“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” - Lao Tzu
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
I arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) late in the morning of 25th Oct. The airport was fine. A little confusing trying to negotiate an arrival visa with customs staff who cannot speak English, but 10 minutes later everything was sorted (and it was much better idea than sending my passport away before leaving Australia).
So I change some money and grab a taxi voucher and walk out of the (very quiet) airport into the chaos. Walking out of the airport terminal felt like walking down the red carpet at the academy awards. The path I was being led down was blocked off from the general public by ropes, but with thousands of people lined up against the ropes holding signs and waiting to catch a glimpse of their loved ones arriving. I felt like a rock star as I was led straight to a waiting taxi and off I went. It was all quite efficient and simple. Just the way I like it.
On the taxi ride I got my first real glimpse of the city. On the surface Saigon appears pretty much as I expected. The traffic swarms everywhere relentlessly, and locals seem to live their entire life on the street with little distinction between private and public life.
It was certainly a sight to behold, but it wasn't a big surprise because it was the Saigon you see and hear about from travel shows and things like "Top Gear Vietnam Special".
But the other, deeper layers of Saigon beneath that initial impression, the complex and subtle things that aren't captured in 30 minute TV grabs, that I'm here for. As far as personality goes, Saigon has it in spades.
It's noisy, smelly, chaotic, and can be difficult to negotiate. But at the same time it is harmonious, social, friendly, and very cooperative.
Before I talk more about the city, I should address some practicalities. Saigon apparently has the highest crime rate in Vietnam. Supposedly the biggest dangers for tourists are things such as motorbike bag snatches and petty scams. It seems violent or more serious crime is fairly uncommon though. Keeping bags and cameras safe is a message constantly reinforced by locals I speak to, and it is something I am always aware of. Having said that, I feel safer walking the streets here at night alone than I would through the centre of Perth at night.
Because I'll be travelling through a number of potentially-dodgy places during my travels, security was a priority for me during my preparation. I carry a backpack which cannot be opened unless it's off my back, and I always carry it on my back with both straps over my shoulders so it can't be snatched. When I carry my camera I always have a wrist strap secured around my wrist and never let it just dangle, and in Saigon I only walk around with my small GF1 camera and leave my DSLR kit back at the hotel. Discretion is the key word. Because of this, and also because I genuinely think Saigon is pretty safe, I now feel quite relaxed and able to explore freely without being worried about what might happen. Of course I always need to keep my wits about me no matter what city I'm in, but I don't feel paranoid.