Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Midnight ramblings from Saigon

by Saigon Charlie

Midnight in Saigon

Well, it has been a long day here but I have opted to end the day in bed watching the Discovery Channel’s Travel and Leisure. As I don’t have a TV in Europe, kind of nice to take a break from the road and veg in front of the idiot box and watch who and what I am suppose to be. Today I am suppose to be rich and famous in Monaco and go experience the foods of Beijing. Cool. Let’s go!

The trip here in Vietnam is winding down a bit earlier than planned due to me no longer having a camera and a replacement here being twice the price of the same models in Thailand. Same goes for laptops. If you need electronic gear while visiting and traveling in and around Vietnam, make sure you get it at Pantip Plaza in Bangkok before heading out.

As I had to get back to Thailand before heading back to Europe, I hit the usual web sites, from Air France to Thai Airways, and eventually opted to head down to the Air France office where an extremely nice and professional lady named ‘Diem’ joked with me for nearly an hour as I made my travel plans and got my tickets.

If you come overland into Vietnam out of Laos or Cambodia as most due, it seems that most plan on flying back to Bangkok before heading home. Although a good plan, it might shock you to learn that ticket prices are twice as much as you might think for the 1 hour flight as all airlines are around $200 for a one way ticket from either Hanoi or Saigon to Bangkok.

Having spent over 60 hours riding local trains in Vietnam with what I estimate to be over 3,000 kilometers, I think I might be qualified to make a few final observations about traveling around Vietnam.

Everyone of course will leave with their own impressions, given age, place, sex differences, etc., but having said that, for me I am constantly comparing Vietnam to Thailand as that is the place I have spent many years and for me, has come to define the ‘Southeast Asian’ experience. And what are the major differences you ask?

  1. Noise. It is EVERYWHERE here. Almost without exception, you are immersed in it. Even the hotels I have stayed in, it has been hard to find something that could be defined as ‘quiet’ with people coming and going and partying all through the night. The locals extend their room space into the hall. Doors aren’t closed, chairs moved into the hall and the party continues there between the parties in various rooms. Of course, if you have a window, the non-stop honking and beeping of motorcycles can try your nerves. As mentioned many times before, people here do not speak softly as they do in Thailand.
  2. Unlike Thailand, you are constantly ‘assaulted’ by an endless number of touts for this or that when anywhere gets near a tourist hang out. From pretty ladies smiling lovely smiles selling you books at prices far above what they should be to young boys following saying ‘shoe shine mister?”, it is never ending. I have also found that it is not uncommon to have this endless stream of humanity follow you into a restaurant and continue their pitch as I have watched numerous times money given to these folks just to get them to go away, which is the worse thing you could do! Just keep saying “no!”. They eventually get it. Although you and I as westerners want to make eye contact, that is the beginning of the end for you as that eye contact is taken as a welcoming sign to establish the hustle. If you want to avoid these situations, keep your eyes down and don’t make eye contact with those making attempts to sell you something.
  3. The moto driver outside your hotel has bigger plans for you than taking you to your destination for 10,000 dong. The better his English gets, the more sophiscated his plan will be. Not as complex as an Istanbul carpet salesman inviting you in for tea, but the hustle for something is part of where this conversation is headed, and depending on your sex, what that entails. If a man, obviously you will hear ‘massage mister?” or ‘boom boom mister?”. A bit younger, you will be assured you will get an offer for some type of entertainment in the forms of drugs. Often times, that person making you the proposition outside your 3 star hotel, is an ‘off duty’ cop. You figure out where this is headed.
  4. The price of local transportation is 10,000 dong. End of discussion. Take it or leave and every single driver will but most, unless you look like a local or seasoned traveler, will start at 3 times that amount. Just be firm and walk away if they won’t take it. Seconds later they are next to you saying, “OK! Let’s go!”
  5. Trains are always late. Prices are very cheap as long as you stay away from travel agencies that will book you a ticket. Even the ‘Five Star Train Service’ co-located next to the train station will always have a ticket for you BUT at a price double that of what it should cost. They figure, rightly so, that you the foreigner don’t have the guts to deal with the mayhem of the Vietnamese train ticket window and the crowd pressing against you or maybe you have arrived at the station when it is closed from 11:30 to 13:30 civil servant nap time.
  6. I found that in Saigon the hotel will arrange a taxi for you to the airport for $6 but it is highly probably the taxi driver will bitch and moan and complain about accepting this rate and when YOU take your bags out of the taxi, expect him to have his hand out.
  7. As I have said here in this blog before, theft is a huge problem although from personal experiences and observations, not limited to Saigon or that matter to white faces. Beyond my own experiences, nearly everyone here has a story to tell. Seems theft here Is a non-racial nor western vs. eastern event. Everyone that looks like they got something worth having is a target, even in remote areas such as Quang Ngai. If you got a laptop on you or a camera that is bigger than your pocket, somebody, somewhere has you marked and is most probably waiting for the right moment to strike. I am terribly sorry I have to write these words but they are true…
  8. You will meet some wonderful people on your journey, including children and adults. There is an innocence at times that is priceless and the joy of talking to children, as well as adults, is one part of what traveling is all about BUT having said that, if you are male, and alone, somebody is looking at you with suspicion because unfortunately, there are a bunch of perverts out here from all nationalities.
  9. I am constantly listening to conversations about health issues with one of the main discussion points being ‘malaria’ tablets. Simply put you don’t need them and if you take them, you are more probably at getting ill that if you don’t them, I also want to mention that health care in Vietnam is expensive. Save getting sick for Thailand. A trip to the doctor here or in the new hospital in Siem Reap is a $300 appointment as they expect you to have ‘travel insurance’ and will charge you as such. These are insane amounts and nothing more than a scam. “Up to you” as we say in Thailand but if you don’t have travel insurance, you better re-think how sick you are before walking through that doctor’s door.
  10. One of the most comical things I see daily is what people are carrying. I just can’t imagine what people are lugging around in the huge backpacks they are carrying along with the other backpack strung over their stomach. Clothes in Asia are dirt cheap and often cheaper than what it cost to wash them at a hotel! Is it really necessary that everyone knows you wear designer, name brand clothes from Europe? For men, a pair of shorts with decent sized pockets and a pair of long pant is all you will ever need. When one gets dirty, wear the other and get it washed. A few t-shirts to keep the sweat away from a couple of shirts is all you will need. Do you really need socks when it is 35 degrees outside and your feet are constantly soaked from the rain. My rule of thumb is my total wash should never be more than 3 kilos, 5 maximum if you want to keep your tux with you…
  11. You will acquire things along the way to take home for yourself and friends which is great but if you start off with your maximum baggage allowance, how are you getting those items back? Oh yeah, the post!
  12. Not so fast buckaroo! Posting things back home to Europe or the States is expensive, whether in Thailand or Vietnam. If posted from Cambodia, you might as well throw your money into the Tonle Sap. Many men I know are mailing back those items that make your sex life a bit more stimulating back home with the lass you lovingly left, but if so, don’t be so stupid to put your name on it, as what you are doing is illegal!
  13. Have a small medical kit. Make sure you get some Tiger Balm in Thailand (red not white) as well as some bandages and bandaids (plasters). Some tape with small scissors need to be thrown in as well. When (not if) you get cuts, clean them immediately with bottled water and use Tiger Balm and the bandage to keep it covered. Tiger Balm keeps the wound moist so sometimes, as with poison, that might not be the right choice and will make the rash spread. Tiger Balm is also good for sunburn but having decent lotion is also important from the intense sun. As said before, drop the malaria tablets as they are expensive and will most probably make you ill. An assortment of antibiotics can be bought over the counter in Thailand and cost nearly nothing.
  14. Police are not here to help you! You need to get that concept out of your head! They are here to take your money if they are involved. If a crime against you has happened in Cambodia, they will expect $100 to do the paperwork which is a total waste of time. In Thailand, you have an accident, and they are called to the scene, they will be expecting a cut of whatever settlement is arrived at. In Vietnam, the crowd that gathers around the accident becomes the 'jury' to the event and its settlement. You kill someone on your motorbike drunk in Thailand, you aren’t going to jail but you will be expected to pay the family a rate that is appropriate for the person’s age, sex, martial status, number of children, etc. Run over a 10 year old girl, and the price is much lower than a 29 year old man with a family of 3 working as a mechanic. Simple enough but expect the police who ‘broker’ the deal to get their commission. No police, no commission. Simple as that.
  15. If you are involved in an accident, sober or drunk, run as fast can and get as far away from the event as possible. State the motorbike was stolen and you were not on the planet that day. Staying at the scene while people are picking up the bodies even though you were not responsible and the person who hit you was drunk out if his mind, will not have an outcome you expect as they will blame you, the foreigner. If you witness an accident and go to help, you will be paying for it. You don’t listen to my advice in these matters, you will regret it for a long time as nice guys finish last out here.
  16. In Vietnam they don’t have helmets and no one expects you to wear one. Shit, they don't even have rear view mirrors. In Thailand, helmets have come to be expected in places such as Pattaya only because they are a source of revenue for the police if you don’t wear one in the form of on the spot tickets and fines. Forget the fact that the helmets there couldn’t protect you from the impact of a fly hitting you at 30kph. It is a total joke but as in Thailand, show is what is important. Substance is not…
  17. Theft in Thailand is different in some ways from Vietnam as a Thai will not steal from you for several reasons. Most won’t steal as they are Buddhist but even if they do, you can expect the police to beat the shit out of them if they get caught (and they will) stealing from a foreigner, as tourism is vital to their economy and they know it. The police in Thailand come down heavy on Thais stealing or committing crimes against us BUT having said that, beware of the new foreign friends you have just met on that long, 7 hour bus ride to a place where everyone intends to get trashed out of their minds. Single white woman have a mystical charm about them to these eastern boys (and horny white boys) and they are immune, even while filling their bags shoplifting at Thailand’s finest department stores. Hopefully they have had their fill before they get to you and your backpack…..
  18. You have to be almost insane to survive out here and anyone who has been out here for any length of time has moved their ‘center’ so far to the right or left, that ‘normal’ to them will seem bizarre to you. Hang out here in Asia though for awhile and walk a mile in their shoes (or pumps if you prefer) and you might see everything through a different pair of rose colored glasses. People are here because they don’t fit in where they are from and as we say in Thailand, “you don’t fit in but you don’t stick out!”, as bizarre is normal!
Good night Vietnam!
Charlie