Our red-eye from Nepal got us into Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh city) at 8am, just a handful of hours after Sarah’s parents. It was Roxanne’s first time out of the U.S. (excluding Canada), and Stan’s first time back to Asia since he was drafted into the Vietnam war. One of the few bad things about an extended trip like this is missing family and friends, so it was so wonderful to see Sarah’s parents!
As we walked around town (with some assists from Uber) making the most of our only day in Vietnam’s largest city, Sarah’s parents experienced a nice (re)introduction to Asia including a precarious ladder situation,
some communist propaganda posters (this one translates to something like ‘Every vote for belief and hope’),
and a chopsticks primer before the first of many delicious Vietnamese meals.
Stan (who enjoyed riding a motorcycle regularly until a few years ago) got really excited when he saw this vintage motorbike.
He motioned towards the back of the bike, offering us a ride, and while many of the scooters cruising by on the street were loaded up with families of four or five people, we had had enough trouble just crossing the streets on foot so far. As a Vietnamese guide would later tell us, those colored lights at some intersections (a.k.a., traffic signals) are just for decoration. In Vietnam, right-of-way is not given freely by hanging lights or paint on the street, but seized at an opportune moment.
As a pedestrian, this means walking slowly and confidently into the never-ending stream of oncoming traffic. Don’t stop and don’t run — be predictable — but also don’t expect the same affordances from a bus as from a scooter.
(Jason actually took this video later, in Hanoi, but the same concept applied in Saigon; in fact, the Saigon roads were wider and the traffic faster-moving — and scarier.)
Drivers are generally alert, and will do everything they can to avoid hitting you. While this feels the craziest of anywhere we’ve been, and definitely takes some getting-used-to, it usually works: Vietnam has about 2.5x greater traffic fatalities per capita than the US, but it’s still better than about a quarter of countries in the world.
In any case, we decided to skip Stan’s motorcycle ride offer for now and take a boat onwards instead.
The hour-long cruise around the rivers and canals of Saigon started out pretty boring, until we got to this section where every inch of the waterfront was filled with houses on stilts and we got to see a glimpse of what daily life is like for the families living on the river.
Afterwards, we planned to check out the view from the sky deck hanging precariously off the nearby Bitexco Financial Tower, but ended up visiting its “Eon 51” cafe instead (which is actually two floors higher than the sky deck, and for the same price you get to enjoy a fancy drink or dessert with the view).
The desserts were delicious, and Stan and Roxanne were kind enough to treat us, shelling out a giant mass of dong in the process.
With the exchange rate at more than 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) to 1 US Dollar, the childish jokes were too hard for us to resist — but we’ll spare our readers for the rest of this post at least.
Moving on… to Hoi An, a small town famous for its charming ancient town (once considered to be among the best trading destinations in all of Asia), plentiful and skilled (and highly affordable) tailors, and beautiful beaches. This picture shows the thung chais, circular fishing boats that were used to avoid taxes during the French colonial period. When the French started imposing taxes on the building of boats in Vietnam, the people started building these and avoided the fees by arguing that they were baskets and not boats.
We spent a good amount of our time in Hoi An just relaxing on the beach and trying to stay cool:
Sarah’s parents also had their first taste of young coconut,
We took a day trip to a nearby Cham Island that came recommended by our “homestay” host (who also ran a tour company out of the lobby). One of the most interesting things was seeing the huge variety of weird seafood on display.
Sarah had grown very sick of her black dress she’d been wearing for most of the trip, and was drawn into many of the tailors who had things that were just her style in the window. She ended up getting a coat and a dress made, and returned several times for fittings and such. After all the shopping, Jason and Stan had to blow off some steam:
In-between fittings, we ducked off to check out a nearby silk “village” (which also tripled as a massive fancy resort and store).
While the name may have been a bit misrepresentative, we found it fascinating to see the entire process of silk being made by hand, from the growing of the silk-worms,
to harvesting of cocoons and to this most fascinating part, where the cocoons were unraveled and spun together to make thread.
The woman on the right would periodically add some cocoons, pick at them with chopsticks until she found the beginning of the thread, and add it to the weave being continuously spun from the other ~30 cocoons in the boiling pot by the cranking of the woman on the left.
Roxanne (who is an avid seamstress and quilter) picked up a bolt of silk for some projects back home, and then Sarah picked up her dress (now “just right”). She liked it so much, just a week later she was plotting a way to return for another batch!
On the way back to Da Nang to catch our flight, we had one last stop to climb the Marble Mountains, giant rock formations that jutted out of the plains dramatically, and just a small preview of what was in store for us next in Halong Bay.
We cooled off in the caves inside the mountains, before visiting the statues and sculptures on the way down,
And continuing onwards to catch our flight to Hanoi!
Looks like you had a fun time with the “Folks”. You must be coming near the end of the world tour-enjoy the remainder.