Saigon, the capital city of the onetime French Cochinchina and independent South Vietnam subsequently, is today, maintaining more than 10 million inhabitants, the largest metropolitan area in Vietnam. Coming, myself, to this country in search of some new great adventures, Saigon coincided to be my first stop. And here are some of my impressions of this crazy, crazy city…
Ho Chi Minh Rules!
If you haven’t heard of Saigon, it’s probably because it’s nowadays more frequently referred to by its current name, Ho Chi Minh City, in what it was renamed to after the end of the Vietnam War in 1976, in honor of the venerated leader of the revolution. Ho Chi Minh has long left this world. He did not actually even live enough to rejoice in his cause’s glorious victory, and never had a clue of this city’s renomination that was to happen. Almost half a century, though, after his death his legacy still lives on. He is omnipresent. In every public building, in every public square, in each and every public street, his face is always there, depicted with a broad, fatherly smile and his elongated beard neatly combed, on posters, banners, and giant screens, often accompanied by bombastic – I may well surmise so – slogans. He is the absolute figure of the Vietnamese state. People are obliged to revere and glorify him. While the slightest written or verbal criticism against his person is deemed a crime.
Ho Chi Minh’s legacy well lives on and the Communist party of Vietnam continues to hold vigorous sway over the country. When it concerns the actual economy, however, very few things appear to be functioning according to the principles of the leading party’s ideology. Many things have changed after the reforms that followed Comecon’s dissolution in the early 90′. Although the state still maintains the monopoly in several major industries, the greatest bulk of all economic activity is totally open for the free market. Thousands of various sizes and sorts private enterprises operate in the city, and the Americans, of course, could not have missed a piece of the cake. So, nowadays, besides the Ho Chi Minh posters, Vietnamese stars and Soviet scythes and hammers, this city equally abounds of Starbucks, KFC’s and Mac Donald’s.
I wouldn’t say that Saigon’s traffic is the most intense, nor the most dangerous, I have encountered, though, definitely, and by far, it is the funniest. Motorbikes is the principal means of transportation in this city, used in a proportion of at least, I estimate, a hundred to one four-wheeled vehicle. They do resemble ants around a big anthill in their manner of moving and intercrossing with each other. They are everywhere, in every avenue, in every alley, on every pavement… And there are lots of them, excessively too many. So that, without having researched for any relevant data, I may easily rest calm believing this city makes the largest proportionately market for the Japanese motorbike industry.
Furthermore, they are not confined in performing their appropriate task (i.e. carrying one or two people), but they also readily perform the one of cars (i.e. carrying entire families or parties of people of up to five individuals), and the one of trucks too (i.e. carrying pretty much anything, from 5-7 meters long pipes and planks to sacks of rice or cement, to refrigerators or washing machines).
Driving, as well as walking, in Saigon, requires high concentration and extreme caution. The unspoken yet predominant traffic rule goes like: “priority has the one who has more guts”. This rule is valid for motorbikes, buses, bicycles and pedestrians alike, and on every surface, let it be a street, a pavement, a public square or a park. Traffic lights do exist, though I did not manage to surmise what for. When still unaccustomed to this city’s driving system, you happen to halt before a red light, you will, in moments, be forced to move by the sequent drivers pressing to you the horn frantically for blocking the traffic. Likewise, seeing a green light in front of you should not entice you to just cross straight, as such a behavior could very easily be proven a fatal mistake.
Interesting, also, is the parking system. In every neighborhood and outside every big store, restaurant etc, there is a parking lot with staff working 24 hours. They will collect a small fee for every bike, and they will make sure to fit the bikes as tightly as possible to each other and take them out when needed, at times having to first move a large number of other bikes blocking access to the wanted one.
I have happened to be before in several places of this world where people do not understand English. However, I never found communication to be nearly as difficult as in this place.
In the center of the city, there were some people who could understand some English, when really slow. Every phrase they were to pronounce, though, It would only become intelligible after several repetitions, and still with a dose of speculation.
Outside of the center now, I hardly found any people at all who could understand the meaning of the words “yes” and “no”. And that was not the problem… Even worse, they didn’t seem to be grasping, the slightest, the plainest of my gestures and my most deftly exhibited pantomime.
No matter how hard I tried, for example, in at least a score of different attempts, to order a hot coffee without sugar, in spite of them always replying with affirmative nods to my demonstrations, without exception I every time received a glass of coffee full of ice-cubes and several spoonfuls of sugar.