13 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 2

You arrive in Saigon at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, and you are greeted by soldiers wearing '70s/'80s style olive drab uniforms with red trim, straight out of Central Casting. It really is a reminder that you have entered a different place. The airport is pretty grimy, looking much like it did in the mid-70s. You immediately proceed to Immigration, which flows pretty quickly, and then off for your luggage. There was no hassle at all, but the airport felt - and looked - like a ghost town.

Vietnam is a fascinating place. It combines the ancient history of all Asian countries with the recent history that is so relevant to me as an American. The U.S. may have left here militarily in the early 1970s, but it is back economically, as the U.S. dollar is the currency of choice here. Almost everything you see is priced in both dollars and Vietnamese Dong, the local currency. The dong trades at around 16,000 per dollar. I didn't have any USD, but I traded my Singapore dollars at around 10,000 per dollar. And after changing S$150, I was a millionaire - I walked away with 1.5 million dong, a wealthy man. Then I immediately paid 75,000 dong for a 7 km cab ride to my hotel, and I realized the extent of my "wealth".

A light rain was falling as I got into the taxi and we took off towards the old city centre (cars here drive on the right side of the road, so I once again was turned around). The traffic was incredible. I don't know of anywhere else where you will see so much scooter traffic. It was crazy! There were all kinds of two- and three-wheeled mechanized devices out there, some from well-known manufacturers, the others clearly the work of a resourceful mechanic. One man passed us with a wooden frame, about 5' by 5', over his shoulder. Another passed us with a full load of trash on the front of the "scooter". There were thousands of them. And they all sort of go where they want, continuously using their horns to warn other scooters and cars or just acknowledge their place in the world. It was not unusual to see a scooter dart through traffic perpendicular to the flow, just to get to the other side of the road. Or, you might see another scooter riding on the wrong side of the road because it cut down the distance to its next turn. And the taxi navigated all this with short taps on the horn and deft maneuvering through the crowds. What is more amazing is that people will walk across the street in this traffic. All you do is start walking. Don't stop, don't change your pace, don't look at the traffic. Just go. The scooters will avoid you, as long as you are predictable. The minute you stop, it upsets the entire system. It was wild.

I got to my hotel, the Continental, which is on a central square across from the opera house. It opened in 1880 and still has that grand old style. The hallways are beautifully tiled with high ceilings. My room featured 12 foot ceilings, a large sleeping area, and a very nice sitting area overlooking the street. Harking back to its original era, the beds were singles. The room was fabulous - very civilized. The hotel itself plays a central role in Graham Greene's book about the beginning of American involvement in the French was in Indochina, The Quiet American. I highly recommend it (or the Majestic Hotel, along the Saigon River) should you visit the city.

It was still early, but I was able to check into my room and have a bowl of traditional Vietnamese pho, a (beef) noodle dish. If you pour all the little red and green chile slices into the bowl, it can be quite spicy. Washed down with a cup of white coffee (Vietnamese coffee poured over a layer of condensed, sweetened milk), it makes a pretty good breakfast (more on the coffee later).

It continued to lightly rain, but it was just enough to cool everything off without making it miserable. My guidebook featured a walking tour that would take me around the heart of the old city, and I was eager to take it. Saigon is interesting - I was expecting something like Bangkok, with huge skyscrapers and very modern amenities. You get a ten- or twelve-storey hotel every once in a while in Saigon, but mostly it is a city of low rise buildings, some with classic French architecture, others that are simply old, worn out tenements. It really has a small-town feel to it, apart from the traffic. At least that was the case in the old District 1, where I was. The streets are lined with little restaurants, cafes, bars, scooter repair shops, and all kinds of retail stores selling all kinds of brand names (fake and real). As you can see from the picture above, there is a big western influence here. I did find it strange that several shops were selling intricate ship models, miniatures of those that patrolled the seas for the major powers hundreds of years ago.

I wandered for a while before finding the start of the "trail", an area popular with backpackers. On the way, I had to cross my first roundabout. This one was big, with a park and statue in the middle, and the traffic just flew around it. The streets were about four lanes wide, but I had to cross. So, I just started walking. And, amazingly, all the scooters avoided me. What didn't avoid me were the cyclo drivers and scooter drivers who wanted to ferry me around town. While the fares are cheap, I wanted to walk, and so I turned down the first few of what would be more than a hundred offers over the weekend.

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