1USD = 20800VND
At the end of 2012 we had the opportunity to attend a 'home country' wedding for my son and his wife. This turned into a small family gathering as seven of us traveled to Vietnam for the event. None of our side of the family had ever been to Vietnam, but we were in far better shape than the standard tourist, since we had my daughter-in-law as cultural guide, chaperon and translator.
The schedules for the seven of us were all over the map time-wise, as the four parties came from separate parts of the USA and converged on Vietnam in time for the wedding - the main event. I must say, it's not nearly as easy to get to Vietnam as it is to anyplace else we know of in SE Asia. There are remarkably few carriers that come into Hanoi or HoChiMin City (Saigon), so coordinating the arrivals was more complex than normal.
Mary and I left early and arrived in Singapore several days before so we could recover from the long flight (see most recent postings in Reports from Tomorrow). At least from Singapore we had some less expensive choices for flights to/from Vietnam. We flew easyJet to Hanoi, our first stop (minimalist flight, no food, no leg room, but thankfully only a couple of hours flight) where we met my son and wife. Apparently, Hanoi is the hot tourist spot for Vietnam, who knew?
My daughter-in-law had never been to Hanoi, so we thought this would be a good place to visit to get her out of wedding planning mode for a bit. What a small, deary and drab place is the Hanoi airport! It's the national capital of Vietnam, but looked like the local airport at some small town in the US circa 1955, only nowhere as nice as that. Later we saw that a new airport is being built - which presumably will someday look like a modern day airport.
We'd arranged with the hotel to be picked up by a taxi and taken into old Hanoi - and thus began our first encounter with traffic in Vietnam. Holy cow, what a place! The vehicle was new and large enough, but the drive into Hanoi was like nothing we'd ever seen. A couple of things stood out from that first trip:
First, it was dark, but the air was visible even in the meager lights. My eyes were irritated the entire time we were in Hanoi - the air pollution was the worst I'd ever encountered (far worst than LA, or Denver or Houston at various times in the USA). That first night I did not realize it was air pollution, but thought I was just tired.
Secondly, it was remarkably dark outside. As we passed buildings on the road, almost none of them were lit. It was like living in a 10 watt world. Later we discovered that the Hanoi airport is outside the city, so we were going through quite a bit of rural countryside. Still, even as we traveled through places where people clearly lived or worked, there was hardly any exterior lighting.
Thirdly, the roads were in pretty poor shape and I saw nearly zero stop signs or lights, which any westerner would expect to see to control traffic. Instead the roads appeared to be ruled by pure chaos. It was a pretty terrifying ride (although pretty 'normal' as such things go there). One saving grace was that we drove less than 60 km/hr (35mph), so the chaos was in relative slow motion. It also explains why it took an hour to travel the 30 km to the hotel.
We stayed at a modest place (Gia Trinh Hotel) in the heart of old Hanoi. The streets were narrow and there were plenty of tourists around and stores for shopping. The hotel staff were particularly helpful, arranging transportation as we needed and offering suggestions on nearly restaurants. The rooms, however, do not really look like what you see on the web site. Fish-eye lenses make small things look larger than they really are.
The weather in Hanoi at this time of the year was very pleasant with temperatures about 60F, a welcome relief from hot muggy Singapore. We did the expected things, visiting the local night market, the HoChiMin Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature and Hoan Kiem Lake (Turtle Lake). This was all pleasant enough (smog excepted) and once we were taught how to handle the traffic, we managed quite well.
We signed up for a trip to Halong Bay, 170 km and 4 hours away. Traffic thinned out as we got out of Hanoi, but the rules of the road did not change much. We did get up to 80 km/h once though (whee!). We went out on a boat tour around the nearby islands (read all about it on the web). We chose the day carefully and it delivered - sunny (once we got there), with a light breeze and temperatures about 60F. While hazy, it was a delightful day. Another 4 hour drive back in the dark, made for a long day - still the trip was well worth it.
We flew on Vietnamese Airlines to HoChiMin City, aka Saigon (minimalist flight, no food, no leg room, but thankfully only a couple of hours flight) and into a much better airport compared to Hanoi. Here we were met by my daughter-in-law's family who took us off to the wedding festivities in Bien Hoa (almost an hour ride). We returned to downtown Saigon after the wedding for a couple days of tourism, this time as a group of six adults and our 4 year old granddaughter.
Saigon in many was is completely different than Hanoi. It was sunny, rained a little and was very hot and muggy (welcome to SE Asia again). Saigon had much less air pollution, but still enough to irritate the eyes and lungs. We stayed right down in the heart of Saigon at the Hotel Lele (basic tiny rooms), but at least well located near all the tourist activity. Crossing streets was similar to what we'd experienced up north, just more traffic and the streets were many times wider.
We visited the nearby day market, a cathedral (closed for services), the post office and the Reunification Palace. The latter is where the South Vietnam government was located during the war. The tour guide began by giving a pretty neutral history of events (civil war with French, beat them, formed North Vietnam, civil war continued in south against the USA, beat them, unified country).
She did not suggest any braggadocio or enmity - just straight forward explanation. The palace contained the offices and such for the president at the time as well as their living quarters. They made a point of show how every place the president would be, had a fast exit to a place where a helicopter would whisk him away. As it turned out, when the tanks were about to knock down the gates, a South Vietnamese pilot changed sides and dropped a bomb on the palace - and disabled the escape heliocopter, so the president was captured.
Our principal reason for visiting Vietnam was for the home country wedding of our son and his wife who'd been married one and a half years before in the USA. A traditional wedding in Vietnam basicallu consists of the groom's family processing to the woman's house and asking for her hand in marriage. I won't try to describe all the formality involved. There are traditional gifts (food items), flowers, special clothes etc.
After the hour long ceremony at the wife's family house we all went to a wedding reception, held at a big hall (four such receptions going on at once). This was not greatly different than what you might see here in the USA - lots of tables (each with a case of Heineken beer and Coke), the walk around to all the tables toasting the bride and groom and mothers and fathers, the obligatory 'dzho' (pronounced 'yo', bottom's up) at each table. It was pretty much like we'd see here.
The best part was meeting our new Vietnamese family (who spoke no English). They were ever so gracious and hospitable - hauling us all around the city for the various activities. Despite the lack of communication, their appreciation and warmth was the highlight of our time in Vietnam.
Getting along with traffic in Vietnam is only for the mentally hardy. Since the traffic almost never has controls (no stop signs or lights), it flows constantly. There are plenty of cars, but these are surrounded by ten times as many motorbikes. Lanes seem to be mere suggestions as the cars or trucks slowly merge and pass and somehow avoid bumping into each other (at least in our experience). The motorbikes, however, are like flies, all around you. Most of the time they stay to the right when traffic is moving, but whenever it slows down they cut right in front of the cars and crowd in tight so they can go first when there's a break.
There appears to be a custom that you give a short beep as you come near to another bike, car, pedicab, or pedestrian to warn them you are near. A series of fast beeps means, "Move out of the way". The result is a near continuous cacophony of beeps. After a couple of days, my brain developed a 'beep filter' and I stopped paying attention to them - until I had a small-scale near-miss. Surprisingly to this westerner, there appears to be no 'road rage' - perhaps because it's all moving so slowly.
We had to learn how to cross these crazy streets. The approach is to form a line of your group, with your shoulder facing the oncoming traffic. Wait for a small break in the motorbike traffic, and slowly step out - looking sideways at the oncoming traffic. The bikes will slowly begin to part so you can continue your slow move and they pass around you. Mind you, 'pass around you' means they miss you, but sometimes only by inches.
At the middle of the road, turn your head facing the other direction and repeat. Never run, as the bikes cannot tell how fast you are moving (you'll get beeped for this). Don't try this with cars, they do not give way. :-) All of this craziness seems to work well enough. The same "rules" apply in Saigon, except the streets were just many times larger.
You may enjoy two small videos below taken by my son-in-law, John. The first was taken crossing a rather uncrowded street in HoChiMin City. The second was taken on New Year's eve in the same city on a very busy street. In this one, watch for the yellow motorbike at second 35 that attempts to go straight, crossing the hoard of bikes coming from the left. Later that night we crossed a much more crowded street than this - so crowded we had to actually step over the front tires of some of the motorbikes. After that experience, we fled to our rooms and hid until the next morning.Easy (mp4, 24 sec, 8MB) and not so easy (mp4, 55 sec, 12MB)