I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) feeling rather shabby and tired after twelve and a half hours of having my knees jammed up around my ears (and not for a good reason). I flew Malaysia airlines and although they are an awesome airline, with surprisingly good food, and despite having two seats to myself, the conditions in economy were still cramped.
The first thing that hits you as you walk out of the terminal is the heat and the humidity. The second is the people. People, people, people. There are eight million people in HCMC and I think they all must have been at the airport that day waiting for somebody. I was dreading having to take a taxi after reading online about the scams in Vietnam. But as luck would have it two of the others who were part of our group bumped in to me and we all took a car together. When you are hit with such a sudden experience a familiar face is a welcome sight.
HCMC is a busy (smelly) place. Busy (and smelly) like any other city with eight million people living there. The traffic is total chaos with people driving wherever they want to go. They never stop honking their horns. After a while it is deafening. There are very few traffic lights and the cars, and thousands of bikes simply flow through each other, even at intersections. Bikes are the main mode of transport in Vietnam and each family is allowed to own only two. They transport everything by bike and it is not uncommon to see a whole family riding one including children. I would have thought there would be a lot of crashes in the chaos but although we saw a lot of ambulances we did not see one accident in the entire trip.
Crossing the streets on foot is a nightmare. There are almost NO pedestrian lights and you simply have to brave your way across the street. The traffic does not stop. By the end of the trip we had worked out that you just need to walk in a straight line at a consistent speed and everybody will drive around you. The traffic is not moving fast so even if you were hit the injuries would only be superficial but you don’t want to end up in a Vietnam hospital. More about that later. The locals don’t even seem to notice the traffic. We watched one old lady walk right through the middle of one of the busiest intersections of the city with out even flinching.
One of the things that struck me the most is the density of the city and the buildings. Millions of people living in extremely small 1 or 2 room homes pilled on top of each other. Everywhere you go there are people everywhere. Eating, selling, driving, playing. They spill out into every corner of the street.
The next thing you notice is that everywhere people are selling. From the department stores to the little street hawkers. Wherever there is an open space with some traffic, there is somebody selling something. Food is most common but I even saw people on the side of the freeway selling mattresses and pool toys. Vietnam is a socialist county however the government allows each family to have their own small business. The contrast between the wealthy and the poor is stark. The average income in Vietnam is $150.00 USD a month. Most tourists walk around with that in their pocket, and could not imagine living on that for even a week.
Later in the day the city becomes a blaze of colour and life as people come out to play in the cool of the night. You can get dinner and a beer for only a few dollars at a street vender if you want to brave the chance of food poisoning, or you can eat in a restaurant where a main meal might cost as much as $7.00 USD. I ate many times at the local vendors. It’s a great way to eat if you are on a budget and you get to meet all kinds of people and really soak up the atmosphere of the place. Pick the places that are busy. Chances are the people are eating there for good reason.
One of the most beautiful things about HCMC is the strong French influence in their architecture. Many of the old buildings have been preserved and the mix of local and European style give the city a unique feel. A real mix of East meets West. At night these government buildings light up the city.
Ho Chi Minh City is a really incredible place. A seething hive of humanity and industrious action. There are many more stories and pictures to tell. Look out for tomorrows article on the Ben Than Market and Reunification Palace.