21.02.2012 - 23.02.2012 30 °C
Saigon pulsates at the rhythm of a million motorbikes. A mix of Asia-town and French colonial flare make this city a fun and welcoming change from our time in Cambodia. Just know this: it's a big city, and very crowded. Here, a walk down the street is not just an ordinary walk. First, make sure to leave all valuables at home/hotel. No flashy jewelry and preferably no backpacks or purses as bag-snatching is very common. Passports can be left at the front desk of your hotel to ensure it won't get lost. I never thought I would actually use a money belt, but I felt (and have been warned over and over) that this was the place for it.
Next, learning to cross the street properly. First you need to know that traffic won't stop for you. Waiting for a break in traffic will leave you old and gray by the time you get to your destination. You are a rock in the sea of motorbikes and as you cross the street, the vehicles will continue to drive past you just as a river flows around a rock. You continue straight on, steadfast in your direction and try not to panic. It's almost like a perfectly choreographed dance, as long as everyone knows their part. By all
means, don't rent a car!!
The best way to experience it all is through a cyclo-tour. Organizations run cycle tours usually to raise money for charity, so it helps a cause also. Remember how fun it was to sit on the handlebars of a bike while someone else did the pedaling? Same concept, only the handle bars have been made into a comfortable cushioned seat and you have a local guide pedaling and steering. It's a great way to see the highlights of the city - post office, opera house, Notre Dame (Saigon version), etc.
Cu Chi Tunnels
We were lucky to have a local tour guide, who was also a Vietnam war veteran, take us back in history for a refresher course on the war. He was a commander for south Vietnam and had worked as a translator for the US troops. The tunnels were an integral part of the guerrilla warfare of the Vietcong and how the north won the war. The tour started with a propaganda video where they called the US "a bunch of crazy devils dropping bomb's on their beautiful rice fields and Lilly ponds." The tunnels were used by the Vietcong to hide out during the war.
They would span 300 square km at a time, so if one tunnel was found, it wouldn't connect to all the others. We saw various booby traps and even got to crawl through a 100m section of the tunnels. They were very narrow, barely fitting an average sized person (not by American standards!) and you had to squat-walk through the whole time, going down as far as 60 meters. There was also a shooting range, where you could buy bullets and maybe act out a fantasy of shooting an AK47 or M60. It seemed like a strange tourist attraction to me but it made our whole experience of walking through the jungle with the sound of real shotguns and machine guns going off all that much more real!
So far in every town we've been in, there's always a well known section popular with backpackers and expats. Local bars with cheap beer and food lures everyone in, and the friendly vibe and story-telling community keeps you there all night. With Aussies, British and American vagabonds walking about it almost feels like a home away from home. Everyone is eager to meet new people just so they have someone new to converse with that speaks their language. Conversation seamlessly moves from stories of the road to great tips on future destinations, politics, and everything in between. I wouldn't have imagined that on a trip like this, I would learn more about foreign policy, international finance, business and entrepreneurship than I ever did at home!