As my plane began a fairly turbulent descent, and the lurch of a mild to middling fear of flying kicked in, I cranked up my headphones and put on some Rolling Stones. The opening arpeggio’d chords of Gimme Shelter rang through my brain, in the same way they have would have done for the American GI’s descending into Saigon, 50 years earlier.
I knew little about Vietnam, my knowledge of the country and it’s people coming almost exclusively from film after film where US troops, glistening with sweat, are suddenly bayoneted by ferocious Viet Cong leaping from the undergrowth, or bamboo villages are napalmed by choppers blasting Flight of the Valkyries.
Arrival in the airport only served to strengthen that image. Immediately off the plane my friend and I were ushered to Visa control, manned by stony faced attendants in military garb. We waited with other uncomfortable looking Westerners as one by one they called our names, all mispronounced almost beyond recognition (understandably – you try pronouncing ‘Nguyen’).
After getting our passports stamped and feeling the need to apologise profusely to the stern looking attendant, despite not having actually done anything, we picked up our bags. This is the first time we felt the fearsome heat, in this un-air conditioned part of the airport. I dashed to the toilets and changed into shorts, all the while in awe of various signs written in Vietnamese – to the point of actually taking photographs. I’ve still no idea what they say. Probably something about ‘no solids allowed’, but still mystical nonetheless.
One step through the airport doors and suddenly we were the only white faces in a jostling sea of taxi drivers and awaiting families. The immense heat embraces you like opening the oven door, practically winding you. We hurried to the taxi rank and handed a driver the address – thankfully, he spoke a little English. He quoted us a price of 400,000 VND, which we hastily agreed to, just eager to get going. Despite only equalling about 13 quid, this is actually extraordinarily expensive for a cab in Vietnam – but hey, as far as they’re concerned, we’re clueless Westerners wandering the streets with fat wallets. Can you blame them?
The taxi took us out of the airport complex, and pulled straight out to merge with the traffic of the implausible beehive of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh is more than just alive, it is buzzing; manic; a beautifully dystopian jungle of whirring bikes and bustling market stalls, while an infinite tangled mass of telephone wires run overhead, spewing sparks onto the ferociously hot pavement. Photoshopped foreign faces stare down at you from bizarre advertisements on billboards high above the street. Traffic laws don’t apply, red lights are meaningless, personal space and Western ideas of socially acceptable behaviour are thrown to the wind.
With my face pressed against the taxi window like a fat kid outside a bakery, I watched innumerable Vietnamese go about their days. Like observing an ants nest, what appears frantic as a whole seems relaxed individually, with locals reclined in deck chairs in the street, lazily fixing motorbikes, or slurping noodles bought from a sizzling street stand. It seemed no one was indoors – every single soul was out in the street, mingling and living. I have never seen a cityscape used in such a way.
We arrived at the hotel and bumbled our way through checking in, as luckily the receptionist spoke broken English. After resting for half an hour in the air conditioned room, we set out to explore – forgetting the heat, which immediately hugged us like a clingy girlfriend as we stepped outside.
On foot, Vietnam is even more boisterous. A thousand smells dance around your nostrils, every one of them unfamiliar. You are just as likely to smell exotic spice and charming incense as you are to smell a steaming hot bin full of fish. Locals tend to stare a lot, especially away from tourist areas, but you get used to this quickly. Crossing roads, however, is a vastly different ball game. The red light that motorists so loathe elsewhere in the world here means ‘Go, just dodge pedestrians’. Amber means ‘Woohoo! Go!’ and no one ever sees green except as a vague blur as they fly past.
Consequently, not wanting to break character as terrified white people, we decided to not cross any roads, instead sauntering around the block, following the pavement, which only has motorbikes suddenly veer onto it every now and then. Eventually, we found a road small enough that we dared to attempt crossing. Remember the mantra that you get chanted at you by over keen teachers through school – ‘stop look and listen’? Well forget that because you’ll either never get anywhere or be killed immediately in ‘Nam.
The swarm of drivers zooming past are far more alert than drivers back West, and fully expect you to step out in front of them. It’s so expected, in fact, that if your attempt to cross is a hesitant tumble, the bikes will struggle to predict your path and an accident is far more likely. As every local will demonstrate, you have to look straight forward and swagger across like you’re Zoolander. Spin-and-Blue-Steel upon reaching the other side is optional (but encouraged).
As we stood staring at the tsunami of traffic, a bizarre bicycle contraption squeeked to a halt beside us, and an adorable little man with misty eyes hopped off, nattering us in vaguely recognisable English. He showed us photos of previous clients, and invited us for a ride on his ‘Cyclo’ – imagine a Tuk Tuk but less sturdy. When we began to decline, he offered us a free ride to a nice nearby bar, as we had mentioned wanting a drink. We shrugged and I hopped on Ol’ Misty Eyes’ Cyclo, my friend in another.
They whisked away, merging with the river of traffic as my friend and I exchanged glances of mixed horror and wonder. They took us to a modern looking bar and said goodbye. After having a well needed drink, we headed back into the street (heat hug!) and realised that, bugger it all, we were totally lost. But hallelujah, would you believe it, there he was, Ol’ Misty Eyes, smoking on the corner, not 20 feet away. We asked him for a ride back, and I offered to give him some money. ’15’ he requested. 15,000 VND is about 45 pence. Charmed, I agreed, feeling quietly benevolent as I planned to tip him a princely extra 55 pence.
We flew through the city, and he took us the long way round, past temples, parks, schools and museums. We even passed the Vietnam War museum – ‘The American War of Aggression Against Vietnam’. As we wound through the streets, sycamore seeds helicoptered through the air, landing in my lap as we breezed past. All the while Ol’ Misty Eyes dutifully peddled and pointed out things of interest, and I dutifully pretended I understood what he was saying, probably laughing heartily as he described his nation’s tragic struggle in the war.
We eventually pulled up just past our hotel, and shakily dismounted the rickety contraptions. OME and his Cyclo buddy smiled and requested their ’15’. I handed it over, and began to dig out a little extra as well.
Oh, silly me! 150, 000. About £4.50 – that made far more sense. I handed it over.
At this point he held up his fingers to indicate how much more we owed. Twat! Fifteen hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong. 1.5 million. About £45, for a ten minute bike ride. We protested for about 5 seconds before agreeing, limply shaking hands, and trudging back to the hotel significantly poorer, and infinitely wiser.
Collapsing on our bed, I checked the time. We had been in Vietnam for about 2 hours.
Vietnam is another world, one that is changing every day. Western influence is seeping into the culture. Do yourself a favour and get yourself over there, now. Embrace the exotic and enjoy the weird. It will change your life, and that is an absolute guarantee.