Friday March 8th, 2013 – In Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

The big day came. Before we left, we naturally had the “the backpack is terribly big” and the “no, we need a smaller one” discussions. From long practice, it remained a friendly conversation of “the backpack is terribly heavy” type, from David, with the answer “it is only seven kilos, but feel free to throw anything out of it” from me.

Every holiday starts the same way – David is always nervous that we have too much with us. It does not matter WHAT we have, it is always too much. When he brings up this topic of luggage size, it is because he is “nervous“. He does not know so many things. Where to go and what to do first when he does not know what time it is, always starts things off. He can never remember what is already paid and, particularly, how that is converted to Pounds or Crowns. He does not know how to find where we will sleep and he do not know where the hell he is. In summary, he does not know WHY HE IS ON HOLIDAY !

The flights from Prague had passed seamlessly and very comfortably. The short-haul to Munich, on Lufthansa, was exactly on time and the service an example of cool Teutonic professionalism.

The onward flight, from Munich to Ho Chi Minh City was a different thing altogether. The flight attendants, in what we presumed were examples of Vietnamese national dress, were very attentive and the food, remember we were in an aeroplane, was a tasty example of what was to come. The almost twelve hour flight passed in pleasant, air-conditioned comfort.

But then we were on the ground, in hot, steamy Vietnam and surrounded by thousands of milling people. We already knew that the backpack was too heavy, but it would fit on our little, 110 cc Honda moped, that I have already nicknamed “Minh”.

We found, in the required order, an ATM, the motorcycle rental agency, a taxi and a hotel.

It sounds as if it was simple, but the ATM refused to give David any money, which drove him crazy. A call to the Bank revealed, after an eternity waiting for some far flung call-centre to look at it, that the system had crashed somewhere and would be down for at least four hours. Not exactly helpful. We usually have some problem, but this was a variant that we had not foreseen. Fortunately, my own Czech bank did work without any problems, but the ATM would not issue more than two million Dong, that is about two thousand Czech Crowns, at once. I suspect this is a move to charge richer tourists more transaction fees.

The motorcycle rental agency was easily found, but, quite naturally, it was closed until the afternoon.

So, in the terrible chaos called Saigon, we eventually gave up looking for a bus stop and preferred to pay 120 Dong for a taxi. This is about one-eighth part of a Czech Crown, We do not even have a coin that small ! Contrary to all expectations, the driver did not take us to the hotel, but to a rather vague address, which seemed to cover about two square kilometres. At the time, we did not yet have iPhones and our attempts to get a SatNav with a GPS map of Vietnam had been fruitless. Fortunately, we did encounter, on a nearby pavement, an Englishman who was living in the city – and he had both. In the end he directed us, plus or minus a few blocks, to the place where the hotel was. After a bit of detective work, because it was cunningly hidden in an alley, we verified that the hotel really existed and was not in another, parallel, universe. It was functional and very basic, but the staff were very nice.

Our room was a small “all-in-one” layout, containing a quite narrow bed, a non-functioning fridge, a toilet and a shower. All within touching distance of almost any point in the room. For our two-member crew, it was a logistical experience. There was also a small balcony. Maybe, we could have both fitted on it if David held his breath and we were standing back to back. But, just in case, if we were going to try that, I would have taken my cell phone with me to call for help if we had become wedged. Or maybe, they could have pushed us from the window of the opposite house – because it was only about thirty centimetres away …. David insisted that he take a picture of me on that balcony, I do not understand exactly why.

Perhaps surprisingly, the air-conditioning worked really well and, in our pleasantly cool room, we fell asleep like logs. After what seemed like seconds, but was actually about three hours, we rolled out of bed again but we did not feel rested at all. We then needed to retrace our steps to the rental agency, at the airport, to resume our original plan but, as the Americans found out, even good plans do not work in Vietnam. We found a lot of bus stops, but not a single bus that would go back to the airport. I hate to give up, but for peace of mind, we agreed to take a taxi. It was not easy to catch a taxi, but we managed in the end and at least we drove the route again. We paid close attention because, when we came back, it would be as active participants in the swirling mayhem that was the traffic flow.

They were, at least, ready for us in the rental shop. We probably did not make a very good impact as we were both faded, sleepless and lost in time and space. I think we gave the impression that we may have had an idea of where we had our own bodily organs, but we would have had difficulty identifying the country and continent where those organs were located. The whole rental process was charmingly lackadaisical and the most attention of all was given to the method we would need to use to return the motorcycle. We were going to need to send it from Hanoi by rail and the address details for this seemed more important to the proprietor than anything else. He never even looked at David’s licence and it was pretty obvious that insurance was non-existent.

Another sequence of events was repeated. We crossed highway, which had seven lanes going in at least eight directions and, with numerous transactions, eventually managed to extract the deposit from the ATM. Then it was back across the road again, now strewn with melons after some traffic mishap, to receive the last instructions for the trip. We were given helmets, a bike lock and instructions on how to tighten the chain. When we asked about a map, the proprietor almost laughed. There were not any maps, full stop. Production of them was (at that time) frowned upon by the State. What we were offered, was photocopies of pages from an old atlas, showing Vietnam from space. Most town names were in English, but that was from at least thirty years before (and before the communists took over in a flurry of renaming) and newly constructed roads were just not there.

What, as David says, could possibly go wrong ?

David wanted to name the motorcycle Ho Chi Minh, but, since we were going to travel from south to north, he said it should be Minh Chi Ho. I did not understand this part exactly, but I attributed it to previous radiation exposure or a bang on the head. In the end, I taught David that the first name is the third and we agreed to call it Ho Chi Minh at home and “Minh” in company. At least we would not provoke people that way.

Then it was face-masks and helmets on and we were rushing into the chaos.

I will probably never understand how it was possible that we hit the right way back to the hotel without hesitation and found it first time. I will probably have to compliment David. He cannot even knock in a nail without sustaining some form of laceration on his head, but give him something that has an engine and he will ride it as if he has been doing it since birth. How he could watch everything around us and use the mirrors was a mystery to me. I felt sick just looking ahead and it made me so dizzy I shut my eyes a lot of the time.

Purely theoretically, there is a side of the road you should drive on and, in Vietnam, that is the right. There is also a direction you should go in if you are on that side. But, as I said, this is purely theoretically. In the towns and cities, no matter which direction you were nominally going, there would be not just lone riders but sometimes entire columns and phalanxes coming in the opposite direction, but on your side. Or maybe some would just cut across the traffic, which was moving both ways on both sides of the road, in either direction. If there were rules, everyone just ignored them, without exception. The only real “rules” seemed to be “Do not run into anything ahead of you” (that way, you did not need to bother about anyone except yourself) and “Whoever can go, goes where he wants“. For foreigners, this was amended to “Whoever cannot go where he wants, must go where he can.” and the last stipulation was: “No one may cause an accident“. However, this rule was also graded, I think that the removal of a foreigner did not count as a traffic accident, but as a necessary loss. It was a trauma, but we somehow survived it unscathed.

In any case, being mobile again greatly improved our mood and, rather surprisingly, we found our hotel quite easily. We parked Minh amongst a tangled mass of nearly identical mopeds and I wondered how we would ever find him again. The only defining characteristic was a small sticker for the rental agency and the fact that our moped seat was remarkably new looking,

In the evening, we entered the mayhem that is Saigon on foot. It got dark very quickly as we ate a very nice dinner, sitting outside a small restaurant at a table on the pavement. I admit I was ravenously hungry. The food was spicy, in a non-aggressive way and simply delicious. David treated himself to a final beer, he does not drink at all when we are driving and we posed for a “here we are” photo.

In a surprising sea of neon, we located our alley, which was teeming with life, even though it was quite late in the evening. I tried a coffee and we ate something sweet. David, who was already falling asleep at the meal, could hardly keep awake.

When we got back to our room, he began to snore even before I could ring my family on Skype to report our safe arrival. He just seemed to turn his brain off and go to sleep instantly. I spent about an hour writing this journal in the dark. I was still on the old time, so I did not want to sleep at all at first.

Our plan for the following day was to head as far south as possible from Saigon and into the Mekong Delta and this meant we would have to get up really early. This also meant that, in the end, I had about two hours sleep.