Travel Baptism of Fire – Ho Chi Minh City

If you read my last blog entry here you will know that I was once rather scared of overseas travel. A 7 month trip around the world put paid to that though and I know enjoy being immersed in foreign cultures and get a strange satisfaction from the problems that travel can throw my way.

But this transformation wasn’t an overnight thing. It took time. And during this period of metamorphosis I made many mistakes and endured various sticky situations. So what better place to start the journey. Hi Chi Minh City in Vietnam. What could go wrong?

So this is how they roll on the other side of the world is it?

The temperature once hit 35c in the UK. I hid in the coolest room I could find and drank lots of cold drinks until the sun went down. So the minute I emerged into the oppressive heat of HCMC, backpack weighing me down, I was worried. “How could anybody achieve anything in this heat?” I muttered to myself, as a handful of taxi drivers rushed over to prove I was being melodramatic.

Fortunately my paranoia had led me to research how much a taxi should cost. So soon enough we were in a taxi. It had no air conditioning, but nevertheless I relaxed.

Then I noticed the motorbikes. “Look at all the motorbikes” I said to my worryingly calm girlfriend. “It must be some sort of procession.”

Anybody who has been to Vietnam will probably be smiling to themselves at this point. It was not a procession. Everybody in Vietnam seems to ride a motorbike. Often with their entire extended family along for the ride, hanging on for dear life as the  husband and father of the family weaves in and out of the few cars that dare to venture into the sea of bikes.

I spent the first 5 minutes becoming more and more amazed that none of the bikes seemed to be colliding with our taxi. Or each other. So much so that I reached for my camera. Sadly I deleted all of the shots I took, because they were blurred and wonky. By the time we reached out hotel I realised that all these motorbikes were perfectly normal.

After a few hours sleep, somewhat aided by the air conditioning, we decided to venture out into the city. It was dark by this point so I lathered on the 100% Deet spray, put on some long trousers and a long sleeved top and headed out into the unknown.

Heading Out Into The Unknown

Spurred on by the fact that we managed to book a tour with the hotel receptionist on the way out we ventured all the way to the main road. It was wider than the widest motorway/freeway I had ever seen and was filled with speeding, weaving motorcycles. We tried for 15 minutes to cross, but despite seeing some locals and even some westerners make it to the other side we gave up. It was like this but with bigger penalties for failure  and the lily pads.

Like Vietnam but without the hospital visit

Luckily we found a food market around 120 seconds walk from our hotel and decided we had ventured far enough. It smelt nice so we sat down and I enjoyed the feeling of achievement that was washing over me.

The food was great. The culinary options would plum to unprecedented depths in the days that would follow, but on that first night it was superb. I ate the lot and ordered more. Then we headed back to our hotel, which was easy as we never really lost sight of it.

Another thing that had worried me prior to departure was the thought of being robbed. In my mind the robber would have a weapon to my throat and a crazy look in his eyes. What I wasn’t expecting was the opportunistic Vietnamese with their impressively efficient way of extracting money from tourists. I suspect they drew lots for the pleasure of relieving me of my cash.

This started in HCMC when I bought a hat. It would have cost less in London, and probably would have been genuine too.

Taxi Trickery

When we arrived in Hanoi the taxi driver from the airport drove a hard bargain. Strangely he seemed to speak a fair bit of English but then forgot and reverted to Vietnamese when we realised we were being ripped off. I didn’t cotton on to what he was doing until it became a little unusual that every 3 minutes we drove down a road where every single shop sold bamboo ladders. I started taking photographs on the third lap, amazed that Hanoi had such a need for ladders, but by the fifth I realised what he was doing. Despite his sudden inability to speak English (we had been engaged in a rather detailed conversation about Manchester United at one point) we suddenly arrived at out Hotel.

I did get this great shot during the taxi journey which I think sums up Vietnam perfectly. Yes that is a fish tank on a bike, but also check out the phalanx of motorcycles about to run down the posing tourist in the background!


What Happens When You Try to Cross the The Language Barrier? A Child Rides off on a Motorbike Of Course.

My confidence levels were soon sky high. Aided by my girlfriend’s experience of South East Asia we managed to complete a walking tour of Hanoi and even ate in the most surreal cafe I had ever visited. No menus, no cutlery and only one dish that was plonked unceremoniously in front of me whilst I tried to establish where the menus were. It all went fine though, The food, Vietnamese Pho, was excellent.

That didn’t stop my girlfriend from blaming the pho for her horrendous stomach problems that started during the night though. By the end of the next day we had nearly run out of re-hydration solution (i.e. we didn’t pack enough) and I was faced with the challenge of venturing into Hanoi at night searching for a chemist. Most of my worst fears were being realised.

But I am pretty good in a crisis. So I reached for our trusty laptop and translated my needs into Vietnamese. I wrote the words onto a piece of paper. In English it said something like this…

“My wife is sick and I need something to stop her diarrhea. Please. Thank you.”

I climbed down the four flights of stairs to the reception and then had a brainwave. If the happy smiling man who spoke no English on the desk could understand my amateurish scrawl I was in with a chance.

I approached and handed him the piece of paper. He read it and laughed. Then he called his young son of about 8 years of age over. He read it and laughed. Then the man pointed at me and then pointed at his arse.

Success! He understood! Kind of. “No not me!” I protested, provoking more laughter from the boy. “My wife” I said, pointing upwards.

Then the man asked me for some money. Hoping he had the medication I needed I handed over a handful of notes. The man gave the notes to the boy along with some speedily spoken instructions – possibly “steal this stupid man’s money” – who then ran outside, started up a motorcycle and rode off into the night with what may have been a large amount of money.

That Child Took My Money!?

I sat down on the comfortable seats and waited. The man showed no more interest in speaking with me. Just as I can was beginning to think that I had experience the most relaxed of robberies the boy returned, clambered down off the bike and ran inside. He handed me the plastic bag he was carrying and what looked to be all of the money I had given him. He reached into the bag and handed me another piece of paper upon which were dosage instruction in English. The bag was laden with boxes of French medication.

Somewhat confused but with a happy feeling in my heart I returned to the room and my sick girlfriend. For a while I considered letting her think that I had ventured into the city alone but I couldn’t be bothered. Though I soon wished I had when she found out that the hotel staff all found her predicament hilarious.

Something to Say? Does This Ring Bells With You? Get In Touch and Tell Me….

Do you remember your first foray into the world of overseas travel? Was your deep end deeper than mine? Let me know, because I like nothing better than to hear people’s travel tales…



2 thoughts on “Travel Baptism of Fire – Ho Chi Minh City”

  1. Fantastic story! I got sick in Da Lat after a dodgy cocktail. Fortunately my Vietnamese family looked after me. They got the hotel to call a doctor, who came to my room with a variety of pills. He tested a small amount under my tongue, and when I had no adverse reaction he gave me a dose and some electrolytes. He was lovely.
    Another time I had the same issue as your wife my husband went to the chemist and brought back one pill. I was amazed that you can buy medicine individually like this in Viet Nam. Needless to say it was effective.
    We keep a stash of Vietnamese cough pills in NZ as no medicine in NZ stops coughing. Our Vietnamese medicine stops any cough within an hour. Like yours, it’s made in France.

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