Officially Ho Chi Mihn City, but everyone call it Saigon...and it is pure madness! I can't help but wonder how the traffic works itself out, but somehow it does. Little motorcycles ride every which way on the road and sidewalk. Be prepared to have nerves of steel when crossing the street. There are traffic lights, not necessarily used for pedestrians. Therefore, you must walk into traffic- VERY SLOWLY, looking the people in the eye so that they are aware of you. The millions on motorbikes coming at you will slightly swerve in order for you to continue across the street.
We take a taxi from the airport to our hotel, Quan San, in the popular backpacker district of De Tham. De Tham is smack in the middle of the Saigon craziness, but our hotel is tucked away in a little alley, offering a bit of reprieve from the honking horns and city noise. Our room is pretty small, but has a tv, fridge, AC, and internet all for $16/night.
We're eager to hit the food scene here. I am a big fan of Vietnamese cuisine that has some interesting French influences. I try the BBQ duck at a little street vendor and hit up some fried frog at another little restaurant. Nothing great, but can't complain about the bill. Food can be so cheap here. A local gave some advice "if it is not dirty, it is not delicious."
The next day I wake up feeling totally miserable. We've made arrangements with a friendly guide service to experience a little local Vietnam courtesy of local college students (www.connectionsvietnam.com). It is appropriately termed "meet and learn", but I'm not sure I'll be up for anything. Feels like the flu, but don't want to mention H1N1 (notices are posted at the Singapore airport that they have a quarantine for all peoples with flu like symptoms and admission into Vietnam requires that you fill out a "health" declaration and sign)!
I get some rest, pound some ibuprofen and flu pills, and decide to head out with our guide. We first visit a local market and grab a bite to eat. The markets here have fruits, meats, fish, spices, and even clothes. We are told it is used as a grocery store for the Vietnamese. We then head off to a Pagoda (place of worship for Buddhist) and visit a couple other places of interest. Next, we meet up with another college student for the "learn" portion of the day at a local coffee shop. We are given several presentations on a computer, teaching us some Vietnamese, about Vietnam's history, culture, and differences in our cultures. It was very helpful to explain some basic etiquette, social mores, and pronounce simple phrases.
Next day, I'm feeling much better. We decide to visit the War Remnants Museum, which depicts the Vietnamese view of the American War, as its called here. A pretty one-sided, but sobering depiction of the war. It speaks of the somewhat known incidents of My Lai, carpet bombings, and "secret" wars in Laos and Cambodia. But also of the devastating effect of Agent Orange, the consequences of which are still being felt today. Very graphic images accompany most exhibits. Also at the museum is a history of French occupation, America's initial involvement leading up to the war, "retired artillery" including tanks, planes, unexploded ordinances, and America's internal resistance to the war. A little heavy for the trip, but a necessary part of visiting Vietnam.
Looking forward to our travels throughout the country, we've bought a bus pass that makes a number of stops traveling from Saigon to Hanoi. Our first stop is in Dalat, which is inland at 1500m, and promises to be a reprieve from the heat and humidity.