Tuesday, May 1, 2007

I *Heart* Mopeds

Really, I do. But, I also imagine that if someone were to make a T-shirt that said "I *Heart* Mopeds" that it would seel like gangbusters in Vietnam. These people really like mopeds.

Now, I haven't taken a picture of the average road in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as people still mainly seem to call it here), but I'm going to ask you to use your imagination for a second:

First, picture the largest race you can. Something like the Boston Marathon.

Now, picture that race occuring on every street of the city at the same time.

Still with me?

OK, now give each runner a moped. And, for good measure, you might as well also throw a girlfriend or small family (including an apparently free-roaming infant) onto the moped with each runner. Can you picture that?

That is what the streets of Ho Chi Minh City is like. It's astounding. I've seen it on Amazing Race and other places, but nothing still prepares you for the reality of it.

To make matters even more exciting, stop lights are a rare and optional affair in this city, so crossing the street is an adventure in and of itself. Here's how you do it:

Step 1: Step to the curb.
Step 2: Look "downstream" (or, in the direction of the oncoming mopeds), and put a look on your face that conveys "I am crossing the street now."
Step 3: Step off the curb, and slowly and steadily walk across the street, praying to the deity of your choice that the oncoming drivers decide that they'd rather not collide with you. In this way, you slowly make your way across a proverbial stream of people on mopeds.

But, this stream doesn't gurgle. It sounds like an infinite number of lawnmowers running at the same time. Honking lawnmowers.

Anyhow, after a couple days of walking and dodging mopeds, Sarah and I also decided to ride on one. Or, at least, hire some guys to give us a ride to the Cambodian Consulate on the back of their mopeds. This decision was also spurred by the fact that the previous day we'd hiked out to the Cambodian Consulate on foot, only to find it close. It is a long and hot hike, and we weren't eager to repeat the process.

It was an amazing experience. At first, I was gripping my driver's back like a 13-year old girl who had just seen a spider, but after a couple of blocks of bobbing and weaving through the chaos, I'd gained more confidence in my driver and found myself leaning back, and enjoying the ride. Sarah, meanwhile, on the back of another moped seems cool and collect, even managing to hold a conversation with my moped driver while our two bikes swerved through the cacophony.

After dropping off our Passports at the Cambodian Consulate to get our Visas issued (a process that pretty much defined the phrase "3rd World Bureaucracy"); the rest of the mid-day was spent in the process of Wandering and Sweating... and activity that pretty much has defined our first few days in Vietnam.

We've actually had a chance to check out a few sites, namely the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, but mainly we've been going through the triple challenge of reclimatizing to the hot weather, adjusting to the new time zone (3 hours later than Tassie) and just adjusting to a new culture. Especially since in such a dense and chaotic city.

The Reunification Palace. Those of you alive in '75 probably recognize it. But, it may look a little different without US helicopters taking off from its roof. It was the Seat of the Southern Vietnamese Government, and its capture in April of '75 marked the official end of the Vietnam War.

Sarah from the front deck of the Reunification Palace. When I took the picture she didn't want to be in it because she was "sweaty and gross," but she came out backlit anyhow so no problem!

I don't mean to sideline the Museum and Palace though, but they seem like something that maybe I should address in a slightly more somber entry. I will say though that there is something amazing and profound about visitng an exhibit depicting the horrors of a war, while being a citizen of "one-side" of the war, surrounded by citizens of the "other side." It's really hard to describe, but its an important experience and one that I feel more people should probably have these days.

Since I'm talking about the war, I think its worth noting that Sarah and I haven't encountered any sort of animosity when people find out we are from the States. In fact, the reverse almost seems to be true. It's a bit of a cliche these days to read travel blogs where people rave about "how nice the people of Vietnam are," but its also very true. Even the touts and people trying to sell you water or T-shirts on the side of the road are friendly in a way that is different from South America or any other country I think I've been to. I mean, sure they might be trying to get you to buy a Tiger Beer T-shirt, or zippo lighter or dried squid off the back of their bicycle-stall, but when they realize you're not going to buy whatever it is your selling, they generally give you a smile and laugh that almost seems to imply "well played" and head off to find another sweating tourist to try to convince.

Actually, with the amaount of buying and selling going on, it gets hard to remember this countries Communist roots, but there are still signs of it...

A statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of an Official Looking Building™.

...and there he is again, looking down on people mailing postcards at the main post office.

In addition to the omnipresent Ho Chi Minh, many of the streets are lined with the red and yellowed stared Vietnamese flag, as well as matching hammer and sickle flags. Also, there is a dizzying array for policemen, soldiers, and public workers wearing a confusing variety of green and red fatigues and uniforms. Also, pretty much every public building (including the tourist attractions) close down for about an hour at noon... something that seems relly odd coming from the States.

Finally, while I'm sure Sarah will address this issue in greater detail later, I will mention that the food has been great so far. Happiness is slurping up spicy noodle and beef Pho soup, while nursing a rapidly warming Saigon Beer from a street side restaurant with your wife. It also helps that the meal generally ends up being, like, $6 US total (for both mine and Sarah's meals and a beer each). For the most part, we've been able to eat and drink cheap, but with two notable exceptions.

The first night we were in town we made our way to a rooftop bar where (from the top of the 10th story) we could get a view of the city. While there, we had a drink each, for a massive $4 a drink, but it was worth the cost for the view. Watching the light of the sun fade, and the neon signs adorning the districts rooftops come to life.

Then, last night, we went to a restaurant that had a fixed menu of an appetizer, two sides, and a main couse. We also added on a shared dessert, two juices and two beers. The grand total was about $17 dollars, but the food was amazing. And it was for a good cause, all the staff was made up of disadvantaged youth (orphans, homeless and extremely poor) who were being trained to be waiters and cooks. So, not only did we get a great meal, we also felt like we did our good deed for the day.

OK, its time I wrap this up. Sarah and I have to go hail some mopeds and go pick up our Visas. Tomorrow morning, we head out on a three day tour of the Mekong Delta that ends with us dropped off in Cambodia, so we might not be online for a couple days. But, I'm sure we'll have plenty to rave and ramble about soon.


Meg said...

Sounds like an amazing experience! I've been following your travels b/c my husband and I are planning our own RTW right now. We've enjoyed reading about your adventures. I just have to ask about the dinner you mentioned. Was the name of the restaurant "Friends" or something similar?

Sarah said...

Yeah, we're really loving Vietnam. The restaurant is "Huong Lai" in the Dong Khoi area, behind the People's Committee Building (aka "Official Looking Building" in the blog).

If you have any more detailed questions, let me know and we can email or something. We did a lot of prep by reading people's blogs, so it's great that we might be able to do the same! Good luck with the planning.

eddybles said...

Yet another entry that inspires us to pluck ourselves from the daily routine and get out there and explore! Can't wait to read about the Mekong Delta. Happy travels!

Tim said...

It's a little hard to see, but it looked like there were a number of Westerners at the post office. Was that a gathering point, in particular, or have you seen a lot elsewhere, too?

The General said...

Tim, I think that there were a lot of tourists at the post office because of two reasons:

1) It was on a major Day Tour Curcuit, so a lot of tour groups were being led through it while we were there.

2) There were more tourist there trying to mail postcards or packages back home. Sarah and I actually used another post office (literally right around the corner) to mail our postcards, but then stumbled across the main post office on our way home.

Generally speaking, we have seen a decent number of tourists in Veitnam (and now Cambodia), but they tend to stick to one or two neighborhood primarily.