A millionaire in Ho Chi Minh

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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City » District 1
November 14th 2011
Published: November 14th 2011
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So......I’m a millionaire. I have one million dong in my pockets and Vietnam is my Oyster. OK, so a million dong equates to £35.00 and it doesn’t get me too far, a couple of nights stay, a few meals. In fact eating gives me the sweats; when perusing the menu the average meal might cost 8000 dong. Although that is only £3.00 for a slap-up meal, the huge number makes me feel like I am spending £8000.
Ho Chi Minh City has been an interesting fusion of the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. It is so different from Cambodia that I feel like I am going through culture shock again. I should probably specify that I am in Ho Chi Minh City, although everyone here calls is Saigon still. I have heard this is the ugliest part of Vietnam so based on those accounts; the rest should be pretty good. At least I ruddy-well hope so.
My first experience of Saigon was the taxi ride – I was appalled to see there were no tuk-tuks, I love tuk-tuks but it is easy to understand why they cannot exist here in this city. The pace on the road is so fast, dangerous and just downright ridiculous, motorbike drivers even ride on the pavement and this makes me angry - the pavement is where you think you are safe from the ravages of the neanderthal drivers. Back to the taxi ride... So I get off the bus, jump straight in to a taxi and ask, “How much?” to which he waved off the question with “Taxi is metered”. ‘Brilliant’, I thought ‘no overcharging’. We make our way towards the hostel a friend I met in Phnom Penh was staying at, and eventually we pull up at a busy street, clearly in the heart of the backpackers area. I notice the meter reads 250,000 dong and the driver demands $15! 240,000 dong is $12 but even $12 is far too over priced. It suddenly dawned on me that he has “foreigner price” programmed in to his meter. The guy must have thought all his Christmas’ had all came at once – white, blonde, solo, female, backpacker = $$$$$$$$$$. Sure enough I laughed at him and refused to pay $15. Where upon he got angry, I got angry and I decided this would be better sorted out on the pavement. I go to open the doors and he locks them. I’m stuck in the taxi, the car starts to roll forward and dark, horrific images of what could happen next replay in my mind. We’ve all seen it in the films. So, I scream. I scream and scream and scream, I bang on the windows, and I pummel them to oblivion. He panics and immediately says $5. I don’t care, I am terrified. I just want to get out, I feel like a caged animal. A couple who were on the same bus as me strolling by hear and eventually see me. They fling open the door and help me out. I am shaking, heart is thumping, I’m hyperventilating on the verge of tears and relieved that I am out. The western guy grabs me by the arm, his girlfriend grabs my bag and they walk me off in the opposite direction of the taxi man. The taxi guy doesn’t follow us, and he doesn’t get paid.
After a few deep breaths I continue my search for the hotel. I find it, but Sarah is not there, and she is certainly not on their books. Without the energy, I reluctantly agree to stay in the hostel. I carry everything up five flights of stairs only to find there is no key for the room (because the couple in there have already taken it), there are no lockers for my valuables and the window bars have clearly been sawn through at an earlier date and not been replaced. I lug my belongings downstairs and out the door. The streets are littered with restaurants, shops selling back packer trinkets, and signs which read “room to rent” above them. Feeling very unsettled I opt for a place called Phoenix 25 which is a hotel come travel agents (they all are here). I pay more for my room and decide not to have a dorm tonight, I don’t feel like meeting new people, I am depleted and need to rest.
That evening, whilst roaming the neon streets, I bump in to Sarah! What a relief. We spend the evening wandering around, and opt for some food at a restaurant out of the backpacker area with no westerners. Perfect. We order spring rolls and two miniscule fried pieces arrive with a horrifically pungent smell. It takes me a while to realise it is the sauce. We pay, we go, and try to find somewhere with a little bit more food for dinner. Stumbling back in to the backpacker district, we find a little family run place and whilst looking at the menu, an English guy already eating says this is the best place in the whole of the district. That’s good enough for us, so we sit, we eat and it’s good. Very good in fact, and very cheap - only £2.00 for water, rice, and stir-fried vegetables.
The next day, Sarah and I head off in a taxi (I’m facing my fears) to the Chu Chi Tunnels. These tunnels were created during the war so that the Vietnamese could hide in them. They are a huge underground network which fooled the Americans for a long time. The tunnels are at maximum one meter high or wide, but in most places smaller. I crawled through one such unlit one and was horrified by the darkness and the size of them. The air vents on the ground where made to look like termite mounds. Only the Americans eventually figured it out and would seep their poisonous gases in to the holes in order to kill, man, woman and child inside. We were shown traps, all of which were intended to kill, maim or dismember the opposition. Our guide spoke fast, moved fast and finished fast. Throughout the tour, we would try to take photos, or look at something and he would be shouting “come, come, hurry, hurry, we go here now”. It became a game to see how long we could hold him back for whilst we took our photos.
Ho Chi Minh is a huge complex city that I am still yet to navigate fully. Here I have no sense of direction, everything looks the same. This throws me, I pride myself on my sense of direction. Streets go off at a tangent, they bend, they finish abruptly and the same neon signs hang over head. Yesterday I found myself wandering around the city in and out of the different districts on a walking tour with two girls from my dorm. A Hungarian girl who lives and works in Singapore and a Japanese girl from a city I cannot remember for the life of me. I do remember that it is in the middle of Japan. We stop at a bakery in the morning to fuel ourselves for our marathon adventure and pace the Vietnamese streets. Much of it is influenced by the French and at times, I feel like I am in Europe, walking down little French alleys. On our journey we see a pink church standing tall amongst the low buildings, in the garden of the church there is a replica of the Jesus in Brazil. We head towards the Jade Emperors palace, Lonely planet says this is a good place to go. Not the first time I have disagreed. As we enter the tiny, dirty complex, we are greeted by men with miniscule tortoises in plastic pint glasses and goldfish tied in bags, fairground style. The idea is you buy the animals and then release them in to the pond by the doors of the palace for good luck. Not for me. The place does not look like a palace, and it certainly aint fit for an emperor. If I was the Jade emperor I would have had the architects and the builders heads cut off....and maybe their children’s just for good measure.
Every so often we pass a French looking street, or something interesting happening but on the whole, Ho Chi Minh is very unimpressive. The post office is nice, the opera house is OK, but very modern looking and feels like I am on Bond street in London. It is surrounded by Prada, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Jimmy Choo. My million dong is useless here, I need a billion dong.
The route on the way home winds its way back towards the backpacker district, and I could be anywhere. Gigantic neon signs tower above or circle the round-about, the buildings are taller here than elsewhere and the ground floor shops are littered with tourist trinkets. Every so often an Adidas or Converse or French Connection stand out, but these places make no sense as minutes down the road you can buy the exact same thing for a fraction of a price in the market.
That evening, I find myself feeling rather ill. I have been nauseous all day and my nose is runny and my throat is sore. I buy strepsils for 70p and they are a god-send. I take my temperature and it is high. I am smothered in vapo-rub, drunk on lemsip and slowly overdosing on those soothing strepsils. I apologise in advance to the girls in my dorm for the possibility of snoring like a trooper, something I do when I have a blocked up nose or so Carl tells me, and I try to sleep.
I stuck around in Ho Chi Minh for a few more days, purely because the people I met were lovely and I enjoyed seeing new things with them. Backpacking alone is scary, and any place once you have been there a few days becomes safe, because you have confidence knowing your way around. You become drawn to settling for a while, maybe because it’s easier to settle than to venture off to see the unknown. But I could not stay here forever. I had to move on. It was time. Ho Chi Minh offers little unless you work there, and even then those I met who worked and lived there were desperate for something else someplace else. It’s a great way to gain insight into the horrific war crimes from a historical context; there is a multitude of museums and galleries prophesising and full of propaganda about the “American Devils”, but that is pretty much it.
So long Ho Chi Minh....next stop Muine.

Additional photos below
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14th November 2011

I love that feeling in VN of being a millionaire! Great photos!
16th November 2011

Sorry you had such a bad experience in HCMC. Funny how it's different for different people. We love it so far but then we live way out of town and only venture into the city occasionally. Good luck with the rest of your travels.
16th November 2011

A good read
My title is a bit pathetic. Really enjoying your blog. Am a friend of your Ma's. Stay safe and keep writing x
17th November 2011

I was saddened to read about your negative experiences. I know that first impressions can often be instrumental in ruining a trip, however, I still hope you will give Vietnam a chance. I came here with the intention of staying for 1 year at the most. I have now been here for 3. Vietnam is by far, much safer than the UK even if petty theft and fraudulent attempts to 'rip you off' are quite prevalent in certain areas. What you need to remember though is that most people here earn a pittance and the general attitude towards westerners is that we are so rich that we won't miss a few pounds. While I admit this attitude seems wrong from our perspective, many Asians tend to live for the moment and will generally sink any extra income they make from people like you or me into caring for their families, which, on refection, doesn't leave such a bad taste in ones mouth. Anyway, happy travels Jessica :)

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