travel > Travel Story > Asia > Vietnam > Paul Kan’s Asia Journal #3: Apr. 14-May 3, Vietnam, Part I – Vietnam

Paul Kan’s Asia Journal #3: Apr. 14-May 3, Vietnam, Part I – Vietnam

TIME : 2016/2/27 15:57:46

Saigon TrafficSaigon Traffic

Traffic on a Saigon street.

Apr. 14-May 3
Vietnam, Part I

In this story:
A Hong Kong Note
First Impressions

It has now been a week since I first arrived in Vietnam. I almost didn’t make it. I was so exhausted after coming back from Shanghai, I ended up missing my flight twice! Once because I checked in at the airport express counter in Hong Kong Central less than 1.5 hours before my flight. And the second time because I just didn’t realize how long it took to actually get to the airport from the Central Express station. So I had to go the next day. Hopefully now, I should understand how long it takes to get from Caine Road to the Airport Express Station in Central to the airport and then through immigration and the good mile or two of jetways. Then again, you know me! Often, I have no concept of time.

A Hong Kong Note

As a note about Hong Kong, I must say when my friend told me to take the public train from the airport rather than a taxi, I was a bit dubious. However, the new airport and the Hong Kong Airport Express system are really a wonder in efficiency. After you collect your bags from baggage claim (where there are carts conveniently placed to help lug all your stuff), 100 meters ahead is the platform for the Airport Express. And for about US$10 and about 25 minutes, the train takes you right into the heart of Central Hong Kong. Also at either end of the line are attendants to help you place your luggage onto and off the train into carts, which are arranged immediately outside the opening doors.

The one thing that I didn’t expect was that Hong Kong would be so hilly. Silly me, but even after seeing Wong Kar Wai’s exceptional In the Mood for Love (which you should all definitely see; if you want my previous review email me), I didn’t realize what a maze of stairways and alleys Hong Kong really is behind that breathtaking postcard skyline (but more on Hong Kong in a month or so, after I will be able to see more than the night here and there between my other stops).

Farmer and Water BuffaloFarmer and Water Buffalo

Traffic outside the city.

First Impressions

Arriving in Saigon, the heat was almost unbearable and the sun’s strength was intense. For someone who doesn’t sweat that much, I was sweating profusely! Driving into Saigon from the airport, I didn’t realize how poor Vietnam is. When we arrived in Vietnam’s biggest city, I felt I could have been on the outskirts of a small Mexican state capital. But for Saigon’s small collection of buildings over 10-stories tall, paint was peeling everywhere, and most of the buildings looked as if they had been collecting dirt and grime for some time, in contrast to a few of the newer glass-cased hotels and multi-national corporation buildings. Surprisingly, the streets were still pretty clean. And it still amazes me when I go into some establishments that the tiled floor seems so clean you could eat off it!

My first attempts to explore the city myself were rather short lived. I gave in to a cyclo driver, who had been following me for a good half-dozen blocks, to give me a little city tour, and at the end of an hour he dropped me off in a not-so-good section of town, albeit a few blocks away from the Saigon Marriott (I think it was a Marriott?).

There were a lot of not-too-happy guys milling around (which he called the Mafia), and two confronted him and then me, after which he quickly collected me and we pedaled off to my hotel. I am not sure of what to think, whether he had made a real mistake, or whether it was a ploy to get me to pay him more, which I did. My Peregrine tour guide later said there was no such thing as a movie-inspired Mafia, but tough guys and gangs threatening and stealing from foreigners was not uncommon. Needless to say, I felt much less safe walking around than I probably should have; and I didn’t venture too far off from the hotel on foot by myself.

My tour from Peregrine ended up having about 15 people, mostly older, and from Australia/New Zealand – four couples over 50, 2 single girls in their late 30s, two single women in their 40-50s, two men in their 40s, and me at 32. I was first a little disappointed that there weren’t more people my age. But I saw another tour group with people in their early 20s or late teens, and thought I’d rather be in my group than with people too young. Plus, our tour leader, a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge with a good six years of experience, was brimming with energy and you got the feeling he would do absolutely anything to make his tour the best it could be.

In contrast to my first experience, under his care one felt absolutely safe, though the 15 of us following him directly into a rotary to cross with bikes, cyclos, motorbikes and trucks whizzing to avoid us would take some getting used to. That is how people do things here. You just start walking into the street, and everyone else tries to avoid you. That also explains people going down the wrong side of the street as long as they are using their horn or bell to warn others they are coming through. When you see children no older than 7-8 crossing like this together, you realize that it really is their way of life!

So far after being in Vietnam for a week, (3 days in Saigon, 2 in the mountain honeymoon city of Dalat, and 2 in the beach resort city of Nha Trang), there have been three things that have been constants: (1) the injection-molded plastic chair (from Saigon street caf�s to dusty rural streets), (2) the little girls selling postcards at every tourist and seemingly non-tourist stop, and (3) the communist Vietnamese flag flying on everything from narrow urban concrete block “townhouses” to humble rural shacks. Flags everywhere might have to do with the fact that the new Vietnamese communist leader is being chosen, but so many of the flags looked as if they had been up there through several monsoons!

Thankfully the temperature in Dalat and Nha Trang has been considerably cooler than Saigon, due to elevation and proximity to water. Today we sailed (really motored) out to one of the islands around here, and I think I burned slightly. Two days ago, I also started and am just about to finish (tonight!) an enchanting little book from 1955 by Graham Greene, called The Quiet American, about Vietnam and Indochina just as the French were about to pull out.

Tomorrow morning at 7am we leave heading towards Hue. I will try and catch the 5:15am sunrise again, but from a better vantage point. In this town, as in many in Vietnam, there is a pretty good loudspeaker system throughout the city. And around 5am, Vietnamese singing and then governmental announcements, and assumedly propaganda, sure do wonders to wake you up! At 5:30am, when I went out this morning, the main street by the beach was full of early revelers stretching, running, cycling, and the sun was scarcely over the horizon!

I guess I really am in Vietnam.