I am glad that I decided to visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, before heading up to Hanoi for my experteering experience (through Moving Worlds). I did not give too much thought about how Vietnam would be like. As I have mentioned, I was nervous about Vietnam because of the dangerous I am hear about this country. I figure as long as I am cautious I am fine. I was able to ease into the Vietnamese way of life a little bit more before starting to Volunteer at Better Life Vietnam.
Not sure why this never crossed my mind, but there are an overwhelming number of motorbikes in Vietnam. The traffic is absolutely atrocious in the larger Vietnamese cities. There are barely any pedestrians on the streets. As an avid walker, I was taken aback by this. During rush hour, motorbikes would ride up on the sidewalk to bypass the traffic jam. It makes it a bit dangerous to walk on the sidewalks. For the most part when I am exploring by myself, I usually opt for the Grab motorbike instead of walking since the distances are so far and there are so many motorbikes dashing all over the place.
Shocked by how congested the roads are in Saigon, people warned that it only gets worse in Hanoi. I have trouble crossing streets even back in New York, I am not sure if I can get used to this. Not all streets have pedestrian traffic lights and even if there are, not all drivers abide by them. Navigating the streets of Saigon is an art. Due to the high taxes on cars, most people can only afford motorbikes. Driving through Vietnamese cities is the epitome of organized chaos. Despite how crazy people drive squeezing through little gaps between other vehicles and driving the opposite direction of a one way road, locals here still manage to avoid collision. I have not seen any accidents yet, but I was told they do occur. Drivers honk constantly to notify people that they are behind them. For pedestrians, crossing streets is a game of Frogger. You just have to cross. Stick your hand out to signal that you are crossing. Walk at a constant pace and do not speed up or suddenly stop so the driver can assess your pace and dodge you. It was so difficult at first it took forever and my local friends would help me cross. I was told there are crossing guards here to help foreigners cross the frantic streets of Ho Chi Minh City.
Did you know Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee behind Brazil? The coffee culture in Vietnam and especially Ho Chi Minh City is prevalent. You can find a coffee shop on every street. Coffee shop ranges from local dwellings with outside seating in little plastic chairs and tables to more modern hipster cafes. The classic Vietnamese coffee is a drip coffee served with condense milk already in the cup. The serving size is small, but strong in taste. The popular orders include cà phê sữa đá and cà phê sữa nóng which are coffee with condensed milk served cold or hot, respectively. The cheapest “organic” coffee street cart I had only cost 15,000 dong or approx. $0.65 USD.
Other than coffee shops, there are also an abundance of fruit juice and smoothie shops to enjoy. These fruit shops serves all sorts of drinks from fresh native fruits. I have had amazing dragon fruit, passion fruit, coconut water, and sugar cane drinks in Saigon. I was cautioned to avoid cold drinks because they are served with ice. Water in Vietnam is not safe to drink. Shops would buy special ice to serve their drinks, but there is no guarantee that all shops do the same. Usually the specially treated ice are in the cylindrical shape with a hole the middle. Whatever, there are too many alluring drinks for me to forego the safer route to pass up on them. Thankfully, I did not get sick yet.
I signed up for the Saigon HotPot Chinatown tour which is a university student organized group that offer free tours in exchange for English language practice. I think it is a good idea for students to practice their English and for tourists to benefit from a free private tour. Divided by Districts, Chinatown in Saigon is in District 5. Approaching Chinatown, I began to notice Chinese characters on the store signs. There is dedicated Chinese community in Vietnam due to the historic ties with China and the previous Chinese occupation in Vietnam. I notice many similarities in culture and traditional architecture. I visited some of the temples here. Similar to Hong Kong, they have Tien Hau temples here as well. They look more traditional and historic as compared to the renovated temples in Hong Kong. There are these vendors with overcrowded cages of birds, fishes, and turtles for people to buy and release in the “wild” for good luck. It is awkward how they just jam all the animals in small cages. I was told that the vendors secretly, or not, would catch the animals once someone were to release them as an offering to the gods, and then resell them to another person.
I finally got to try phở in its motherland! Locals told me that phở in southern Vietnam is very different from the north (where it originated). The broth in the south is more sweet and the noodles are served with more herbs on the side. In the north, the taste is more neutral and all the necessary herbs are served in the soup bowl. I really enjoyed my first bowl of beef rice noodles. I cannot say that it is amazing or a lot better than what I have at home. It was good.