I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a day late, after having missed our connecting flight. We were coming from Boston, were supposed to fly United from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, but because of a flight delay, missed it. He got us onto a Singapore Air flight to Singapore instead, and from there it was a 3-hour layover then another hour and a half to HCM. By the time we arrived, we’d been traveling for 38 hours and I was exhausted, but…in a new place and excited to be there, I got a second wind. I had to! There was all this traffic to contend with. As we drove into the city from the airport all I could think was: oh my God. Nobody had told me about the MOTOS.
I got settled in my guest house, Kim Hotel in District 1 (my friends were staying at the Sheraton on Dong Khoi while I was in the “backpacker area”) then decided to walk around for a bit before meeting up for dinner.
I headed in the general direction of Dong Khoi, and of course the first thing I was confronted with was how to cross the street. For those who don’t know, the streets of Vietnam are choked with motorbikes: it’s the preferred mode of transportation. Streetlights are considered “a guide,” so the traffic basically never stops. I stood on the curb and waited until a local person arrived, and she must have seen my trepidation. She gave me a wink and a smile, and held out her hand. We crossed the street hand in hand and then went on her way.
My first major stop was the Ben Tranh Market I had heard so much about. What a gas! An enclosed market with narrow aisles where everything is sold from fish heads to Buddha statues to chintzy bedspreads to beautiful silk goods. In the middle are food stalls, and after walking around for a bit in the un-airconditioned market I had to stop for a mango smoothie. That set me back 10,000 dong, or about 70 cents USD.
I walked around some more, took more photos, then was back on the streets. I met the guys at the Sheraton and we decided to have a pre-dinner drink at that famous hotel, the Majestic. From their rooftop bar we watched night fall and the city and Saigon River light up. With the dark wood of the bar, the ceiling fans, and the black and white photos on the wall, I could imagine the hotel as it must have been during the time Graham Greene wrote “The Quiet American.” It was a lovely, evocative place to start the evening.
For dinner we went to a place recommended in our guidebook, one where you eat outside in a leafy courtyard and where the specialty is a sort of crepe that can be filled with anything from grilled prawns to scallions and vegetables.
It had been quite hot during the day, low 30s, but it was pleasant now, and we meandered down the leafy boulevards back to the Dong Khoi area where we had read about a café that afforded a good vista of the motorbike traffic. We stopped at Highland Coffee for a glass of good, strong Vietnamese coffee, iced. After a few minutes a young Vietnamese man sat down next to us. He had gone to college in France, and his English was also perfect. He asked us about the American presidential election. (This was a recurring theme throughout my trip.) We chatted for a while, then the 3 of us realized how tired we were and decided to call it a night and said goodbye.
As we walked into the street and I said goodnight to my friends, I realized I was about a mile from my hotel. I started down the street then noticed a guy on a moto asking if I wanted a taxi. Did I dare?
I asked him how much and it was only 15,000 or a US dollar to go to my hotel, so I took the helmet from him and hopped on. It’s hard to explain how exhilarating it was weaving through Saigon traffic at night on a motorbike. The thing that had initially caused me so much trepidation I now felt like I had embraced: I’d joined the moto culture, I really was in Vietnam. And I was loving every minute of it.
Trip Report, Day 1. More to follow...