Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog› entry 172 of 206 › view all entries
We woke at 7am and had a breakfast of pineapple, watermelon, dragonfruit (colourful outside, monochrome inside) and banana downstairs before setting out to the bus station and the bank to get some chores done. We walked to get a feel for the place, but I hoped to convince Zoe to hire bicycles as I was sure that seeing all the sights of the city would be tough going on our feet. Seeing all the crazy motorcycle traffic the night before had not reassured her of the safety of this however, and the morning traffic did nothing to convince her of the merits of this plan.
First lesson of the day was how to cross the road in Saigon.
Lesson 2; the people at the bus station are not used to dealing with foreigners. There is only one bloke that speaks English, (we would have been happy to muddle through with hand gestures) and while he was very forthcoming with information, the instructions he gave us were convulted and complex. The newsflash is, which we learned much later in the day, that tourists tend to book their bus tickets through the travel tour companies.
After a failed attempt to hire regular 'pedal' cycles, we agreed just to walk the city, but to keep an eye out for a potential motorcycle 'guide' which The Book (Lonely Planet) assured us would be forthcoming. No sooner than we were 100 metres from our door than we were accosted by a funny, toothless, little Vietnamese man on a 'cyclo' who won us over with his cheerful disposition, amusing grasp of English and his description of his little day tour he could offer us. We were glad of the offer, and though we climbed into our matching pair of cyclo seats with some trepidation, as he refused to agree a price for the day, we couldn't help but smile as we were cycled on our little cushion thrones through the roaring madness of the motorcyle traffic.
We started first at the War Remnants Museum; they agreed to wait outside. The ground were full of tanks and military planes. A man with no arms and one eye offered us his stump to shake before offering us his book wares. The skin where his elbow should have been felt squishy, boneless. Inside the museum were endless photographs of the conflict, ordered in vague groups according to time and content. There was an area for the photographers of Life magazine who covered the war and brought the harrowing pictures to the world media attention. There were the photos of the torture, of the trenches, of executions. There were photos of the mine victims, with many photos being as recent as 2004 as many countries (notably Angola and Laos) still have many unexploded and despite 25 years of peace, injuries and deaths from mines are still commonplace. There were photos of the MAG group, who work today to clear unexploded mines from people's land after displaced people returned from refugee camps and found their land unworkable for farming because of the danger. There were photos of the victims of Agent Orange, the horrific deformities; bent bones, misplaced limbs, a 27 year old lady so small she weighs 12 kg (half what my rucksack weighs) and stands only 40cm tall.
After this cheery (but morbidly fascinating) visit our guides took us to Hong Kong market, a 5 storey market in District 10. This had the feel of the cheap discount markets that we all end up in sometimes. People selling fabric, clothes, toiletries, shoes, belts, bags, hair bands, jewellery, glassware, kitchen goods, sweets, pet food, weird cuttlefish snacks. Small concession spaces line up along concrete corridors, people bumping past each other in the narrow gaps. You get the picture? I found some delicious peanut sweets I'd discovered in the travel agent dealing with my visa in Perth, and Zoe bought herself an authentic NorthFace rucksack for less than a fiver.
Back on the cyclos and we were taken to the Quo Tuc pagoda temple. Here we were sold incense to pray with, and our guide showed us how to offer a prayer to each of the painted deities in the courtyard and the lower level of the temple, and to place a lighted incense stick into the pedestal in front of each after the prayer before finally offering all the remaining sticks to Buddha and prostrating ourselves 3 times kneeling on the floor with our palms up. We took our shoes off to enter the temple and he showed us around the rooms; first at his special deity, the one from his island Cat Ba in Halong Bay. Then to the mini lecturns where people can read the religious texts and the choirs can sing from. Then the Wall of Death (for lack of anything else to call it) where photos of the deceased are placed for a year after their death, and the wall for the priests. Upstairs there were two walls lined with Buddhas, and lotus flowers placed in their arms from worshippers, depending on which one they chose to pray to. There were 4 demons in each corner and I think I understand that they choose good from bad using different methods; one uses an instrument, one uses a fish, one uses a dumstick etc.
The other floors to the temple were closed sadly, so our guide took us home. At Pha Ngu Lao however we came unstuck when they told us the price and without caculators we were unsure as to whether we were being ripped off or not. Mental arithmatic worked out that the cyclos would have cost us each 21 UK pounds for the day, which we felt wasn't in line with the rest of the economy and they were trying to pull a fast one. We eventually got them to agree (extremely reluctantly) to 750,000 dong which worked out at 11 UK pounds each, before returning to the hostel to try and work out our money. Some calculations later and we realised that perhaps we had been unfair, but it is so difficult in a new culture where we have been warned so thoroughly not to be ripped off.
Lesson 3; the value of money here makes no sense. You can eat like a king for the equivalent of US$5. But you can take a taxi for 45 minutes for US$1.25. You can take a bus for 7 hours for US$7, but 2 books will cost US4.50 and 2 cyclos will evidently cost US$11. It's hard to know when you are being ripped off when everything sounds ridiculously cheap, but you have no idea whether that's actually the going rate or whether people are assuming as a rich westerner you'll think you're getting a good bargain and pay up without thinking.
We rested briefly back at the hotel before heading out again to see the final couple of sights we had not seen on our tour. We walked through the park looking for the Reunification Palace and discovered (lesson 4) that the map is useless. By the time we found it it had closed, so we walked to Notre Dame. On the way back we walked past a couple of bustling restaurants spiling yellow light, chatter and good smells out over the pavement, that we had seen on our taxi ride the previous night. One particularly was heaving with warmth and bustle, so we sat down to dine. Zoe had vermicelli soup and I had shrimp and sweet potato pancakes with fresh cococut juice and a Saigon beer. My order was exciting for 3 reasons; one, I have always wanted to drink juice from a fresh coconut since I have been assured it tastes nothing like coconut. I can verify this, it tastes (and looks) like less lemony lemonade. Saigon beer is the same price as 7Up, while Heinekin and other foreign imported beers are twice the price. And I mistakenly (shoulda known, it's an alien country) thought that if they were going to put shrimp in pancake, they would shell them first, since I have an aversion to shelling prawns. Lesson 5 well and truly learned. If you're not sure, don't order it, especially when it comes to seafood, since that can be really really wrong if you get it wrong (alive mussels in Sardinia springs to mind). This was a minor mistake in comparison, though I wasn't thrilled at picking shrimp antennae out of my pancake, nor of touching the shelly backbone and brain of a shrimp which sent horrible shivers down my spine. But it was made easier by the act of cooking which had softened the shell and made it easier to manipulate.
On the whole Saigon has been an experience, but like many cities it has that 'city feel', you know what I mean. A city is a city is a city; it's hectic, dirty, smelly, noisy. Personally I haven't developed a love for it in our short hours here and look forward to driving into the highlands tomorrow. It's definitely been a learning curve though, and Zoe and I have been grateful for each other's moral support when each of us have found the culture shock or the fear of a new experience a little over-whelming. We are less green than we started though, so let's move with more confidence on in Asia.