Ho Chi Minh City with Chris Q.
Jul 28, 2005
|Motorbikes overpower this city. It said to have a population of 8 million people, and 3 million motorbikes. That is not nearly accurate. There have to be at least 10 million, if not more. There are swarms of them. Hoards. Never-ending stampedes. As a minority pedestrian in this city of two-wheeled beasts, one no longer fears the pickpocket, the mugger, or the dark alley at night.
What does one fear most?
Crossing the street.
Jon and my first experience with this was upon our nighttime arrival at the Majestic Hotel, prior to his dad's arrival. We had a few hours to kill before going to the airport to meet his Dad's plane, so after getting ourselves settled, we stepped out to the sidewalk, and saw the Saigon River directy across the street. Why not go stroll along the river, we thought? Beside us a young street girl was shoving packaged red roses in our faces, trying to get Jon to buy one. "No, we said, "no thank you," and walked closer to the road, as if we were confident about crossing the street.
There are no pedestrian crossing buttons to press, and only in the most rare occasion is there a stop light for traffic. If there is, it is rarely acknowledged.
We stood on the side of the street, awaiting our turn to cross, for a moment in time when perhaps there were only 50 motorbikes coming in each direction, instead of 500.
How silly we were to think we could only cross when there was no oncoming traffic. Suddenly I felt a pinch on my left arm, and the young girl with the roses quickly grabbed my wrist, and started leading us directly into traffic. We didn't stop, and we never hesitated. I screamed a bit, no doubt, and was certain that if we did not get squashed, we would at least get side-swiped, or get our toes run over. Miraculously we made it to the river side. It was an initiation that one cannot survive without in this city.
Ever since, we have become master Froggers. There are rules, however. Trust in the motorcyclists. When they have their eyes forward, they DO see you. Do NOT stop when you have already started crossing, and NEVER retreat backwards. Sometimes it is beneficial to hold hands, or at least wrists when in a group of two or three, to ensure that you all stick together, so you look like a mob that is easily recognizable and easy to avoid.
Jon has made the observation that there is something very Zen about the traffic here. The motorists somehow seem to weave in and around one another, to merge and spread with ease. When you watch from above, out on the patio of a big hotel or restaurant, you get the sense that there some sort of invisible traffic control operator manipulating all these little cyclists, with a radar system equal to that of bats. It is a sight that can truly only be appreciated by experience.
There is much more to this city of Ho Chi Minh than its motorbikes, although take them away, and who knows what the city would turn into. The history of this sprawling city certainly seeps through all its cracks, and is very much a part of its people, especially those who have lived through the colonization and war. As it is the first city we have visited as of yet in Vietnam, we are only premature in observing that the people are a bit less friendly, in comparison to Thailand. They also seem more desperate, and their faces more solemn. Street vendors haggle the tourist with much more frequency, selling chilled coconuts, corn on the cob, spring rolls, exotic fruits, cheap sunglasses, roses, guidebooks, postcards, gum, a cyclo ride, a motorbike rental, MASSAGES, and every now and then, "boom boom" for the men. A kind smile and a sympathetic no gets you no distance from their persistance, although that is all you want to do, out of empathy for their situation, and understanding that they simply need to make somewhat of a living. But be bombarded with nearly every 10 feet you walk, and you learn that the suggested short and direct "NO" is the only thing you can do to maintain some sanity. Of course, we have given in several times, especially to the children. The worst is seeing babies with babies. We have seen a young boy, couldn't be more than 7, several times now, holding his young baby brother who is always sleeping, and couldn't be more than 1 year. One day we offered him some fruit, and he took it, but wanted more. It is so diffcult to not give in to the begging, especially when you see faces that have been malformed, and you instantly deduce that perhaps it is the result of one of our Nepalm bombs, or Agent Orange, or any of the other atrocious practices carried out in the war. You don't know, of course, but in this country, it is the first thing that comes to my mind.
Ho Chi Minh is a city that appears to be emerging in the industrial world with some ease- The war has certainly delayed that growth in comparison with surrounding cities (although I can only speak for Bangkok in the Asian world). It has all you need in a city, yet retains a sense of community as well. In its side streets families gather on sidewalks for a late-night meal. Parks crowd at night with young couples embracing on the seats of their parked motorbikes, and small kids play ball with mothers and fathers. Brides and grooms seem to be everywhere, and weddings are celebrated in western style. The streets are relatively clean, thanks to the hundreds of street cleaners who sweep day and night by hand with straw brooms.
Its a good city, we think, and after two weeks of it being our base while traveling with Jon's dad, it has made us feel welcome and comfortable. We have eaten well, and slept well (spoiled to the brim by PopPop Queally at the Majestic!) and walked a great deal on her streets.There is a lot to this city, and a lot we didn't get to see, but we put in a good effort.
One thing we can say, though, is that even after all our traffic experience, we don't think we'd ever be ready to join in in the motorbike madness. Those motorbike renters who try to appeal to farang probably ought to try the local population instead.
Oh- and how could I forget. The food. Its remarkable- big steaming bowls of Pho (pronounced Phu), with thin white noodles, delicate broth, beef or chicken, and a heaping plate of bean sprouts, beautiful fresh basil and cilantro (or coriander), and fresh limes for squeezing that you can add at your desire. The meal begins with a fresh, cold perfumed towel to wipe your sweaty hands and face, and refresh you for your meal.
The meal ends with you feeling utterly satisfied, that feeling of being full, yet not too full, of food you know your body is thanking you for. It is fresh and healthy, and can keep you going for hours. Wash it down with the last few sips of your lemon juice, or fresh banana shake, and your cares will fly away.
Yes, I like the food here.