We stayed in District 1 (there are 9), which is where most of the backpackers and travelers will stay. Every single street and alley is filled with half a dozen guesthouses where you can stay as cheap as a couple of dollars a night
. We went big and paid 24 bucks for a private room with bath, balcony, cable TV, free Internet, and full breakfast every morning. That meant an omelet, fried egg, or banana pancakes with a baguette, homemade jam, fresh tropical fruits, and coffee or tea cooked by the wives of the guesthouse owners and served to you at their dining room table. It is a strange life, in our opinion, for the thousands of Vietnamese who run guesthouses like these. They already share their homes with many members of extended family, and then they open it up to strangers who are invited to eat at their table and watch TV on their couch. The Vietnamese are genuinely friendly people, willing to share anything and give you the honest truth...unless it is a street vendor.
The vendors represent our love-hate relationship with Saigon. How nice it is to sit and relax in the humid, 90 degree mugginess with a cool beverage and have everything you need brought right to your table: fresh fruit, peanuts, water, sodas, gum, tissues, fans, fingernail clippers, books, wallets, bouncy balls, sunglasses, toys, artwork, large Buddha statues, cigarettes, lighters, jewelry, shoe shines, massages, newspapers, magazines, hats, cyclo tours, scooter rentals, the list goes on and on. But wait a minute - we don't need any of that. Well, most of it anyways. The novelty wears off rather quickly when someone is approaching you every 60 seconds with something else for sale
. After your first 3 pairs of $5 sunglasses (I lost my first pair), you really don't need to be asked another 999 times. The bargaining is also fun at first, but can get rather tiring. Vendors will typically quote you a price that is 5x the going rate. Even knowing this, we usually walked away feeling ripped off to some degree. Getting ready to board a tour bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels one day a hoard of shoe shiners pounced upon us and the other travelers from our guesthouse. Luckily, Peter and I were left alone due to our flip flops, but one more guy was basically assaulted into a shoeshine. Two people pounced on him, each took a foot, and they started frantically cleaning his shoes. He tried to kick them away for a few minutes, but eventually he gave up. It ended up costing him 50,000 dong, but that was only because he had no smaller bills. (By the way, 20,000 VND is about $1. Makes it a little tricky to convert quickly)
Navigating the streets is a whole other story. While fending off vendors and turning down tour offers, you have to make sure not to get run over. A never-ending stream of traffic is coming down the streets, and sidewalks, at any time of day. There are crosswalks, but they do not stop traffic. When you have to cross the street you just step out and go. If you waited for a break in traffic, you would wait all day. It just takes a little courage at first to step out, then you just keep moving slowly and purposefully across the road
. We were told to never run and never stop. Somehow the motorbikes just part around you and you make it safely to the other side. Motorcycles and scooters are the most common, then bicycles, cars, and cyclos. Cyclos are like bikes with a big seat on the front built for 1 person (or sometimes 2). They are the cheapest mode of travel, but also the most likely to overcharge you. We actually got into an argument with two drivers who tried to pretend that the price they quoted us was for one not two, but when we refused to pay and walked away they just let us go, confirming their guilt. It is crazy to ride around in them because they just get right out into the middle of traffic with everyone else. They actually appeared to be the safest mode of travel to us, besides a taxi, because we were not willing to risk our lives on the back of a motorbike. Within the first half hour of exploring the city we saw two motorbike accidents (minor ones) and the second resulted in a fistfight! Actually, one guy punched the guy who ran into him while he just stood there. The hits were kind of wimpy. The amount of motorbikes on the road is truly astonishing. When the traffic light turns red they will back up longer than a large city block, and 10 wide across the lane. We estimated around 800 waiting in one busy block around 7pm one night! No exaggeration!
The food in Ho Chi Minh, and Vietnam in general, was fantastic
. They have a big French influence because the French occupied the area before the Vietnam war, so you can get good baguettes anywhere. Banh mi is a popular street food: a baguette with mayo, veggies, and some sort of meat pate. Although, it isn't like any pate I've ever had (code for not that great and an unidentifiable taste). There is tons of seafood such as shrimp, some of the biggest prawns ever, clams, scallops, snails, and many other unfamiliar types of shellfish. That is one of the only things we didn't risk trying on the street because the food was uncooked and not on ice. The spring rolls here are fabulous, fresh or fried. One of the great things about Vietnamese cooking is that they use many fresh, uncooked ingredients like basil, lime, mint, different greens, cucumbers, and bean sprouts. If you order fresh spring rolls at a restaurant, usually all of the fixings come out with the rice paper and you get to make them up yourself. Some of you out there are Pho people, you know who you are, and, yes, you can get it anytime, anywhere. It is a delicious Vietnamese noodle soup that can be ordered vegetarian or with meat. Once it is served you are given a plate of fresh cilantro, basil, limes, bean sprouts, and chilies. You can add what you like and put in a little srirachi too. The Vietnamese will eat it for breakfast, lunch, or a late night snack. Surprisingly, one of our favorite foods of the whole trip turned out to be Lemongrass Tofu with chili-soy sauce. Back in the states, I've never even had tofu that I liked, but now I can say that it is one of my favorite foods
. They do it well here in Zhuhai, too.
We took a daytrip from Ho Chi Minh to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, the famous location for battles between the Viet Cong and American troops. It is a very touristy site, as we were soon to learn most places in Vietnam are. Hordes of tourists come by bus everyday to crawl through the cramped and humid tunnels and fire automatic machine guns (as we gladly did). As you will see from the pictures, the tunnels are frighteningly small even after they have been widened to accommodate tourists and their western-sized bodies. A childhood fear of claustrophobia resurfaced in one of us (hmm....) and we took the second of 3 escape routes added in along the way for panicking tourists. Only by seeing it firsthand can you realize what these people had to go through, but on the other hand I would not get back in there again if you paid me.
For a last word, let us share with you this little song we wrote to capture the best of what we saw transported on Saigon motorbikes:
12 days in Vietnam (Sung to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas)
Skip to Verse 12:On the 12th day in Vietnam on a motorbike I did see:
Twelve roosters crowing
Eleven plastic chairs
Ten bags of rice
Nine wooden bird cages (with birds)
Eight types of produce
Seven crates of beer
Six barking dogs
Fa-m-i-ly of five
Four 12-foot pipes
Three new TVs
Two full grown pigs
And a full-sized refrigerator.
M & P
Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon, as the local residents still call it, is a city with a population of around 9 million. That number alone is staggering to conceptualize in a country that has only modernized in the last few decades and still has just one major highway. Then imagine 6 million motorbikes thrown into the mix and what you get is organized chaos. We thought we were prepared for what Saigon had to offer, but after 15 minutes in the city we were literally blown away. The congestion of vehicles, people, noise, and pollution is astounding! It is so confusing and hectic that you can feed off its energy one minute and be left feeling completely exhausted in the next. So far, it is our favorite large city!