Ho Chi Minh City: "Young and Noisy"

Ho Chi Minh City


July 18, 2003 

Heavy Rain



Dear Family and Friends,

I am sitting in the lobby of the Riverside Hotel, a charming colonial style building with tile floors, Corinthian columns, and French provincial furniture. Recently renovated, the hotel overlooks the broad, container ship-filled Saigon River.

Greeting me each morning is an attractive staff of smiling young men and young women who wear the traditional outfit of colorful long flowing dresses over loose fitting pants. (They giggled when I translated "Besame Mucho" that was playing over the lobby music system.) The rate includes full breakfast of Asian soups, omelets to order, fresh fruit and salads, strong coffee.

Today is a "non-tourist" day. I take a leisurely breakfast and try to make some plans with my books and maps. I think I have a route, but then my impatience just drives me out the door.

I pack up my city-trip carryall messenger bag with water, umbrella, hat, poncho, extra film, map, and guidebook.

Walking around Saigon presents some minor difficulties. First, it's hot. Very hot. Really hot.

Next, there are many children and young women peddling post cards and knock-off photocopied books. Vietnam Phrasebook, The Quiet American, "The Girl in the Picture." The kids don't take "No!" for an answer. It's worse than Istanbul. They are persistent, walking beside me for several minutes before finally giving up. The secret is to ignore them totally. No eye contact. Complete indifference.

Then there are the taxi drivers, motorbike drivers, and cyclo drivers. “Where you go, mister? Where you go, mister?" No eye contact helps here, or a "No thank you" or a wave of the hand. A fellow traveler taught me to say, "I am walking" in Vietnamese. That works very well.

Then there are the shops and restaurants. “Come in sir. Have a look sir. Very cheap price, sir.”

The young women in the markets grab me by the arm and with a smile drag me into their little shirt shops. After a moment or two I tell them that I love them and they let me go. It's a bit annoying, but I accept their enthusiastic and assertive capitalism as just some more fun during the day.

And of course, the traffic. The official population of HCMC is 4.8 million, but it's probably much higher than that. For a city of this size, which, by the way, is quite clean, there are very few cars, trucks or buses. HCMC is a city of motorbikes. Hundreds of thousands of them. The streets are rivers of motorbikes. The tree-lined French-inspired boulevards, a sea of motorbikes. The end of the workday is a rising tide of motorbikes. A tsunami of motorbikes.

Think of the most intimidating intersection you can imagine: Broadway and 42nd Street. Columbus Circle. The Étoile. Piccadilly Circus. Now imagine a migrating army of bicycles and motorbikes converging and departing from all angles and directions, without traffic lights. At a few corners, a civil servant or a young volunteer waves a little red flag.

Everyone weaves their way through this chaos with remarkable skill, stoicism and speed. Lots of noise and beeping, but no shouts, no dirty looks, no cursing, no obscene gestures. Everyone is calm, proper and civilized.

Young men, young women; mothers with infants in a basket; fathers in front with one child, mother in back holding another. A family of four on a motorbike navigates their way home for dinner.

Now try to imagine something more. Crossing the street through this two way, infinite, oncoming motorized maelstrom! It's an art that I have begun to master.

I emphasize "young" because Vietnam is a very young country. The population is now over 80 million, the thirteenth largest country in the world. Sixty percent of the population is under the age of thirty. Do the math. Almost 50 million young; millions of women of childbearing age. My guidebook estimates the country will double in size in the next ten years. No wonder companies from around the world are tripping over themselves to set up business here. And so far, no McD, no KFC, no 7-11, no Hertz or Avis. No Starbucks! Imagine the possibilities.

Back to my non-tourist day.

I walk near the riverside, through some streets and small markets and find my way to the center of town. Charming old French public buildings; art and history museums in bright yellow and white; Chinese pagodas with fierce warrior kings and Buddhas. A larger-than-life statue of "Uncle Ho" dominates "centre ville." Ho gently pats the shoulder of a young child.

Just in front of a Christian church I spotted a "European" man and a young Vietnamese woman who had stopped for a coconut juice. I decided to chat.

Charles is visiting from Montreal where he lives with his Vietnamese wife and young child. Vi is his sister-in-law. Charles never stops talking. I think he is so happy to have a conversation in fluent English. We talk about Vietnamese culture. Vi is also quite enthusiastic and friendly.

Unexpectedly, Vi invites me to her other sister's wedding celebration the next day. At first I am reluctant to accept. Charles explains that it is an honor for the family to have a foreigner at their home. I say "yes." I will be honored to attend.

I am grateful for the freedom of independent travel: to speak with strangers without constraint ... to bond quickly ... to change plans spontaneously. I see fewer "sights" but in the long run, I think I see more.


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