To the land where the loudest horn wins
Truth be told, this is true of pretty much every third world country I've visited. Here in Vietnam, thousands upon thousands of motorbikes own the streets, horns competing for the right of way, traffic lights, lanes, and even sidewalks are all a suggestion. It's quite common to see a motorbike coming at you from the wrong direction and stepping out of the street onto the sidewalk puts you into the incoming path of another motorbike. Why were we walking in the road in the first place? Sidewalks here are filled with parked bikes and street vendors, and are often uneven and broken. It's loud, chaotic, crazy, and a bit smelly… But I love it.
It's been 10 years since we've been to this part of the world, and we didn't have the chance to visit Vietnam at the time. A visa is required for US citizens to enter, but Vietnam has made the process very easy to complete online. It was so easy that I was worried we had missed something, but we sailed through immigration and customs and stepped out into the balmy afternoon air of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City
The former capital of South Vietnam, it is still referred to on some signs and by some locals as Saigon. The largest city in the county, it contains some 11 million people sprawled out literally as far as the eye can see. As I mentioned before, this means constant deadlocked traffic and horns blaring everywhere. I'm still amazed that people can get anywhere in the mess, but they always find a way. The city is an interesting blend of old and new, as you can just as easily find a shopping mall as you can find an old market or a run down alley way with an old lady selling soup out of small bowls she reuses after running them under water ever so briefly. Massive skyscrapers tower over run down homes with hot tin roofs. Hindu shrines sit near Buddhist temples and even Christian churches. Definitely a land of contrasts here.
Upon leaving the airport, we found the public bus that would take us to the city center and paid 20,000 dong each to board. That ended up being about 90 cents a person. We smiled to ourselves knowing that we'd be making up for all the expensive meals and accommodation we had to pay for in Australia and New Zealand - Vietnam is super cheap!
This was how cheap?? One of the first things we did on arrival was get haircuts. We were holding out because they averaged about 25 dollars in New Zealand, and ended up paying the equivalent of 2.50. That's 10 percent of what we would have paid! Looking stylish once again, we grabbed some incredibly delicious real fruit smoothies for just over a dollar. This would become a regular stop for us over the 4 days we were in Saigon, making sure to try many different fruit combinations from all the tropical fruits they had to offer. Our lunches and dinners, which were often rice, meat, and vegetables, or meat and vegetable sandwiches, rarely cost us more than a dollar. We often had to stop ourselves from picking up too many desserts because the prices made it so easy to do so.
Another fruit smoothie? The food has been amazing, but that's not the only reason we came to Vietnam. Okay, it kind of is the only reason but we wanted to experience the history and the people as well.
It is interesting being an American here, given that Americans were here for an altogether different reason not all that long ago. The war is well documented, but one can't help but wonder if it isn't skewed ever so slightly in one direction.
We took the time to visit some places of interest, such as the former South Vietnamese presidential palace and the Cu Chi tunnels. These guys definitely like to display old American tanks and planes, as each site has many. The tunnels were the most interesting to visit, as we got to see a part of the massive underground network the North Vietnamese created and used during the war to get around undetected. The tunnels extended almost all the way to Saigon. We were never treated any differently for being American, but even though it all happened before my time, it was still quite surreal being there.
Entering the Cu Chi tunnels
American heavy artillery
We eventually had to say goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City and flew north to Da Nang, located on the east coast in Central Vietnam. We had originally planned to travel by bus and train through Southern Vietnam, stopping at sites along the way, but decided against it in favor of more time in the north. I tell you, the hardest part about travel, even on a trip as long as this one, is realizing that you still can't do it all. Anyway, Da Nang is the third largest city in Vietnam with 800,000 people and although it has little to see on its own is a great stepping point for seeing the amazing sites and places in the area. What are they, you ask? If I told you that, you wouldn't have any reason to come back for the next Blog! Stay tuned!