Moto, Moto, Everywhere


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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
December 23rd 2006
Published: January 20th 2007
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Streets of SaigonStreets of SaigonStreets of Saigon

Ready to plow me over
December in Japan means incessant lights, snow, and best of all, time to travel! Jeff and I decided to continue our world tour and head to southern Vietnam and Cambodia for our winter vacation. Unlike last year’s trip to Thailand, NOTHING was planned. Beyond our flight and place to stay in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC and Saigon), we were going to take it as it comes. We ended up with a full non-stop itinerary and I wouldn’t change a moment of our trip. It was phenomenal! Read the next few blogs to see what adventures unfolded….

HCMC

Jeff and I flew into HCMC, also referred to as Saigon. Before the Vietnam War when it was known as Saigon. Then after the war when the south lost, it became Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I assumed HCMC was the correct name, yet upon arriving quickly learned that many people still refer to the city as Saigon. I will probably call it both in this entry! It didn’t hit me that we were going/in Vietnam until we stepped through immigration and were looking at hundreds of Vietnamese, obviously not waiting for us, but still- not in Japan anymore! Then
Casa de Andrew, John and RyanCasa de Andrew, John and RyanCasa de Andrew, John and Ryan

yeah it was better than a hotel!
the heat, not cold Japan either! We somehow were persuaded by this sketchy taxi driver to use him and were soon on our way to central HCMC.

The first word that comes to my mind when I think of Saigon is MOTOS. I have never seen so many in my entire life. Honestly, I am not sure if HCMC is famous for them or what, but WOW. How we made it through in our taxi without hitting anyone still surprises me. As I gasped out of fear the taxi driver just laughed at me. There were people of all ages, men, women, 1-5 passengers, old motos, new big motos, fast motos, slow motos- I think people own motos before they own cell phones! There were some traffic lights and some street police, but in general it was a free-for-all. There were hundreds meandering through Saigon. It was a symphony of horns throughout the streets. Close calls galore, yet I never saw an accident. Like in Japan, Vietnamese donned the facemasks, except theirs had colors and patterns, whereas Japanese facemasks are just white. In spite of the atmosphere of utter chaos, there was some order to it all…and the cardinal
Humble AbodeHumble AbodeHumble Abode

All good minus the unused condom in the corner!
rule that bigger always wins. Christmas was in two days so there were many people dressed up Santa suits cruising around. Even ladies in the big straw hats were driving motos! Definitely the trademark I will associate with Saigon.

Jeff and I survived the taxi ride and were dropped off at our lodging- a 3 story house with rooftop balcony and pet monkey. 5 star hotel? No! Shitty hostel? No! This trip Jeff and I decided to try out a new method for housing called couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.org). You sign up with this organization saying that you will open up your couch (or in my case, futon) to travelers, and they will do the same for you. This saves money and also gives you immediate friends in the city who know their way around, cutting out lots of wandering time and often throws you right into the fun of the city. Of course, it could be a hit or miss if you get along with your host or not. After signing up I found surfers in Vietnam with the user name ‘Vicarious Voyage’ and the character description as 3 guys who like have a good time, own a monkey and
Pham Ngu Lao RoadPham Ngu Lao RoadPham Ngu Lao Road

The "Khoa San Road" of Saigon
three story house with plenty of room. Sounded like such a sweet deal, how could we resist. We arrived at their house knowing they would not be home. We were greeted by a plethora of Vietnamese neighbors. Jeff and I were skeptical to open their door with so many onlookers. Before we knew it their landlady was opening the door for us, turning on the TV, lights, and showing us to our room. Apparently we weren’t the first to show up to their apartment equipped with large backpacks. The apartment was awesome and had a great location- 10 minute walk from the popular backpacker area Pham Ngu Lao. The street they lived on was amazing. Only blocks from foreigner-central yet so removed from it all, engaging in real Vietnamese life. We dropped our stuff off and headed out to finalize some travel plans.

Everyone’s dream of Vietnam is little ladies wearing the large-brim straw hats- it’s no myth!!! They wear them everywhere! After our first stroll down the street, some food, drinks, and first offers of marijuana, it was time to meet our hospitable hosts. Immediately after introductions it was easy, as if we had all been friends before.
Couchsurfing!Couchsurfing!Couchsurfing!

First night out in Vietnam with our new friends: Jeff, Adi, me, Andrew, and John. The lone foreigners at this outdoor restaurant.
There was another CSer from Switzerland, Adi, to round out our crew. The 5 of us- Jeff, me, John, Andrew (third guy Ryan was out of town), and Adi, started off the night with shots of sake that Jeff and I brought from Japan as omiyage. Nothing loosens up the mood better. We began the evening at an outdoor restaurant that was only occupied by Vietnamese. We ordered a slightly interesting beef hot pot, washed down by ‘bia hoi’ or draft beer. Neighboring tables gawked at the lone foreigner table, then offered us some Niet Moi- possibly the most awful rice vodka of all time, tasting like burnt popcorn. But at 20,000 dong (16,000 dong = $1. And yes the currency is dong) for a bottle, you can’t beat the price. The night unfolded into absolute fun and chaos where bia hoi started to flow like water. Thus far couchsurfing was great and Saigon was amazing. Incredibly we had only been there since 4 in the afternoon and felt like we had done so much already.

The next morning Jeff and I headed out to check out the sights in Saigon. Our intention was to walk, but for the
Batista the MonkeyBatista the MonkeyBatista the Monkey

Cutest thing ever!!!!
cheap price of $6 (we could have gotten it cheaper if we really needed to) we were offered a city tour via cyclo. How could we refuse! Sia was the name of my driver and I might add probably one of the most famous in Saigon. He happily showed us his photo that was in a magazine around town. I was with a celebrity :-). How could I not be in good hands. Sia peddled me all over the city to different shopping districts, pointed out the old French colonial architecture, tried to explain Vietnamese history with his broken English (hey better than my Vietnamese that’s for sure), and safely navigated me through the motor-crazy streets aka war zone. Again I was terrified and closed my eyes every time we entered a 4 lane (that means like 20 lanes in moto terms) street. At the Norte Dame Cathedral we ran into fellow Hiroshima JETs. We reminisced at the Vietnam War or better known as the ‘American War’ Remnants museum, which has no qualms showing the affects of the war, highlighting America’s follies. Not a proud place to be an American. It is interesting to compare the Vietnam War Museum to
Yummy FruitYummy FruitYummy Fruit

local market on the same street as the boys's house
the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima (both areas being attacked severly by the American forces) because they both portray very different messages. In Vietnam they highlight that America sucks, where as in the Hiroshima museum the main focus is Peace and remembrance. Last on the itinerary was a trip to the War Reunification Headquarters. After the city tour we decided to pop into Casa de Andrew and John to see if they were down to go get a massage or head out somewhere around town. The boys had a different agenda. It was just about beer o’clock on that fine Christmas Eve day evening and the Bia Hoi 33 was calling our names. It was Scottish Josh’s birthday and we were going to help him celebrate. Here are some interesting facts about Vietnamese beer: 1) It is common to have a big chunk of ice in your beer to keep it cold, 2) It is sold in plastic gas containers, 3) 3 liters costs about a dollar, 3) Cheers is YO!, and 4) your cup just never seems to go empty.

Since it was Christmas Eve we later headed to the cathedral to take part in festivities. We were
Fresh FisnFresh FisnFresh Fisn

still alive in some cases!
lost amongst the crowds and missed the procession, and instead just celebrated with all the others in the streets. It was out of control. I felt like it was New Years-confetti, parties, and music. The moto population doubled and was complete gridlock. It was one of those moments where it was the right place at the right time, feeling like you were in the moment of it all. I love that feeling. Next up was a ‘club’ called Aqua that had everything from disco bowling, KFC, arcades, yet no dancing. Back at the Bia Hoi we had quite the international crew: one Norwegian, one Scottish, one English, one swiss, five Americans (4 from Cali what what), and some crazy Vietnamese guys. Another late night, yet no spottings of Santa’s sleigh in the sky- assuming ‘when in Rome’ and he took a moto incognito instead.

Christmas Eve Day was also my first time to ride a moto…EVER. Talk about jumping in head first. The first time I rode one I was freaking out. I followed the driver’s instructions and stood on the left then threw my right leg over. I sat very close to my driver and put my hands
Co Giang RoadCo Giang RoadCo Giang Road

Boys street
around his waste holding on for dear life. We ventured out into the streets into the chaos. As scared as I was it was actually kind of fun! We ended up riding on numerous motos, yet every time I felt a rush the moment I sat down on the back of one. I only wrapped my hands around the waste of my first driver. With the rest I held onto their shoulders, white knuckled with sweaty palms when I got off. As a woman it is very common to ride side saddle, especially if wearing a skirt. When that was mentioned to me I replied ‘You are kidding right?’ Even in my cute mini skirt I refused to have my 2 legs dangling off to one side. Instead, I gave the people around me a nice little show. An incredible first experience that’s for sure.

The next day Jeff and I headed out of town to check out the famous Viet Cong Cu Chi tunnels (yes I did just say cu chi and you can stop laughing now!)- one of the reasons why they won the war- to continue to hear about America’s downfall during the Vietnam War (hey we messed up its true!). We walked through the park to see various openings leading to the underground tunnels and saw numerous booby trap replicas. This was all just a constant reminder to me how much I hate war and death. I was tempted to shoot the AK47 for kicks, but realized I hate shooting guns, and for $1.6 a bullet was not so interested. No regrets NOT shooting the guns. They made a piercing noise every time they were fired that echoed throughout the place, and in the distance a faint soothing music was heard- weird mixture. Next we crawled through the replica tunnels. As I get older I am realizing I get more claustrophobic, so only made it through the first section. I was fine when I didn’t think about where I was or when Jeff was not blocking the tiny lamp guiding us. When he did that I would scream and he would tell me to relax- typical Casey/Jeff behavior.

Back in HCMC I wandered the streets and braved crossing them alone. My technique was to follow an old lady with a walker- no one is going to hit an old lady with a walker! I
VietnamVietnamVietnam

Gotta love the hats
found my bootleg DVDs, got some suits made, and a killer pair of shades. Getting the suits was a fun experience. I asked the glasses place where I can get some suits made. They pointed me in the direction of the large Ben Thanh market- a large covered market selling everything. I start walking the aisles and find myself inthe fabric section. There were a cazillion stalls with rolls of fabric. I did not know where to begin. I walked up to one and said "Do you make suits?" and before I knew it I was picking out fabrics and heading to the tailor. They asked me what I wanted- man I had no idea! I gave them my order, said I would be back on January 7th and was off back to the house, unsure of what I would be getting on the 7th. At $80 a pop, it was a steal! That night the boys were having a huge Christmas Extravaganza- carols, food, and John even wore his Santa hat. Then he opened up Christmas presents with his family back home via Skype. It was great going back to their place knowing there were tons of people to
Vietnamese Sandwich StandVietnamese Sandwich StandVietnamese Sandwich Stand

We loved and lived off these sandwiches. At like 30 cents a pop it was a sweet deal
play with. Adi bought a peculiar orange fruit for us to try, only to find out from the Vietnamese girls that it was poisonous. A crew of Aussie girls teaching in HCMC brought even more life to the party. My shining moment of the night was falling off the curb as I was waving to the Aussie girls. It was quite a scene trying to bandage my foot to stop the bleeding. In addition to the big gash on my right toe, I managed to sprain my left ankle and scrape up my left knee. Pure grace and class! I must say that I didn't think anything could rival last year's Christmas in Bangkok eating falafel, drinking Chang beer, popping wheelies during tuk tuk races, and making out in the Patpong District. But I must say this year in Saigon was one for the books. Definitely a fun experience and up there with Bangkok.

The next morning it was time for Jeff and I to leave ‘Fratville’ and head north. It was hard to leave- John and Andrew’s seems like a black hole. Once there the fun never stops so you may never want to leave. They definitely made Saigon a memorable place that was you know, kinda sorta fun ;-). We knew we would be seeing the again right before we left for Japan. Up next…DaLat.





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Fire waiting to happen
Norte Dame CathedralNorte Dame Cathedral
Norte Dame Cathedral

Ran into some Hiroshima JETs at the slightly-out-of-place cathedral in Saigon
Vietnamese TempleVietnamese Temple
Vietnamese Temple

One of the temples around town (forget the name!) that sia took us to


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