Friday 28 Jul
Ho Chi Minh City , Vietnam
Same, same (but different)
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 5am bleary eyed having caught the overnight train from Hoi An. Hoi An is famous for its tailors and you can get beautiful tailor made clothes for a fraction of what you'd spend at home. We spent a pleasant few days there enjoying the beach in between our appointments for clothes fittings. We might currently be jobless and homeless but we're fully suited and booted for when we return home.
Ho Chi Minh, which everyone in Vietnam still calls Saigon, is a bustling cosmopolitan city and is very different from the more Asian influenced North. Really we could be in any big city, with French cafes on every corner, Italian restaurants and multistory international hotels, but you only have to step off the traffic choked roads to find yourself in a completely different world. Behind every major street lies a labyrinth of narrow alleyways lined with shacks and crisscrossed with clothes lines. Chickens peck over scraps of food left by fruit sellers in conical hats, and kids with hoops and sticks fly in and out of doorways watched over by their grandparents, reminding you that you're still in Vietnam.
The locals have coined the phrase "same, same (but different)" which they use to sell an assortment of fake goods to tourists. Dozens of art studios churn out astoundingly good copies of Van Gogh masterpieces, girls as young as nine stagger under towers of photocopied books, and old ladies swing baskets of fake perfume. The phrase has been used so often it has become a catch phrase, but it perfectly sums up Ho Chi Minh. Initially it might feel just like any other international city with bad 70's architecture, but don't be fooled, the city has bags of character. It is a law unto itself and distinctly unique.
The traffic is certainly unique, I've never experienced anything like it. There are estimated to be around four million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, not bad for a population of 10 million. Accidents are high, with an average of four fatalities a day, but you only have to attempt to cross the street to wonder "is that all!" The golden rule is "walk, don't run," keep your nerve and a steady pace, and the motorbikes swerve around you. This seems to work but I'm never entirely comfortable stepping out in to oncoming traffic. Particularly, when the scooter heading your way is overloaded with anything from fridges to glass panels, or farm animals!
Tonight we meet up with Diana (Rob's mum) and her mate Jane, who are joining us for two weeks - brave people! They're staying in the classy part of town at the Majestic hotel overlooking the Saigon river. The Majestic is meant to be pretty plush. It was where many of the correspondents hung out during the Vietnam war, and is the setting for some of the crucial scenes in Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American' so I'm looking forward to seeing it. Of course I'm not at all jealous...