2009- Entry 4: Saigon (HCMC), Vietnam

I was glad that I had the time in Hue and Danang to get used to negotiating through traffic as a pedestrian! It trained me somewhat for Saigon. When I arrived, I took a taxi to the hotel. At one point we ended up in a massive clog of vehicles of all sorts of description at a traffic circle. No one could move, but everyone was honking their horns hoping to give some contribution to getting things moving! You can tell the “newcomers” to Vietnam because they wait patiently at the street corners waiting for a light to turn red somewhere in the distance so that they can cross safely. Dreamers! The “veterans” give a quick cautious glance in the direction of the oncoming traffic and wait till they see a slower moving vehicle (preferably not a truck). You then wade your way through the cars and motorbikes that will swerve and weave to avoid you—– but do not stop in the middle of the street—- just keep on moving— and praying, even if you are a non-believer! The absurdity of it reminded me vaguely of India where your body would be just a speed bump in the the chaos of Delhi, but if a cow decided to lie down in the middle of the street their holy status would require you to wait till it decided to move on, or try get around it somehow!

Now you think I should be politically correct and refer to Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City. The fact is that most Vietnamese call it Saigon. HCMC refers to the larger entity of districts and countryside. It is interesting as youtravel through Vietnam. If you are “of a certain age” to recall the Vietnam War, you are very familiar with so many place names that were brought into your livingroom during the 60’s and 70’s— Hue, Danang, Pleku, China Beach, Khesan, Dalat, Chalon, My Lai, Quang Tri province……. they are all here. It is really a dividing line between travelers who experienced the Vietnam War era and those who did not. 

My first adventure (after crossing the street, of course) was to Ben Thanh Market. Lots of Vietnamese trinkets for the tourists and food stalls of every type. One thing about the French, they didn’t provide much to the infrastructure of their former colonies, but they certainly had their impact on the food. You can get wonderful “baan my” sandwiches of French bread, pate and vegetables on many street corners in every town in Laos, Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia. Croissants, cream puffs and pastries all readily available. The market is fun to travel through, but doesn’t offer much except a lot of haggling over over-priced items! I did find a terrific stall that served up some of the best fruit smoothies I’ve ever had. Perfect on a hot sticky day… which it always is this time of the year! As usual, I ended up walking a good chunk of the day in the center city. Started out at 9 and got back to the hotel at 3. It is a very walkable city! Visited the cathedral; the huge French colonial post office nearly; trendy Dong Khoi Rd with its bookstores and designer shops; the Saigon river front– which is dirty and filled with ocean-going boats; back to the familiar Le Loi Street and the many “hybrid” Vietnamese shops that cater to the tourists varied tastes.

The next day it was off to the Chinese section of Chalon. What a cacophony of people and vehicles even by Vietnamese standards! When I got there, I thought I was overcharged for the taxi, so I took the information from the unhappy driver before I got out. As later proved I was charged too much. You have to be careful of rogue taxis that have jimmied meters. You live and learn. Fortunately, these sharks hang out in the same place every day, so it wasn’t difficult to track him down later. I only had to mention “police” to magically make money appear. Anyway, Chalon market was very interesting. You had to squeeze your way down a lot of merchandize to get through the rows of shops. Everything you can imagine from household goods to food is here. All cheap products thanks to Chinese imports. Think of it as a huge Vietnamese version of The Dollar Store, or an outdoor Walmart! It was also enjoyable walking through the streets and looking at the interesting buildings and pagodas. You know that when you finally hit an area where no one understands you, that you have finally arrived off the beaten trail of tourism.

My final day in Saigon was a day trip tour to the Delta. I grimaced at the itinerary as it screamed tourist traps, but I had only the one day and considered it a primer for a longer return next year. Forty-five minutes out from Saigon we took a “break” at a kick-back complex of stores where the tour guides or companies get a commission for whatever the tourists in their charge spend. I opted to stay outside and practice Vietnamese phrases with the hawkers, who were equally eager to have an ad hoc lesson in English.Lots of laughs as we all slaughtered the pronunciation of each other’s language!
After 25 minutes, we were off to My Tho, the entry point for everything heading for the Delta. It was a short boat ride across a tributary of the Mekong to get to the island of Ben Tre. The tour guides spent the next 30 minutes hawking like nothing I have ever seen on Home Shopping Network—- naturally sweetened coconut candy, honey, even rice wine fermented in cobra (don’t ask me to describe that taste, which obviously must be an acquired one)!  (Although I must confess, the coconut candy with peanuts was addicting to the point of my buying two bags!) We then got in small boats for a canal tour. It literally rained from the minute we got in to the minute we got out… By the end of that, we were ready for lunch. Mercifully, we were then given a 2-hour time period to just wander. The tour provided bikes, but I opted to walk. I was glad I did as I met so many people along the way. We couldn’t understand to each other, but the attention you give to their overly cute children or interesting products required very little translation anyway. When we returned, some of us got in speedboats for the river trip back to Saigon. It was a three-hour trip and was terrific. The river life very much mirrored what you could see in Thailand. People involved in those hundreds of activities that revolve around the water from fishing to houseboats hauling rice and sand in barges down the river to Saigon. People wave at us along the way, and of course, we wave back. We got back to the city at sunset. A fast bowl of noodles, and it was time to get packed up for the trip to Phnom Penh.

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