We are in Saigon. International Women’s Day is a very big deal here in Vietnam. Indeed, it’s celebrated with the enthusiasm reserved for Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day in North America.
We couldn’t figure it out at first. Everywhere we went, vendors were suddenly selling flowers. Every street corner had someone hawking roses. It wasn’t Valentine’s Day. What could this be about? We went into a bakery to buy some treats and the woman at the till handed me a rose. She just stared at me, smiling, searching for the right words in English… then said, “it’s woman’s day!”
Woman’s Day? What amazing tradition is this, I thought? Then Scott said, “It’s March 8th– IWD.” Even the local news led with International Women’s Day-related items. So different from North America. In Canada, the day is marked enthusiastically by progressive activists but is usually met with a collective shrug otherwise, if it’s not met with a question. “IWD? What’s that? Isn’t that what George Bush lied about in Iraq?”
The garden hill station of Da Lat
Before we get to Saigon, here’s an update on our travels. From Hoi An, we made our way by bus to the former French colonial hill station of Da Lat. It was beautiful, and we regret not having had more time there. Da Lat is a definite must see in Vietnam. The town is home to the famous Easy Riders, a gang of motorcycle riders who do tours of Da Lat and its environs. We weren’t sure how to find them. When we asked other travelers, they just said, “Oh, they’ll find you.”
Find us, they did… We stepped off the bus and out of nowhere a large, rough-looking guy named Lu’u approached us and asked us where we wanted to go. Even knowing he was looking to book us on a tour, we found him really helpful. Our bus landed us across town from where we were actually staying. And we had no idea how to get there. There were no taxis, for instance. The Easy Riders have become the de facto ambassadors of Da Lat. Kind, polite and soft-spoken, they will help you find whatever you need here. Lu’u didn’t charge us for a ride to our hotel. He did however, pitch us hard on a three-day motorcycle tour of the surrounding hill country. We told him we’d do a one-day tour and take it from there.
Our day with Lu’u and his fellow biker was actually pretty great. Riding on the back of two old classic bikes, Lu’u and his co-pilot took us to see local farms, a zen monastery and meditation centre, pagodas, and the Datanla waterfalls. All the sites any tourist would want to see. But really the most fun we had was just riding around up and down the hills on the back of a motorcycle, taking in the beauty of this region.
We’ve been traveling a few weeks now and already miss things like fresh vegetables and salad and fresh fruit. Da Lat feels like ground zero for growing vegetables and fruit; so fresh our mouths were watering as we stood there in the middle of the fields watching workers harvest a diverse, delicious-looking bounty. In fact, fruit, vegetable and coffee farming are the main industry here. That means you can get some of the freshest fruit at the market and it’s cheap – 10, 000 dong per Kg no matter what you put in the bag. Karen loves the Dragon Fruit. We’ve never tasted Dragon Fruit like the ones in Vietnam, so moist and sweet, so tasty. She’s been on a Dragon Fruit marathon, eating one a day until she can’t get them anymore.
Saigon, er…We mean Ho Chi Minh City
After just three days, we reluctantly board the bus again and headed to Saigon. This bus trip was quite different from the others we’ve taken in China and Vietnam. Those were real tests of stamina, not to mention patience and tolerance. But our bus ride from Da Lat to Saigon was a day trip and one of the most beautiful we’ve taken, anywhere. Don’t take this the wrong way: the seats were still broken and too small, and crammed up against the one in front of you. The AC still didn’t seem to work, and if you opened the window the bus driver still insisted that it be shut. But being the veteran bus riders we are now, we just sat back and enjoyed the magnificent view of rolling mountains and jungle. Unfortunately we took no photos, so you’ll just have to imagine the scene. Or, better yet, come here and see for yourself.
Modern Saigon is officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. We’re leaving the country in two days to head up the Mekong River in a boat to Cambodia, but will pass the time exploring the city. If Hue was our least favorite place in Vietnam, Saigon comes in at a close second. It’s a big city, and might take more time to show its qualities. We have noticed that, unlike Hanoi, Hoi An, Hue, Sapa, and Da Lat – Saigon requires more alertness. Like all big cities, the ripoffs are common, especially anywhere tourists might venture. We went to the market to buy fruit and one of the vendors threw 4 pieces of fruit in a bag for us, weighed it (about 1.5kg) and then – without a trace of irony or batting an eye – said, “100,000 dong.” Imagine going to Super Valu and taking five pieces of fruit to the cashier where you’re told, “$50.” A hundred thousand Dong is at least five times what we paid anywhere else in Vietnam (including the capital, Hanoi). It’s also more than we’d pay in Canada. Karen just said, “no way” and told Scott to hand it back. Instead, Scott tried to bargain with the woman and offered 50,000. Karen was shaking her head, “No, no, no. How do we go to 50,000 from 20,000 one town ago? The woman counter-offered with 90,000 Dong, at which point we realized she was used to fleecing people. We handed her the bag and left the market. We walked to a different market where the price was much lower. Saigon is often the only stop for tourists off cruise ships who only have one-day. So we leave those people to the woman at the market and may she live long and prosper by them. We’ll go look for better prices.
In just a few days, we have our favourite haunts, including a restaurant that serves terrific Pho, a movie theater that serves meals at your seat – great for when you’re feeling hot and want to escape the sun for a couple of hours in the afternoon. And we also have a great corner coffee shop, of course.
Yesterday, we took a day tour to see the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cau Dai Holy See, the Vatican of the Cau Dai religion – that was fascinating. A rather eccentric religion founded in 1926 whose venerated saints include not only the usual suspects (Buddha, Muhammed, Jesus Christ, Lao Zu, and Confucius) but also Lenin, Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc, and others. Our guide for the day was so representative of the way the country has dealt with its complicated recent past. He had been a soldier for the South Vietnamese army, fighting alongside the Americans against the Viet Cong. After the war ended, he became a school teacher and now works as a tour guide.
Our day trip made for an unusual day for us. Much busier than normal. It took us several weeks to learn how to pace ourselves and relax. We really only just started to realize that we have months ahead of traveling, so we don’t need to go hard every day. But the old habit of working in politics is hard to shake. Indeed, we actually had an early meeting every morning to plan our agenda for the day. Hard to believe we couldn’t figure out why were always so exhausted. Now, we get up in the morning, have breakfast, do some sight-seeing, then we relax and have a mid-morning tea or coffee, followed by more exploring or just hanging out in a park. Then we eat lunch. After lunch, we may or may not explore some more, depending on the temperature. Like local people, we usually just chill out in the hot afternoon. Then comes dinner. Tonight we’re meeting Michael and Anita for dinner, a Dutch couple we met in Da Lat.
Some thoughts on Vietnam
A month in this country has gone by very quickly and we’re in love with it.
Vietnam has definitely found a special place in our hearts. Our very first initial impression was not as positive, but was coloured by what we had heard and read. Before we arrived, many people told us that Asia is very safe and you were not likely to get robbed… unless you are in Vietnam. If you were going to get “ripped off” in South East Asia, we were told, you’d be in Vietnam when it happens.
But that’s not what we have found at all. Sure there are people ready to take $3 for a cab ride that should cost no more than $1, but dishonest taxis are the norm the world-over and Vietnam is nothing compared to a country like India on the corrupt taxi front. At first, we found people here to be a little standoffish. Locals seemed, on the surface anyway, merely interested in making a buck off a tourist. But as we spent more time here, and when we spent the energy to reach out and show genuine interest in Vietnam and the people who live and work here, the response was ten-fold in return. No one is more self-centred and self-referential than a tourist. Often irrationally paranoid and afraid, tourists are also entitled and arrogant and insensitive. We’ve definitely encountered a host of this sort of traveler here. They’re exhaustingly ignorant and demanding. I’m not sure we could drum up the patience shown by Vietnamese who work in tourism. But if you show a little warmth and genuine friendliness, in our experience we were soon being good-naturedly teased, asked if we wanted to join them for karaoke (we politely declined) and offered gifts.
In our experience, people here are more likely to give you too much change back than to rip you off, something that has happened to us on more than one occasion. We were given too much money back after purchasing something because they didn’t have the right change. Imagine that happening at Banana Republic on Robson Street. The people we’ve met in Vietnam have been sensitive, affectionate and kind. That includes people we pay money to (guest houses, guides, vendors) but also complete strangers who wanted nothing from us. Spend more than 2 or 3 nights in one place and soon local vendors were playing little jokes on us, teasing, or just waving at us as we walked down the street.
Children and young people seemed to love playing the game of “Hello!” You walk near to a group of children or teenagers and they all yell “hello!” at you. Then they wait for you to respond. When we inevitably obliged them with a “hello!” back, they broke out in smiling and laughter. It’s sometimes the only English word they know and the idea of getting a response from a foreign tourist is endlessly fun it seems.
There were also many times when people would make self-deprecating jokes about Vietnam’s own tourism culture. One night walking home from dinner, one young teenager shouted at us “Hello Moto!” and then he and his friends all burst out laughing. You might think we were being made fun of. But in fact, the joke is actually about the ubiquitous motorbike taxis. Everywhere a tourist goes, you hear those words. They’re insistent. Many will say, “Hello! Moto!?” They then point to their motorbike. But it often comes out a little funny, as though they all think your name is Moto and they are saying hello to you. “Hello, Moto!” In Hanoi, they also said “Woo hoo!” and wave at you to get your attention. In Hoi An, sometimes they used “Wooo wooo!” In Saigon, they often just clap their hands loudly until you look at them. Then they point to their cyclo or motorbike questioningly.
In fact, the taxis and vendors, touts and hawkers here are very aggressive. But if you take them too seriously, or get angry, things go very wrong. Public displays of anger are embarrassing and only crank up the aggressiveness. However, if you respond with a smile and keep your cool, patiently but politely ignoring them, sometimes you find they respond with humour. The ability to find the whole scenario quite funny is helpful. Hapless tourists wandering around, getting incessantly bugged to take a taxi they clearly don’t need or want, or to buy things they don’t want. The Vietnamese themselves will often laugh at the situation. And in that, you each share a joke together that you’re both in on.
Vietnam takes some patience. Infrastructure is not quite adequate to meet the tourist demand. If you visit, it’s best to leave western expectations at home. Instead, be prepared to go with the flow and change plans as needed. Try to figure it out, but know that if you look lost, more often than not, someone will try to help you in whatever way they can without you even asking.
We have one more day in Saigon and then we are taking a boat up the Mekong River to cross the border into Cambodia. We’ll have three nights in Phenom Penh and four nights in Siem Reip so we can see Ankor Wat.