Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, March 3-9
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is a large city in southern Vietnam. It can get confusing sometimes because maps, addresses, and people all use the two names interchangeably at times. I may do the same so be forewarned. When I said it was a large city, I meant it. According to my tour guide, it has 10 million people and 5 million motorbikes…there are A LOT of motorbikes around this place! On a side note—it is legal for 4 people to be on a bike, two adults and 2 kids. This law is broken all the time.
Saigon was a great place to start our journey in Vietnam. It's a vibrant city with great energy. My first view from the 2nd story of our double-decker bus was of ALL the motorbikes below. There are even separate lanes for the bikes. (They also create their own on sidewalks so watch out!) I had been warned of the crazy/overwhelming sensation many travelers experience here so I was glad Peter was with me and I wasn't venturing into it alone. Turns out, our trip was quite underwhelming, in a good way. The bus dropped us off downtown and we caught a cab (made sure to take one of the few LEGIT companies that my friend, Brian, had sent me) and make it to Brian's house no problem.
Brian is an American friend who has been living in Vietnam for a few years. He was a WONDERFUL host, offering us his house (nicest place I've stayed this whole trip!), food, movies, gym, time, and travel advice…not to mention being an awesome guy to hang out with….if you didn't catch it already, we are VERY grateful to Brian (and his roommates for lending us their room and letting us stay)!!! The first night in town, we had dinner with some friends of Brian's and then called it an early night of movies, sleep.
The next day, we went to the gym! It was so nice to do something routine and to people watch the locals doing something every- day, normal. We grabbed some lunch and then headed downtown to fix Peter's camera and book some tours for the next few days. On Brian's advice, we booked with Sinh Tourist and it was a GREAT decision. We ended up using them the entire time in country and had no problems. Almost every one of our friends who booked with other companies got screwed in some way or another so we felt blessed. (I'll explain later)
Besides great travel advice, the other most useful tip Brian taught us was how to cross the street! The streets of Saigon are INSANE! The traffic does not stop…ever. If you waited for traffic to stop before crossing the street, you would never be able to go. Instead, you slowly walk into oncoming traffic, and keep a slow, steady pace, even when your instinct is to run as quickly as possible away from the fast vehicles coming towards you. This will get you killed as the cars can't anticipate that. If you keep a steady pace, they simply go around you. Keep in mind, this advice is for motor bikes. If big vans are coming, you wait for them. When you see mostly bikes, you just start walking.
It was a bit intimidating at first, but Peter and I both decided we loved it. You could even walk with your eyes closed since the vehicles all go around you! We also decided that it was our favorite place to walk compared to other cities and we actually felt safer because the vehicles looked out for you---we missed this in other places when we had to actually wait to cross and we more scared that bikes would not stop. Check out the video on FB of crossing…it's intense! So there you have it: crossing the street in Siagon= wait for the big cars to pass, when you see a lot of motorbikes coming at you, step right into them and walk slow and steady and don't panic!
The next two days in Saigon, we took day trips to the Cu Chi tunnels and the Delta Mekong River Area. We also met up with Peter's Dutch friend he met in Laos downtown one night. After seeing the royal palace, cathedral, and post office (from the outside—Peter and I make great lazy travel partners), the boys went for drinks while I got my nails done. Was ripped off but it was a tourist area so wasn't much to do about it. At least I got to translate for a Cuban lady there. After the sites, we met Brian and his girlfriend for dinner at a local restaurant. There were only locals there and the seafood was in live tanks and cooked fresh when ordered—it was a great meal!
Other memories of Saigon include:
*Answering a survey for a local college student and then having her "walk" us across the road 'cuz she was scared for us
*Peter surprising me with a "World Without Strangers" (aka pedophile shirt/inside joke)
*Running through the parks, getting lost and gesturing to a group of high school students that I needed to get back towards a big tower monument. It took like 10 minutes and good laughs but we got it!
*Running in a stadium while the construction workers gathered around to watch me. I was running bleacher stairs and every time I reached the top, there was another person watching. When I was done, I beat them at their own game and took photos of them : )
*Eating delicious pizza and NZ ice cream!
*Riding on the back of motorbike taxis and weaving in and out of traffic so close I was scared for my life! I'm talking, you can touch the other people without extending your arm, close.