Saigon's Motorcyclists and Smiles

Posted 13th September 2013 by David McGuinness

I touched down on the runway of Ho Chi Minh, was rushed through the arrival visa process in a no-nonsense manner and was on my way to my hotel through the rain and hectic traffic. It is rainy season, a fact made obvious by driving through swarming rain poncho-clad motorcyclists that duck and dive through the swirl of controlled chaos that passes for traffic in this city, more famously known as Saigon. Smiles all around at the hotel and they didn’t feel like the forced variety.

I took a little wander after an early dinner with no particular destination and was a little taken aback by the fact that many of the two-wheelers that dominate the streets also feel free to use the paths when it suits. Still, after Iran last year, this didn’t seem to be too bad, mostly due to the fact that the speed is of a more manageable variety that doesn’t freeze you to the spot when you realise that the vehicle heading towards you might be the last thing you ever see.

I wandered on through some outdoor markets and down to Saigon River, a vast expanse of fast-moving water with plenty of boats of all sizes. Not quite as hectic as the city streets though. Along the way there motorbike taxi drivers asked me disinterestedly if I wanted to go anywhere, but always with a smile. From the river I made my way to the stately People’s Committee Building with a proud black statue of Ho Chi Minh himself erected out front, looking forward onto the city’s skyscrapers. Was it possible he was smiling too?

I searched unsuccessfully for a copy of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” in a nearby bookshop that had a reasonable selection of English-language books. I continued on to the impressive Central Post Office, designed by Gustav Eiffel, with fascinating period maps painted on the walls. The nearby Notre Dame cathedral is impressive from he outside but as mass was on there was no entrance permitted to foreigners despite me putting on my most pious face.

Tomorrow I leave Ho Chi Minh to head into the Central Highlands, a fairly off-the-beaten-track region of Vietnam that saw some of the heaviest action during the war with the US.

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