(Un)prepared for Saigon – Vietnam, Asia

Saigon's Historic Post Office Building
Saigon's Historic Post Office Building

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.

Two-wheeled transportation: Motorbikes in Saigon
Two-wheeled transportation: Motorbikes in Saigon

Lesson 1
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.

Lesson 2
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
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.

Coffee break: Vietnamese-style
Coffee break: Vietnamese-style

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.

Temple: One of the many in Saigon
Temple: One of the many in Saigon

Walking Vendors
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.

Boat Lady: On the Saigon River
Boat Lady: On the Saigon River

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.

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