff apparently couldn’t speak any English and my waitress actually looked a little terrified to serve me.  Her eyes grew wide and she mumbled a few words of apology when she couldn’t understand me – at least that’s what it seemed like, the words were not English or Vietnamese.  I stuck to pointing out what I wanted on the menu and that worked, until I wanted a bottle of water, which wasn’t on the menu.  Through a series of mime gestures I got the message across.  But when she brought me a light brown coloured liquid with ice, I shook my head and gestured that I wanted a bottle of water.  After a few blank stares she walked away and came back with… a bottle of water… Eureka!  Lunch was good, but what I really fell in love with was the Vietnamese Coffee.  I’d had it before and it was usually overpowering espresso like, not a pleasant taste for a non-coffee drinker.  But I decided to give it a try and ordered the hot sweetened condensed milk with a little coffee (instead of the other way around) and it was the best coffee I had ever tasted. If we had this back home, I would be a coffee drinker by now, and I do plan to have some regularly while I’m here. (I can just see the shocked looks on the faces of my friends and family who have tried unsuccessfully to get me to enjoy coffee for most of my life).  I finished my first day in Saigon with a coconut water straight from the coconut, a very South Asian treat that is also supposed to aid digestion.  I retired early to begin mapping out the details of my next day of activities.

One more note – where to stay – the options are endless.  I found a place (Thien Thao Hotel) through Trip Advisor, that I can’t recommend enough.  It is clean and modern with a bank of computers set up in the lobby, a brushed stainless steel elevator, a mix of Vietnamese and western decor, with a big Christmas tree in the front window.  The room has a king sized bed and all the basics you would expect – TV, coffee pot, fridge, plus free wi-fi – and it’s costing me just $26/night!  It’s not right in the main tourist district (near the main attractions), it’s about a 20 minute walk (crossing lots of busy streets) or a short taxi ride away.  But it’s clean and safe and what more can you ask for $26?

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4 Responses to “Saigon First Impressions”

  1. Amanda
    January 9 at 7:19 pm #

    Fab! Makes me miss Asia! I remember the ‘crossing the street phenomenom’! Haha, loving your posts!

    • Darren
      January 9 at 7:46 pm #

      it’s funny… I had heard about it before I came. I read about it, but it’s not until you actually have to cross the street the first time that you realize what everyone is talking about. thanks

  2. Alastair Humphreys
    January 10 at 5:53 am #

    Rest assured that crossing the road everywhere else on earth is easier than in HCMC!

    • Darren
      January 10 at 6:09 am #

      ahahaha… I sure hope so… this is insanity. But I must say I’m getting pretty good at it 🙂

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