… if you don’t like their driving, you can stay off the sidewalk.
Traveling by ship is an endlessly luxurious way of getting around, but one of its few drawbacks, especially here in Asia, is that the cruise ship ports can be an awfully long way from the action. This week, for our visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, it was close to two hours’ drive, so rather than pay for a taxi, we hopped on a bus that would drop us off in town and pick us up at the end of the day.
It was an interesting trip. We drove through green, hilly countryside lined with rice fields; along the huge, meandering Mekong River, and along busy narrow streets filled with hundreds and hundreds of utterly mad drivers on motorcycles and in trucks, careening straight towards us at every turn. Eventually I had to stop looking.
At last we arrived in the big city, formerly (and still largely) known as Saigon, and they dropped us off at Notre Dame Cathedral. We had many choices—palaces, museums, markets—but we wanted to simply walk and photograph the people.
It’s a fantastic, intense, busy city. The wealthier districts still have a bit of a French flair, with beautiful wide boulevards and grand old buildings. Most everywhere else is simply crammed with businesses large and small, and any available square inch not used for business is a traffic lane for motorcycles. In a city of ten million people, there are five million scooters.
It’s actually terrifying until you get used to it: for the first hour we simply waited until one of the locals was crossing the street so we could tag along and avoid having to figure out how to weave between the scooters. But eventually we got the hang of it: you need to stride confidently and—this is the important part—at a steady, predictable pace so the scooters can figure out how to weave around you. And your scooter-avoidance skills have to apply to the sidewalks, too—why wait for a left turn signal when you can simply bounce up onto the sidewalk and zoom over to the next street?
For lunch, our guide had suggested a well-known Pho kitchen where Bill Clinton had famously stopped during a state visit. We peeked in but it looked antiseptic and westernized. Instead we found a busy place on a street corner that specialized in one (and only one) kind of pork noodle soup. It was delicious, garnished with fresh mint leaves rather than the basil we were expecting. Lunch for two cost $4.75.
Here and there we found a friendly local who was interested in practising his or her English, and it was fun chatting with them. I was curious as to whether, as Westerners, we might sense any resentment or anger from the people, given Vietnam’s history. There was none. Everywhere there is simply a willingness to do business. The Vietnamese are practical and positive people, from the looks of it. The only hint of a bitter note was when our guide suggested we stop by the War Remnant Museum to see the effects of Agent Orange, “not just on our people but on the American soldiers as well.”
The past is past in Vietnam… except where it’s still present. There are still hundreds of tonnes of unexploded ordnance in the forests, not to mention the land mines that are still maiming people in the countryside. It will be a long time before the American War is fully forgotten.
Could I live here? No, not in Ho Chi Minh City. The food is wonderful and the people are lovely but I could feel the pollution from five million scooters in my chest before the end of the day. There are very few buses; in fact there’s very little public infrastructure to be seen. And corruption is rife in Vietnam. I often wondered what Ho Chi Minh would think of what has become of everything he fought for. Police and government officials become fabulously wealthy in this country and it’s certainly not on government wages. You need to bribe someone to get your child into school, and then you need to bribe the teacher to get a decent report card. You bribe the police whenever they stop you, as we discovered first hand. We were heading back to port in our bus, and our guide was telling us about the system of “pay your fine by mail or pay a little cash right now” when, as if on cue, our bus was pulled over. The officer had questions about the driver’s license. After a few minutes’ conversation we pulled away again. “We pay him. It was corruption,” our guide said cheerfully as we drove off.
Quite a place, this Vietnam.