Desperate for a comfortable bed after weeks of sleeping on what felt like sheets over mattress-sized paperback books, I doubled my hotel budget and booked the Saigoneer Hotel, located down a picturesque alley in District 1, in central Saigon. The reviews I read on Booking.com stressed the comfortable beds here. I think of my dad who often used to say, “It’s all relative.” My sleep patterns have been messed up for a month with at least a couple of hours wide awake time in the middle of each night, but since I’m not on a schedule it doesn’t really matter much. Still, I was hoping for a solid night’s sleep.
A taxi took me from the bus station on the outskirts of the city to the hotel and I stayed there for five nights, if not sleeping then at least getting some rest, watching TV, having laundry done, shopping, re-organizing my packing, researching the next leg of my trip, doing some writing and photo editing and, of course, exploring.
Saigon (officially named Ho Chi Minh City, but no one calls it that) is a huge city exploding with energy. Rivers of motobikes swarm the streets like fast moving schools of fish. There are sidewalks (unlike Cambodia) but these too are crowded with thousands of parked and moving bikes and scooters as well as large and small cafes and stationary and walking vendors selling food, sunglasses, tours, fruit and nuts, hats – everything you can imagine. And don’t think you are safe from getting run over just because you’re not in the street: bikes come whizzing down the sidewalks, out of alleys and parking garages and up from the street, constantly. After a few close misses I’m getting better at negotiating this melee using a constantly swiveling head and following closely in the lee of well-practiced natives when I cross the boulevards. Or I’ll pick one of those impossibly tall Dutch boys to tag along after, doing everything but holding onto their shirttails and hoping they won’t fall on me if they get hit. The rules are the same as they are in Rome: start out slowly, keep going at a steady pace with no changes of speed or direction. Don’t run and no sudden moves. The drivers are judging where you will be when they reach you and they are good at it.
On Day 2 – after a tasty hotel-provided breakfast of tiny, sweet bananas, strong hot coffee and Vietnamese Pho with all the trimmings – I gathered up my nerve and took to the streets: got lost, got found, got lost, got found, toured the big tourist sites including the huge Ben Thanh open market, the French cathedral of Notre Dame, the stunning French Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel and built in the late 1800s, the beautifully restored Opera House, the fancy upscale malls and the glitzy boutiques along the big boulevards. The main traffic circle in city center is being completely re-done and is now a maze of fences twenty feet high with vaguely suggested walkways around them. When it’s finished I’m sure it will be an attractive addition to the cityscape but now it’s even harder to navigate than the roadways since you can’t see across, through or around this blue plastic-sheeted monolith.
In the late afternoon, hot, sweaty and thirsty I wandered in a non-direct way back towards the hotel. Randomly choosing to explore one tiny alley in the warren of teeming streets in District 1, I was shocked to hear my name called out, loudly. Turning around I saw the smiling faces of Brendan and Ray, my buddies from Ha Tien! They were sitting at a table on the street with some friends of theirs (Chris and Lorie), all heading to Phu Quoc island the next day. I spent the evening with these jolly fellows, drinking “bi-a” and trying their favorite street foods, comparing notes on our travel experiences, and laughing a whole lot. All these guys are old SEA hands, having lived here, worked here or visited here for decades. They taught me a few important words in Vietnamese, hand gestures for “I don’t want any,” (hold your right arm out bent at elbow with fingertips up and rotate your hand in circular motion back and forth), how to convert centigade temperatures to fahreheit (double the number and add 32 and you’ll be close enough), tips for getting a good berth on the sleeping buses (insist politely on what you want and don’t move out of the way until you get it) and other helpful methods of getting your needs met without causing any Vietnamese man to loose face – a big deal here. Confrontations are not a good idea. Since I had a 21 hour bus ride to Danang in a few days, this advice was particularly valuable.
The thing I miss most about traveling alone is being able to laugh. I love to laugh, and you can’t just walk down the street laughing to yourself – it isn’t done and it isn’t fun. Hence, it was great to get caught up in the laugh department. I was sorry to say “goodbye” at the end of the evening.
Some things I love about traveling alone: I’m more open and available to talking to and meeting strangers, there’s no negotiating what I want to do or how I want to do it or where I want to go or when, no worrying about whether my companion is at ease or distressed or having a good time, etc. Living alone as I do I’m used to and comfortable with my own company and I have been surprised, this trip, to find that I’m mostly too busy and too absorbed in what’s going on around me to be lonely. Not always though. My last couple of days in Saigon weren’t restful but stressful and I confess to feeling adrift – missing friends and family, the comforts of home and the English language.
On my last day in Saigon I went to the War Remnants Museum – until relatively recently called the “American War Crimes Museum.” I knew it was going to be rough but still wasn’t prepared for the room after room of photos of horrors, most of them larger than life-sized and incredibly graphic: American GIs torturing and killing Vietnamese men, women and children; children walking through deforested jungles looking like lost souls on another planet; and dozens of images of diseased and deformed human beings – the result of dioxin in Agent Orange. I ran out of there past the piles of weapons and ordance set to the sound effects of incoming mortar fire.
The bus I’d booked to Danang on line was just where it was supposed to be in spite of the Saigoneer hotel manager expressing doubt when I asked her to print out my ticket for me. She was clearly worried. “You shouldn’t book on line. They might cheat you.” And, “Don’t drink water. They won’t stop for you!”
I was the only non-Asian person on the “Sleeper Bus.” Later I learned that this bus was going all the way to Hanoi with stops in Danang and Hue. This wasn’t the new, cushy tourist night bus I’d ridden on before – but it wasn’t crowded and my seat was on the lower level and right behind the driver so I had a good view of the brilliant green rice paddies and the curving coast line before dark brought down the curtain. The seats on these buses are reclined almost 180 degrees – flat enough to sleep on and not be uncomfortable – at least for someone my size. An older Vietnamese woman had the center seat/bed next to me and, lucky for me, she was a kind, care-taking type. When we stopped for dinner she beckoned me over to the table she was sitting at and made sure I had chopsticks and paper napkins and offered me rice and a bowl and then plates of our communal food (included in the price of the bus ticket). Two other women and one young man sat with us. None of them spoke a word of English. One of the young women looked like she had been crying and ate nothing in spite of being encouraged by my new friend, and the young man tried to talk to me using sign language and gestures and I responded the best I could. The meal consisted of chicken stewed in a yellow sauce, greens cooked in broth, pickled cabbage, grilled sardines and a small, crunchy vegetable I’d never seen before served with a spicy dip. Healthy, simple fare. At the end of the meal my friend passed around a baby food jar full of toothpicks and we all sat there in companionable silence working over our teeth.
Back in the bus we settled down for the night, pulling on socks and sweaters, adjusting our assigned pillows and the fleece blankets decorated with teddy bears, and getting as comfortable as we could manage. I took a nibble of an Ambien, and another nibble at 2AM, and, earpods in and hooked up to an episode of “This American Life” I slept for twelve hours.
In the morning we stopped at the usual open fronted, sheet-metal-covered restaurant to use the squat toilet, wash up and brush our teeth and have an inferior bowl of pho – then got back on the bus for the ride up the east coast of Vietnam . My friend handed me a small, sweet orange that I peeled and ate, and then she passed me a damp towel for my hands. I smiled at her kind face and said a heartfelt “Cam on” in what I hoped sounded like Vietnamese. She smiled back.
In late morning the bus driver pulled to a stop near what I thought was the main bus terminal in Danang and motioned for me to get off. I was slow in responding, thinking everyone was going to disembark and I’d have plenty of time to gather my belongings, but not so – it was just me. My friend and other folks seated near me began loudly and urgently to tell me to get off – this was my stop! I struggled into my backpack and shoes (you can’t wear shoes on the buses – you are given a plastic bag to put your shoes in and offered slip-on sandals from a basket), waved “goodbye” and jumped down into the road.
Immediately, a moto driver accosted me, begging me to hire him for the ride to Hoi An. Since I kept walking towards the bus station, he kept lowering his price. Finally, knowing this was a good deal, and preferring not to have to navigate another bus station, (and not realizing how far away Hoi An was) I agreed. The old fellow handed me the usual much-too-big helmut which I fastened loosely under my chin and we were off. After half an hour of riding through Danang and along the coast of the South China Sea, clutching the bike seat with one hand and my floppy helmut with the other, somehow, using his language skills and my iphone with hotel reservation on it plus the good will of several Hoi An shopkeepers, we found the Dream City Hotel – an absolute gem of a place. I may never leave.