Research Is Good
It always pays to find out as much as you can when you’re visiting a place for the first time. But sometimes, even with the best of preparations, some things can catch you by surprise, not always such a bad thing because they make for some interesting experiences, stories and memories.
Exiting Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, I had to go to the Pham Ngu Lao area in District 1. I was not a rich tourist, more like an impoverished, neophyte backpacker getting my travel feet wet. I had to make every cent (or Vietnamese dong) count. Ergo, the hours of online research before my trip, to find the best and most cost-effective ways of doing things. The fact that I had a friend in Vietnam who was able to tell me about certain things didn’t hurt, too.
So, shifting my big backpack to a more comfortable position (if I was going to classify myself as a backpacker, I had to look the part, right?), I went out in search of a taxi to bring me to my initial destination. Getting one wasn’t a problem; there were fleets of them outside the airport. The thing is, they all said the fare to where I needed to go cost $10.00. Because of my meticulous research (okay, I admit my friend tipped me off), I knew I wasn’t supposed to pay more than $6.00 for the ride from the airport to Pham Ngu Lao. So I said to one cab driver, “No, I’ll pay $4.00, okay?” gently and with a smile. To my surprise, he agreed. First lesson learned – research plus being pleasant and friendly with the locals go a long way.
The accommodating cab driver even dropped me off in front of the travel agency I had thought about going to, where I was to buy a bus ticket for my final destination. He saved me quite a bit of the hassle of walking around, looking for that particular place. Second lesson learned – sometimes Lady Luck smiles at you. Be grateful when that happens.
I went in and bought my ticket. Since my bus ride wasn’t due to leave until 8:00 P.M. (it was 10:00 A.M. at the time), I had lots of time to explore Saigon.
First impression: the place was overflowing with motorbikes. I mean, seriously. It seemed like everyone was riding one. They far outnumbered bicycles and automobiles. It was a sight, especially at stoplights where there were so many gathered en masse.
Food and Drink
After a few hours I decided to stop for a coffee break at a side-street eatery. My research didn’t prepare me for Vietnamese coffee. It never entered my mind that people drink coffee differently in some places. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the things the waitress placed in front of me. My attempts to ask questions, or mime what I thought I should do, were met with shakes of the head and gentle laughter. I think I finally figured it out. At least I didn’t see or hear hysterical laughter from her. The coffee cost about 25 cents, pretty good, too!
I walked back to the Pham Ngu Lao area to eat an early dinner and to cool my heels. I forget the name of the nice little restaurant where I grabbed a bite, a few doors down from the Sinh Café travel agency on De Tham Street. I had a big serving of pasta, a fruit shake and a pot of tea – for less than $1.50. I savoried the pot of tea, while alternately writing in my journal and indulging in a bit of people-watching. The area was overflowing with Western tourists, the German couple at the next table was drinking beer, raucous laughter from a British group a few feet away, snippets of French from passers-by.
Then there were the walking vendors, hawking everything from bootleg books and CD’s to other stuff. One woman was selling books, she had a large pile of them she carried around. She remarked in halting English that she’d seen me thrice during the day, maybe it was ordained I'd buy a book from her. I laughed and said “No, thank you, really,” which she took with good grace. Politesse, not high-handedness, is important, remember. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort.
A Gem of an Experience
A certain walking vendor and his offerings made an impression. Again, my research didn’t prepare me for anything like it, I’m so glad it didn’t. What a gem of an experience! There I was, sipping warm, fragrant tea, immersed in my journal writing when I heard "hello". I looked up, saw this young man carrying what looked like a makeshift attaché case, wide open to showcase rows upon rows of (what were probably fake) Zippo lighters.
Smiling, he asked if I wanted to buy a lighter. Smiling back, I declined.
Without missing a beat, he asked in the same cheerful tone: “Marijuana? Good quality.”
I nearly choked on my tea. Laughing a bit, I politely declined. He nodded, still smiling, went further inside the restaurant, presumably to offer his wares to other tourists. I was glad he didn’t seem offended by my reaction. I wondered, though, at his success rate. Regrettable that none of the vendors would allow me to take their pictures.
A few hours after nightfall, I gathered my things, went up the street and saw that my bus was already there. As the bus prepared to make the five-hour journey to Mui Ne, I settled in my seat, reflecting on the new sights and sounds I had witnessed that day in Saigon.