Day 74: Rejecting Lady-Boom-Boom
Trip Start May 20, 2008
77Trip End Aug 19, 2008
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Where I stayed
Ngoc Thao Guesthouse
The ride was... well, I don't really know how the ride was as I slept through most of it until the border crossing. This border crossing gave me a brief scare as while Jeff was allowed through just fine, I was held and dragged to the side while the uniformed dudes yelled a bunch and inspected every inch of my passport. Not sure what the problem was, perhaps it was too battered, but I they had me jittery for a moment. It all turned out fine in the end though I ran into problems again on the way out of Vietnam, more on that in a future post. At first, there was no distinguishable difference between the look and architecture of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia, alphabet change aside, and having conjured up fantasies of a gleaming modern metropolis in my head I was beginning to feel some disappointment.
Jeff: "This looks a lot like Taipei. :-D"
(does double-take) What??
Upon double-taking, I looked out the window with a bit more effort than before and noticed that the run down concrete had given way to sidewalk cafes, parks, neon signs... It wasn't exactly gleaming, but it was by all indications an honest to goodness modern city. There were two quirky features that were immediately noticeable from the bus window: the electrical wires, hundreds to a pole all strung together haphazardly as if each house had set up its own electricity supply, and the SCOOTERS. Jeff noted Taiwan's nutty moped craze in his blog, but even he was taken aback by the sheer scale of the motorcycle stampedes here, comparable only to herds of wildebeests on an African savanna. Not only where there so many of them, but they were all being driven by insane maniac drivers as well, with very few traffic signals to keep them under control. Watching the motorcycle traffic weave in and out of itself would become our favorite Saigon activity, it was so hypnotic and entertaining.
The bus let us off in the middle of the backpacker area beside a park, bustling, loud and more akin to Bangkok's Khao San Road than Kathmandu. We'd reserved a guest-house beforehand via the powers of the interweb and found it down a fascinating maze of alleyways that you'd never think would be hidden behind the sorta-modern buildings along the main boulevard. There were families boiling noodle soup ("pho bo") with the steam flowing out of their windows, elderly people lounging on hammocks strung along the alley walls, children playing ball and adults playing cards... it was like a whole 'nother city existed inside these corridors.
The guest-house owner, a quiet middle aged father, informed us that we'd be staying in his sister's hotel just down the way tonight, and would transfer back here for the following two nights. The switch raised a red flag but turned out to be a false alarm, his sister's hotel was even nicer than this one, and had an incredible winding stairway that promised to be a slapstick magnet if ever we stumbled back in late at night after a beer or two. Then there was the receptionist, who was a goddess among all the world's beautiful women at least by my soon to be sharply raised standards. As we would soon discover, Saigon in general is home to all the world's most beautiful Asian women as nine out of every ten we passed were absolutely blazing hot. It was the most lopsided beauty ratio I'd ever encountered, a particularly significant temptation problem for Jeff who'd lost his single status mere weeks prior in Taiwan. He resisted temptation.
An afternoon stroll around town was the next item on the agenda following a shower. Lacking acceptable bathing facilities in our humid Phnom Penh fleapit, both our hygienes had descended to appallingly dire levels. After Nepal, it was nothing new for me and embarrassingly not the worst it had been, but Jeff's overall enjoyment of life was being harmed by his own sweatiness and he would not set foot back outside the hotel without cleanliness. Upon achieving cleanliness, we walked out to the park and towards some Hindu temple the book recommended, though we had no real goal in mind. To get here required crossing a major street, aka dangling our lives in our fingertips. It takes a couple crossings to get used to the free-for-all moped traffic here, but once you get the knack of it the terror subsides and it actually becomes somewhat less frustrating than crossing with normal crosswalks and signals. Rather than having to twiddle your thumbs waiting for the walking man to appear, or even waiting for a gap in traffic, you simply start walking across, albeit very slowly, and the motorbike hordes will magically part like the Red Sea and drive around you. You'd be surprised the weaving maneuvers motorcycles are capable of it driven by an F16 fighter pilot-I mean Saigon native. There are only two things you have to remember to avert being pulverized: Don't make any sudden moves in a different direction/start running across, and don't ever ever stand completely still. Either of these will upset the delicate moped driver mindset and result in tragedy.
The Hindu temple disappointed, but our next port of call, Ben Thanh market did not. The merchants are all cat-calling women who will run up and practically attack you (in a charming way), grabbing your arm and dragging it toward their t-shirt stall. They were particularly fond of Jeff, who I deliberately let walk in front of me so that he could draw their fire. The first five minutes in the market were the worst, as within one minute we were barraged with dozens of very nasally "Hallo Meester, you buy t-shiiiirt!???" Enjoyment increased once we got used to it, and even when we were annoyed it was still hilarious to look back upon. We spent quite some time bargaining at one shirt stall, where the long sleeve version of a particularly cool silk shirt was clearly made of a different material. Jeff pointed this out, insisting he wanted one of the same material, but the girl kept insisting these two shirts were of the same. They obviously weren't and thus began the first of many Saigon-style "how stupid do you think we are, really?" rip-off attempts, always so obvious and poorly executed that they were almost endearing. When Jeff refused to submit to the seller's denial, she just got annoyed, lost her temper, yelled and chased us away... hah. They don't quite have the whole "customer service" side of capitalism down yet. We fled to an adjacent food stall and ordered spring rolls, a Vietnamese invention & specialty. They were quite delish.
A nightlife expedition took us to the other end of downtown, about a twenty minute walk, checking out all the various pubs and clubs that we could pick from. There were a few great options for future nights, a few quieter looking bars, and finally an area where as we passed by, the bar doors would be swung upon and an eyebrow raising army of girl "bartenders" would pop out asking all at once if we wanted massages. I'm guessing it was a well-hidden red light district or something. Pondering our options, we settled on staying around our hotel's area for the first night, then venturing back out here next time. So, we pub hopped around three bars, having a beer at each, chatting, no real stories resulting but a fun time nonetheless. After breaching the day's allotted budget we returned to our abode for the night, and yeah... a good start to probably my favorite metropolis of the trip. Lonely Planet was correct in its hype. Perhaps only due to the scooter hordes, there was a very definite palpable energy in the air, and somehow the city exuded an air of French coziness in spite of this. I felt more at home here than anywhere else, with the natural exception of Pepsikola.
Oh! I nearly forgot the silliest bit of the night... during our late night walk from one end of the city center to the other, numerous motorbikes would roll up, sometimes blocking our path... on these bikes were either a man with a young girl, who would point at the girl asking "You want her? I give good price!" or the instant classic... a pair of suspiciously buff and broad girls on a bike asking if we want "Lady boom-boom?"
And yes, the winding stairwell lived up to its tipsy slapstick promise.
--- Vital Signs ---
Pho Bowls = 2
Street Merchants Angered = 2
Malaria Pills Deployed = 1/4th of Prescription
Bug Repellent = Surprisingly Unnecessary
Food Poisonings = None
Hygiene = Hygiene?
POWs Freed = 0
"You know you need a shower when you can rub your skin and black stuff comes off." - Either Jeff or Me depending on the day
"Lady boom-boom?" - Lady-Boys on Bike