First Few Days in Saigon

If you haven’t read about why I went to Vietnam, you really ought to see my initial reasons here.

~

(Excerpts from the flight)

The thing about being the first of anything is that, by definition, it’s a pretty lonely endeavor.

I embark now upon a great metal bird, movies playing on the mini-screen in the seat before me. The flight is expected to last just under 16 hours, and we’ll apparently be flying over the north pole on the way to Hong Kong.

I will be the first Rebock to do any of these things.

~~

7.5 hours left to go. I struggle to remain awake. Food arriving seconds after writing that helps. It’s technically almost midnight. Lots of movies…

~~~

Transferring through Hong Kong was a breeze compared to Singapore. It’s 6:00am of what, I think, is July 18th, and though the boarding of the final plane is in 15min, my watch, eerily accurate with the time of day, still seems to think that it’s the 16th.

Changi Airport, Singapore, 12:30am.

Changi Airport, Singapore, 12:30am.

Here in Changi Airport, Singapore, the last six hours have been arduous, increasingly spaced by long bouts of simple inactivity. I can’t really do anything, and can’t really sleep yet either. The process has been simply waiting, from one thing to the next; I should be at the hostel within four hours from now, where I expect to finally get some rest.

When checking in my luggage for the final flight, a fellow named Ozzy remarked that my carry-on baggage exceeded their weight limit by about double (this had not been a problem in the other airports). Seeing my U.S. residence though, he recognized Woodstock, but since he asked I informed him I was actually born in Connecticut. This, apparently, delighted him, as he had spent some time working in Bristol – a place I knew nothing about, but I played it up as though I did – and he henceforth decided we shared some form of comraderie. Ozzy then gave me leave to go around the crowd and didn’t charge extra for the carry-on.

Thanks to him, my otherwise problem-less transfers – regarding luggage anyway; at some point in Hong Kong they took a nail file that I forgot I even packed – remained hassle-free.

I’ll see if I can sleep on the final plane. I sit here in Singapore, surrounded by dark windows after 6:00am, with tired eyes, greasy hair, and with the makings of a beard. I sure must look the part of a weary traveler.

~~~~

Day 1

The day I finally disembarked the plane and took in my first breath of Vietnamese air, I became thoroughly aware of the humidity. And the fact that with each transfer, there were fewer and fewer westerners aboard the plane. I might have been one of four on the plane.

Jet-lagged and exhausted, I took the first taxi I saw to the hostel. The first driver did not know English very well, so he brought me to some place a bit further from the airport and handed me over to a more fluent individual – who then proceeded to take me to my hostel. Showing them the address with my tablet, getting there turned out to be easy, and as we drove through the streets, I witnessed first-hand the legendary motorbike frenzy.

Traffic in Saigon is like a living, breathing organism. It’s taken several days for me to put together the words to describe it, as it took me about that long to fully comprehend what, at first, seems like a dangerous, chaotic mess of vehicles and people.

The best way to describe the difference is that in America, and presumably in most other (Western?) countries, there are strict traffic laws in place. Most exist because there is a basic common human understanding that everyone else is unreliable. I can attest to this, having lived in New Jersey, and having passed through New York City more often than any country boy has a right to do. In those areas, I feel there’s this basic understanding that everyone on the road is an idiot, and will hit you if you cross the street. Everyone assumes you’re unaware, whether you’re a driver or a pedestrian, and in truth, most people aren’t; hence the lights, laws, crosswalks, turn signals and all that. It’s much easier to get complacent behind the wheel of an automobile.

In Saigon, it’s sort of the opposite. Horns honk constantly, alerting people around you where you are. Sometimes people use turn signals, and even if they do, the flashing light does not indicate which direction you’ll be turning anyway. Motorbikes weave around each other, around pedestrians, around four-wheeled vehicles who are otherwise locked in traffic or held back by street lights. There appears to be a general acceptance that everyone around you is aware. If you as a driver are not, then it’s your fault for not hearing the cacophony of horns honking, and you will suffer for it.

For the most part, one can cross a road of speeding motorbikes as long as you follow the golden rule: Don’t stop moving, and move predictably. Everyone will simply weave around you so long as you don’t jump in front of them.

Much to my relief, the front looked exactly as the photo advertised.

Much to my relief, the front looked exactly as the photo advertised.

With the beginnings of those thoughts just beginning to simmer in my brain, my taxi arrived at the hostel without incident, and after dragging my luggage through a miniscule alley and inside the building I found myself greeted by a Vietnamese girl who I can best and most respectfully describe as “travel size.” I booked a room, lugged my bags upstairs — the Little Hostess doing her best to carry one of my bags — and on the 3rd floor discovered the dorm-like room to contain a few other sleeping people. 10am, probably jet-lagged as well.

The AC blew on full blast, so after resting a while in that veritable meat-locker of a room, I decided I ought to not fall asleep so early in the day and ventured downstairs to the ground floor. Conversation with the Little Hostess turned out to be no difficult feat; she seemed as eager to speak as I was to ask questions, and her English was passable. I quickly learned that she was quick to teach me some of her language, and so I darted upstairs to retrieve a notebook. In a few hours, various bits of Vietnamese were demystified – having a live teacher works better than any book or recording.

I’ll write about the Vietnamese language in a separate post sometime. It’s a fascinating topic all its own.

Most of that day is a jet-lagged blur. I honestly cannot remember much except that I was there. Apparently I arrived early enough to partake in some of the breakfast food provided by the hostel – baguettes, bananas and sweet coffee. I decided to go out and explore a block or two radius, and it wasn’t long before I was hailed by a motorbike driver. A xe ôm, a motorbike taxi. I decided why the hell not, was given a helmet, and hopped on the back. It took about 10 minutes for me to become comfortable enough to ride without clinging to Old Nine Fingers for dear life.

Word from the wise: Never get on the back of those things without establishing a price first.

Old Nine-Fingers here tried to hustle $200 out of me. Yeah, okay.

Old Nine-Fingers here tried to hustle $200 out of me. Yeah, okay.

When I got back, I described my experience riding, much to the laughter of those working at the hostel (re-enacting the feeling of holding onto a tiny old man for safety has a way of making anyone smile). The remainder of the day was spent drinking tea and forcing myself to stay awake. I don’t remember the exact order in which I met people in the beginning, but over the course of my days at the hostel, other travelers came and went, including a German, two Aussies, a Swede, and a lady from China. Americans are comparatively rare here.

Day 2

I woke up ridiculously early on account of the jet lag, lay in bed waiting for 8am, the time when breakfast was made available for us. When I got down, I found the same fare available, and gladly drank the sweet coffee prepared. Chatting up the Little Hostess, I soon discovered that she had prepared some rudimentary Vietnamese lessons for me on a sheet of paper, and we practiced numbers, some basic phrases, and a few other things. The first things taught were Bao nhiêu? (How much does it cost?) and Mắc quá! (Too expensive!), as foreigners are routinely overcharged for everything. It’s pretty much normal, and the Little Hostess informed me that while yes, there are in fact many good Vietnamese people, there’re a lot of bad ones too, and most of them are right here in this neighborhood.

I asked her more than once if what we were doing was a bother, whether I would get her in trouble for apparently not working at the desk an arm’s length away. Turns out no, as far as I know. Pretty awesome job.

Having befriended a Toothache Aussie the previous day, the two of us went around the block to get something for lunch. Whatever it was I ate, it tasted delightful – some spicy vegetarian noodle thing with a couple of vegetables the likes of which I could not identify (except for the bitter melon. That one’s hard to forget).

Later, having gotten in touch with potential roommates, I decided I would attempt to go and hail a motorbike taxi on my own terms and make the trek to go and see the place. The day waned, though, and as I stood at the edge of the street, I felt suddenly timid and hesitant. I knew nothing of where I was really going except an address and a general idea on Google Maps, though that helped little. The place was far, across the Saigon River in District 2, and I had no idea how I’d be getting back. As the sky darkened, I figured it better to try the following day.

Having exchanged numbers sometime earlier, I texted the Little Hostess, who had expressed I could reach her any time if I needed help with something. Asking how, exactly, to hail a cab/xe ôm, she instead volunteered to take me the place herself the next day, after she finished her shift at the hostel. Overwhelmed, I could not argue – a free ride to somewhere I did not know with someone I could trust?

Count me in.

Day 3

Early the next morning, while watching some silly Youtube videos before heading downstairs to breakfast, a new traveler appeared. Dropping off her bags, she descended back downstairs again, and not long after it neared 8:00am, so I soon headed down for breakfast.

There I met the Chatty Swede who, like most of the other travelers, had made their way to Vietnam from Thailand and Cambodia, and would continue their way north toward the city of Hanoi, and then west again to Laos. Hitting it off with her, she invited me to come along to Bến Thành Market, a major tourist destination.

Getting there was not difficult. The Chatty Swede knew the rough direction, yet confessed after we got started that she had a terrible sense of direction. Having partially traveled the way we went just the previous day in order to acquire a local phone, I at least helped with getting back, but not until after we came upon the legendary market itself.

To understand Bến Thành, one must imagine the tight quarters of a warehouse, organized in such a way as that each vender has about 10-15 cubic feet of space – or much less – and they pack as much of their wares in there as you can possibly imagine. It is a labyrinthine cloister of madness, filled with people intent on getting your attention and selling you something.

Basically a nightmare for someone like me, who despises radio ads and television commercials with a vehemence such as you have never seen. I had a strong bout of sensory overload in that place, between the lights, the sounds, the crowds, and colors, the enclosed space.

But it was bloody fascinating. I had seen its like in South Korea, once.

On the way back to the hostel, the Chatty Swede and I only got moderately lost. Fortunately, we made it back without incident and in good time, as we needed to get back before 5:00pm so I could catch my ride. We arrived at four, and I spent the remaining hour trying to rest. At the appointed time, I descended the stairs again to meet with the Little Hostess.

Sitting behind her comfortably and respectfully, the two of us sped off on her motorbike, weaving through traffic and around all manner of obstacles on the road. Women drive motorbikes just as much as men in Saigon, as it’s essentially the way to get around, though one never sees a man riding behind a woman. Though she was not bothered by it, the Little Hostess pointed it out earlier, to which I replied “If you’re okay, I’m okay.” So on we went. I get the feeling it was more about protecting me from embarrassment than anything else. After all, I looked out of place no matter where I went, so why not on the back of a bike?

She understood the area and direction to which we were headed, but on the way we had to ask for directions two or three times. Eventually we found the apartment complex, and I found myself smitten by the view from the balcony. Everything else seemed in order, so I agreed to move in the next day.

The Little Hostess then, as per her earlier suggestion, brought me to a small eatery near where she lived, as apparently the apartment complex stands only about 20 minutes away from her neighborhood. At the little restaurant, she would introduce me to one of her favorite foods – a spicy noodle soup; not phở, but something different. I remember insisting that I pay for the meal out of simple courtesy, and that plan went all well and good until I realized, when we got there, that there would be no chance this little place would accept credit cards or American cash. She paid – which she tried to do in the first place – and the food was very delicious (ngon quá!). Some of the spices in there would have me tossing a little in bed later that evening, though, but it was worth it.

Afterward, the Little Hostess brought me to a cafe, where I met her younger brother and another friend, and they fed me some sugared coffee. Eventually she brought me back to the hostel again, sometime after 8:30-9:00pm.

Night-driving in Saigon is nothing short of spectacular. The Little Hostess proved to be a safe and reliable driver, not that I had any doubt, but even at night she, like the other six million drivers, took to the streets like a seasoned veteran. Motorbikes here are like horses to Mongolians and kayaks to the Inuit. They’re just part of life.

After laying down in my cot, I was soon accosted by the Chatty Swede beside me, and we caught each other up on our day since the market adventure.

Day 4

We left moderately early, catching a local bus to Đầm Sen Park. The Chattey Swede, who was much more travel-seasoned than myself, had no idea where to go after we got on the bus, and so the adventure began.

A pleasant ride later, we made it, and for the equivalent of $9.00, we paid entry and began exploring.

Đầm Sen deserves an essay all its own. As an amusement park, there were dozens of things to see and do, and the experience was most memorable, but more on account of the company than the rides. Between getting caught in the rain by the crocodile pen, seeing arapaima in some ponds, and taking part in a number of rides, the place kept us occupied for the first half of the day.

For the first time, I experienced bumper cars, a seatless toilet, and strangers asking for a picture. Turns out they meant not that I hold the camera and take a picture of them, but rather that we, the Chatty Swede and I with our fair skin and blond hair, pose beside them and have pictures taken of us.

I have no doubt that the Chatty Swede and I were perceived as a couple in their eyes, and apparently westerners are as much a tourist attraction as the rides. I think I saw one other there at the park.

Not to mention while riding the mechanical bulls – first time riding one of those, too – the Chatty Swede and I outlasted everyone else. We both sensed that the operator had turned up the intensity in an attempt to throw us off. But we were determined, and held on for longer than I could know. For days to follow, my arms remained stiff from the exertion, and so bent on staying atop those things were we that spectators whipped out their phones and cameras to record our triumph. Eventually the operator powered down the machines, and the Chatty Swede and I continued around the park with sore arms and legs.

Sore, but utterly victorious.

We got stares wherever we went, and in one park “ride,” a large warehouse kept cold and filled with ice sculptures, the effect of sticking out in the crowd was emphasized. A hooked conveyer belt dispensed warm coats for people as they pass into the giant ice box, and with the weather being hot and humid outside (having already rained a few times), I looked forward to the relief. And, once inside, I found the temperature to be quite agreeable. To my surprise, the Chatty Swede shivered and felt the cold right away. I walked feeling no need to put up the hood or button up the jacket.

SAM_0522

It felt like a normal spring day in my home country. Surrounded by shivering south-east Asians, many of whom probably have never seen snow in their entire lives, I felt like some frost-hardened northern viking. People stared at me like I was a superhero/villain.

Unlike in Korea or Japan, where often you’ll find rides, train stations, signs, etc. written in the local tongue as well as English, or at least another nearby country’s language, here they don’t bother. Everything’s in Vietnamese except for “toilet,” “entrance” and “exit.” Not to mention a lot of the symbols on the map were just plain misleading and inaccurate. Navigating the place alone made quite an adventure out of the trip.

Throughout the park, as well as Bến Thành Market, the Chatty Swede forced me to make rapid exchange calculations from the local Vietnamese Dong to U.S. Dollars for whatever things that might need to be bought or rented. It turned out to be excellent practice, and I’ve almost got the numbers down.

After a bus ride home, we parted ways on the street just outside the hostel, she with a task she wanted to do, and I to pack my bags. That night, I found myself within the confines of a new apartment, and while the situation is not quite permanent, not yet, it makes for a decent home-base as I make the transition into a more permanent location.

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4 responses to “First Few Days in Saigon

  1. Dear Jesse, I really love reading your adventures!! It really holds my attention, I have trouble with that A little ADD. Keep it coming, I feel like I’m there with you! Your a great writer!

  2. Looks like you have a great adventure, Jesse. That traffic of motor bikes is really amazing. Nothing like that over here. Looks like you found yourself a nice girl too… 🙂

  3. LOL. I’ve heard about the ice room before.
    You might be surprised to hear that it actually gets pretty damn cold in North Vietnam during the winters.

    • Since going to to Dam Sen, I have learned so much about Viet Nam. One of these days I’ll make my way north and feel the cold for myself. I heard it gets pretty intense near Sapa.

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