Setting Down in Saigon
24th October, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Why is it that when you know you have to be up on time for something important, you never sleep properly? I wasn't nervous about today's flight, not even having read The Tombstone Imperative very recently (a book about airlines putting costs before safety), but somehow my brain thought it wise to wake me up at around 4am, forcing me to watch the sky get lighter while I grew increasingly irritable, scratching my head more and more as often happens when I wake up at an unsociable hour. As much as I wanted to, I wasn't getting back to sleep. Once the sun had risen, the temperature in the room started to rise and the exotic birds that Stef's next-door neighbours keep started their daily screeching. I was doomed.
We didn't hang around long today. Our flight was due to leave Bangkok at 2:30pm, but with security check-ins being what they are these days, we had to aim to be there at 11:30. And Bangkok traffic being what it is, we needed to allow an hour to get to the airport. So, at 10:30 am we said our goodbyes, once again, to Stef and Am as we undertook another little adventure - 10 days in Vietnam.
The flight to Ho Chi Minh City - or Saigon, if you prefer - was pretty uneventful and short at just 1 ½ hours; barely enough time to polish off the complementary meal. We made our way through the various levels of airport procedures (immigration, baggage claim, customs etc), at each phase wondering whether we'd get pulled to one side for some reason. Anecdotal evidence and stories from the guide books suggested that officials in Vietnam like to make a quick buck from travellers where they can, perhaps by claiming that some extra paperwork is required (at a cost) or some other variation on that theme. Thankfully, we got through without a hitch, then made our way outside the arrivals area where the masses of tour reps and taxi drivers awaited their prospective clients. There were literally hundreds of people waiting here, all kept to the sides by barriers. Stepping out and walking between them, I felt like we were walking the red carpet at the Oscars, the centre of attention. Don't look them in the eye, just keep walking, just keep walking ...
Of course, we had to catch a taxi in the end - we weren't going to walk to our hotel which was about 10km from the airport. Of course, the hotel didn't know it was our hotel yet. We haven't booked ahead for anything in a long time, instead we just show up, hope for the best and it's not let us down yet. The area we picked is called Pham Ngu Lao, chosen because of the price of the hotels and guesthouses. It turns out that this is pretty much Saigon's equivalent of Bangkok's Khao San Road, in other words, where all the backpackers and westerners hang out.
It's early days to draw conclusions about this place - the city or the country as a whole - but there were a few observations I couldn't help but make as we took the journey from the airport to the hotel:
- Bikes and motorcycles rule here. There is absolutely no question of it. It felt like our taxi was a big fish swimming against the tide somewhat as all around us people on two wheels swarmed around and past us. Taking a left turning invariably meant a scary moment when we would be side-on to these swarms of bike-riders, hoping that they would spot us in time.
- What a relief to see roman characters on the signage. I'm sure there will be some pronunciation issues, but at least we could begin to hazard a guess at reading out a Vietnamese word; we certainly couldn't do that with Thai
- There are ATMs in Vietnam! This was perhaps my greatest fear - underestimating costs, running short of ready cash and having no way of replenishing. Glad to have got that one so wrong!
- Currency is gonna be fun. We've had to learn to adapt - US dollars, Fijian dollars, Aussie dollars for the longest time, NZ Dollars for 6 weeks, and most recently the Thai baht. But now we have to consider US dollars and the 'Dong' (yeah, don't laugh); dollars will be used to pay for trips/excursions and hotel bills while dongs are used for every-day items. We'll be converting all ways - dollars to £ sterling, dongs to dollars, dongs to £ sterling and maybe dongs to baht. I might just have to write some common ones down!
So, we're here and over the next 10 days we hope to squeeze in as much as we can of Vietnam without totally wearing ourselves out. But if we do, we can always make up for it by relaxing on Thailand's beaches.