Friday, November 27, 2009

Tour of Duty

No, I refuse to start with "Good Morning, Vietnam!" Firstly, its not morning, its night, and secondly, it would just be ridiculously unoriginal.

Wow! Thank goodness I didn't bother listening to the vast number of Ho Chi Minh City critics out there! Yes, travel is often a mixed bag, and its what you make of it, but the anti-HCMC sentiment had come in thick and fast since I made the grand announcement that I was going to go. Criticisms ranged from it being dangerous, to being boring. The Vietnamese were said to be dodgy and dishonest and downright unfriendly. Well, I must say that my experience has been quite different to any of this. Yes, I think Ho Chi Minh City has its crime and it can happen at any time, but I kept my wits about me. I think HCMC definitely has the potential to be boring, because apart from the war history, there aren't too many aesthetically great things about it - no grand buildings, not too many obvious religious places of significance on the main track and it certainly doesn't ooze Historical Viet culture per se. However, when you think about the fact that its been the world's favourite pass time to shell and mortar this city since goodness knows when, HCMC aint doin that bad!

I guess the difference is between here and Bangkok is that Bangkok has little reason for being a crappy hell hole of a dump (in my opinion). Vietname has gone through an incredible difficult recent past and many people here look tired and battle weary - but still work hard. In Bangkok, there's a carelessness about it. I don't find the Vietnamese as confronting as the Bangkok Thais (keep in mind Thais from Bangkok are VERY different to Thais from, say, Phuket or Krabi, in the south). While the Vietnamese are hardened, and difficult to engage with, they are still pleasant and for the most part, happy to see you.

Today, I arrived into HCMC airport and was surprised to see that the airport was calm, orderly and quiet. Admittedly, it was 8am but it was still not as I expected. I wasn't hassled by taxi touts, I was not shuffled into any kind of queue, I just walked straight up, into a cab and then off I went. The taxi ride was slow and for a significant part of the journey, the taxi driver continously beeped his horn - just like the 2000 motorcycles and cars surrounding him. With no real road rules, and far too many motorised scooters, HCMC is somewhat complicated to navigate. Its often the case that you, with the flow of traffic, will come up against a steady flow of scooters coming down your side of the road, across pavements and sideways in between whatever gaps you can find. HCMC is more or less about "every scooter-man for themselves". It certainly doesn't pay to have a car, because its like an elephant trying to move amongst a swarm of flies.

I checked into the hotel and off it was then to explore the nearby sights, including the Reunification Palace (often seen as a symbol of the Viet independence), the french inspired Notre Dame Cathedral (Vietnam was ruled by the French, pre-1970's) and then a few smaller sites here and there. Then it was off to grab lunch with my colleague who is based in HCMC - lunch which turned into a bottle of wine and a long afternoon of chats and laughter about living in HCMC - she is of indian descent but has worked all around the world). Then I said goodbye to her and it was off to the markets to try my hand at some bartering, collecting a few items for christmas presents. I pray the Australian customs will be kind to me and allow me to bring it all in!

Then, due to my rule of "no night time fun" whem traveling alone, I settled into my hotel room at dusk, ready for an action packed day tomorrow. I've arranged for a driver to take me down to the Mekong Delta - where the real Vietnam begins! Rice paddies, floating markets and cultural villages. Its a bit of a pricey exercise to get a private driver but I just didn't want to risk getting stuck on some dodgy half-baked local tour to see sights and get shafted because of back door deals being done by the operators.

Oh, how I love traveling. It gives me a purpose, it clears my head, it opens my eyes to what this world is really about.

Blessed are the ones that travel, my friends.


(below: Notre Dame Cathedral, a replica made by the French when they were running Vietnam)

(below: the Gates of the Reunification Palace, where the army tanks famously crashed through and signified the defeat of the South Vietnamese in around 1975)

(below: The Reunification Palace, or otherwise known as "Independence Palace")

(below: not sure of this building but its a great example of French-influenced architecture prior to the French leaving Vietnam in the 1950's)

(below: More French inspired architecture, this time as the Opera House)


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