Turning 40 in Saigon

9 02 2012

Today was the big one:  Roger’s 40th Birthday (Happy Birthday gorgeous!) and it was a birthday that he would never forget!

If you’re the kind of person who walks on the far side of the footpath to avoid people collecting money for charities, or shop assistants trying to tempt you with the latest new-age defying moisturiser, then you will find Ho Chi Minh City confronting and challenging, as did my husband!  From the minute we made our virgin dash across the pedestrian crossing we were pestered non-stop.  “Gidday-ya.  Where you going mister?” a grinning cyclo-driver called out as he walked towards us, arms outspread in an attempt to shepherd us towards his tatty blue bicycle.

And it pretty much continued like that all day:  sunglasses, motorcycle taxi-rides through the city (I don’t bloody well think so!), lighters, ice creams, cone hats – all sorts!  At one point Roger whispered, “Don’t get your map out, people will know we’re tourists.” I looked at him in his NZ Tui beer hat with his bright red, sweaty face and white legs.  “I don’t think it’s the map that will give us away dear,” I laughed.

The Saigon Schmoozer - I wonder how many other tourists have a photo of this guy?

But it had to happen sooner or later.  The friendliest, happiest Vietnamese man living in Saigon approached us balancing buckets of ice cold water and coconut milk in little coconut shells.  He spoke the best English of anyone we had met so far, he walked us up the road and showed us where to cross to get to the Reunification Palace, he posed for photos with me, he let Roger carry his wares for him….and when we tried to walk away, his little face dropped and his big brown eyes pleaded with us.  “Ahhh come on mister, it so heavy and I work so hard.”  I sighed.  Roger looked at me.  “It is heavy ,” he agreed, nodding solemnly.  And that was it – hook, line and sinker.  I was done for.  “How much for water?” I bemoaned.  “Thirty thousand.”  Without even a second thought my dong was out of my purse and into his hand.  I paid four times more than I would have in the supermarket, which was still very cheap compared to NZ, but my haggling needed some serious attention!

He was the first of many we encountered carrying water and coconut milk

Roger trying his hand at street selling.

around the streets, most of them power-walking along beside us talking hard and fast to get us to give up our dong.  In the end, Roger thought the best idea would be to carry a coconut around with him all day just so that they would leave us alone!

Our first stop was the Ben Thanh markets.  Let the bartering begin!  Having first been told by some cyclo-drivers at the roundabout that it wasn’t open for another hour and a half and did we want a jaunt around the city while we waited (thanks Lonely Planet – I was prepared for that little deception!), we strolled on in.  It was enormous , an intricate web of row upon row of stalls.  Every step we took hawkers hung shorts, shirts, scarves, watches in front of our faces.  “You buy Madam.  You like Mister?”  Oh we liked alright!  This was it.  Our big haggling experience had arrived.

So we cruised the stalls, checking ‘em out and then we arrived at the food section which sent Roger’s nostrils into overdrive and his gag-o-meter off the scale!  As we passed a stall filled with what looked like bags of dried penises, the smell was horrific and Roger veered quickly, hand over mouth, towards the nearest exit – only to double back when faced with a posse of cyclo-driving, sunglass selling peddlers standing outside the door.  “Ha mister Mister, you ride!” they shouted at him.  In a flash he had turned on his heels and scurried off quicker than a cockroach down another row, me hot-footing it behind him.

All in all we were too flustered, harassed and hot to buy….well, actually….we completely chickened out!  We exited the market only fifteen minutes after we went in, and all the things we were going to buy for “only one NZ dollar” stayed hanging on the racks.

We moseyed around the streets past the Rex Hotel, Notre Dame and the impressive Post Office,.  We visited the Reunification Palace and then finally arrived at the War Remnants Museum.  This last attraction I found quite disturbing as images of deformed and mutated men, women and children affected by Agent Orange and other nasties hung gruesomely on the walls, tormenting me throughout all three levels of the building.   My ignorance can be completely embarrassing at times.  The only thing I knew about the Vietnam War I learned from the “Tour of Duty” television series in the eighties, and even then I spent more time ogling the hunky Sergeant!

Replica tank that broke down the gates of the Reunification Palace.

We wandered back through the streets of the city, wrestling with the traffic the whole way, before arriving back at our hostel whereupon our host hugged us both with delight as we stumbled exhausted, hot and sweaty into the foyer.  I think he was relieved that we had made it back alive!

For his birthday treat Roger had originally planned to go to a massage spa that was recommendation number two on Trip Advisor’s top 10 things to do in Ho Chi Minh, however it was on the other side of town so instead he went to a place just around the corner from where we were staying.

As it turned out it was a Traditional Massage centre run by the Vietnamese Blind Association, all of the masseurs being either fully or partly blind.  They managed to find their way around his English body no problem and he returned to our hostel feeling relaxed albeit frazzled after a demanding day.

Notre Dame, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Our next jaunt would be out to the Mekong Delta and both of us were looking forward to getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city, which is one hell of an understatement.  The culture shock had hit us hard since arriving, but my mum always says things look different after a good night’s sleep.

Kiri 🙂

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Psycho Scooter Drivers In Saigon

7 02 2012

POSTINGS DELAYED DUE TO STUPID, BLOODY WI-FI ACCESS AT OUR HOSTEL IN SAIGON. SO FRUSTRATING! Grrrrrrrr…

After what felt like three weeks on a plane and one hundred stop overs, we finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City.  Our primary objective was to get our entry visa, get the bags and meet our taxi pick-up waiting outside.  We had prepared the forms and photos for our visa and presented these quickly with our passports to the visa clerk who snatched them from us and impatiently waved us on to the next clerk.  We shuffled two steps to the right and stood in front of her. She immediately waved us back to the clerk we had just come from without so much as a glance, so we shuffled two steps back to the left.  in turn waved us away again muttering “Na dong yipso” or some such thing.

We looked around confused before shuffling with trepidation towards the military officials sitting nearby.  Both boys, all of about 18 years old, completely ignored us, continuing to text on their phones while we stood waiting stupidly to be noticed.  In frustration I viciously shook my slip of paper at them and they waved me back to where we had come from.

At this point we realised we no longer actually had our passports and didn’t have a clue what we were supposed to do.  Eventually, an English speaking tourist advised us that we were to take a seat and wait until our name was called.  We were stunned, is THAT what the hand wave meant?  If this was how communication was going to be in Vietnam, then we were well and truly up the Mekong without a paddle!  Welcome to Saigon.

And then we came head to head with Saigon traffic. There were scooters, hundreds and hundreds of them, everywhere!  Scooters going the wrong way, scooters without their lights on, scooters carrying up to five passengers at once, including children who seemed to be the only people NOT wearing helmets.  Children were even sleeping on scooters wedged in between mum and dad, heads lolling up and down as the small motorcycle bumped over the potholes in the road.

Add to that buses and taxis weaving amidst all this and throw in a few pedestrians trying to cross the road and you’ve got yourself one hell of a chaotic transportation system!  You can imagine what we must have looked like in the back of our cab, faces pressed against the glass with mouths gaping and eyes wide in disbelief.

It wasn’t until 4am the next morning when the local rooster was crowing its head off down our back alley (you can imagine our pleasure at that!) we realised we were going to have to confront this madness.  While the pedestrian crossings exist at every intersection, the traffic does not stop for you.  We learned this on our first day in Saigon while standing at a corner waiting patiently for some considerate drivers to stop, or for a gap in the traffic.

Fifteen minutes later we were still standing on the footpath outside our hostel.  Unless we wanted to spend the rest of the day walking around the block, we were going to have to conquer these intersections!  Roger and I grabbed each other’s hands, stepped off the pavement and took three strides onto the road as surgical masked scooter riders closed in around us.  And then we froze!  Idiots!

Could you step confidently into the middle of this?

Scooters, cars and buses were zipping around us on all sides.  Watching the left we managed to negotiate to the middle, then watching the right we managed to negotiate our way to the other side, and almost thinking we had made it, two scooters came unexpectedly from the left again (on the wrong side of the road no less!) and we scampered up over the gutter.  Standing there after my near death experience I swear I thought my legs would buckle.  My adrenalin was on full pump, my armpits had exploded, my hands were trembling uncontrollably and my legs looked like my knees had folded backwards.  I clung to Roger for support as we made our way down the avenue to the markets….and then we arrived at the next intersection….and it was a bloody roundabout!  You can see a clip of me crossing the road here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INKQk-I0oQw

(Mum – best you don’t watch this, you’re too young for stents!)

I really can’t do enough justice in describing the traffic.  Roger’s photos will give you an idea, but even those I don’t think capture the reality of it!  Oh and we also spent some time marvelling at the electrical concepts they are employing over here….Sharni or Jan, you must show this to Steve!

Isn't there some saying about getting your wires crossed?

Anyway, I have no doubt that traffic is something that Saigon is famous for….but I never read about it in the Lonely Planet – or anywhere else for that matter – and just a heads up would have been nice!

One thing I have learned today – once you’re committed to crossing the road follow it through, don’t hesitate or waver for a second – that’s the safest way to reach the other side.

Kiri 🙂