Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Motorbike Mania

We had this impression that Saigon (Saigon is the old name of the City that is now called Ho Chi Minh) would be kind of like Shanghai - a mix of Eurasia and colonial remnants, after all both were very international in they heyday and both got turned into Communist strongholds thereafter. We expected an interesting and similar mixture. Well, it wasn’t exactly so.
Very fashionable Police uniforms
Saigon is much more modern that Phnom Penh but consequently less fascinating. It is less sophisticated also than Shanghai. What it is more of is: motorbike mania. Shanghai had a good public transport system. Only recently has Saigon expanded the local bus routes. And other than that, most people own and operate a motorbike. I can’t imagine what will happen to the country when they upgrade these bikes for cars. Saigon has a lot of people. But what did impress us was they actually have useable sidewalks that aren’t used as full time parking lots. Although there were roped off areas used for parking motorbikes (but not cars) with guards who charge a fee. We were told that motorbike theft is a huge problem. Not to mention, bag snatching theft for the poor pedestrians to watch out for. We didn’t have any problem during our 6 days but were extra careful. But needless to say, we did NOT rent a motorbike here!

So what did we do in these 6 days which were actually about 3 days too much! Sunday was spent dining in decadence. We researched good Sunday brunches and found an incredible one at the Sheraton. If you ever get to Saigon, it’s a must do.
Sunday Brunch splurge at the Sheraton
Free flow wine, beer and two frozen mixed cocktails (along with other non-alcoholic drinks) where I made a new discovery: sapphire and cranberry is so great together. Okay there was a lot of food too but since it was the day before valentine’s, the drink selection made everything warm and fuzzy. There was prime rib, roast port, baked salmon to name a few in the carving section. Then a dozen kinds of cheese, cold cuts, fresh bread, loads of salad plus many hot main courses. Then there was a grill for meat and seafood done individually according to taste. A Phở section (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) served per request. Loads of dessert topped off the feast. We arrived at noon and stayed until they kicked us out. Now bet you can’t imagine what this might cost? $42 USD per person…a splurge for this country but a great deal in most other countries.

The Saigon meat market ladies
Then we spent a few days shopping for gifts as this is our last stop and opportunity to do so. Vietnam is famous for lacquer and coffee. Both of which we enthusiastically purchased. Add in a bit of sightseeing: the Jade Pagoda, War Remnant’s Museum and Museum of Fine Arts so we felt a bit more like tourists after that.

Now it’s time to describe the backpacker area of Saigon, where we were based. The median age of the folks is not very young…probably around 50 years old. The majority of travelers seemed to be French or American (especially in the older category), perhaps drawn to Vietnam to relive their connections from a few decades earlier. It reminded us of a mini Khao san road (the huge backpacker area in Bangkok) perhaps 40 years back.
Not just regular Motorbikes:
Two wheeled truck...
Child safety seat...
lounge chair...

Tow truck
Vietnam is relatively young on the tourism front. Julane remembered in 1989, when she was on her first round the world trip and Vietnam was closed to tourism. Her friend Patrick Moore managed to get in (illegally!) crossing the border without a visa or stamp since you couldn’t get one anyway as an American. The most challenging part was exiting later needed the same procedure of NOT getting caught…twice. I didn’t risk it and skipped the visit. But 20 years later, it’s a much different country and most likely another ten years will unveil something also entirely new.
Anybody like some tea?
The Vietnamese are quick to adapt and hard working which is the perfect environment to foster rapid development. They also don’t seem to harbor anger towards the War instead moving forward and rebuilding…wonder how much their Buddhist background contributes to this concept of release and move forward?

The area of Pham Ngu Lao is actually also famous for cheap international food and beer. So actually there are a lot of locals there too benefiting from the abundance of choice. There are also a lot of older men with Vietnamese partners (often the much younger versions), but some were obviously married as there were Eurasian children included.
There are a lot of hangout places in Pham Ngu Lao, it seemed that the street side bars and cafés got especially busy after 9pm. One place was always packed full from noon to late night, the only thing this place sells is local drought beer by the liter. It’s called Bia Hoi and apparently very popular in northern Vietnam. We’ve only seen this one place during our travels, but it certainly made use smile. The place was run by an old beer mama-san, which was an absolute contrast to the customers were mostly Caucasian backpackers looking for a cheap buzz. A liter of this stuff cost only one dollar.

Ho Chi Minh Motorbike Mania

Actually the majority of the time in Ho Chi Minh was spent walking about soaking up the noise and commotion while dodging motorbikes. Some educational movies will show that technique, our video above should give you a flavor of what it's like to walk in Saigon.
Is she sweeping or debating?
Apart from driving very scary they locals also look very scary, most of them wear full facemasks. The pollution in Saigon is actually not all that bad, we are wondering if the locals wear the facemasks to scare pedestrians away, hide their smiles when they scare an innocent tourist, or if they are worried that they may be recognized and later reprimanded for their driving style. I bet we walked about 8-10 kms per day. Patrick has managed to lose about 5kgs through this boot camp travel in Southeast Asia. Julane was more modest at about -1kg. Now once our backpacks go on a diet, we will be really light for the next part of the travels to Latin America!

So this is it, we are leaving Asia! After more than 5 years of living and traveling in this part of the world we are departing without knowing when we will be back. But back we will be for sure!

Our next destination is Guatemala, but before that happens, we’ve got some interesting stops yet to make: Singapore, Irvine, Carlsbad (CA), St Pete/Clearwater and last Miami. All this in a record couple of weeks.