Thursday, May 26, 2011

Welcome to Vietnam: Saigon to start

Don't look both ways. This is the first piece of advice that has proved indispensable for exploring Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest. On the cab ride from the airport last night, we had our first taste of Saigon traffic: a swollen river of motorbikes, each carrying up to three riders, trickling and sometimes gushing around the larger cars and trucks. Signage was limited, right of way determined by sheer determination to keep going. At even the tightest turns, motor bikers somehow squeezed through on our left or right, so close we could read their faces, make out the prints on their kerchiefs and shirts.

The next morning, we got our first taste of Saigon traffic from the pedestrian perspective. Don't look both ways: when you cross the street, stare straight ahead -- or the sight of motorbikes and taxis hurdling towards you will freeze your nerve and legs, and you'll be stuck in the flow. The trick is to maintain a steady pace, not too quick, and let the traffic to surge around you. It will; it does.

But that doesn't make taking the plunge easy.

I still end up grasping Dave's hand as we plunge across the wider boulevards, governed only marginally by traffic lights and signs. By the time we reach the other side, I'm usually giggling neurotically. Making the situation funny is the best way to allay the fear, after remembering not to look both ways.

In any case, Saigon has enough to see in every direction that I'm glad not to waste time staring at oncoming traffic (so I tell myself). There's the architecture, a jumble of pastel-painted colonial leftovers and crumbling tenements, shiny new skyscrapers and dim garage-like storefronts. There's the lush tropical plant life bursting in endless variety from sidewalks and courtyards: thick green leaves, delicate flowers in pink, white, and yellow, knots of roots rising from black soil saturated with the wet season's rains. Most of all, there's the street life. Many sidewalks here are quite wide, and people roost in groups on tiny plastic stools and chairs, drinking their thick iced coffees and slurping their soup from real glasses and bowls that are (I assume) returned to their vendors when the meal is complete. Street food has a whole different meaning here. Tiny women in conical hats and pajama suits literally plop giant buckets of soup or bags of noodles on the sidewalk, squat next to their wares, and await customers. There never seems to be a want of those. (To be continued.)

AND THEN WE SAW PUPPIES! This crate was perched on the back of a motorbike.

As soon as I started fawning, the bike's (and puppies') owner, seated on a nearby railing, called "One dollar! One dollar!" Dave pulled at my arm; he didn't want me to lead the man on -- or maybe he thought I might actually be tempted to buy a puppy.* Reluctantly I backed away, but not before snapping this guy's incredible mug:

*I might have been tempted to buy an actual puppy. Their cuteness is pretty hard to overstate.

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