Good Morning Vietnam

After my holidays in Germany in August, me and one of my mates decided to spend a week in Vietnam. So we've booked a hotel and a flight to Ho-Chi-Minh-City (Saigon) and I finally made my first proper trip to Asia. I did stops in Singapore in the past, but never got out of the airport. One thing I remember though is the unbearable heat - even in the middle of the night - in the smoking area, which is on a rooftop of Singapore airport. So I expected roughly the same from Vietnam.

As we stumbled out of the air-conditioned airport we hit a wall of heat and I wasn't so much surprised but rather concerned. This heat all day can't be good for me.

The heat wasn't our only problem. I was hoping there would be some sort of shuttle bus to the city centre or the hotel and so we went past the cab drivers, which were quite aggressive trying to get a fare. After I realised there wasn't a shuttle bus we took up the offer of the first guy who asked us "Cab? Cab?" before we wasted more time and had to spend more time in the heat. The guy said $30 for the fare to the hotel, which didn't sound like too much. The "cab" was a rubbish car, which apparently had been mended multiple times by apes. A little bit worrying was the fact that it didn't seem to be a proper cab. No meter, no writing on the door, no sign. For a moment I considered the possibility that the guy will drop us in some alley, where some kidnappers are waiting for us. But we were in the middle of the city and the guy seemed to know where he was going and after maybe a 20-minute drive, we arrived at the hotel - no sign of any kidnappers.

The guy at the hotel reception then told us that normally it's no more than $10 to $15 to get from the airport to the hotel. So the "private cab driver" ripped us off... That was the first time, but it wouldn't have been the last time.

Our hotel room was an executive apartment with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, an enormous kitchen and a gigantic living room with dining table, couches and a big-ass TV with a banging stereo. We payed about $70 per night, which for a four-star hotel with pool is not that expensive. You only get a single room in a hostel in Melbourne for that money.

We arrived in the morning, so we still had most of the day ahead of us. So after check-in, we dived into the chaos of Saigon's streets. The heat was unbearable, but I was totally stunned by what I saw. Cars are very expensive in Vietnam due to a 100% import tax, which basically means that you pay the price of the car again in tax if you buy one. The solution? Motorbikes and mopeds! There are almost twice as many 2-wheelers in Saigon as there are people. That's insane considering there are almost eight million people.

The air is full of two-stroke exhausts - that, combined with the heat and some of the smells coming out of some of the shops, was a very unpleasant experience. Walking on the pavement can be tricky. Usually they're full of parked mopeds and people selling food, smokes and souvenirs. When they suddenly stop, you need to cross the road, which at first seemed like mission impossible. There's just too many of these damn mopeds. Fortunately I remembered what Jeremy Clarkson said in the "Top Gear - Vietnam Special". He explained that in order to cross the street in Saigon, you just look straight ahead and walk across.

The astonishing thing is, that this actually works. You just walk across the street, maintaining a constant pace, and the mopeds see you, anticipate where you will be and then just dive left or right in order to avoid you. Because everything is so chaotic, everyone pays attention and no one gets killed.

There are apparently only a few rules on Vietnam's streets. Lights are very rare and a really just a rough indicator, who has the right of way. People drive on the wrong side of the road, on the pavement and you would think that there are thousands of little accidents every day. Our tourist guide on a trip a few days later explained to us that in relation to the amount of vehicles on the road there are actually very few accidents. If traffic is dense, people slow down to walking pace and at this pace it is almost impossible to hit anyone. Everyone looks out for each other and the horn is not used to bully the sleepy granny, who hasn't realised the lights have turned green, but to warn other people that they're next to them or behind them. In the entire 5 days I've only seen one minor accident on one of the motorways.

Thanks to the receptionist in the hotel we were armed with a map with notes where the markets and the bar district are. Some time in the afternoon after walking around in the heat and oxygen-deprived we arrived at one of the bigger markets, where I wanted to look for some t-shirts and souvenirs and maybe an opportunity to get a tailor-made suit for an apple and an egg. Hoping for some air-conditioned place, we found a big hall with really hot and smelly air, which almost made you throw up. It was a mix of fresh fish, chicken, toilets and all kind of other smells, including sweaty humans. There were hundreds of people in narrow aisles and shops on both sides with all different kinds of junk on sale. Apparently it is very easy to identify me as a tourist and only after a few steps into an aisle I was surrounded by little Vietnamese people who tried to drag me to their merchandise. The pesky retailers, combined with the heat and the terrible smell was the knife on my thread of patience. I was primarily looking for some t-shirts and almost every shop had the same selection of typical souvenir t-shirts. So I thought the idea is that you go from merchant to merchant until you find one who's desperate enough to agree to the price you're willing to pay. At least that's the theory. In reality it is a little bit more complicated. First of all I had no idea what price is acceptable or reasonable or how far you can go. I felt like I'm ripping them off after I counter-offered with 100,000 Dong after they've asked for 180,000. We finally agreed on 125,000 and I felt pretty good about it. It was much later, after buying some more for even less - between 90,000 and 120,000 Dong - that I found out that you shouldn't pay more than 50,000 to 60,000 Dong for any t-shirt.

In the evening we went into the bar district. Similar to Germany - or any other free country in the world - in Vietnam it is allowed to consume alcohol on the street. Spending most of my time over the past couple of years in Australia it always feels a bit special to me, to be allowed to drink on the street again. My mate, who so far had never left Australia, did enjoy it as well. There were a lot of people on the streets for a Monday night and apparently the city never sleeps. I believe that due to the constant heat throughout the year and temperatures dropping down to 25 degrees at night, a lot of people just rather do stuff at night and rest during the day in some air-conditioned bedroom.

We spend some time on one of the main tourist miles where you find a lot of groups of Asian girls, posing for group photos. We took up the opportunity and stood next to them in the photo, which they thought was funny, because we were one to three heads taller than them. A little kid saw my mate, who's over six feet and just yelled out "BOOOAAHH".

After some cheap drinks on the street and some cheap laughs we finally made our way into the block with all the bars. My mate wanted to get into one of the so called "hostess bars", which is the Vietnamese equivalent of a strip club, except that you won't see undressed girls since pornography and prostitution are illegal in Vietnam. So you might ask yourself, what's the point then? Hostess bars offer female companions for the night, which basically means they entertain you, make small talk with you, occasionally rub your shoulder or if you're lucky your leg - but not more. In exchange you buy her a drink from time to time. These drinks for the girls are called "lady drinks" and they will cost about three times more than a regular drink. The bar makes some profit and the girls get a commission (and can drink for free).

So that first night we went into one of those hostess bars, where the ladies were waiting at the doorsteps and almost dragged us in like hustlers after we stopped in front of the shop to have a look at them. So we went in, had a few drinks, rarely bought them one and finished early with a bar tab that wasn't excessive.

The next day we decided to relax a bit. We were on holidays after all. We went to the market again and bought some more overpriced t-shirts and gathered information about what day-trips we could make. There are two main attractions around Saigon: the Chu-Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.

In the early afternoon we went into a district, we hadn't seen before and found a massage salon. You can hardly spend your holidays in Asia without getting a massage. We paid about $30 for roughly one hour of relaxation, which was acceptable. So I could cross off another thing on my bucket list - not a bad day so far.

In the evening we went back into the chaos and had some more drinks on the main tourist mile. After it started raining, we went to a nice rooftop bar, but soon went on for a walk. It was still raining, but it was actually not unpleasant. It was still very hot and the rain cooled us down at least a little bit. After another beer on the street, we finally stumbled across a little bar called "Cloud9", another hostess bar. It was air-conditioned, I could smoke inside and there were two or three girls constantly around us. It was a pleasant atmosphere and we got pretty drunk that night and also ordered a couple of drinks for the girls. The bar tab was pretty expensive, considering we were in Vietnam, but still less than we would've spent in Melbourne to get properly pissed.

You can get a beer for a dollar in any of the shops and vodka raspberry was only two dollars. The hostess bars charged around six or seven dollar for a Jack and Coke, which I think is roughly twice than what "regular" bars charge. So if you choose wisely, you can get pissed for $20. If not, you pay Australian prices.

Saturday, December 12 2015 / Peter

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