Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.Seneca
Feb 6-Feb 10 2017
After a short flight from Hong Kong we touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, Vietnam. Our first step was to complete our visa on arrival at the airport. We had first applied a few days earlier and was sent an acceptance letter which was necessary to begin the process. We handed over our passports and about a half hour later were called up, each paid the $50 visa fee, and were given back our passports with a 3 month multiple entry visa. We then headed out to catch an Uber to our apartment for the next four days.
We stayed at a wonderful place tucked into an alley near a busy traffic circle surrounded by cafes. It was quiet yet just steps away from anything we could need. The first thing we noticed is that this is definitely a motorbike/scooter country, hundreds of them in a beautiful controlled chaos navigating through the streets. It could have been intimidating knowing we would soon be one of the hundreds on our very own motorbikes, navigating the country. However, since we already had a taste of scooter freedom during our previous trip to Taiwan, we knew what to expect and how things worked while driving. The only differences being that stop lights were treated more like stop signs, there was a mix of motorbikes and scooters, and people drove noticeably slower.
Before we’d get our motorbikes though we had a few days to explore the city in between Maggie getting some work done. Ho Chi Minh was an impressive mix of modern office towers, rising developments, and old street markets and alleyways; the juxtaposition was outstanding. After reading a lot about the touts that would hassle us we were pretty guarded, but after a little while we quickly learned that it was an over blown concern, we quickly loosened up and everyone we met was very friendly and often wanting nothing more then to give a smile and a wave.
After being in an expensive place like Hong Kong, and our current base in California, it was shocking just how truly cheap things were. You could have an excellent meal for just a couple of dollars, water and pop (or as Maggie calls it, soda), was had for less than 50 cents a bottle. Our room, just as nice as any western hotel, cost a mere 13 dollars per day, or 7.50 each! We knew it was going to be a good month or two in Vietnam.
There were definitely signs that it was still a communist country, but you could tell they were embracing capitalism as well, albeit at a much more controlled pace then the United States. The people seemed happy and with all the normal freedoms you’d expect. Yes, media is state controlled, politics aren’t really discussed, and religion isn’t at the forefront of daily life (around 80% of the population identifies as non-religious), it might not necessarily be a bad thing especially considering current conditions State side.
Of course no visit to Vietnam can be discussed without bringing up the war. We made sure to visit the War Remnants Museum, a sobering experience that highlighted the 7 year First Indochina War, and the 19 year war, known as the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War) that had immediately proceeded. It started with a display of war photography taken by photographers who died during the war, and moved on to the war crimes committed, the weapons and tactics that were used, the devastating effects of the defoliant dioxin (Agent Orange), with effects still being felt today, and ending with displays covering the protests that surrounded the invasion. Outside the museum was some of the U.S. military equipment (planes, tanks, helicopters) that had been used, as well as a display of the ‘tiger cages’ and cells war prisoners were kept in. It’s amazing that a country that was so devastated could still be so welcoming.
On the lighter side of things, we explored many of the cities markets, some less appetizing things such as jars of snakes and rats, to the more appetizing fresh poultry, seafood, and vegetables. I also experienced the amazingly strong Vietnamese drip coffee, when drunken straight it almost tastes like whiskey (so strong), but with some condensed milk and sugar mixed in, a delicious but still high octane drink.
Lastly, we purchased our motorbikes that we would be using for the next month or so as we tour across the country, from south to north, ending in Hanoi. We purchased the bikes from a reliable and well reviewed place called Tigit Motorbikes. Basically they allowed us to purchase our bikes, Honda Blades, with an option to sell them back at the end of our trip in Hanoi. This allowed us to have ownership of the bikes for legality reasons, but also be assured that we could easily and effortlessly sell them back minus a small rental fee. For route planning I was able to use a fantastic website, Vietnam Coracle, that covered everything we needed to know and plan for our adventure. Of course we’ll have a full write up on our motorbiking adventure in our next few posts.
Overall, Ho Chi Minh City was a great introduction and starting off point for our adventure across Vietnam. Any hesitations we had about being in a technically still undeveloped country, and an unknown part of the world for us (our first time in Southeast Asia), quickly subsided with the friendliness of the people and an infrastructure that was beyond expectations.