Saigon Crazy

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May 11th 2012
Published: May 12th 2012
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"Crazy" was certainly one of the first words that sprung to mind before I even arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is known to most people. Warned by many about this chaotic metropolis, infamously known for it's traffic jams & millions upon millions of motorbikes, I kind of knew what to expect and it certainly didn't disappoint!

I arrive at the airport, which is surprisingly brand spanking new & almost empty, breeze through the visa process (which I was expecting to be a bit of a nightmare) and hop on a bus to the the city centre. I get chatting to 5 oldish Singaporean men who are on a boys holiday while also helping local schools. One of them, a bit of an old hippy with his ponytail, embroidered multi coloured bag and adorning more wristbands than me (I'm up to 9) looks right at home. He's been to Vietnam several times and is keen to offload his advice on where to go and where not to. We reach our stop and thank god these guys know where they're going as I wouldn't have had a clue! I walk with them to the backpacker area of Pham Ngu Lao, tackling the first of what would be many near death experiences of crossing the road.

The motorbikes in their thousands come in a constant stream... There's no stopping and if you wait for a break in the traffic you'd be there until midnight, so the trick is to walk out and slowly cross the road. No stopping, no hesitating and most important of all no panicking! Which is hard to do when it seems you have 20 motorbikes heading straight for you! The hippy Singaporean has the best advice..."Just avoid the big stuff (cars, trucks etc) and the motos will work round you." So I've found the best way is to wait for the buses/cars to pass then walk out, walk slowly, and not really look left or right... Maybe a side glance out the corner of one's eye but any more than that could send you into a "trying to dodge traffic" mode, backwards & forwards, which is bound to end in a big splat. I often feel like I'm in a computer game and it's 15 points if I get to the other side! (I'm winning by the way.) Forget the green cross code - This is Vietnam!

After a 10 minute walk I find a cosy little side street of cafes & guesthouses so decide to look down here for a room. 8 Dollars seems to be the going rate which buys me a double bed in a comfortable if slightly strange room. A lot of the guesthouses & buildings here are thin & tall and terraced which means not all of the rooms have windows - and this is one of them! Wood clad walls with random Vietnamese paintings on make up the smallish area, which also has squeezed into it a dressing table & chair, television, fridge and the major highlight of a bedside lamp! This might seem a strange thing to get excited about but after 4 months of travelling I think I've had maybe 2 rooms with a bedside lamp, and one of those was the Shangri-La in Singapore (which you'd bloody well expect!) I'm all up for staying in the most basic of rooms, don't mind sharing a bathroom, a room, or even a bed but when every single time I want to turn the light out I have to bunny hop across to the light switch in my cotton liner and then bunny hop back with out stubbing my toe. The fact that the room smells of damp doesn't bother me so much - I HAVE A BEDSIDE LAMP!! I also have hot water, something which I have no need for but it seems the Vietnamese are that bit richer than their neighbours Cambodia & Laos, and this even reflects in their budget accomodation. Don't get me wrong, I'd actually rather pay a couple of dollars less and not have the creature comforts, but this is what they offer, and it does bring a little smile to my face when I get handed a fresh clean towel, soap, shampoo & tootbrushes. Attention to detail, I like to call it and I've noticed this is a thing a lot of Vietnamese pride themselves on.

I wander around the area as night falls and am exhuberated by the smells coming from the street food sellers. I get so excited when I get to a new country - so many new dishes & flavours to try! But there's only one dish on my mind right now and that is Pho. The classic Vietnamese noodle soup - the national dish. Every single street food seller is cooking up massive pots of the flavoursome broth, I'm spoilt for choice! So I pick one of the busiest with locals (always a good sign) and order a bowl of Pho Bo (with beef.). The lady pops some fresh thick rice noodles in a bowl, pours over the steaming broth, adds a few slices of cooked beef and then a forest of herbs gets thrown on the top. In addition she gives me an extra plate of yet more veg, herbs, chillies & a wedge of lime to add at my leisure. I sit myself down at one of the low tables on a tiny plastic stool, knees up to my chest, and tuck in. At first I'm not overwhelmed by the flavour... Kind of watery compared to say, a Thai soup, but as I carry on the flavours intensify through the bowl as they start to infuse the broth... By the the time I'm half way through it's amazing!! I can get used to this every night for the next 3 weeks I think!

I decide to book a couple of tours, as it's the cheapest way to do anything around here, so on my first full day I arrange to see the Cu Chi tunnels - a group of underground tunnels built by the Cu Chi people to hide & protect them from American bombs during the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it.)

Of course on the way there, there's the obligatory stop at a wood carvers factory to try and sell you stuff you don't want for ridiculous prices, but we eventually arrive. The tour is really interesting, however I've never seen a place so packed with tourists which kind of spoils it! Of course there's tourists everywhere you go, I'm not complaining about that, but when you can't see the vast array of traps & home made weapons the Vietnamese used to deter the enemy (which were very impressive by the way) because the crowd is four deep with enthusiastic 18 year olds that only come here cos you can fire an AK47, it starts to get a bit tiresome. I must admit, being able to say "I fired an AK-47" did slightly appeal to me too, until I saw the price of about £20 for a round of bullets, so I decided it was a novelty I could live without.

I really did want to learn about the history of the war, but unforunately the guide wasn't very forthcoming with information. It was more of a "These are the tunnels the Cu Chi people used to hide and fight from the Bombing-American-Bastards..." and so on and and so forth... Though really who could blame them for having this approach. Just a little more info would have been nice...

The next day I'm more excited about. 2 days on the Mekong Delta with an overnight homestay. The pick up is only impressively 10 minutes late, so I hop on the minibus and we drive for an hour and a half to the North part of delta to a city called My Tho. I get chatting to a nice Chinese lad, Jasper & a young couple from Leicester, Steve & Nat who're also travelling for a year and who've already visited South America so I spend much of the day quizzing them about it - of which they have nothing but exciting & positive opinions - Good News! But let's focus on the present for now...

We arrive at the harbour, hop in a boat and ride for an hour down the river. I've been starting to feel quite ill again the last couple of days but the cruise is nice & relaxing - in the shade with the breeze in my hair, it's nice to see the local scenery and watch the world of Vietnam go by. We stop by a small bamboo house where they're making cocunut candy - it's delicious! We try a few of the different flavours then just as we are leaving I turn around and see a man standing there with a giant Python! Now snakes are one of my many fears, often I can't even look at a picture of one but for some reason today I'm not scared. So when the man asks if I'd like to hold it I hear myself say "yes", pass Jasper my camera so he can take a photo and hold the great reptile around my neck. I can feel his tail between my legs (excuse the pun!) and he starts to wrap it around my thigh, so I decide - I got the photo... That's enough! And slowly pass the huge snake back to it's keeper.

After all the excitement we head for lunch then have a pleasant bike ride along the river before taking the boat further to our next destination - a honey farm. We enjoy some fresh lemon & honey tea before getting in traditional row boats down a small contributory. The women rowing the boats are dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing of loose pants, long sleeved fitted dresses with big slits up the side, known as Ao Dais, and the signature conical hats, which incidentally is not just a gimmick but every man or woman here wears one, and if they're not it's because they're wearing a motorbike helmet.

The lady rowing at the front turns to us "very hard, very hard"... Ok I get it, so you're after a tip. We then didn't need to be so obviously reminded of the fact by the empty boat that passes us on the right hand side, except for a lady in it saying "you pay money, you pay"... Now I was going to give a few dong before I was rudely demanded to! This, along with me noticing that not only did our rowing lady have very holy socks, but a perfectly pedicured foot underneath, dampened my generosity somewhat. Nice try love, but if you can afford a pedicure, you can afford a pair of socks!

We get off the boats and have some fresh fruit platters waiting for us along with 3 eager women singing (or at least that's what I think it was) for our entertainment. Pretty soon the day draws to an end, and the main group on the tour is split as there are only 3 of us doing the second day further down the river - myself, Nat & Steve.

We hop in a different mini bus and after about 20 minutes jump out, only to be put on a local bus that the guide has just flagged down, heading for Can Tho. Hmm... I'm used to local buses but not when you're on a paid tour... Still we get on, our guide hands a few dong to the driver (supposedly for our fare) then disappears! Great... So after a 3 hour journey to Can Tho, listening to a Vietnamese opera blaring at maximum volume the whole way, we arrive in the dark, not having a clue where to go or who we're supposed to be meeting. I'm feeling more unwell as time goes on and I just feel grateful to have Steve & Nat there and not have to deal with this alone. After about 10 minutes, a guy runs up to us sweating & panting & explains he is our new guide... "Which one of you is homestay?" he asks. I tell him I am, as the other two had taken the hotel option. Another guy appears with a motorbike..."You go with him" the man orders and points to the bike. Hang on a minute! This bike has no lights, no helmet and you expect me to get on the back and be driven through the crazy streets for half an hour..? Maybe if it had been daylight... Maybe if I didn't feel so unwell... Maybe if it wasn't just me going, and there were a few others... Then maybe I would have gone, but I decided not to - I took the easy option and stayed with Steve & Nat, who kindly said I could share their room, and was driven in a car to the hotel. All the way there I was cursing myself... What happened to my mantra: "What would Michael Palin do?"... He wouldn't have taken the hotel option would he? But then he probably wouldn't have had glands the size of tennis balls, a pounding head and the sensation of someone sticking a dagger in the throat everytime he tried to swallow. I felt really rough, so the hotel it was, and as much as I was looking forward to a homecooked traditional Vietnamese feast, the fresh baguette with Laughing Cow cheese the three of us bought in the local supermarket and shared in our hotel room, because we were all so shattered was actually equally as comforting.

The next morning is an early start. At 6am we have breakfast then climb aboard another boat for another journey down the river, this time to see Vietnam's largest floating market in Can Tho. After 20 minutes or so we approach the beginning of the market. The river has become much busier and before we know it we're surrounded by wooden boats selling all varieties of fruits & vegetables, steam coming from large pots of those selling the infamous Pho and hot coffee brewing, the smells filling the air.

After more cruising and a visit to a tropical fruit farm it's time to head back to the town for lunch before taking the 3 hour journey back to Saigon.

I'm tempted to stay in Saigon one more day. Despite it's chaotic craziness it has a certain charm. The people are friendly, the food AMAZING, the streets buzz with excitement and you don't have to walk far to get a 10,000 dong beer (30p!)... I like this place.

But Vietnam's a big old country, and I've got 3 weeks to do it in... Something tells me this isn't the only city I'm going to want to spend longer in...


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