Ho Chi Minh City, a Traveler's Observations
Thankfully the last bus ride of our trek was actually pleasant. A word not often used to describe that form of transportation since we bused through South America. The bus was new, clean, had a great suspension system, and a driver who used reasonable driving practices during the four-hour journey. There was only one vestige from the previous excursions, and that was the horn blowing, although it was fairly sporadic and in most cases justified.
Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon before the fall of South Vietnam at the end of the war. However, many people still refer to it as Saigon including most who live South of the DMZ. It has a population of nearly five million inhabitants, a city roughly the physical size of New Orleans, which has approximately 1.2 million people. To say it's crowded is an understatement of epic proportions.
Except for the one party system in Vietnam, very little is left from the glory days of the hardcore Communist ideology - communes are out, shopping malls are in. However, a few traces still remain. For example, pictures, banners and billboards with images of "Uncle Ho" (as in Ho Chi Minh) are still everywhere. The country's bright red flag with the large yellow star in the middle adorns all government buildings. Occasionally we saw bright red flags with a yellow hammer, sickle and star, which is a through-back to the once powerful brand of Soviet/Asian Communism.
I cannot speak for the everyday lives of Vietnamese, but based on observations alone, there seems to be very few restrictions, if any. People move about the country freely, cross borders at will, practice the faith of their choice (there were Christian churches everywhere), and have very normal lives with what appears to be minimal government interference.
The rural parts of the country are extremely poor. However, their basic needs are met, and relatively speaking by Asian standards, had a decent quality of life. For example, we passed through many small towns and villages where "forests" of television antennas reached to the heavens. They may be dirt poor, but they do have standards.
In the spring of 2009, construction was going on nearly everywhere. It appeared to be fueled mostly from foreign investment. I read in the local paper (it was in English - hadn't mastered Vietnamese) that growth in 2009 was expected to be at around five percent. In today's world economy, countries consider themselves fortunate if they are not experiencing a decrease of five percent.
One of the city's biggest challenges will be to upgrade its infrastructure in the older parts of the metropolis. Although the roads were reasonably well maintained, the electrical and telephone lines were horrendous. If a line did not work, it appears they simply added new one. The utility company used the word "grid" quite literally.
Ho Chi Minh City is extremely vibrant with a booming economy and business environment. High-rise buildings were going up all over the city, and there were many very high-end retailers (e.g., boutiques, electronics and computer stores, etc.), and restaurants and hotels too numerous to count. Not including the traffic, it's a very impressive city.
Walking in Ho Chi Minh City is equal to or possibly greater than the risk we took during most of the bus rides. In one of the guidebooks it clearly stated that pedestrians have no right-of-way, period. If someone gets hit, it's their fault not the driver's, regardless of the size of the vehicle or person. In fact, it would not be surprising if the pedestrian were charged with the accident regardless of their physical condition following the accident.
There were few traffic lights, and most of them were merely a suggestion. The aptly coined phrase for crossing traffic in the city was the Saigon Shuffle. The shuffle consisted of taking baby steps into traffic, which was usually coming from both directions. As we shuffled across the street, traffic would simply veer around us with less than an inch of clearance. This included buses, trucks, automobiles, and the ever-present motorcycles and mopeds. The first few days we shadowed locals and followed them across the streets. By the end of two weeks we maneuvered through the chaos as easily as any of the natives.
The Communist's form of capitalism would give our version of capitalism a run for its money. The sheer number of "mom and pop" shops at the markets and along the streets was overwhelming. It's probably closer to what the U.S. was like in the '50s and '60s before the malls and gigantic big-box stores starting popping up like mushrooms in a cow pasture.
It's amazing to walk along the streets and through the numerous markets and see the volume of goods for sale. What's even more striking is the quantity of similar stores with inventories that would rival Walmart's. For example, it's not uncommon to see a store selling watches, and it easily has 1,000 or more of them. What's more amazing is there are 100 stores with the same brands and number of watches. Who buys all of this stuff boggles the mind. Tourists only make up a small percentage of what's bought from the thousands and thousands of small shops.
Grocery stores are chocked full of virtually everything we have in the States. Fruit and vegetable stalls and food carts were overflowing and offered a smorgasbord of options. They lined the streets, alleyways and parks in large numbers. People appeared happy, ate well and were extremely lean and fit by Western standards.
We had two rooms at the hotel, which was located down one of the thousands of "rabbit warrens" throughout the city. The first morning we were awoke at 4:30 a.m. by bells ringing at the Catholic Church on the far side of the park. There did not seem to be any reason or order to the ringing, as they rang three times, stopped, rang two times, stopped, rang five times until they eventually stopped altogether.
We had just gone back to sleep when at 5:00 a.m. music started blaring from loud speakers in the park. It was a bizarre medley of tunes including traditional Asian, pop, '60s (Elvis) and some really oldie goldies from the 50's including Tammy by Debbie Reynolds and Mocking Bird Hill by Patti Page. It was an eclectic mix to say the least, and a very surreal wake-up call nearly every morning during the two weeks we were there.
It took several days to solve the mystery. The Vietnamese love to exercise and do so very early in the morning. Apparently, the bells are the signal for the residents in the area to make their daily pilgrimage to the park. Once there, they jog, walk, ride bikes, do stretches, participate in aerobics and Tai Chi, play badminton and practice their dance moves to the incredibly loud music.
Unfortunately, we were unable to visit Hanoi in the North. Lack of funds and time conspired against us. We met many fellow travelers who said it was a very modern city and had a lot to offer.
There are many things to do and see in Ho Chi Minh City. The streets are lined with tour operators and most of the hotels offer inexpensive excursions as well. Next week's article will focus on two tours, which were as dissimilar as war and peace.
And remember, "Travel is the ultimate education."