Friday, July 28, 2017

July 27 – Meet Saigon

At around midnight the driver stopped and ordered everybody off the bus as we had to switch over to the one headed for Vietnam. We collected our stuff, got off, and found a place to dump our bags under the canopy of the seating area of the small bus depot. There were a lot of dazed, dopey looking travelers there, and we didn’t know how long it would take for the bus to arrive, but in the end we waited for around 90 minutes, during which time we wandered around, moving as required to avoid the cigarette smoke being blown on us by people lighting up under the canopy. That cigarette smoke is something you never get used to, and it’s especially bad for those of us from countries that have pretty much banned smoking in all public places. There was one particular Frenchman who must have chain smoked his way through a full pack during that time, pity that dude’s lungs. And ours.

Our second bus arrived and we were assigned to two downstairs beds, right across from each other, and this bus had longer berths allowing me to completely stretch out. We got underway, I zipped up the curtains, and we were back in our hypersleep pods. It was very cozy and romantic and I had the idea that that this would be a great opportunity for hidden, sneaky, public sex. But since I’m not 18, and didn’t want to be thrown out of the country for an indecent act, and didn’t want to inflict a lifetime worth of embarrassment on our children, and also didn’t want to get punched in the face by my wife, I kept my illicit thoughts within the realm of fantasy and read a Stephen King novel for a while instead.

At some point light overtook the darkness and the bus ground to a halt at the border. Here’s the directions for a border crossing:

1. Get off bus, take all of your carry-on bags
2. Wait in line at empty Cambodian departure checkpoint booth
3. Immigration man arrives. He moves extra slow.
4. Get passports stamped, somehow takes 5 minutes per person.
5. Walk 100 metres to another checkpoint, get yelled at by bus driver.
6. Wait for all others to get processed.
7. Bus driver pulls up bus and tells us to walk “that way”.
8. We walk the wrong way and get yelled at, and more precise direction are given.
9. Get back on bus, handing over passports to some guy who demands them. Drive for a while.
10. Get off bus, take carry-on luggage, retrieve backpacks from luggage hold.
11. Walk to immigration building. Wait. And wait.
12. Passport collector man starts handing back stamped passports, one at a time.
13. Collect passport, go through immigration, put bags on xray machine that nobody’s looking at.
14. Retrieve bags, immigration officer checks passports on your way out of the building.
15. Reload bags into the bus, get back on and settled in bed.
16. Driver pulls over to repair one of the bus tires. 45 minutes later we are finally on our way to Ho Chi Minh City.

By the time we were dumped off in HCMC (Ho Chi Mihn City, also known as Saigon) it was a 16 hour elapsed ride. But overall, those beds were a lifesaver, and the trip wasn’t too bad beside the shenanigans at the border.

Because these busses drop you off in some undisclosed location, you really have no idea where in the city you are and you have no local currency, so you know that first taxi ride is going to be a total rip off as the drivers know you are lost and they have no pity. We gave our driver the hotel address and he said it would be at least $35. Man, this guy was ambitious. I offered him ten bucks and he took it, which was a sure sign I was being hosed. We loaded our gear into the taxi and he drove for about four blocks and then stopped in front of our place – the Polygon Hotel, an eight story, incredibly scrawny building that held only three rooms per floor and was indeed polygon shaped. The first taxi rip-off in any country is what I called the “tourist tax”. It should only happen once per country, otherwise you are an idiot.

Our first order of business was to find something to eat as all we’d consumed for breakfast on the bus had been Mr. Potato chips, seaweed flavoured peanuts, and bottled water. This was not difficult as there were dozens of restaurants all around the hotel, and we settled on the large Ben Thanh Food Market, as there were at least two dozen different food vendors inside. So for our first big meal in Saigon the kids decided on…Mexican. I could only shake my head. I, of course, was determined to have pho (legendary Vietnamese beef soup) so I found a vendor that served me up a bowl and it was a good start to our culinary explorations. The kids loved their tacos.

From here we walked half a block down to the covered Ben Thanh market and had a look around. The first thing we noticed was that it was much, much cleaner than the markets in Cambodia. Secondly, the vendors were more aggressive and nearly physically blocked you when you tried to pass their stalls, and God help you if you actually expressed a casual interest in something hanging from one of their racks, which I did, at a belt vendor. I left wearing a $7 leatherish belt that is going to work oh so well for holding my shorts up. I also discovered a brand new use for durian. We were standing at one of the fruit stalls and the vendor started giving his best banana sales pitch to a tourist. As he was talking, he took his cigarette and stuck it into one of the spines of a durian, much like Eddie Van Halen would jam his smoke into the tuning pegs of his guitar before winding up a magnificent guitar solo. This only increased my love for the incredible durian fruit.

Many of the vendors had a huge selection of coffee beans, so they must be able to grow coffee here. I had never heard of most of the varieties, and had certainly never heard of the one labeled “Weasel Coffee”. I did some research later and discovered that they feed coffee beans to weasels and let their digestive juices do their chemical magic and then pluck the niblets out of the weasel droppings, give ‘em a quick rinse, and then bag them up and send them off to the market to be sold to people looking for that unique coffee drinking experience.

Magnus had been looking for chess sets and found a nice one with carved stone figures for about $17 so he was very happy, and I can imagine a lot of chess games coming my way during our many upcoming bus rides around the country. He was eager to try it out so we went and found a lady with a sidewalk cart, cooler, a few plastic chairs and a table, and ordered a can of Saigon beer and a Sprite and cracked out the chess set while the ladies continued roaming the market.

Our next move was to go for a big walk to get our bearings. We grabbed a map and headed east. The first think we noticed is that the scooter is definitely king in this city and they seem to be allowed to do anything. Drive the wrong way up the street against traffic? No problem. Skip the street entirely to beat the traffic and drive on the sidewalk instead, dodging pedestrians? Sure. Carry your entire family, a television, a stack of plumbing pipes, and a chicken on a 50 cc scooter? You bet. The only limit to how you drive your scooter is your imagination and a relatively flat surface.

We walked for several blocks and came across a fancy shopping mall, so I took my position outside sitting on a ledge, people-watching, while the rest of my posse went inside to look around. I sat, mesmerized by the scooter traffic – it really was incredible. All at once, the skies opened and the rain started to pour out of the clouds. The scooter traffic ground to a halt and all of the scooter riders and passengers whipped out rain ponchos, tossed them over their heads, and were immediately back in the scrum. I could tell they were used to this weather.

Once the rain subsided, we continued our walk and meandered for many blocks, looking at the shops, watching how the pedestrians handled the traffic, and getting a feel for the layout of the city. We liked the city right away. It seemed clean, well-organized, well signed, and was quite walkable as nearly all of the streets had wide sidewalks – you just had to watch for those damn scooters whizzing by. In fact, there was a definite strategy you had to follow while walking, and it didn’t take long to figure it out. The basic rule is – No Sudden Movements. Have you ever noticed that when kids (and dogs) are walking down a sidewalk, they never go in a straight line? They wander from side to side, and lurch forwards and back, as certain sidewalk features like bugs, sticks and signs draw their gaze and then their feet. They are totally unpredictable, and if you try to pass by them, you often end up running into them as they jerk in front of you. Well that bad habit could lead to disaster in Ho Chi Minh City (which may be why we haven’t seen a single stray dog yet). When you walk, you must walk in a straight, slow, predictable line and keep your damn eyes open. This rule holds even when crossing a busy street and you nearly have to see it to believe it. To cross a busy street (they all are) simply step out into the chaotic traffic with your hand out. Walk slowly, in a straight line, keeping your eyes focused on the oncoming traffic. The thousands of scooters, motorbikes and vehicles will simply go around you, like a chunk of soap floating through an oil slick. They will not stop, but they will adjust their course slightly so as not to hit you directly, although you might get grazed on your way across. At first, this is terrifying, but then you soon realize that this is simply the way it works, and I can tell you it works well. I am sure that the average busy street in Ho Chi Minh City pushes through three times the volume of street and sidewalk traffic than a western city like Toronto, and all without the help of overbearing traffic lights, cops, speed limits, turn signals, brake lights, and traffic cameras. Watching busy streets in Ho Chi Minh City is poetry in motion. It is like an elaborate, choreographed dance. It’s like watching a colony of ants or bees as they go about their frenzied work, navigating their way around each other in getting where they need to go. It is letting nature take care of the rules.

During the walk back to the hotel we found the first McDonalds of the trip and felt compelled to stop for an ice cream, which was well received by the kiddies. We realized then that we didn’t seen a single McDonalds in Cambodia, or any other fast food chains, besides a couple of KFCs and I think one Burger King. Maybe that’s why everybody looked so fit.

We had a chill out session in the room and washed off the Saigon grease that had accumulated on our bodies during the walk. We also did some trip planning, booking a bus and rooms for our next destination. Vietnam is an extremely long country – I think close to 2,000 kilometres – so we need to plan out which places we want to visit and how long we can stay at each one if we want to make it all the way up to Hanoi in three weeks. Our general routine on these trips is to spend two nights at each place, and then if we really like it, book one additional night. In Vietnam the distances are quite long so we’re going to be spending a fair bit of time on busses and trains.

We went back out into the electric night for a late dinner at a Japanese restaurant that we found not too far from our hotel. The design of the restaurant was interesting – it had a curvy rock garden, ponds, live trees and plants, and raised seating areas where you had to remove your shoes and sit on the floor at the lowered tables. The menu was enormous and we picked out a number of items for us to share – sushi, gyoza, sashimi. Everything was delicious and we fed like royalty, but after the meal we were simply out of gas after a very busy day so we walked back to the hotel and settled in for a great sleep.

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