In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is our first McDonalds-less port. And that’s not the only exotica in Vietnam. Not many visitors arrive here by ship. Our captain spent four hours navigating upstream from the mouth of the Saigon River passing a bewildering variety of boats along the winding river route through seldom seen mangrove forests to reach this crowded city of over 5 million residents formerly known as Saigon.
According to our guide book, “To cross a busy street in Vietnam all one has to do is step out into the coming traffic. The motor scooters, cars, and buses will maneuver around you until you have reached the other side. Do not run as they will not be able to gauge your movement; just keep a steady pace.”
This alien behavior that would ensure injury in most places is absolutely required here. Volunteer tourist assistance police have the job of encouraging visitors off the curb and into the traffic vortex. It’s a little like Frogger. We saw first timers jump up and down with euphoria upon reaching the safety of the opposite curb unscathed. With some experience, it becomes second nature to take a quick glance toward oncoming traffic, time your departure to take advantage of a small gap, and then walk without looking toward the traffic. It’s only when you look that you question your sanity and are tempted to stop or run. That would be bad since the drivers have subconsciously already adjusted their speed and path. This works in part because drivers make absolutely no attempt to stay in any marked lanes, so they weave about as needed to avoid pedestrians and other motorists. In practice, this seems to work beautifully since pedestrians never have to wait for traffic to clear and drivers never have to stop to wait for pedestrians. However, the 1,000 traffic fatalities per month lead us to question the system.
After a day in Saigon, we travel to the east coast for 3 days of R&R and to experience the “Hawaii of Vietnam.” In 2003, Time described Phan Thiet as “unspoiled Vietnam”, and three years later we don’t see much evidence of spoiling. The 16 students we lead on the trip enjoyed the sand dunes, the cyclo tour of the city and the sampan ride among the fishing boats in the picturesque harbor.
Back in Saigon, we meet Erika for drinks on the rooftop garden at the Rex Hotel, a haven for foreign journalists during what was known in Vietnam as “The American War.” Mary’s uncle lived in Saigon in the early 1970s and we are successful in locating his hangouts. (We have lots of photos to share with you, Lillard.)
Before my visit, I thought “war” whenever I heard “Vietnam.” I now have other images. There’s no attempt in Vietnam to hide the war, but the local interpretation is through the communist lens.
Today, Monday, we are back at sea for a few days, headed for a quick refueling stop in Singapore before continuing to Myanmar.
Yours in moving forward beyond “Vietnam,”
Our location: 7 degrees 53 minutes North, 107 degrees 9 minutes East.