The tour begins

Trip Start Nov 29, 2008
1
5
24
Trip End Jan 18, 2009


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Where I stayed
Hong Thien Loc

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, December 14, 2008

And so begins my epic three and a half weeks through Vietnam, south to north.

Sign number one that you're not in America, or anywhere in the first world: Your cab driver is openly smoking a cigarette. I don't think I've ever had a cabbie so audacious as to light up while I was in the back seat. He dropped me off at my hotel, but on the opposite side of the street, leading to my first major challenge in Vietnam. I grabbed my bags and made it across one lane, but was stuck in the middle when a seemingly endless and gapless herd of motorcycles came barreling past. Fortunately, the bellhop at my hotel sees me standing there and nonchalantly walks out into the street to take my bags and guide me safely to the sidewalk. I didn't have any small bills on me, so after I checked in and he took my bags up to my room, I gave him a 50,000 dong note, which for all I know is what a doctor makes in a week here, but he did save my life, so I guess he deserved it.

The room itself is quite nice. AC, fan, big bed, minifridge, even a closet for my stuff. I had gone out for dinner and returned when I spied a giant cockroach by my bag! I was unable to dispatch him. Now, as I said, the room was otherwise nice and clean. Many fine establishments are still troubled by the occasional stray bug or mouse. And one cockroach really isn't that big of a deal in a humid, tropical country like Vietnam. On the other hand, ew ew ew ew ew ew ew! Cockroach!!!!

Still, I managed to have a nice night's sleep and woke up today refreshed and ready to hit the town. After procuring a map from the front desk, I started my journey through downtown Saigon. The city is quite compact and easily walkable. After strolling through a small but peaceful park, I walked past the City Hall building and the iconic statue of Ho Chi Minh that fronts it. I then visited the Notre Dame Cathedral before heading to the Post Office. It doesn't sound too glamorous, but the Gustav Eiffel designed Post Office building is impressive both inside and out.

By this time, I felt fairly confident both crossing the streets and fending off the aggressive touts and hawkers. A white guy walking through Saigon with a camera in one hand and a map in the other might as well wear a bulls eye on his forehead. After visiting a small pagoda marked on my map that doesn't seem to have any special significance, I went to the War Remnants Museum.

Immediately after buying my ticket, I was approached by a man with two short
stumps where his arms should be. "Excuse me? Sir? Sir?" I think I know where
this is going, and I have some small bills now, so I whip out a bill to give to
him, when he tells me no, he isn't begging, he's selling books. As I look at
him, I see he's also missing one eye. (He informs me that he stepped on a
landmine when he was eight). Well, I've already taken out my wallet, and now
he's gesturing at the various books he has for sale and sliding them out of his
pouch, so I feel like I'm kind of stuck. But what the hell, if anyone deserves
a break it's this guy, so I agree to buy one book from him. He then tosses in a
Vietnamese phrase book "for free," which I'm sure is anything but, but I'm
powerless to resist, especially after he points out that he's also missing one
leg!

But even a triple amputee can push too far, which he did when he tried
to charge me 500,000 dong ($35). Sorry, I'm not paying that much for two
paperbacks that I really don't even want. I "bargained" him down to 300,000 dong
($20), which I'm sure was still a hefty profit on what are probably (scratch that, definitely) pirated
books.
I felt even worse after my purchase/ donation when I didn't notice any
other disabled people begging or hawking their wares. What if this guy's uncle
is head of the Vietnamese mafia, and he busts the kneecaps of any other cripple
who dares to hone in on his nephew's turf? I've even heard stories about beggars
in India who intentionally disable themselves to look more pathetic. Now, I
highly doubt that this guy chopped off three limbs and gouged out on eye so he
could squeeze out a few more dollars from pity-struck tourists, but you never know. I did feel slightly better when I
learned that amputees are actually quite common at the Museum, so it's more
likely that this guy just happened to be the only one working this Monday,
rather than being part of an intricate Vietnamese begging/ organized crime
syndicate.

Okay, on to the museum. Let's just say it's lucky for me the
amputee got me on the way in, and not the way out, or I might just have given
him my whole wallet. My politics tend to be rather offputting to most people,
so I tend not to discuss politics much publicly, and I'm not going to start
here. Maybe someday I'll set up a politics page and link to it here, but this is
a travel blog, and for now it stays that way.
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