Sat, 06 Nov 2004
Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? // at 23:59
Uh oh, too long passes between flying the flight and writing about it. Sad-looking airline breakfast, an hour waiting and walking around and around in Kuala Lumpur airport — nothing much to do, after the first circuit of the terminal we just kept on going around... Sit and watch local flights take off and land, finally time to get on the plane for Ho Chi Minh City. Not sure yet what to expect...
Arrival at HCMC dumps us all into an enormous hall. Officious looking customs and immigration staff sit in tall booths and look through mirrored sunglasses. One by one the papers are checked, passports scrutinized, then we're through and out to pick up the luggage. Out the doors and into bedlam. Enormous crowds of families, relatives, taxi-drivers, touts and guides, all shouting, all frantically waving. Tropical heat, pollution, the endless THUMP, THUMP of pile drivers building the new international terminal.
A guide grabs us and wants to know where we're going, we name a hotel — at random, from the Lonely Planet — he shakes his head and tells us that its closed, being renovated. A taxi is summoned and we seem to be bundled inside, on our way to another hotel “very near”, “very good.” It isn't the cheapest, but we don't know that yet, its right next to the market, the view is good, the people friendly, we're on holiday, it doesn't really matter, we stay...
We're up on the eight floor, the windows look out across the main road, miles of smokey haze and buildings, endless bustle and motorbikes. Or we can look down into the street outside, barely wider than an alley, people and bikes and cars and taxis, all jostling for space, all busy, all moving.
Time for an orientation tour. We gird the loins, grab the guide book, fold the map, and head off into the great outdoors. Quickly discover that you can't walk on the footpaths, the footpaths are for motorbike parking — you walk on the roads, smoothly, calmly and predicatably, and all the other traffic just moves around and passes everything, and nobody ever seems to get hit. Crossing the road seems daunting at first, there's no break, the pedestrian crossings seem purely ornamental. We look around and watch the other pedestrians, they just flow smoothly through the traffic, we try it and it works, just remember — slowly — and start to look both ways, some bikes will always be on the nominal wrong side of the road!
Through the Ben Than markets, I buy a pair of cheap cotton trousers, even then I think I get swindled — when I get outside and look in the bag, they're not quite the ones I handed the woman, and there's things in the pockets and dirt on the knees, whose pants are they?
People, scooters, bicycles, cyclos. Up the streets and around the city museum, then across to the cathedral — a big neon-light-like sign replacing the original leadlight window. Plenty of French colonial-style architecture, the magnificent Hotel de'Ville Mustard-yellow paint on many walls, red flags flying. A statue of Uncle Ho, complete with two armed guards loitering nearby in case the tourists try anything silly. I take a photo of Jo and Ho, the limit of my silliness.
It must be time for a beer by now, our first beer in the country. We found a bar — the Blue Bar — we found a beer — a Tiger beer. What else to drink after that but Saigon beer in Saigon — oops — Ho Chi Minh City.