Xin Chao! (Hello, in Vietnamese).
Well, I finally made it to Vietnam. I’ve actually been here for about 3 weeks, but I’m lagging behind a little on posts so I’ll cover off getting in to Vietnam and my short time in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon).
Crossing the border from Cambodia was a breeze. The whole process took about ten minutes, involved a body temperature check, some smiling and a couple of dollars. The plan was to stay the night in the local border town of Ha Tien, and then make our way further inland the next day.
We made our way from the border to the town on bikes, with drivers who seem to be rather experienced at riding with backpacks blocking most of the bike’s controls.
Arriving in Ha Tien, the next mission was to find a place to stay. 20 minutes later, we found a suitable guest house that fit within the budget. However, upon trying to secure a room we encountered a strange request.
“You give me passport, I give to police.”
Umm, what? I’m not giving you anything other than $7. I hadn’t heard of this before, which could be put down to my own lack of research, I guess. After leaving the guest house and enquiring at a couple more, it turns out that it’s a pretty normal demand. Being a communist country, the Vietnamese government tries to do its best at knowing where you are at all times. Further travel throughout Vietnam would reveal that it’s law for hosts to make a quick report of their guests to the local police station, although holding on to your passport seems to be more about insurance for you paying your bill than anything else. In this situation , you should be able to pay for the night up front, and get your passport back after they’ve made the report.
Anyway, we sorted a place and found some local food, which wouldn’t prove to be a fair example of the Vietnamese standard (the food here is amazing). Looking in to methods of transportation, we soon realised that taking the bus to Saigon the following morning (there is NOTHING to see in Ha Tien) would waste an entire day, so we forfeited our accommodation in lieu of a sleeper bus that night that would land us in Saigon early morning. The idea was that we’d rather waste a night than a day. Enter: The Monster Truck bus.
As mentioned previously, night transport in Asia doesn’t cater for the 6’5″ white man.
I call this bus the monster truck bus because it reminded me of a monster truck hurling over rocks and dunes and generally disturbing the peace. The road was so rough and the driver was driving at such pace that every bump we hit literally launched me off the bed. Between that and his knack of resting on the horn when we so much as passed a stray cat meant that even after 2.5 servings of Lorazapam, not much sleep was achieved. However, we got to Saigon in one piece and found a hostel that let us in at 6am.
This is a typical alleyway in Saigon, where you will find the cheaper guest houses and hostels. Our one cost $5USD a night. Bikes and all sorts fly down these alleyways as if they were highways.
Due to Phil being on a time constraint, we didn’t have too much time to spend in Saigon, but wanted to check a couple of places out and get an idea of the area. One of the places we went to was the Ho Chi Minh War Museum, which paints the American – Vietnam war in a slightly different way than a lot of American war movies.
That night we found a local market, where I came across some classic nonsensical English written on clothing, and some of the largest prawns I’ve seen in my life, being cooked up next to a basket of rather fat little toads.
I’m now going to take the opportunity to express my sentiments about the traffic situation in Ho Chi Minh city (our brand new motorcycles cost $7USD a day to hire, by the way). Let me find the words to try and sum it up;
ABSOLUTE. FUCKING. MADNESS.
I’ve ridden scooters / motorbikes in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and throughout Vietnam but I’d have to say Saigon takes the cake for the craziest situation of the lot. The sheer amount of traffic, combined with impatience, the things people carry on their bikes, and the general lack of regard for any road rules, let alone something as trivial as a red light means that the roads are pretty much in a constant state of riot.
It’s difficult to get a photo that truly captures the cluster-fuck that is Saigon traffic. I attached my Go-Pro to the handle bars of my bike but it shook around too much, and the video is terrible. In all the ruckus that is going on, however, there seems to be a method to the chaos. Here’s a quick run-down of what I interpret to be the 10 unspoken rules of riding a motorcycle around the busy parts of Vietnam. They drive on the right hand side of the road here, remember.
- If you’re overtaking a bike, you overtake the bike on the left, and honk briefly, no matter how unnecessary.
- If you’re overtaking a car, honk loudly and for a sustained period of time to assert dominance, before overtaking on the right.
- If you decide to try something new and actually stop for a red light, pull up on the right if you’re a bike, on the left if you’re a car. If you have to turn left, pull up wherever the hell you want, and make sure to cut off a minimum of 4 people when turning.
- There are bike-only lanes, but these are open to interpretation. Act accordingly.
- Now, when you want to cross to the other side of the lane, or you want to cross the road on foot, disregard anyone and anything except perhaps a truck. Just pick a line and go, as long as you hold a consistent pace everyone else should move around you. Should.
- Red lights are pretty, they look good. That’s about the only function they serve.
- When you’re at a set of lights and wishing to turn across the other lane into a road, be aware that the lights are set up to let oncoming traffic through at the same time, every time. It’s a race to get there before you get blind-sided. Make sure you’re in the right gear and you’re ready to jump on that pedal, because speed is of the essence here. If you don’t make it in time, please see rule 5.
- If you haven’t used your horn in the last 8 seconds, get on that sucker, and get on it good. This asserts dominance on the road.
- Gaps in traffic aren’t space. They’re opportunities. If you don’t take the opportunity, someone else will, and nobody wants to get left behind.
- If you bump into someone, don’t make eye contact. Just honk your horn to assert dominance and carry on like nothing happened.
As well as the war museum, an unmissable part of any visit to HCMC is the tunnels. We got there quite late in the day but still got taken on a quick tour of the place, which is just one part of the labyrinth that formed a bulk of the resistance in the war.
They’re, um, quite small.
We saw some of the traps used to eliminate American forces, which don’t look pleasant at all.
I crawled through a section of around 70 metres, which proved to be a bit of a challenge.. much like the public transport in Vietnam, the tunnels were created for Vietnamese sized people!
Check out that sweat on my pants. I think it was around 34 degrees outside.
It was quite fascinating to see how little old Vietnam held off the Americans with pure logic and determination against the much more advanced American forces. A huge percentage of American casualties and injuries were ‘land’ inflicted. It’s cheap to check this place out, and includes a tour – 110,000 VMD.
Back then, sandals were made with old tyres, and tread faced backwards to throw the enemy off the trail.
I would have liked to stay longer in HCMC, and I hope to go back there one day for a little longer. We ended up taking a plane halfway up the country to save time and money. A trip to the airport from District 1 in the taxi cost about $10NZD, and I took that trip again to go and fetch my electric toothbrush after checking in. Can’t be without my eleccy brush, man.
Thanks for reading; next post will probably skip much of Da Nang as I spent the bulk of those days in bed with what I’m sure was Dengue fever contracted from a mosquito bite in Koh Rong. I’m in Hanoi now and still have much to cover between this post and now.