Another wordy blog post, so give yourself 10 minutes if you want to read. The day we left Phnom Penh, we hopped on a tuk-tuk with a guy named Ben Broussard from Louisiana. Before our tuk-tuk had even reached the Phnom Penh bus station we knew Ben was a good guy and would make a good travel partner. I will talk about Ben more later – for now I will note that he ended up traveling with my brother and I through Vietnam for the next 12 days, save his split to Dalat while we hit up Mui Ne.
Back to the trip – our bus ride to Saigon from Phnom Penh included a ferry ride cluttered with locals selling things.
Ben bought what looked like a bamboo shoot from someone on the ferry. Peeling away the outer sheath revealed a filling mix of sticky rice and beans.
It didn’t take long after arriving in Vietnam to feel the police state’s presence. Within 20 minutes of crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam our bus was stopped for a random search. A green-uniformed government police officer with a red-brimmed hat boarded our bus and sternly made his way to the back of the bus where Ben and I were sitting. He stopped just short of Ben and I and began yelling loudly and sharply at the man seated in front of us.
The officer continued barking commands at the man in Vietnamese while he made the man take his black plastic sack from the shelf above the seats and reveal its contents. It was just like every scene you’ve seen in the movies where the foreign government official is yelling while searching a suspect’s bag. Unlike in the movies the plastic bag here turned out to be lacking the drugs that the officer suspected it carried. The man who got searched didn’t have a chance to ask for a warrant or cite his fourth amendment right – he doesn’t have one. Vietnam is a communist country where the government police have absolute authority and the constitutional freedoms and rights we hold so sacred in the U.S. are nonexistent.
Vietnam is trying to crack down on drug trafficking – aside from random searches such as the one we experienced on the bus there was a bag scanner at the border. While we crossed the border the scanner was not being used but I’m guessing it was just an off day. Bag scanners and random stops are hardly the most serious deterrent – trafficking drugs into Vietnam carries the penalty of death. These guys are more serious than Texas…
About two hours after crossing the border our bus entered Saigon. Saigon is a massive sprawl – it took nearly fifty minutes from the time we entered the city, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, to arrive at Pham Ngu Lao where we would be staying. The first and most obvious thing you notice about Saigon is the motos. Motos, motos, everywhere – stretches of traffic with nothing but motos 200 meters long and 15 motos across. I know I’ve mentioned SE Asia has loads of motos but Saigon takes the cake and they have the numbers to prove it. Nine million people and seven million motos, likely making it the most moto-dense city we will see in SE Asia. Couple these numbers with the fact that there are relatively few traffic lights or rules of the road (except the one I mentioned two posts ago) and what you have is one giant cluster. Witnessing the movement through the busiest roundabouts is like watching a ticking time bomb that never seems to explode.
At any given moment a busy eight-point roundabout has some 200 motos entering it from every direction and everyone needs to exit at a different point. With tens of motos simultaneously trying to enter and exit from every spoke at the same time it is amazing that everyone seems so comfortable. But again, it is not a perfect system. On my first full day in Saigon I hopped on the back of a moto for a quick ride – these are more common and cheaper than your standard get-in-a-car cabs. On my ride back from Mike Clancy’s place my moto-cabbie entered a massive roundabout.
I will admit I was nervous, completely unprotected and at the mercy of my moto-rider’s skill. While in the roundabout, I witnessed an accident happen five feet away from me. It was fairly harmless – another moto just smashed into a cab – but shows you just how easy collisions are in these crazy roundabouts. The mitigating factor is that everyone rides pretty slow and just follows the rule – don’t hit the person in front of you. But this is a hard rule to follow without accident when there are three people in front of you, two on either side, three behind you, and you’re all trying to go a different direction.
Crossing the street in Vietnam on foot is almost as harrowing as navigating a roundabout on a moto. With very few traffic lights there are almost no crosswalks and a constant thick stream of moto traffic in both directions. If you’ve ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and remember the part where he must make a leap of faith (my favorite part of the movie), stepping into oncoming traffic to cross the street is something like that. You must trust that the forty motos rapidly approaching you will slow down and swerve around you, otherwise you simply can’t cross. “You must believe boy, you must believe.” I’ve become used to this but don’t think I will ever be comfortable with it.
Astonished at the number and density of the motos in Saigon, we were almost nearly as shocked to find that there are no tuk-tuks in Vietnam. After seeing hundreds of tuk-tuks all over the streets in Thailand and Cambodia it was a surprise to see a city devoid of the cute little moto-carriages. Guess I’ll have to wait until Laos for another tuk-tuk ride.
On arrival at Pham Ngu Lao we walked down the street and immediately were accosted by several different men trying to sell us on guesthouses. After inspecting several less than desirable dorm-rooms, Ben, Ben and I finally found a guesthouse with a suitable three bed room with AC and wifi (my top two necessities) – we negotiated the price down to $6/person/night and took a moment to rest. If you remember, the wifi didn’t matter much because the government’s web filters in Saigon were quite effective at blocking me from blogging.
The guesthouse was literally a woman’s house and we were her guests – the woman had two young daughters and two live-in sisters. When we would come back at night she would have to open the door for us and we would take off our shoes and tiptoe past her youngest daughter, who would be sleeping smack dab in the middle of the living room floor, as we made our way up to our room.
That night the three of us walked out to Bui Vien street, a happening street in Pham Ngu Lao. There are hundreds of little chairs all over Bui Vien Street at night. Each little shop along the street puts the chairs out for locals and backpackers to take a seat and enjoy some cheap beer. We found ourselves some seats and settled in outside a 5 x 5 meter shop run by three women, all of whom were busily filling up glasses of beer from the keg positioned in the shop. The beers were 6,000 Dong apiece – that’s roughly 27 cents a beer.
Within about thirty minutes of us sitting down, two young Saigon men sat down in little chairs at the end of our table, ordered two beers, and began to chat us up. This was my first personal experience with a Vietnamese person. The two young men were excited to talk to us to practice their English and were also kind enough to share the jerky and quail eggs they had brought to snack on. The men were even more eager to tell us their unsolicited thoughts on their current situations in Vietnam.
The young man my brother and I spoke with, Tuan, was born in Saigon. His Vietnamese mother had relations with an American soldier during the war and nine months later Tuan was the result. The American had not stuck around when it was time to play father so Tuan had never known his father. Tuan had experienced discrimination all of his life. Not because of anything he had done, but because he is the son of southern Vietnamese woman who had laid with an American during the war and because he looks half American.
As Tuan explained, any southern Vietnamese person who had relatives or parents that had supported or was affiliated with the west during the Vietnam conflict will still experience discrimination to this day. He explained that when attempting to get certain jobs in Vietnam he had repeatedly been denied, while equal or lesser qualified northern Vietnamese applicants were readily granted hired.
But at least he was alive – he said some of his friends’ parents who were similar western had gone missing or died in the past fifteen years when it was discovered they wanted to immigrate to the U.S. where some of their relatives and friends had escaped. Tuan suggested that their deaths were not random. Tuan, half-American but with no means of proving it, said he wanted to go to the U.S. but knew better than to try and get permission.
I had known the police were more likely to bully and extort their own citizens than foreigners but I had no idea that southern Vietnamese with western-supporting parents and relatives were still being discriminated against for the choices of their family. The north remembers well which southern Vietnamese families supported the U.S. and which supported the Viet Cong. One group was declared war heroes and now given preference while the other group is still (not so) secretly blacklisted.
In general, northern Vietnamese people we’ve met have a feeling of superiority over southern-Vietnamese. Ben and I noticed this later when we took a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. Our tour guide proudly announced that he was from northern Vietnam and several of his little comments throughout the tour made it clear that he thought very little of southern Vietnamese.
During our quite lengthy conversation with Tuan we were entertained by a little game played between the police and our beer shop owner, the oldest woman of the three running the show – in her seventies. Because the chairs spill out onto the sidewalk and all the way to the edge of the road the police make it their duty to keep the sidewalk at least partially clear. Every so often one of the green-uniformed officers would come over and force the woman to move her two outermost tables and eight outermost little chairs back away from the road. She would dutifully oblige and the officer would brush his shoulders off – job well done.
But as soon as the officer would get at least fifty meters away the woman would put the tables and chairs right back where they had been and encourage passerby to have a seat – more seats means more beers sold means more money in her pocket. Forty minutes later another officer would come back and make her move the chairs back again. She would again humbly comply and simply wait until he was out of sight before putting the chairs back out. I saw this little routine repeated at least four times in the three hours we sat there and drank her beer. Kind of like a little kid who behaves when mom and dad are in the room but becomes mischievous as soon as they leave.
The next day in Saigon I got lunch with Ben and Ben before I went over to Mike Clancy’s apartment.
Mike is a 2004 grad of Iowa City West High and brother of Matt Clancy, a friend of mine who graduated with me from ICWH in 2002. Mike went on to graduate from UNI with a teaching degree and did Teach for America for two years in Kansas City while earning his masters. He and his wife moved to Saigon three months ago to begin a two year teaching contract at the American International School. He teaches a variety of subjects and is writing about his experiences here – he has a great picture of lots of motos on his front page and a good picture of Ben and I with him on his latest blog post. Mike is a smart guy and making a great choice to experience living abroad at a young age with his wife. Their posh apartment with rooftop pool doesn’t hurt either.
We hung out at his pool during the afternoon and that night got dinner and drinks in downtown (upscale) Saigon. I lost my Droid X somewhere in this whole equation but overall had a great time with Mike, his wife, and their English-teaching friends.