SAIGON...SHIT! I'M STILL ONLY IN SAIGON
Vietnam, a country rich in history, has been drawing me towards it for a few years now. Part of the appeal was the stories I had heard about how friendly the people were and the other big attraction was due to the Vietnam War. A few of my father’s friends were in the war and also my father was scheduled to go, but they started to withdraw troops before he left.
A lot has changed since the end of the war and the fall of Saigon in 1975. I have booked just over a week here, with no real fixed agenda, just a few places I hoped to visit. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) a bit past midnight. To enter the country you need a visa or a pre-approval letter. I had organised a letter online for $21, which was emailed to me and I printed out. You can organise a visa at the consulate if you prefer not to wait at the airport. At the airport there was a section to the side of immigration to organise a visa on arrival. I handed in my passport and letter and application then waited for my name to be called which took about 40 minutes. I then handed the uniformed officer $50 US dollars for a $45 US visa. He threw the money in a box and when I asked about my changed he laughed and said ‘you have your visa’. Not a great welcome to the country and left a sour taste in my mouth, but I was determined not to let it spoil things.
Visa on landing area
We quickly then went through immigration and customs and caught a cab to Bui Vien Street in district 1. This is where I spent a great deal of time over the next few days. It is central to many attractions that Saigon offers. During the day it is alive with different shops and all sorts of activities; selling art work, travel agents, massage parlours, restaurants and souvenir shops. At night it transforms itself into a bustling nightspot. When the sun descends, the chairs come out and the road shrinks. The restaurants become bars and they place plastic chairs onto the street. Both sides of the street do this until the bikes and cars only have a single lane. The chairs are small. The ones that you see pre-school kids sitting on, and with not much leg room, they can get uncomfortable, but nothing a few beers won’t fix. When a larger person arrives, the waitress puts two seats on top of one another to ensure the weight can be handled.
The Santa Cafe on Bui Vien. A great place for breakfast or beers or beers and watch the world go by
These drinking establishments are conducive to meeting other travellers. Everyone is lumped in close together and it is hard not to start talking to your neighbour about the usual things; like where are you from, how long you here and if you talk for a while, you may even ask their name and shake hands. Most places store and serve the beer at room temperature, but the waitress will bring out a tub of ‘dah’ which means ice. The ice is loaded into glasses and the beer is chilled this way. It also waters the beer down a bit, but that’s ok as it allows you to stay out longer. We were drinking with a few Vietnamese friends and they have a custom where you can’t drink alone. I don’t mean sitting alone have a cheeky beer, but every sip of the beer they all cheers together. They don’t say ‘cheers’ but ‘yow’ This can be fun at first, but after a few minutes of constantly slapping glasses together every sip you take can be a bit of an effort. Not good if people drink at different paces.
Some of the more common beers here is Saigon Red and Saigon Green. The Red has a slightly higher alcohol content, but the Green has larger bottles so it evens itself out in the end. Most people seemed to drink the Red. On the street the beers were only 12,000 dong for a Red or Green, which is about 55 cents.
Bui Vien Street also has a lot of offshoot lanes and streets that are full of bars and drinking establishments as well. The Crazy Buffalo, the Boston Bar, Bar 88, The View, The Universal and little garage of a bar called Phuong Thuy were all great bars that were regular spots in our time there. I was lucky enough to have a mate who knew a lot of ex pats and introduced me to them. It was great to hear everyone’s stories, both about Vietnam and around the world.
Bui Vien. A place where tourists seem to flock
The two main things that struck me during the day are the amount of motorbikes and the lack of high rises.
Of all the Asian countries I have visited, Vietnam takes the cake for the density of motorbikes. Not western motorbikes, but moped/scooter vehicles usually no more than 100 cc. A new friend, Mac, had quite a few motorbikes for sale. He bought them to export, but the law changed and he couldn’t export them anymore. He now has them stored all over his place, even in the bathroom I am told. Mac handed me the keys and suggested I take one of them for a ride. It was a Honda Cub, and it had some style, with long chrome handlebars. It was great fun to zoom around Saigon on it. Having never rode or driven on the right side of the road before it was a steep learning curve. Throw in Saigon traffic and a few roundabouts and you have a recipe to get the heart beating
99 going for a ride
The buildings are all quite thin, and I am told that the amount of property tax paid depends on the width of the property facing the street. I saw a lot of very these types of buildings, and they usually go up 3 or 4 floors. Accommodation is a great bargain as well. The hotel that I stayed in was only $20 US a night and the room was huge. They had smaller ones as well at only $15 a night.
The room I got was huge for the price of about US$20
I had arrived in this new city and had settled in quickly and had a few beers with some great people at a few bars. Just what the doctor ordered as the heat is over 30 degrees Celsius most days. My Journey here had just begun and I looked forward to exploring this city and country more.
These were turned into the best shake I have ever had