Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"I am Saigon-people"

The next day was another fun-filled day visiting factories and navigating our way through poorly
paved roads, when there were paved roads at all. There’s no sense in boring you regarding my factory visits, needless to say it was more of the same, with government controlled or influenced factories performing on a lower level than those running under a free market orientation. My colleagues from our agent’s office were much more comfortable come lunch time so we didn’t need to meander around for an hour looking for a “suitable” place to eat, we simply grabbed some seats at an outdoor restaurant on the banks of the river and enjoyed a nice local meal. My friends invited me to dinner that night to a popular local place that is frequented by both Vietnamese and expat residents. The food was outstanding and it soon became a game to see what else the foreign white dude would eat. I had reminded them several times that I had lived in Asia before and had traveled extensively, having tried all sorts of strange foods and meats, but they continued to order oddly named local foods in the hopes of getting a reaction from me. While I’ll admit to not knowing some of the things I ate, and am quite sure some of them involved organs or other strange meats I had no knowledge of, it was all cooked and presented very fine and I couldn’t find anything that really shocked my palate.

The next day was more factory visits but we were one person short – one of my enthusiastic hosts had gotten ill from the food the night before while the rest of us were just fine. I was grateful I myself was not ill as I had gotten seriously sick on my previous trip to India. Anyways, our work was finally done and that night I went to bed early after a quick bite to eat with my hosts. I was looking forward to the next day, where I had roughly a half-day to myself before having to return to Thailand.

The next morning I got up, had a quick breakfast at the hotel, grabbed my camera, and started out on the walking tour provided to me by an acquaintance I knew who had traveled to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) many times on business. He had sent me an e-mail with detailed instructions starting from my hotel door on which streets to walk down and what I should stop to see. The hotel was located centrally in the downtown area so it was easy to walk around and see the major buildings and sites. Just a few blocks away was the famous Ben Thanh Market, which is a massive indoor/outdoor market selling just about everything under the sun. For any of you who have been to Bangkok, it is very similar to the famous Chatuchak Market, although not quite as big and mostly indoor. They have sections for fabrics, textiles, electronics, preserved snacks, candy, shoes, coffee, seafood, vegetables, and the list goes on. Just about anything you could conceivably think of they had under this one giant roof – with some overflow outside. I originally planned to get something, but as I walked through the market snapping pictures I realized that not only did I not really need anything, most of it was stuff I had seen at just about every major market I had been to in Asia. I was not a coffee drinker; otherwise the impressive selections of coffee beans and ground coffee would have been enticing. There were some interesting snacks and foods, a few of which I grabbed to snack on, but nothing I felt like trying to pack into my tiny carry on. So I just slowly walked around, soaking in the scene and taking pictures. Not quite as crowded or sweaty as Chatuchak in Thailand, yet the merchants were very pushy whenever they saw a white face. Eventually I grew annoyed at the constant badgering and once again was subjected to grabbing, which I don’t particularly like. Its one thing to badger a person verbally to buy something, quite another when you grab their arm. My theory for dealing with it is to simply ignore them, keeping my personal items close and an eye on them at all times, and gently pulling my arm away while never stopping.

Eventually I got back out onto the hot and humid street and kept walking the various streets, snapping pictures as I walked. I was soon badgered again, this time by more of the “bicycle-shaws” where you sit in a cart pulled by bicycle around the city, and also various street vendors selling maps, trinkets, etc. I continued to decline their offers and eventually one of them asked me “You Saigon-people?” My appearance must have prompted the question. I definitely did not look like the typical tourist – dark slacks, black semi-casual/formal shoes, and a loose, solid color, short-sleeve button down shirt. I did have a camera but it was a small digital one that I held easily in one hand.

Sensing a way out of the situation, I immediately answered “yes, I am Saigon-people” Immediately all the vendors and bicycle guides dispersed, leaving me completely alone. Some of the other nearby vendors must have also heard and didn’t even glance my way as I walked by. On the next block I was again accosted by eager street vendors and I decided to test my newfound phrase, stating again “I am Saigon-people” Again, they quietly turned around and went right back to what they were doing. Lesson learned: If you are traveling in Ho Chi Minh City and don’t want to be bothered while walking the main streets or touristy areas, simply tell them you are “Saigon-people” and that you live there and you should be left alone. Hint: this obviously will not work if you don’t at least somewhat look the part. Nobody is going to believe you if you look like the guy I saw walking across the street – fancy designer sunglasses, gaudy un-tucked shirt unbuttoned halfway down to the waist, sun burnt neck and arms, khaki multi-pocketed shorts packed with junk, cheap sandals, a backpack and a big camera. (Note to world: You wouldn’t walk around your hometown dressed like that (hmm…or maybe you do…?) – so what is it about travel that makes you completely comfortable walking out of your hotel room like that?) (Note to SOME older Western int’l businessmen: I would hope you don’t walk around your hometown, day or night, loudly laughing and talking with your colleagues (for all to hear) about the bar you went to the night before and brazenly ogling and talking about girls you see on the street old enough to be your daughter, or in some cases your grand-daughter. What’s unacceptable at home is just as unacceptable when traveling on business – common sense rules of decency, professional behavior, and politeness don’t disappear just because you crossed an international border.)

So provided you are dressed somewhat normally and aren’t carrying bags of souvenirs (sometimes, understandably, this can’t be helped) you can probably get away with the “I am Saigon-people” line and prevent a lot of unwanted attention from tourist vendors. Of course, if you really are a tourist and are interested in taking a bicycle tour of the city or buying some nifty souvenirs off the street, then by all means ignore my advice. I only had a few hours before my flight and wanted to soak in as much of the city as I could before I had to jet, therefore I wasn’t interested in buying any souvenirs – I was exploring.

For lunch, once again I was amazed at the difference between the area around my hotel, downtown proper (surrounded by office buildings) where the prices aren’t much different from back home, and the neighborhoods a good long walk from the main drag. I had an outstanding bowl of pho (Vietnamese rice noodles with your choice of meats, basil leaves, etc.) that cost me less than USD 1.00, and it filled me up. On the way back to the hotel, I was dying in the heat and grabbed a banana shake from a small cafĂ© about a block away – that cost me USD 5.00 and wasn’t even that good, nor was it of a decent size. An original size Jamba Juice in the states costs 4.50 and tastes better.

Eventually it was time for me to leave and my hotel suggested I leave a good 3 hrs before my flight departure, even though the airport was not even 20 miles away. I took their advice and was glad I did, as it took us over an hour just to get through downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

At the airport it was controlled chaos, as the existing structure was never designed to handle so many people. Unlike India, however, there was some organization to the mess and people pretty much stayed relaxed and the lines were moving. Inside I waited nearly 30 minutes in line only to be told I had to pay the airport tax. I had to go to another line, pick up a form and receipt, and then stand in another line to pay. I got up to the front of the line and the government worker said to me “14 dollars” I explained that I didn’t have any dollars – this was Vietnam and I had plenty of Dong but no dollars. “14 dollars – you must pay!” I again tried to explain that I had no dollars and asked her why, since this was Vietnam and the legal tender was Vietnamese Dong, she insisted on dollars (I knew why, of course, everyone wants dollars as the local currency is pretty much worthless, but of course they can’t tell you that). She again repeated “14 dollars!” I opened up my wallet and showed her all the Dong inside – see? No dollars. “I want to help you, but honestly, I don’t have any dollars, only Dong.” I also pointed out, as nicely as possible, that the airport tax receipt also indicated the tax in Dong, not dollars. She quickly calmed down, realizing that I really didn’t have any dollars and understanding that there wasn’t much she could do about it. She nodded politely and took my Dong and stamped my tax receipt.

Then I had to go back in line and check in again. Whereupon the person working the counter had a runner go back up to the airport tax counter with my tax receipt – I guess to verify, despite the official stamp, that it had actually been paid…..? Then wait for the runner to return, and get my boarding pass. Another very long line through security where they must have stared at and handled my airport tax receipt for 5 long minutes before allowing me to proceed (had there been a recent rash of forged airport tax receipts or something……?). Then another long line to go through outbound immigration. As mentioned in my first report, Vietnam seemed to take immigration very seriously. Once again a very young, very serious young man gave my face and passport, and Vietnam visa, multiple, thorough looks before stamping my passport and allowing me to proceed.

It’s barely an hour flight from Bangkok and I was soon on the ground in Bangkok and headed back to my temporary residence there. All in all it was an interesting trip. Vietnam looks to be a promising place to come for both business and tourism. It is a country full of enthusiastic, smart, and hard working youth and massive development is everywhere. Ho Chi Minh City, at least, reminded me of China roughly 10 or so years ago – on the verge of immense growth and hopefully prosperity for its people. However, there still remains much to be done – transportation infrastructure is very poor and there is widespread corruption and disregard for basic law. Traffic is an absolute nightmare and the weather is unbearably hot and humid almost year round. I highly recommend going and hope to return again someday.


Shamrock said...


That's an interesting story about the Airport clerk refusing dong and insisting on USD for the airport tax payment.

I have a question though....how much was the airport tax in Dong?

Just curious as to why she wanted USD so badly.

Shamrock said...

ohhh forget to mention....Great Blog!

SwizStick said...

You know, I honestly can't remember what the exact tax amount was - I remember it was more than 200,000 dong, which is something like USD 13-15.

However, the airport tax should no longer be a problem for travelers, as I believe that now the tax is integrated into the ticket price, so I believe passengers no longer have to worry about paying before departure - it gets settled between the airline and the airport as it should now be part of your ticket price.

And glad you enjoy the blog!