Braving the Saigon Traffic
26th October, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
We spent yesterday just milling around the immediate area, finding out what was on offer, and that pretty much boiled down to DVDs and CDs. Still, it kept us occupied as we rifled through the catalogues of films, music and software on offer, especially as it's even cheaper than Thailand. An example - a DVD costs 20,000 Dong, which equates to $1.27 (US) or 69 pence (UK). That's damn cheap in anyone's books, although the old saying that you get what you pay for should be noted here. If a film is very new, too new for it to possibly be available on DVD and therefore 'too good to be true', then it's probably a dodgy copy filmed on a camcorder straight off a cinema showing, complete with crowd noises.
Yesterday was orientation day, on foot. Today we went for the moped option so that we could go further afield. Now, it should be noted that Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) is not a place noted for its civilised traffic. As we discovered yesterday, there are just so many bikes on the road that it almost defies description. Once upon a time, it was all bicycles, but in the last ten years cheaper Chinese imports have made motorbikes far more readily available; now it's the bicycles that are in the minority.
At every junction, all rules seem to be ignored, and everybody just does whatever they need to do to get through to their destination. Often this would mean a group of 40-50 motorbikes going at right angles to another similar-sized group. Despite the apparant conflict of interests, everyone manages to get to where they want without incident. Just like some of the busier streets in Thailand, there seems to be an understanding that everyone else on the road could conceivably do anything they want, and so people know to expect the unexpected. In some ways this makes more sense than having a strict set of rules, just like we do in the UK, because it only takes one moment's lack of attention on one person's part and everything falls to pieces - nobody expects others not to play by the rules and when that does happen it's often tragic. But what happens in a city like Saigon when an accident does happen? If no-one's playing by the rules, who's at fault? It turns out that things are usually resolved by arguing until one person gets too bored or tired of arguing at which point they back down, effectively conceding defeat.
We asked about crash helmets but were met with looks of incredulity. "Where are you going then?" asked the man hiring out the bike. "Are you going out of the city?" To him, the idea that anyone would bother using a crash helmet inside the city seemed totally strange. Had he seen what the traffic was like out there?! We gave the crash helmets a miss on the basis that I would drive extra specially carefully. Whatever that means here ...
So, with all this in mind, Manda hopped on the back, I pulled back on the accelerator and quickly joined in with the flow of traffic. What a ride!
Our first stop of the day was the Notre Dame Cathedral. That wasn't the planned first stop, but I'd ended up driving round a block a bit too far and found a parking spot next to the cathedral which seemed pretty convenient. We didn't go inside the cathedral, but merely contented ourselves with taking photos outside while the local hawkers did their thing.
We had already learned yesterday that the hawkers in Vietnam can be pretty insistent, and are not shy about showing their displeasure when you don't buy something from them. As we ate lunch yesterday, a young girl appeared with a stack of books, including Lonely Planet guide books. We bought the Vietnam one off her for $5 (less than a fifth of the retail price), but passed on getting a Malaysia one, despite her objections. As we flicked through the Vietnam book at the table, we realised just how good a deal it was. Moments later, another book seller appeared and we asked her for the Malaysia book. She didn't have one to hand, but soon reappeared with a copy which we bought for $5. Like I mentioned earlier, if it seems too good to be true .... well. CDs and DVDs are not the only things that get bootlegged here - we had got ourselves a genuine, photocopied Lonely Planet guide, bound and wrapped in a colour cover. With hindsight, we could tell that the Vietnam book was also a bootleg, just a very convincing one. Ah well, it's all readable. Just as we realised that our latest purchase was a photocopy special, the young girl appeared again, saw the Malaysia book on our table and seemed totally distraught that we'd got it from somebody else! We apologised while she sulked in front of us, asking how much we'd paid, and we couldn't help but wonder if we'd got the book from her originally whether it, too, would have been a series of bound photocopies.
After the cathedral photos were done and dusted, we took a walk over to the Reunification Palace. This was once named Independance Palace, but in 1975 a tank rolled through the palace gates and minutes later the South Vietnamese administration ceased to be. That marked the end of the Vietnam War. Many years of armed struggle between the divided North and South Vietnamese (who were aided by Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Thais and other nations) resulted in the death of millions from all sides and had, depending on your viewpoint, come to nothing. The communists that the Americans had battled so hard to prevent seizing power had finally done just that. Hence, Saigon is now officially known as Ho Chi Minh city, the largest city in the now united Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Reunification Palace is not the most attractive of buildings, inside or out. It looks, for all the world, like it was frozen in time - the 1970s. And that's because it has been. The rooms inside still have the same furnishings and fittings, the communications rooms have the same rotary dial telephones and the war rooms contain the same maps that were used for military planning decisions. My favourite room was the casino which could easily have featured in a scene from an Austin Powers film.
Another short walk down the road - assuming that you don't give in to the numerous 'cyclo' (bicycles with seats at the front) riders who follow you down the street touting for business - is the People's Committee Building. It's a very attractive building that looks out over a pretty square which is lined with some of the biggest and plushest hotels in Saigon. Evidently it has something to do with the socialist apparatus here, and it is not open for tourists, so we'll never get to see what's inside. Regardless, this is a nice spot in town and it reminded Manda and I both - independantly - of Wenceslas Square in Prague. The difference is that Wenceslas Square is the site of peaceful demonstrations that resulted in the end of the communist rule in the Czech Republic; almost the exact opposite is true of Saigon.
Finally, we took a brief walk around the corner to see the Opera House, then headed back to collect the moped, stopping for a coffee along the way. Hang on ... walked to the the palace, walked to the Committee Building ... walked back? What was the point of hiring the bike? Well, it was a little way to get to that first attraction from our hotel, but after that point there seemed little point in hopping on the bike each time. Besides, it would mean finding a new parking spot each time (at a small cost) or risk having the bike taken away on the back of a truck if we parked it illegally. So, in all honesty, we hadn't got our money's worth with the bike. Only one thing for it - let's go for a spin!
I took us both on a magical mystery tour of the city at rush hour, with no idea where we were going or how we would get back. Rush hour in a city of 8 million people of whom 4 million own motorbikes is quite an experience. But we had a full tank of petrol that I'd paid for and it seemed silly not to use just a little of it. So, we immersed ourselves in the crazy 'flow' of traffic one more time and I practised my merging techniques at the busy intersections. Trust me, this is way cheaper than any fairground ride, it lasts a lot longer and is eminently more dangerous. What's not to like?