My visit to Saigon was a whirlwind. With 10 million people, it is larger than NYC in population (8 million). The first thing I noticed in Saigon is it seems almost everyone drives a motorbike, and there are almost no traffic rules, which can make crossing the road a life-or-death experience! The motorbikes actually turned out to be a very important factor for me during my time here (more on this later).
The first thing we did in Saigon was eat at Pho 2000, which apparently is a place Bill Clinton ate at during his visit to the city a few years back! Then, I and a few trip friends checked out the War Remnants Museum, which documents the “American war.” I was definitely prepared to read about the war from the communist Vietnamese perspective, but as an American it was still really hard to see and learn more about the atrocities committed during the U.S.-Vietnam War. In particular, I learned about how the use of Agent Orange is still affecting many Vietnamese today. It really struck me to see a picture of a girl my age who was born with several birth defects because of her parent’s exposure to the chemical weapons, yet who maintains a positive outlook on life. I had learned about this in high school, but not in this level of detail.
On the second day, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and learned about the fighting tactics of the Vietcong during the war. I even crawled 50 meters through a tunnel…not for the claustrophobic! That afternoon, I got lunch at the Ben Thanh market and then met up with my good friends Chau and Will, who happened to be in Saigon from NYC! It was so great to see familiar faces from home in Vietnam. 🙂 We visited the Independence Palace, which was like the Vietnamese version of the White House during the war. Then, we went for a swim on their hotel rooftop. President Obama happened to be visiting Saigon that day, and we could see his motorcade and hear cheering of people lined up along the street from the rooftop. It was a very interesting experience to be this close to the U.S. President on the other side of the world!
Then, I almost got stranded…
My traveling group planned to leave the hotel that evening at 6:30pm to catch an 8 hour night train to Nha Trang. I left Chau and Will’s hotel at 5:30, giving myself an hour to get back to the hotel and meet my group to leave the city. However, the traffic in Saigon (which is already insane) was even crazier than usual due to President Obama’s visit. After 15 minutes, I finally hailed an empty taxi that could take me to the hotel (as printed on a map on a business card from the hotel’s front desk I was carrying). My taxi driver spoke no English, and after sitting in traffic gridlock for 15 more minutes, I knew my chances of making it back to meet my group by 6:30 were growing slimmer. As we sat still in traffic, I kept noticing motorbikes weaving in and out and around traffic, and even over pedestrian sidewalks! I knew this was how I could get back in time. I paid the taxi driver, then hopped out to ask a random (but friendly-looking) Vietnamese lady if she could give me a ride on her motorbike to the hotel. I handed her the printed card, and she motioned for me to hop on. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the back of a random motorbike, in the rain, weaving in and out of crazy traffic with a woman who didn’t speak English, in a huge city where I was completely lost on the other side of the world.
Despite weaving around cars and over sidewalks, traffic was so congested that we had barely made progress in 20 minutes’ time. My phone now read 6:20…my group would be leaving Saigon soon. I realized I would have to find a hotel and book a train for tomorrow by myself if I did not make it to the train on time. We were moving along so slowly on the motorbike at this point. I recognized the road we were traveling on was the road that would take me back to Ben Thanh market. From there, I felt confident I could find my hotel. I thanked the lady, offered to pay her 50,000 dong (she refused), and hopped off the bike to start running down Le Thanh Ton Road. At this moment, my long distance running skills really came in handy!
After running about ¾ mile in the direction of the market (dodging motorbikes all the while), a kind Vietnamese man on a motorbike flagged me down and offered me a ride. I had a good intuition about him, so I handed him the card and off we went. About 5 minutes later, we were in front of my hotel. I thanked him profusely and also offered 50,000 dong (he also refused) and rushed in to find my group had already left. I frantically grabbed my items, caught a taxi, and took off for the train station, praying I would make it in time. Fortunately, traffic had cleared up and I made it on the train with a few minutes to spare.
I learned a few key lessons from this incident: 1- Never underestimate Saigon traffic. 2- Motorbikes are handy. 3- Despite our best planning, we sometimes find ourselves vulnerable. The humanity of helping someone else who is lost and desperate crosses all language and cultural barriers. I will forever be grateful for the woman and man who gave me rides on their motorbikes that evening. Without them, I could have been stranded by myself and had to pay a good bit more out-of-pocket to meet back with my group. I really feel like they were guardian angels to me!
I am taking away so many great memories and lessons from Saigon. I love the energy of this city, and as I find myself saying a lot these days I hope to return someday.