Ho Chi Minh City: Smog, Scooters, Bread and Cheese

Scooters, more than two million of them, crowd the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. photo by Charlotte Turner.
Scooters, more than two million of them, crowd the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. photo by Charlotte Turner.

By Charlotte Turner

I landed in Ho Chi Minh City in a dark cloud of fog and pollution, clutching a guidebook to Vietnam under my arm as if my life depended on it. The drive from the airport to Pham Ngu Lao Street in District One where all the backpacker hotels, restaurants and bars are located takes approximately twenty minutes, and was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

I had previously lived in Beijing for one year, and until arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, I thought I had learned to cope with driving in Asia.

From my privileged vantage point inside a taxi, I noticed that it only seemed to be me that felt any sense of trepidation on the roads, and that despite the apparent lack of road rules, every other driver and pedestrian on the road seemed to have the innate ability to drive in the exact manner that they wished whilst managing to avoid a head-on collision. From inside my taxi, this terrified me.

I could not work out how they did this, and throughout my stay in Ho Chi Minh City, the task of crossing the road remained a source of extreme terror for me. However, I did eventually manage to cross the road several times during my stay, and in the end, I was very glad that I did.

Two Million Scooters

Our taxi driver informed us that there are approximately two million scooters in Saigon, for somewhere between seven and eight million people. He told us how cars are in the minority because of heavy taxes imposed on car-ownership, and how scooters are the often the most practical form of transport in a city lacking major roads or adequate public transport. He dropped me off at the top of Pham Ngu Lao Street, and I began the task of wandering down the street, trying to avoid salesman off the street in order to find the best deal for a hotel room.

The hotel that I eventually settled on was in a small street running parallel to Pham Ngu Lao, as I quickly discovered that the smaller streets tended to contain fewer salesmen trying to pressure me into staying in their hotel. These smaller streets give you the chance to have a look at the different options in your own time, without being hassled by over-enthusiastic salesman, excited at the sight of a white face.

The huge selection of restaurants in the backpacker district offer an equally large selection of international cuisine, including Mexican, Italian, French, Indian and English, in addition to a large variety of Asian foods. I had been warned that I may have difficulty as a vegetarian in Asia, but with this selection, I find it hard to believe that anyone would have a problem finding something they liked to eat.

Bread and Cheese in Asia

One very welcome legacy of French colonialism in Vietnam is that they are possibly one of the only countries in Asia that can offer really good quality bread and cheese, and the rarity of bread and cheese in Asia made this a great source of excitement. For a Western meal such as pizza or pasta and a soft drink, I paid an average of 50,000 Dong, or US $3.50, with Asian food often similarly priced in these English-speaking restaurants.

If you speak basic Vietnamese, or are brave enough to test your phrase book in a local Vietnamese restaurant, prices are typically three to five times less than this.
However, I found the temptation of pizza at such a reasonable price too difficult to resist, and I am hesitant to admit that I did not sample as much Vietnamese cuisine as I would have liked.

Money is probably the biggest difficulty I had to come to terms with in Vietnam, although I have to admit that this may have been because of my ineptitude in mathematics rather than nay fault of the Vietnamese. The US Dollar and the Vietnamese Dong are entirely interchangeable in the majority of situations, and I arrived in Vietnam armed only with US Dollars due to the difficulties of obtaining Dong outside of Vietnam.

Many restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City quote their prices in Dong, travel agencies tend to prefer Dollars, and every waitress and tour operator comes equipped with a calculator for quick and easy conversions. This sounds simple enough, but if you also add English Sterling into the equation, I often found myself trying to juggle three currencies and somehow frequently forgetting or adding a spare zero when working in Dong. With the exchange rate standing at approximately 1GBP=28,000 Dong, this is an easy mistake to make.

Traumatic Past

I initially found the acceptability of the US Dollar very strange considering that the Vietnam War ended less than thirty years ago and must still be fairly fresh in the minds of many Vietnamese. However, the atmosphere in Ho Chi Minh City belies its traumatic past, and, while it is clear that the city still wholly remembers the War, it does not let this sadness dominate the city in any way. To the contrary, the residents of Ho Chi Minh City appear to have adopted some aspects of a Western capitalist society and utilised them for their own benefit.

To compare my experiences in Vietnam with those that I had whilst I was teaching in China in 2002-2003, I noticed how apparent it was that the Chinese had been so sheltered from international politics, business and culture for so many years. They often simply did not understand how Westerners do business, and the majority of Chinese people that I did business with seemed to have an extremely shortsighted view with regard to their business relations.

I left China with the clear impression that the Chinese were not interested in cultivating long-term business relations, preferring to concentrate more on maximising short-term gain. I naively entered Vietnam basing my few preconceptions of the country on any tenuous links that I had drawn between the two communist countries, and expected to be treated in a similar manner.

No Self Pity

The differences could not have been more noticeable. Instead of displaying any sense of self-pity towards their past trauma’s at the hands of many Western countries, the Vietnamese appear to have adopted some of the more enterprising characteristics of capitalism and recognised the economic benefit that Westerners can bring to their country.

Rather than indulging any feelings of resentment that must still be present, certainly amongst the older generations, the Vietnamese appear to embrace Westerners whilst still paying tribute to some of the past horrors that the country has seen. An example of this was when we took part in an organised excursion from Ho Chi Minh City to the reconstructed Cu Chi tunnels, a prime example of how guerrilla warfare was conducted.

The two-hour bus ride from the city was filled with an impassioned speech from our tour guide about his desire for Vietnam to become a strong country and recover from its past horrors. The speech concentrated wholly on the horrors of war as a whole, rather than a military-style propaganda speech that I might have expected from some of my other experiences in Asia. This may certainly have been a sophisticated form of manipulation; a form of reverse psychology to inspire sympathy and support for Vietnam.

Safe and Steeped in History

However, I did not feel that this was the case, and I left the city with an image of the Vietnamese as genuine, hardworking people. When a trader approached me in the street and asked me to buy something, I did not feel that they were looking at me only as money, but they were actually interested in talking to me as a person and conducting a genuine business transaction. This opinion was further strengthened when I was offered a ride on a cyclo for free in return for translating some of the letters that he had been given by past English-speaking customers.

I found Ho Chi Minh City to be fascinating, relatively safe, and steeped in history. Indeed, contrary to the numerous stories of about bag-snatching and street robberies that I had heard prior to visiting Vietnam, I found the residents of Ho Chi Minh City to be exceedingly friendly and approachable, and I felt wholly comfortable exploring the city as a lone Western woman.

As soon as you get used to the stifling heat and see through the dusty air, the charm of Ho Chi Minh City becomes apparent in the friendliness of its residents. The fact that this is one of the few countries that I have visited that did not boast a MacDonald’s restaurant only endeared me to the country even more.

Charlotte Turner  Charlotte Turner is a part-time travel writer and primary school teacher from London. She has previously taught in China and travelled throughout Asia.


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