SAI (MOTHER-EFFING) GON!!!
What a city! I’ve had many friends tell me how crazy this place is but, it wasn’t until we descended below the clouds and got our first glimpse of Saigon’s monstrous layout that we realised we were in for a bombshell of a time. From above, it was vast, hectic and built up as far as the eye could see. There was no hope in hell of pinpointing just where the city centre was from up high. In comparison to KL, Saigon was about 5 times the population, 10 times busier and English seemed as rare as a good movie from Michael Bay.
Mildly freaking out (OK, having an aneurysm every fifteen seconds) we tried to make sense of this new world whilst we attempted to decipher their language, get into the right line and collect our bags. 19 aneurysms later and we were through customs and ready to navigate our way into the city.
Now, in Saigon you can pay for a cab to get you from the airport to the city for about $5-10. However, as we were now backpackers, we elected to embark on the mad journey by bus so that we only had to pay $1. What a brilliant notion.
We exited the airport and entered a flood of Vietnamese awaiting loved ones, each holding a sign up with a language we could not make any sense of and each yelling out as though their version of Justin Beiber was standing right behind us. We pushed our way through, nudging and burrowing through the ocean of people until we reappeared out the other side. We knew we had to get on bus 152 and noticed an abandoned bus right across the road displaying this exact number. We stood dumbfounded outside the door of the empty bus. After another aneurysm and endless unanswered questions about whether we had the number right, we retreated back to the airport and considered maybe spending the extra 4 dollars to catch a taxi. It was here we ran into some help and they pointed us back in the direction of the abandoned bus. Determined to again save us a few pennies, we trundled back to the bus where, this time, we found a mother and her son had boarded. We decided to follow suit and climbed aboard. Another local boarded and we began to think we had this right. Shortly afterwards, however, a bus driver approached and began yelling at us in Vietnamese and pointing for us to get off and board another bus. Confused, we obliged and climbed onto what we hoped was now the right bus. As we saw some other backpackers hop on, we felt a bit more relieved.
Now I’ve always wanted to wave my dong out in public view and, in Vietnam, I thought I might just get this opportunity. The first place this got me into trouble was on this very bus.
The driver told me it would be 20,000 Vietnamese Dong for us to ride. Having just come from the ATM where it provided us with 8 million dong in 500,000 notes, I waved one of these out to pay with. He immediately scoffed at me and signalled he had no change for this. I’d have to run back to the airport and change it. Just as we were about to do this, the first local who had boarded the bus offered to pay. Being the big rich and generous westerner that I am, I said “sure,” and proceeded to my seat. Apparently, the next backpacker on had also just been to the ATM and the bus driver turned to the local again to see if they could grace him with the due fee.
So here we were, scabbing off the locals and making our journey into the city known as Saigon by the locals or Ho Chi Minh CIty by the rest of the world, the most craziest place I have, up to this point at least, stepped foot.
Regardless of whether you call it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City, I’m pretty certain the translation is “Crazy Mother-Effing Scooter Land.” As we left the airport, where
I already thought it was crazy, we entered a highway where about 2 million scooters were collectively trying to cross lanes. Aneurysm number 412.
To add to our utter freakout, the bus then decided to veer across 4 lanes at once so as to pull up at what was apparently a bus stop. No signs, no shelter, just a local standing there waiting to get on. How this worked I don’t know but I was soon to learn this was Saigon. To the outsider, it makes absolutely no sense but, somehow, it works. Scooters travel on any side of the road, sometimes on footpaths, sometimes in the wrong direction. Buses enter traffic as they please and pedestrians just have to run like crazy. The only thing that seemed to make any sense to us was that you just toot your horn like crazy – not as a form of road rage but just to let every other crazy mother-effer know that you, as a crazy mother-effer are driving like a crazy mother-effer, and visa-versa. Crazy.
The bus continued to slowly make its way towards the city. The traffic continued to thicken and the horns continued to grow louder. And, after an hour of mayhem, we got off with the other several backpackers at Ben Thanh Market, located in the middle of Old Saigon, otherwise known as District 1.
Having again failed to plan very well ahead and still not familiar with the idea of living without the use of Google Maps, we approached a British couple backpacking
and asked if they minded us tagging behind them as they navigated their way to the backpacker region. Kudos to them as they got us across roundabouts you’d expect to find outside the Mad-Hatter’s house and intersections that seemed to operate without traffic lights.
Our lack of planning again came back to haunt us as we found the first 3 places we tried booked out. It was getting late in the day and we had heard horror stories that Vietnamese can charge you anywhere up to $50 a night when they know you have no option. However, a lady saw us trundling the streets with our backpacks and led us to a guesthouse. The fact we had been approached left us feeling uneasy and we weren’t sure if we were being scammed by paying $15 for the night. Hearing them say $15 in what almost sounded like celebration didn’t help. However, it was late and we were tired, so we took the key, grabbed the wifi password and jumped online to find something more secure for the next night. Once that was booked, I felt more at ease knowing I’d only have to endure this feeling of discomfort and uncertainty for one night. We dumped our bags, grabbed some of our 500,000 notes and went out to probably get run over.
Because everyone in Vietnam drives on the right hand side (well, everyone except for those few stray scooters) it takes a fair bit of caution to cross the road. I think Elisha and I on 3 separate occasions almost became road kill as we mistakenly crossed the road looking in the wrong direction. Foolish Australians.
With the objective to eat 50 Pho Bo’s whilst in Vietnam, we grabbed our first two that night and, after having literally had no where to drink whilst in KL, we took to the opportunity to celebrate our 4 hour survival in Saigon with a Saigon beer. Saigon Beer deserves a blog all to itself. At 450ml in size and at just 50 Australian cents per bottle, these basically replace your bloodstream. As I write, I am about 87% pure Bia Saigon. But alas, we were still nervous about our stuff at the guesthouse so we called it an early night and went back to sleep in these stranger’s house. We walked down their dark laneway, through their family loungeroom, up the stairs past their kitchen and disappeared into our room. Day One in Saigon = Survived.
For a long time Elisha and I have said that if we were stuck on an island and could only choose one cuisine, Vietnamese would be it. We love their ability to draw intense flavours from minimal ingredients and small budgets, to include an array of fresh herbs in their servings and to ensure the dish includes a fair hit of chilli. For me, life without chilli is like a painting without colour. It’s a painting but more could be done with it. With this is mind, we spent most of our time in Saigon something like this: Vietnamese Coffee, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, 7 Saigon Beers, Banh Xeo, Pho Bo, 6 Saigon Beers, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, Vietnamese Coffee, Pho Bo, Banh Xeo, 17 Saigon Beers, Banh Mi, Pho Bo, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, Pho Bo, Banh Mi, Vietnamese Coffee, 12 Saigon Beers etc etc etc.
We weren’t too sure how long to spend in Saigon but, considering it was in the South and this would mean more warmth than we’d find up North, we ended up staying 6 nights in total – just because it offered some of our favourite foods at prices not even my grandparents would have paid when they were my age (because they were using threepences at the time) and the there was just so much of the city to breath in.
We thought the best place to breath the city in was from the Sheraton roof top bar. We ordered an overpriced cocktail and gazed out over this amazing and expansive
city, watching the stream of scooter lights weave in amongst each other and the towering buildings emanate a radiant sea of red and green lights across the sky line. But, sooner than later, the streets from down below gripped us with their cheap food and drinks on offer and we caught the elevator back down to where Saigon really came alive.
After trying some frog in KL, we continued to be adventurous on Day 2 in Saigon as well by trying some barbequed chicken feet and chicken gizzards. Although, I’ll probably stick with Chicken Wings from now on. We thought we’d wash this down with a few more Saigon’s and found a balcony overlooking one of the intersections. Mid-beer, we were mortified to see a local stumble across the street, urinating as we went. Another local came out and held the guy at arm’s length so as not to get any on his scooter. This resulted in a puddle. We then watched on as the urinater walked through a cafe putting his hands on customers and asking them for money. In addition, we then watched people unbeknownst to the cause of the puddle walk through the puddle. This is a story I remind myself of every time I now walk near a puddle.
We thought we’d find a new location and went for a few beers at a place called La Famille. Little did we know that this was to become our local. We were initially drawn in because they were selling Saigon Beers for 10,000 dong but, as the night drew on, we began getting chatty with a few others around us and soon had a table of 3 Germans, a Dutch and about 40-50 beers. The night ended with plans to meet there again the next night and, this soon became the norm for our duration there.
Day 3 saw us make a visit to the War Remnants Museum. Although we would see some confronting things there, I think the real atrocity that happened was on my way there. We’d refused bike rides there from the numerous locals trying to make a buck from the obvious tourists the entire way there and, losing my cool, I was very close to telling the last one to “bugger off.” By the time I got around the next corner, I was petulant and sick of dealing with the locals. However, a nice little chap whom was carrying the traditional rod over his shoulder with baskets of coconuts strolled up beside us and asked where we were from. With a big smile, he commented on how tall I was and allowed me to carry his coconut baskets for a little while. Elisha took a photo of us and the guy started cutting us up two coconuts for us both to drink. Flustered by his friendliness, I paid the 150,000 dong he asked for and then went on our way. Only 10 or so metres later, we did the maths and realised we had just paid close to $8 for two coconuts. A price that may be fair in Australia but one that was near 4 times the price here. If you see this sneaky bugger around, let me know for I would like to throw a couple of coconuts at his little coconuts.
After a big night again drinking with our new friends, we awoke very gingerly on Day Four to our alarm clock, prompting us to get on the bus for the Cu Chi Tunnels. If you’re unfamiliar with these tunnels, they are basically a massive network of underground tunnels where the Viet Cong would hide, sometimes for days at a time, as they resisted the American Forces during the Vietnam War. They were used as communication and supply routes, as hospitals, as food and weapon caches and as living quarters. Being a tad claustrophobic, I basically climbed out the moment I climbed in but others did have the opportunity to crawl 100 metres of the tunnels on display. All up, though, there are 121km of tunnels in this system and I’m sure it’s very easy to get lost if you were to take the wrong turn. Both Elisha and I fired off a few rounds of an AK-47 alongside some other Aussies we had met throughout the day, mainly to ensure my Call of Duty skills were not lost whilst overseas and then, our guide talked us through some of the booby traps the Viet Cong would set for the Americans troops. Most of these involved sharp bamboo spears that protruded from a pit and the idea was the above ground would give way as soldiers walked over it and drop them to their death. I grimaced a few times with the thought of dying this way.
We’d made a booking to do a Mekong Delta tour the following morning and knew we had another early start. However, we again caught up with our German and Dutch friends from the previous night and let the Rivers of Cheap Beer cascade down into our bellies. 4 litres of beer later, the Germans called it a night and left us with Maurits (Dutch) to go and try some snail. We found a street vendor and picked at these slimy snails from their shells and washed them down with another beer. It was past midnight by this point and, with that morning’s hungover still fresh in our mind, we said goodnight. But 200 metres from our hostel, we then stumbled into the Aussies from earlier that day and thought it would be rude if we didn’t share a beer with them too. We drank on for a little longer with them before I randomly got up and went over to speak with a guy from Montana I’d seen around during the tour as well. He was drinking with a few people from France and Holland and mentioned they were going to try dog the next night. Interesting. Now drunk off my face, I agreed to meet them the next night after our Mekong Tour and we’d go try dog. Now 2.30, Elisha and I finally made it home and we tripped ourselves into bed and set the alarm for 6 am.
Day five started worse than day four. Talk about a hangover from hell. Swearing and cursing at one another, Elisha and I scraped our feet along the ground to our bus for the Mekong Tour. To make the matter worse, the bus ride was 3.5 hours long and took us along some potholes bigger than craters on the moon. However, 3.5 hours is long enough for a hangover to dissipate and, by the time we arrived, we were feeling much better (much better being only about 27% of how I’d like to have felt.) We rode on a boat throughout the vast Mekong River and watched as a few local merchants traded with one another. We then walked through a building where they were making local rice candy, coconut caramel and rice paper sheets. We tried some of their local rice wine, which the locals drank here over beer, and some rice wine stored in a bottle that was preserving a dead scorpion in a cobra’s mouth. Venomous stuff. Next up, we were placed in a four man boat and paddled by a standing Vietnamese through a small canal towards where lunch was served. Maybe it was chicken, maybe it wasn’t. But we ate our lunch and spent the next hour perched in a hammock before our bus arrived to take us back home, courtesy of a 3.5 hour bumpfest.
Still knackered from the night before, we arrived back in Saigon around 7pm with a state of fatigue not even a new mother could relate to. We agreed to have a quiet
night and headed back to our hostel to crash head-first into our pillows. We dodged a scooter and rounded the corner only to find the guy from Montana awaiting for us
where we’d met him the night before. We gave our apologies and wished him best of luck with the dog and walked away making “woof woof” sounds. We dove into bed, turned off the alarms and slept straight through until 11 am the next day.
We spent the last two days the same way we started, drinking lots, catching up with friends and eating Pho Bo, Banh Mi and Bahn Xeo. We had another early bus on the last day to Mui Ne so we wanted to rest up as much as we could on Day 6.
Overall, Saigon was one of the craziest and most hectic places I’ve ever been and, in all honesty, we didn’t stray too far from the two blocks where we stayed in one of the 3 different hostels we occupied. But I loved every inch of it and would have gladly have spent over a month there. Saigon – you are one crazy mother-effing place!