Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ho Chi Minh here I come! Or should I say "Good Morning, Vietnam"!

June 16th. Saw every hour on the clock go by 'cos i was so worried i would sleep in! Finally got up at 5am...packed all my stuff and waited for the shuttle to take me to the airport... of course writing my postcards at the last minute, as is now my way.. did the same all through SA and NZ and now Oz!

Got to the airport in plenty of time, checked in, posted cards, then called Chase to sort out my credit card which was rejected last night and made me completely panic! Needless to say it was all based on safety; they were concerned it had been stolen because it was being used so much - gulp! Note to self - flexible friend is becoming slightly less flexible. Stop using! Flight was late taking off....and began to feel a wee bit nervous - as I'm moving out of the easy comfort zone of NZ and Oz, to Asia, but excited too! Got into Ho Chi Minh City around lunchtime.. thought i was pretty smart having organized a pick up from my hotel, right! Of course the pick-up didn't arrive and i didn't have an address for my place -what a loser; yes, i know... not exactly great planning. Plus, it's about 95 degrees here - no exaggeration and blistering hot with so much humidity my face is in a full on sweat!

Asked someone else how much a taxi into town should be ($10 apparantly but later find out it should be about $4 so please note that is rip off number 1 of about 745 rip offs that will happen to me over the next few days). Explain to taxi driver i need his help in finding my hotel - he was very nice of course - getting a $10 cab ride prob. helped!! And so the questions began (sooo reminded me of South America) first thing he asks, "do i have a boyfriend". "No" - "do i want one?".. "eh no, thank you"!! "Am i sure" - "yes thanks.." (he wasn't creepy at all, just very persistent). Then "did i have any babies" - "no, not right now". "Did I want them?" he asked with a big, cheesy grin so I could check out his lovely gold teeth..."no, not right now, but thank you very much", I explained as politely as I could! He, apparantly has four; ahem, so why does he want another girlfriend, i asked?.. he told me because he knew i would be good at having babies! Hmmn isn't it amazing what taxi drivers can tell about you within 5 mins of getting into their cab! But we had a good giggle and it was all lighthearted so no worries.

WOW - arrive into the city center - wall to wall motorbikes - seriously HCM has a population of 8 million people WITH OVER 4 million motorbikes! There are also over a million push bikes, about 300,000 xich los (bicycle rickshaws with the chair at the front, the bicycle at the back) and few cars thrown in for good measure! First impressions - complete mayhem and madness.. but really excilarating.. didn't feel nervous at all, well, except when it came to crossing the street.
LP actually gives you tips on what to do, seriously! Wait till there is a break in traffic (hahaha, you will be there all day) then walk confidently at a slow pace so they can go around you. Whatever you do DO NOT go backwards - they will smell fear and mow you down. Only kidding but it is totally wild!!

Arrived at Kim's Hotel (yup, at least i knew the name!); very, very clean, single room with lovely bathroom, satellite tv, air con and fridge for $10 - feels like luxury, esp. after smelly dorms for the last 7 weeks. And nice view from my room eh! Apparantly, this is expensive for Vietnam but i was very happy! Funny, as you walk down the alley way to get to the hotel, all you can hear is "Madam, madam, you want room...you need room".. I would learn that calling out to the newbie tourists is the norm around here...hotels, taxi's, food stalls, you name it, they want to get your attention! Fair enough!

So, as I do, I got LP out, and began to acquaint myself with the city.. and the money.. it is approx. 16,000 dong to $1.... hhmnnn, so when i got a diet coke that was 8,000 dong, yup that was only 50 cents!! But think i'll need to bring my calculator with me when things are 30 or 40,000 dong.. can't do that kind of math in my wee head!

A little on Ho Chi Minh then for you detail lovers (check out the pic - isn't this a great shot of the man with Our Lady and Mickey Mouse.. what better company!), but I digress...oh, im sorry! Am I the only one who likes this stuff? OK lets go! HCM aka Saigon (the city's old name which alot of the residents here still use even tho' the new name is in reverence to the famous man himself!), is the economic capital of Vietnam. It is a bustling (understatement of the year!), dynamic and industrious city, by far the largest in the country. The streets are mazes, with cobbled together shops, stalls, stands-on-wheels and vendors just holding their stuff and shouting "you want Lonely Planet, cheap cheap!" (There are so many fake LP's here.. so why did i bring mine with me from Boston?). Within all the craziness and the constant noise of mobile phones, horns honking, people shouting, you can still see that there lies many timeless traditions and there is indeed the beauty of an ancient culture. Amid the new buildings, and thousands of electrical wires that criss-cross the city, you also see many pagodas, temples, little shrines by the sides of the road..... Spirituality is definitely entwined with the pursuit of capitalism here, an altogether odd affair considering this is still very much a communist country!

Decided to head out and check out the landscape. Kims hotel is in the Pham Ngu Lao area of town. Went to find the famous Ben Thanh market (of course i DIDN'T find it .. got lost instead, or thought i was but ended up actually being about 2 mins away from it, oh well!) BUT did find lots of other great streets with food vendors, lots of people sitting on tiny wee red stools eating and chatting away, .. and the tourist area where you book your tours in and around the city. Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta so looked into those.. Wierd - all the prices are the same (my wee lady at the hotel says they are all a cooperative so doesnt matter who you go with!) but there are about 5,000 different operators... yup, all shouting "Hey Missy, Missy you need a tour!".. kind of defeats the purpose if they are all in cahoots but whatever! Anyway, great atmosphere.. loved soaking it all up!

Walked around for a good bit - feel totally safe here, even at night...I had asked the wee lady at the hotel where i could get some good - AKA real, not touristy - Vietnamese food. "What you want - kom or pho - rice or noodles" she asked! Having read up on my Vietnamese on the plane, i comfortably replied "noodles" teehee no i replied in Vietnamese, seriously - but it's not exactly hard tho'! She gave me directions to Bich Pho.. and after some running around.. i found it. Loved it - the only foreigner there. Pointed to what i wanted, then everyone in the restaurant (well, think more store front cafe) stared at me as i asked "do i put the leaves into the noodle soup or eat separately"....Of course no-one spoke English so not sure why I was asking.. but with some good hand signs, they explained to me! It was delicious! Dinner and a Fanta for 60c.. ridiculous eh.. maybe I'll be able to keep to a decent budget with that sort of price eh.. (nah... read on - i'm beyond loser status when it comes to money, bargaining, and being strong about it - yup,all of the above!)

Then i went to check the internet - again, loved it! The only "foreigner" in a room the size of my bathroom at home with about 200 computers, everyone either "gamers" or on instant messenger or online dating .. hilarious! Oh yes, one other observation. I did notice that everytime i had to ask for directions -from police men, hotel people, street vendors - yup i got lost a lot as you know, they were all so incredibly nice... unbelievable .. so friendly and want to make sure you get where you need to go!
Another good thing - managed to find my hotel again - yup, that's right folks. I'm officially on top of things, here! Looked up my "Easy Rider" contact in Dalat in the Central Highlands, who my friend Marieke used when she was in Vietnam for her motorbike tour.. hope to do this later in my trip so fingers crossed 'cos Marieke raved about it! Tomorrow I want to get the lay of the land and check out the sights here in Ho Chi Minh....so far, pretty good!

June 17th. Decided not to take the easy AKA touristy option of doing a city tour! Not me, i would walk my way around this place, even if it was about 100 degrees, no problem. Started off well, managed to smile politely at the 42 motorbikes shouting "Missy, missy, you need ride?"..... then Minh appeared! Yes, he who is my nemesis! How obvious could it be that I'm a complete soft touch! Minh is a xich lo driver; with a beautifully prepared testimonial booklet with notes and photos of very smiley people who thoroughly enjoyed being driven around HCM by him...."for very good price" he claimed.....Hmmnn, I softened and he went in for the kill. "It's too hot for you here, you will enjoy the xich lo ride around my beautiful city".... and i will admit that although part of me felt bad that these poor wee folks have to pedal us big, lumbering tourists around, there is the romantic side of sitting there, watching the city go by, from a previously unknown vantage point! Now all the books say, confirm your price before you get in, otherwise you are a goner! You know what comes next.. I thought we had agreed to $8 but again my dong to dollar conversion may not be quite up to speed yet. Stay tuned for the official outcome but first the lovely route we took!

And so we headed off, and yes, the same ole' questions began. As Minh was chatting away about the whole baby thing, we stopped at a red light, and then the guy sitting on the motorbike next to us, asked Minh if i was married! I mean really... am i that interesting - dont think so! So we drove past Ben Thanh market (hence i realised i was only 20 feet away from it last night!; then on to Notre Dame Cathedral, and then we went to the War Remnants Museum; the key museum that documents the atrocities of the Vietnam war and the effects on the people of this country. Absolutely heartbreaking. I know we all think we know tons about the war from films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now etc. and from reading about it, but nothing compares to being in Vietnam looking at horrific photos, and reading about the journalists who lived and breathed - and many of them died - with the soldiers in the field. I found some of the photos really hard to look at; definitely chilling stuff. So many who died - Vietnamese and American. Everything related to Agent Orange and the effect on the people and the landscape of Vietnam. There were even jars with disfigured fetuses in the museum (what!)...showing what Agent Orange did. There was also a whole piece on the many massacres that took place in villages in the countryside e.g. the horror of Mai Lai, and there was a piece on ex-Senator Bob Kerrey who was accused in 2002 of being involved in a similar situation in Thanh Phong village on Feb. 25, 1969. Kerrey has denied the massacre but the investigation continues here in Vietnam along with many others. There was also a war and peace room nearby, where children from many of the local schools had drawn out their interpretation of what had happened to their country; both the past and hopefully, the future too! This was heartbreaking in a completely different way; young children who clearly still have a vivid knowledge of what happened here, only 30 years ago. But to be positive for a second, they did seem to see hope for the future, where everyone could live in peace together (a nice thought eh!).

After this (with Minh faking concern when i came out after clearly bawling my eyes out - sorry i know i sound mean but he's such a rip off artist!) we headed off to the Emperor Jade Pagoda well, i know it was a pagoda, not sure if it was really the Jade one!).. then Minh asked if i wanted to sit and have a coffee; and as i've been brought up properly i obviously asked him if he wanted one."Why thank you" he faked his surprise - wee toad! We sat by the side of the road and chatted away, felt like i was having a great non-tourist moment hanging with my peeps; my Vietnamese is obviously rudimentary at this point. I have "hello" = "xin chao".. "thank you" = Cam on" and "please" = "lam on".. he had a tiny bit of English but between us we got by.( Of course he immediately asked me how much money i make, and how lucky i was and how poor he was). So of course my bubble burst and i felt rotten; totally understandable from their perspective, all these tourists coming in, clearly enjoying themselves, and then these people, who really do work hard and earn very little (in many ways it does remind me of South America). We went past the Saigon river, then Minh casually reminds me of the price - $25 (what - i replied, i thought we agreed on $8). He then proceeded to have an almost "Incredible Hulk" experience; ok he didn't turn green but he did start blowing up and going quite red actually! I felt a tad nervous; i mean size wise i could crush him like a grape, but i didnt want to appear cheap or exploitative in any way so of course i agreed "yes, no problem". I later learn this is the point where you are supposed to say "no chance buddy, im getting out and ill pay you what we agreed" but i had a lot to learn .. so no, that didnt happen! THEN to add insult to injury (and here you will just laugh at me.. yes laugh out loud i know it!).. he asks me if i want to buy a traditional "ao dai" Vietnamese tunic and trousers. No thank you, I clearly remember saying. Well, just take a look, he says, much cheaper than Ben Thanh market and really good quality. This, I later learn is of course, a key strategy for these guys, who get commission from the clothes stores. Next thing i know im trying on hideous tunics in pea green, the curtain behind which im trying to hide my non-too slim self is billowing open with the fan (as its about 150 degrees) so Minh has a nice full view as he sits there saying, that colour is nice on you! What! Then - to cap it all off, the "seamstresses" - and i use that word very loosely folks - hum and haw and tut and then say "Missy, you big girl, not fat, just very big girl. We need to make special for you!". Great - thanks kill me now! If you are ever slightly concerned about your weight - don't - i repeat do not - go to Asia where every woman is a size -0 (i mean tiny !!). I didnt even want a dress; they tell me its $35 (unheard of high price i later learn and of course i dont bargain!) and so i part with a deposit and they will make it and bring it to me tomorrow night!. Im sorry - what just happened?? I feel like i was run over by a bus and now i have whip lash! Well, my own gullible fault. Repeat after me - I must get better at this!...

So you would think this is where we part ways - basically because i am now having buyers remorse and my passive-aggressive tendancies are out in full force. But no, we still have the Reunification Palace to go to, where he drops me off - thank goodness! After i say goodbye to Minh (after giving him a tip - i know, i know!!!) i head in to find out what this place is all about. Built in 1966 to serve as South Vietnam's Presidential Palace, and designed as the home of former President Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-backed leader of Vietnam in the '60s, (a horrible man by any standards as i learned! and a Catholic too, tut tut!), this building is most notable for its symbolic role in the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when its gates were breached by North Vietnamese tanks and the victor's flag hung on the balcony; the very tanks that crashed through the gates are enshrined in the entryway and photos and accounts of their drivers are on display. As well as some pretty wierd presents that Mr Diem received during his time in office (elephant feet - gross!) The building has been left just as it looked that day. It is noted for its striking 1960s architecture, the creation of Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu.
Included on our tour are visits to conference rooms, the Presidential Receiving Room, basement tunnels and war room (looking very basic indeed but hey i suppose it is a war room, its not like Martha Stewart would be in there, sprucing it up!), telecommunications center and the residential quarters, as well as a back terrace complete with heliport, and a cinema no less! Some of it is so kitsch, its almost retro-cool!

When I came out of the Palace, it poured down - my first experience of "monsoon" weather. But it didnt last long and then the sun came out again, beating down on us as hot as ever! I found my way back to the Ben Thanh market and pottered around for ages; practicing my bargaining powers. Did a bit better i think but still have loser written all over me! See, its just not in my nature to do this! I remember visiting my sister Siobhan in Singapore and as she said "its a dance, a game". They know they are asking too much, they know you will cut it in half, the key is to come away with something you are both happy with. You should never be disrespectful by starting too low - but i did see a lot of people beating up the sales folks (not literally of course!) for the cheapest price ever! Yuk! Gorgeous food section here with spices, and dried fruits, fish and everything in between. So many fruits i have never seen before, from dragon fruit, to langostines, to rambutans.. all delicious and exotic! Also you can get the most amazing fruit drinks here - check out my fresh coconut drink, straight from the fruit - deeelicious!

And so ends my first day in Ho Chi Minh.. incredible place, I really love it (even with the whole Minh/dress situation!). Can't wait to let you know how the "dress/tunic/Santa Claus outfit" turns out when i get it tomorrow!


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