Saigon With The Wind, or A Hô Chí Minhute

by benrobins1

Either those are excellent titles or I need to sleep better while traveling.

One of the more romantic goals of this trip is to travel from start to finish with as little international flying as possible, as much for environmentalism as for adventure and money’s sake – that said, neither of us were keen on swimming across the South China Sea, so some concessions had to be made.

We left Manila’s lights buzzing angrily behind us and shot westwards towards the eastern side of South-East Asia, practically every coastal kilometre of which belongs to our next target: Vietnam.

My knowledge of the country is thus far limited to its cuisine (or other countries’ interpretations of it, at least) and dubious claims to historical fame by enthusiastic American troops, so I’m going in totally blind. My only hopes upon landing are that it’s a) at least a bit cooler than the Philippines at 2am, and b) that the hotel is as close to the airport as it appears on Google Maps.

My first hope was predictably dashed as soon as I stepped out into the shirt-stickingly warm Hô Chí Minh night, but that was a long shot to begin with. We staggered through the various steps of airport tedium, with a brief hiccup at passport control regarding visas – more on that later – and headed into the night in search of bed. Barely five minutes into the walk, we had our first real Vietnamese experience when we dared to walk near a road.

Roads in Vietnam, especially in populated areas, are the stuff of legend. The first thing you’ll note is that there’s a ten-to-one bike-to-car ratio. The second is that there is never a moment that someone isn’t honking a horn very close to you, or indeed at you. The third – and this is a crucial point that will shape your everyday behaviour here – is that crossing a Vietnamese road takes a combination of confidence, spatial awareness and kamikaze-like determination. It’s not that you have to worry about bad drivers per se, it’s just that people have places to be and if you’re in the way then that’s your problem.

Hô Chí Minh, or Saigon, is a truly mad city – in a way that I couldn’t help but love. It seems impossible to be bored if you have any reason to be outside, particularly if you happen to be near the busier areas. You can’t walk in a straight line for restaurants spilling out onto the mostly-for-show pavements, and the city’s labyrinthine layout means you’ll probably get turned around a few times on a ‘straight line’ journey anyway. In the space of a few hundred metres you can walk past rustic old homes, gleaming skyscrapers and French colonial architecture; one of the city’s listed sights is its post office, which sounds fairly banal until you’re looking up at it.

We’d booked a few nights (admittedly unknowingly) directly next to Bùi Viên, the Walking Street: pleasant-sounding enough, but notorious for its thumping nightlife, dubious businesses and not-so-subtle streetside narcotics salesmen. All terribly fun if you’re into it, but sadly a bit beyond our thin budgets. We could enjoy the bowel-shaking bass for free every night, however.

As part of our Southern Vietnam experience we booked a trip to the Mekong Delta, the ‘rice basket of Asia’. My top takeaways from the trip include a pair of monks openly judging the sartorial choices of passing tourists, and an eerily silent boat ride though dense marshland – an atmosphere totally broken when the gondolier dropped us off, started up a hidden outboard motor and roared off into the shattered mystique of the Mekong wilderness.

We’d intended to stop in Hô Chí Minh only for a day or two, but were delayed by previously-mentioned Visa Stuff. The following information pertains in this instance to British travellers, but equally applies to those of other European nationalities.

A cursory check in advance of the trip informed us that UK passport holders can enter Vietnam with a ‘visa exemption’ – what this means is that you can enter the country for up to 15 days without needing to apply for a visa in advance. This is handy, but slightly less so when you plan to stay in the country for upwards of three weeks as we do.

It isn’t the end of the world if you end up in the same situation as us (or the nice German/Romanian couple we ran into who had the same predicament) – all you need do is head to the Immigration Visa Extension Office, and walk right past it to a totally different building. The Immigration Office is an unnerving waiting room of bureaucracy and sternly armed guards that will only tell you to go to this other building anyway. What you want is floor 3A of the Itaxa House building, a few blocks along from the Immigration Office. You simply entrust them with your passport (not my favourite part), pay $55 (far less than the tour companies will ask for) and go back the following day for your new, extended visa.

Now legally equipped to explore the country, we strike out northwards with the equally bustling Hà Nôi in our long-range sights. We’ve got more than a few stops along the way before then, however – the first of which being the dunes of Mūi Né along the coast.

I obediently remove and bag my offending shoes (as per custom), throw my bag unceremoniously onto the bus and squeeze my oversized frame into the undersized seat. Its only a five-hour drive, after all.