Neither myself or that English fish Amatay knew much about Vietnam, other than the famous war in which the communist North Vietnam defeated the USA backed South. But what better way to find out about a country than to go there and experience it? It was just a cheap 1-hour flight from Bangkok, Thailand and we landed in Ho Chi Minh City (better known as Saigon).
Vietnam is still a communist state to this date, in that there is only one political party - The Communist Party. However, other than the lack of democracy, their citizens seem to have all the freedoms of any western country. I didn't see anything that would make me think that the Vietnamese people are under oppression. There's no real government presence visible, and you only have to walk around Ho Chi Minh City to realise that their economy is capitalist. Private businesses and international brand shops are everywhere (but thankfully there's not a single McDonalds to be found!).
As we set out to explore the city on our first day we walked out of the hotel and to the end of the street. I remarked about how good it feels to walk around without being hassled by the prostitutes, beggars, slimy suit salesmen, scam artists and tuk tuk drivers that we'd experienced staying in a major tourist area of Bangkok.
Then as we turned the corner a man ran up right beside us and said "Where are you going?". I've been to enough cities around the world to know a dodgy bloke when I see one so I just ignored him. "What do you need?" he said. "Get lost mate!" I said. "Where you go? I can take you? What you need? I can get you" he shouted. "Please just **** off!" I shouted back at him. He seemed to get the message.
Crossing the road for the first time was a scary experience. The roads are about 8 lanes deep with people riding scooters and none of them stop at pedestrian crossings. We learned how to cross by watching how the locals do it. The trick is to walk out slowly and the scooters somehow avoid you.
The roads are just perfect for a game of Frogger!
After we crossed the road safely there were 3 guys standing on the other side next to parked scooters. They asked us where we were going, we ignored them, they asked us if we needed a ride, we said no thanks. Then they offered us some prostitutes. This was about 3:30pm in the afternoon.
As we walked around we found these scumbags on every street corner. Between 1-4 of them, on, every, single, corner, harassing the hell out of anyone that looks like a tourist. First with an offer of transport on the back of their death-mobile scooter and then an offer of "a lady". Occasionally two "NO"s to those questions would result in an offer of drugs. That nonsense was very annoying but after a while we just gott used to it. Assholes shout at and harass you as you walk down the street and you just ignore them. Saigon life.
Eating out in Vietnam is ridiculously cheap, as we found out on our first night. It's even cheaper than in Thailand, which is already incredibly inexpensive!
One of the common tourist scams that I read about in Vietnam is that some restaurants have a separate western menu that they give to tourists where the prices are hugely inflated. As we looked around for somewhere to eat dinner we found one such establishment. They had main courses listed for between 20,000 and 40,000 Dong. That's like $1-2. As we looked at the menu next to the door this old guy in a suit, presumably the manager, practically pushed the employee next to the door out of the way so that he could present us with the Special Western Set Menu. A choice of 2 different set meals, priced in US dollars at $20. I promptly handed him the menu back. "I don't feel like paying the white man tax tonight mate."
We did easily find a place with great food and super low prices and had 3 tasty courses and a cocktail for about a fiver. The only bad thing was that they served us each course when we had barely started the previous one. Soup, appetizer and main course were all on the table within five minutes of each other. This seems to be the way they serve food in Asia.
We sat a table on the low balcony area next to the street to do some people watching. That seemed like a good idea until we had every street hawker in the area come up to us trying to sell the biggest load of old crap. Then came a ghostly looking woman holding a baby that stood in front of us for no less than 5 minutes, crying and moaning and droning "I'm so hungry, my baby, I'm so hungry, my baby". I ended up seeing that same woman three times during my short stay in Vietnam hassling tourists. A professional beggar and exploiting a child in the process. I really think it's a bad idea to give these people money.
On our second day in Saigon, we did a lot more exploring. We checked out Ben Thanh Market, where a lot of the locals shop for food and items.
With the temperature and humidity absolutely destroying us we quickly looked for an alternative to walking. We had seen these vehicles called Cyclos, that are basically bicycles with a seat on the front for a passenger, and decided that it would be fun to have some guys pedal us around the city for a while.
I had read previously that the going rate for Cyclos was 50,000 Dong per hour ($2.50 USD), and that they were everywhere, just sitting around all day with no customers. So, feeling generous, we decided we were going to pay double that - it's only fair for what seems like hard work. We approached a couple of Cyclos. I asked them how much and the guy said something I couldn't understand then tried to get me onto the Cyclo. "No, how much do you want to cycle us around?" I asked. "How much do you want to pay?" he replied. I told him we'd pay them 100,000 per hour and seconds later he was cycling me around Saigon.
The Cyclo guys dropped us off at the War Remnants Museum, which contains exhibits from the Vietnam War. This place was previously named The Museum of American War Crimes but the name was changed in the 90's after Vietnam became a more liberal country and started trading relations with the USA. On display were many planes, tanks, guns and bombs as well as an exhibit on Agent Orange with some disturbing images showing it's effects.
The Cyclos were waiting for us when we got out and they recommended that we go to Reunification Palace (formally Independence Palace, before the commies took over). This was where South Vietnam's leader stayed during the Vietnam War and the war officially ended when Tank 843 of the North Vietnam Army smashed through it's gates. Unfortunately this place was pretty boring. It's basically just a bunch of rooms with a big table and some chairs, that you aren't even allowed to enter. There is a replica of Tank 843 outside, but that's about as awesome as it gets.
After coming out of the palace we asked our Cyclo drivers where they recommended next. They said something I couldn't understand, and kept repeating it. I asked them to show me where it was on the map and after pretending not to understand me a few times they eventually showed me. It was some place miles away, and at the 2 miles per hour that guy cycled at he was obviously looking to run us up with a big fare.
It had been 90 minutes since we hired these guys and we just wanted them to take us somewhere close by and end the fare. They cycled a few blocks and dropped us off at the Museum and when I said that we were ending the ride here and wanted to pay, the guy got very offended. I said that we just wanted to do stuff on our own from here on and then he got clingier than a Thai girl. He just didn't want our relationship to end so damn fast, he had his mind set on the long term.
Being nice (we were already paying the guys double what the going rate was) we paid them 200,000 Dong for 2 full hours, even though we only used them for 1 and 3/4 hours. I gave my driver 2 x 100K notes and the fish Amatay handed him 2 x 500K notes. Just as the guy was about to grab it out of his hand (with a HUGE smile on his face) I grabbed it first and told him those are 500Ks not 100Ks. The Cyclo guy's smile dropped immediately.
Then he got very angry and said is "no, it's 300,000 Dong each". Oh really? He got really aggressive with me and in amongst all the Vietnamese or incomprehensible English he said that it was 200,000 for the ride and 100,000 for his tip "You like, you tip. You like, you tip". We stood there for 5 minutes having an argument when the bastard burned my hand with his cigarette, almost certainly on purpose. After that happened we just quickly walked away from them, and into the museum, which was absolutely horrendous.
We decided to get out of the city centre on our third day so took a boat ride up the Saigon River to see the Cu Chi Tunnels. It took about 2 and a half hours but the weather was hot and the scenery was awesome.
Once we got to the tunnels they sat us down to watch a half hour propoganda documentary that looked like it was made 30 years ago, celebrating the Viet Cong and the civilians that contributed to winning the war, often referring to them as "American Hero Killers". They featured one little girl who "Helped KILL 13 AMERICAN SOLDIERS. She was awarded the medal award of AMERICAN HERO KILLER, for her efforts in KILLING 13 AMERICAN SOLDIERS." It went on like that...... There were quite a few Americans in our group who seemed uncomfortable.
After the video we were shown some of the common traps that the Viet Cong would leave around the jungle for their enemy. We were then offered the chance to purchase some bullets at a vastly inflated price so we could feel what it was like to fire guns in the Vietnam jungle. Of course I got out the cash and grabbed an AK47, pow pow pow.
After some target practise we went down the actual tunnels, which have been widened by 20%, and the 1 foot squared entrances made into big stairways, to allow us fat western tourists to experience them. The Cu Chi tunnels are only a small part of a huge tunnel network that runs under Vietnam and was an extremely important asset to the Viet Cong in winning the war. Inside the tunnels it's extremely cramped, hot and and humid, with little air. You have to squat and shuffle your feet to get through them. It's extremely uncomfortable for just a couple of minutes so I cant begin to imagine what it must have been like for the VC soldiers who used them for long periods of time.
Our fourth day was a bit of a write-off. We woke up super late, decided that we were going to visit Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, one of the oldest zoos in the world. But we found the Hard Rock Cafe on the way there and omnomnomed some amazing burgers.
Unfortunately, after our visit to Hard Rock, we ended up arriving at the zoo just as they were closing. Fail. We spent the rest of the day at the pool/bowling/video game arcade at the top of Diamond Plaza, then playing on PokerStars from our hotel room the rest of the night.
On our last day we did make it to the zoo. The entry fee was 8000 Dong, that's like 40 cents, L-O-L. Three hours of entertainment for some pennies, gotta love Vietnam.
On our last night we ate at the same place we did on the first night. AGAIN they shipped us all courses at once, haha.
Our next stop will be Hong Kong