Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Saigon a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City

We arrived in Saigon late on a Sunday night and found out that Pete’s bag was still in California. So by the time we filled out paperwork, it was really late. Like midnight. Our first taste of Saigon, therefore, was really quite mellow. Our taxi driver introduced us to honking and optional stoplights (it seems as if they all are), and then, after passing the hotel I tried to get us a room in, dropped us off and pointed down an alley. He said our hotel was down there.

This is the alley AFTER we went down the creepy alley. Looks kind of nice in the late day.

To preface this, I spent hours reading forums on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree researching places to go, money (what’s best to bring – answer: crisp $100US, $1 and $5 bills), and of course, safety. All over the boards are warnings about bogus taxis, getting dropped off at hotels that one didn’t ask to go to. The list goes on.

So, here we are at midnight in Saigon handing a taxi driver $8US to drop us off in the middle of the street and point us to an alley. Naïve American travelers? Yes. But here’s the thing: our hotel really was down the little alley.

I’m frugal. I don’t see the point in spending hundreds of dollars a night on a room I’ll barely spend time in. Most women, when it comes to their honeymoon, would have never agreed to stay anywhere besides top tier hotels because they only cost about $200 a night instead of $500 in Hawaii. But, I found us a room for $13 a night. Why spend so much on a hotel when we could spend that on more travel or great meals? This is the same mentality I use when booking coach tickets.

Sometimes my frugality bites me in the ass. This would be one of those times. Our lovely host led us to our cell, I mean room, on the first floor. It was just large enough to fit a double bed, small refrigerator and small wardrobe. I was glad Pete’s bag was missing. It wouldn’t have fit. Did I mention the window looked out onto the hallway and had BARS ON IT?

Pete’s clothes were in California. We were sleeping in a cell. This was our HONEYMOON. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have cried.

The next morning, we asked our host if he had any other rooms with windows looking OUTSIDE and also, higher in the building because we heard everyone stomp to breakfast and their plans for the day. He showed us a nice room on the third floor with a window to outside, but he told us it was more. It was $16 more. I thought this was a little steep, but at that point, my cheapness was keeping quiet. We moved our (that would be my) things to the new room with the hope Pete’s would arrive that day.

The first day was like being thrown into a circus ring with all the shows going at once. Saigon has 3 million motor scooters (motos), and they function similarly to cars. People pile whole families onto them, shopping bags, refrigerators, bookshelves – you name it, it goes on a moto. Coming from a country where kids stay in car seats until they are 80 pounds, it shocked me to see toddlers sitting between their mom or dad's legs or STANDING between mom and dad as they zipped and dodged across the city. Most of them didn't have helmets. It was mind boggling.

Once we processed the moto craziness, we realized we had to wade in to cross the street. All intuition and rules about crossing the street had to be abandoned. The only way to cross through the madness was to step into it. Luckily, motos are agile and weave around pedestrians. We paused for buses and large cars to pass, but otherwise, it was best to keep moving. I admit, the first time we crossed a major street, we followed a local woman who was about, oh 90. Please note, we didn’t help her across; we followed her. Trembling.
Note the family crossing the street with traffic flowing. Totally normal.
We spent the day alternately getting scammed since it was our first day and we didn’t know better, avoiding crossing the street and absorbing the chaos around us. It was incredibly overwhelming, and at the same time, exhilarating. Aside from the fact that there are cars, people and buildings, it was like nowhere we’d ever been before. It was organized chaos. And we loved it.
This is my "stop taking my picture and let's get some food" face. I'm very serious about food.

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