Published: June 14th 2008March 30th 2008
On March 25 we arrived at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam. Though still a communist dictatorship, this is a country light years ahead of Burma in terms of oportunity, education, health care, infrastructure and government involvement with the citizens of Vietnam.
Due to our arrival at night we arranged to be met by a driver from our hotel. It is about 1 hour drive and the roads are pretty wild in this extremely overcrowded city. The AnAn hotel proved to be located in a backpacker ghetto in District 1 of the old city. In a similar fashion to many of the newer hotels here it is a high, narrow building with only two rooms on each floor. The narrow building lots in the city are a carryover of the taxation system implemented by previous rulers of this country - the wider the lot the higher the tax bill. Our 8th floor room proved to be large, clean, modern and only cost us $32/night, which is actually rather pricey for this area but no complaints from us. Helen in particular spent a great deal of time in the room due to another bout with food poisoning as a result of eating some unsavoury vegetable noodles on our last day in Rangoon. A very unhappy patient but at least this room was much nicer than the previous one we both "lay dying" in for two days in the northern Shan state of Burma.
I have been walking a lot during our first few days here so that Helen can rest. HCMC throbs with energy day and night. Though a totalitarian state, the government has encouraged a range of free enterprise activities and the hardworking Vietnamese people have responded with alacrity and appear to be constantly engaged in chasing the capitalist dream of work hard and grow rich! The population is young and it seems everyone has a cell-phone as well as sport the latest brand name clothes though in the majority of cases, quite likely pirated versions.
HCMC has a population of 9,000,000 people and there are apparently 4,000,000 scooters in the city. Quite a challenge on the first day to cross the street, particularly the multi-lane boulevards. At every stop light there are a minimum of 20 to 30 scooters abreast jostling for dominance, and the traffic line extends several blocks back. It seems that about 1/2 of the scooter drivers obey the traffic signals and the remainder are scofflaws. The recommended street crossing technique is to just keep walking and never let the scooter drivers see the whites of your eyes! The theory is that the waves of scooters will just flow around you like water around a rock in the river as long as you walk in a steady pace. it is only when peestrians run that accidents seem to occur.
On one day I undertook a walking tour of downtown HCMC - just me and a tour outlined in a crap $4 pirated version of Lonely Planet's Vietnam guidebook (a very recent version as publication date is August 2008!) Supposed to be a 5 hour walking tour with stops to examine various highlights. Well I completed that walk in 3 1/2 hours but it proved pretty enjoyable. Pace of life in this maximum capitalist city very high so lots to keep me entertained during my stroll in addition to adrenalin rush when walking across multiple roundabouts during morning rush hour.
I happily discovered that there are still some gorgeous buildings left over from French regime including the Hotel de Ville; albeit now serving as communist party headquarters for this city. The Museum of Ho Chi Minh city located within a lovely old colonial mansion particularly intriguing as on its grounds are an old US forces Huey helicopter gunship jammed beside a rusted out F-5 fighter-bomber (supposedly the same one flown by a south Vietnamese pilot who changed sides while airborne and proceeded to bomb the presidential palace) and an A-37, all with faded US Airforce markings.
I noted a rusty plaque beside the A-37 claiming that in 1975...."Gin Bin Tonic, a pilot hero of the northern Army, studied the controls of this captured plane for 5 hours and then took off and destroyed 26 imperialist fighters on the runway of Danang Airport followed by sinking various landing craft, boats and ships of the enemy forces who left the country". Hmmm, the latter claim seems a tad exaggerated but I do recall that a south Vietnamese pilot did bomb the presidential palace in the early 1970s.
Continuing my stroll I visited Notre Dame Cathedral which is pretty nice and located on a square with amazing central post office designed by Monsieur Eiffel of Eiffel tower fame. Due to my exertions during the heat of the day I stopped off at the Rex Hotel rooftop bar for cold beer. This hotel is where foreign journalists did serious drinking and drug imbibing while they watched the "pretty lights" caused by artillery barrages as northern forces moved into the Saigon suburbs in 1975. Nice bar but the rotters charged me $3.50 which is 5 times price of a beer in other bars and restaurants in this city. So much for history. On my way back to our hotel I stopped off at the Pho 2000, a small Pho (noodle soup - national dish) restaurant witha photo of Bill Clinton slurping up some noodles (not sure what his waitress was doing under the table however). Very good noodles for only $1.50. On our final day in HCMC we went back to Pho 2000 for Helen's first solid meal in several days.
On the 30th we packed up and flew Vietnam Airlines to Danang (of China Beach fame). Upon arrival, we booked a taxi for Hoi An where we intend doing some serious clothes shopping.