Vietnam is louder and crazier than the other places I’ve been in SE Asia. The traffic is intense, there is a constant din of noise, and at times walking down the street feels like running the gauntlet of vendors who all want to sell you something you don’t need or want. And the people are not as initially warm and welcoming as I’ve found elsewhere. But despite that first impression, I’ve warmed up to the place! It took a period of adjustment and some patience, but it was worth it.
My first impression of Vietnam was not the best. I had been warned about the locals hustling tourists, and I figured that yeah, I’d seen it before – the tuk driver in Thailand who didn’t take us where we agreed but wouldn’t go any further, the need to bargain down from the white folks’ price to something reasonable anywhere you go – but I actually was a bit put off by feeling like a target from the get-go here.
I think there are taxi drivers that target tourists coming off buses from out of town. Case in point, I got off the bus from Phnom Penh in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and was (as usual) accosted by taxi drivers. I knew I was very close to my hotel, since I have Google maps on my phone. I got a relatively cheap Asia phone in Cambodia so I could have an unlocked device to use here that I wouldn’t care too much about losing – a really great decision! I told the cabbie (the one who wouldn’t go away, there’s always that one) that I didn’t need a cab, I could walk. He assured me it would take me 40 minutes to get to where I was going . . . yeah, right. So I asked how much (number one rule: always agree on the price beforehand), but he insisted on using the meter. I told him I didn’t want the meter, because I fully expected him to drive me in circles. He understood all this and then assured me that, no he wouldn’t do such a thing . . . well, he did just that. After he drove around for a while and then “missed” the turn, I told him to just pull over – with GPS I could see just how I was being screwed and just how I could get myself where I needed to go. Of course by this time he was at the wrong end of the one-way street my hotel was on. So, that 5 minute cab ride ended up costing me $12 dollars (keep in mind a 30 minute ride to the airport is $6 here, so that’s nowhere near a fair price), and I still had to wander around to find my hotel. I made sure to thank him for his wonderful welcome to Vietnam!
Of course being here you have to accept that you’re a huge walking target and that many of the locals will try to get a few extra dollars from you at every turn, especially in the more touristy places. It can get annoying, but I’ve decided that I can’t let that taint my experience. I’ve now come to expect it and find it more comical than frustrating.
I really enjoyed HCMC. There is not a ton of touristy things to see here, but the city is huge and its energy is palpable. I loved riding around on the back of motorbikes in the crazy swirl of traffic. At first the traffic seems chaotic, but then it starts to make sense. The Vietnamese drive on the right side of the road, like at home (and actually wear helmets!), but there is where the similarities end. Crosswalks and traffic lights are suggestions; no one is ever going to stop to let you cross the street. You can try find a lull before crossing (or not) and whatever you do, when you do step out into traffic, walk at the same pace across the street to let the motorists calculate how to avoid hitting you. And they will. Sometimes they drive on the wrong side of the road – because it’s easier to do that and go across traffic when there’s a gap than cut directly across. This is really necessary since traffic doesn’t always stop here (apart from at stoplights at big intersections), but often flows through endless roundabouts (and there are no four way stops at the intersections either). But it all works! There is no road rage here. It’s all about going with the flow and finding your way through the gaps. And everyone seems to get where they’re going just fine. Of course there are the few who try to go faster than the speed of traffic, and those are the ones who cause issues (just like at home).
I spent a good amount of time walking around to see the “sights” and hunted out some good local food. District One is where most of the tourists hang out, and every night Bui Vien Street transforms into a makeshift sidewalk café. The business owners roll out plastic tarps to cover the sidewalk and everyone buys cheap beer and street food and sits on the sidewalk late into the night. It’s a fun scene and some great people watching.
I met a fun Brit my first night in town (Duncan) and we did a lot of drinking together over the following days. At one point I watched as he suffered through a never-ending game of pool with a scrawny local who seemed strung-out on one of the many drugs offered for sale outside the Circle K (they’d jump from offering you weed to heroine in a microsecond). At that point I was very grateful that my own atrocious pool skills disqualified me from this matchup. I would say was discussed, and he’d likely say we argued over, all manner of things – including how odd it is that the Vietnamese have turned the Vietnam War (ahem, the “American War”) into such a tourist attraction. I still opted to see the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, because I did want to see the other side of the story we’ve been fed as Americans. But as I saw photo after photo of the gruesome scenes of war, I came to see Duncan’s point about not spending my time dwelling on death.