Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is Vietnam’s Manila. This is where rural folks seek greener pastures. Saigon, as most locals still call it, is a tourist haven, a backpacker’s playground. In fact, tourism is their main industry. Motorcycle taxis called “xe om” are everywhere, waiting for customers. I prefer to walk, exploring areas wherever my feet would lead me… Ben Thanh Market is within walking distance, so is Saigon Square.
I've never tried riding a motorbike before, thus riding at the back of one is a heady rush, and one that I suggest any tourist should try. It costs about 15,000 dong ($0.80/PhP 37) within the tourist belt, although you have to remind your driver to drive “slow”. He will always ask for VnD20,000 but just look elsewhere if he won't haggle. There are plenty of them in every corner who would be glad to take your 15,000 dong.
Airconditioned taxis are also an affordable option. Flag down starts with 6,000 dong, which is very cheap. If you’re not into motorcycles, by all means, hail a cab! Tell them, “Meter!” and make sure that they agree first! Getting a cab from Tan Son Nhat to the city center shouldn’t go above $6 (which is so far the cheapest within Asia, I believe). My hotel arranged for my taxi ride to the airport, which was a measly VnD 96,000 ($5/Php 237). Green bus 512 is NOT always available. During my 2nd and 3rd arrival at the Tan Son Nhat, it took me an hour to wait and realize that Bus 512 wasn't coming, so I took the taxi. I think 512 stops operating from 5PM onwards, so I guess I was just first-time lucky to have found them upon my first arrival. Cyclos are another option when you’re not in a rush, but considering the constant swerving of motorcycles that spring out from all directions, I wouldn’t recommend it. If accidents happen, the passenger gets hit first!
A view from Leloi Street
An Austrian national had this to say: “I certainly wasn’t prepared for the tumultuous assault on the senses that it turned out to be.”
On my first day, after checking in at my guesthouse, I decided to take a leisurely walk from Bui Vien to Pham Ngu Lao. And my gosh! I have never been met by so many touts offering their xe om – and I do NOT look Caucasian at all!!! I had earlier decided to be nice, but realized that it takes all of your resolve to do this when you are persistently dogged around by someone you politely said NO to. One guy offered his motor, and though I kept walking and smiled with a NO, he walked with me for 4 whole blocks! He seemed desperate but much as I sympathize with him, I hardly seem myself as the answer to their financial woes, and it was starting to get annoying. So I decided to get inside a restaurant called PHO – and, in the process, discovered one of the most heavenly Vietnamese meals I’ve had in my entire life. I ordered a pho ga at VnD 31K (PhP87) – which is pricey, in Saigon standards. I also tried their Ca phe sua da – a very strong and very sweet iced coffee - at 20,000 dong (PhP57), two items on my gastronomic checklist.
How to spot a rigged meter? Well, the good ones are placed above the dashboard, easily visible from your seat at the back. These are also sealed by a transparent plastic cover. If these meters are placed way down below, and don’t have a case, chances are, they are rigged.
Touts are a dime a dozen in Vietnam. In fact, in Hanoi, while I was walking around the Hoan Kiem Lake, Ms. America suddenly shouted (top of her lungs) with enough conviction to stop their Iraqi occupation - “I DO NOT NEED OR WANT ANYTHING FROM YOU, THANK YOU!” to a guy who was selling postcards and maps! People stared at her with disapproved glances for breaking her cool in public! It is just not worth losing your temper in public.
Another source of stress in HCMC is the traffic, where crossing the street is a death-defying endeavor. I am NOT exaggerating. But after a while though, I think I learned the art of street crossing. You see, if HCMC has a population of 10 million, half of them owns one (or even two) motorcycle.
The motorcycle is the vietnamese’s version of a Pinoy’s cellphone. It is their prized possession, as i was told that it takes them a quarter of their lifetime to pay for one. (This is an insight from a Perth gentleman who has made Saigon his temporary home for the last 2 years.) At night, when the guesthouse is in deep slumber, you will find your hotel foyer subbing as a garage for these motorcycles.
I realized that, on crossing the street, the technique is to cross with confidence and an assured, constant pace. Do not make sudden stops! Do not hesitate in the middle of a walk… and you will find the motorbikes flowing around you. And, yes, don't forget to pray for your dear life! Hehe
This is the Eye in the Sky!