#001B: A Response to Observations in Saigon, VietnamTak's dispatch released on 28 July 2015

Tomato Seller - Saigon, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon or…

The original posting was done upon my initial arrival to Vietnam. This is a response to those first impressions. You can find it in its entirety here, in the #001 posting.

Without getting into crazy backstories, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City and Ho Chi Minh City is Saigon. You won’t be burned at the stake for using either one. It seems that HCMC is used by the government as the official governmental name of the city and Saigon is used by the rest. I will just use Saigon because, quite simply, it flows better as a name and it is generally what the common people use.

Actually: Vietnamese from the north will very rarely use the name Saigon. People from the south will use both. If I had to guess, it would seem HCMC will eventually become the utilized nomenclature. 

First Impressions and Observations of Saigon

My Early Impressions of Saigon

Prices for Foreigners in Saigon

Yes, as a non-native—and clearly non-Vietnamese—visitor, prices are higher for us. If you order a delicious meat platter on the street for 20K VND (approx $1USD), you might observe, while eating your fine meal, an old lady rolling up on a motorbike and leaving with a substantial amount of that same food for 5K VND (approx .25USD). Yes, you are being identified as someone who can pay more, and you are paying more some of the time. I don’t see this as a con-game, but as a business decision. (I will at some point write more about this dynamic). Does this bother you? Then get your negotiating game on. Do you want to save even more, learn Vietnamese. You visit somewhere, you play by their rules. Always ask for the price first!

Actually: Yes, you should always ask prices first or risk getting surprised. This is true anywhere. As far as different prices for foreigners, it seems often times you are paying the same price as locals. Many tourists will either think all prices are the same, or all prices are higher for them. I don’t think either of these is correct. I would say more often than not, the prices are the same for tourists and locals. Speaking rudimentary Vietnamese to ask how much things are and understanding what they tell you definitely came in very helpful. It also could make them think you aren’t just a tourist which could help pricing.

Saigon Produce Seller
Crime in Saigon – Is Saigon Safe?

Purse-snatching, kidnapping and whale-hunting is happening every day, but I have yet to see it happen here. In contrast to any warnings of Saigon being saturated with unethical wolves, it seems that the society is well grounded. Do I wave my camera around like a fool? Do I have bills bubbling out of my back pocket? Do I leave electronics unattended? No, as I have done none of these genius maneuvers, I can’t conclude on outcomes. For a city of this size and speed, criminality appears quite low at first observation.

Actually: It does appear low until something happens. You really do need to be careful with your belongings. Pulling out your smartphone to check it on the curb or as you walk across a street is a very high risk maneuver here. Purse snatching do and will happen. Camera and mobile phone snatching do and will happen. If you are conscientious then you will see HCMC as I did, a city with very low crime. If you are at all careless, you might see it as a high crime destination but that is because you are making those probabilities shine. So keep your hands on your camera, your shoulder bag, your purse, etc. This might seem like overkill. That is how I thought it until you see a purse snatching happen in real time. It isn’t just a bunch of sky-is-falling paranoid-types warning you.

The Food in Saigon

You may at first be shocked by the food preparation and other sanitary standards. Raw chicken floating in a solution in a tub on the side of the street. Raw beef assortments arranged on a stainless steel tabletop in the alleyway at 0500AM, and still waiting for a bid at 1100AM. A container of re-usable chopsticks on the restaurant table. “Forget that place,” you just yelled at the computer screen halfway around the world, and I understand the jump to judgement. But then there is the other side of the coin.

Tender cuts of pork cooked to perfection over hot coals on the street. Hand-made sausages wrapped in betel leaves roasted in a smoky cloud right under your nose. Giant bowls of pho (a clear beef-stock based coup with amazing flavour profiles) cooked over a fire from an ancient wooden cart. Iced coffees that perfectly balance the coffee’s robust, full-bodied acidity with the creamy sweetness of condensed milk served over ice. Fresh squeezed juices cranked from a hand operated mill or topped with fresh cuts of pitahaya, more well known as dragonfruit.

So I don’t know, maybe the food in some spotless restaurant with fluorescent lighting and an English menu in the middle of the tourist hub is amazing. Maybe the buffet in some top-shelf hotel is singing to your soul. But as I see it, the street food scene here is a marvel to be experienced. If you are afraid of most of life’s experiences, you’ll be afraid here. Did you ever notice your grandmother thawing meat on the counter or using the same cutting board or knife between meat and vegetables…

Actually: This is pretty much all true. The food is great and food-borne illnesses seem very rare. Your stomach might have some sort of adjustment period but it shouldn’t be anything close to disabling.

Mobility in Saigon

The bus system looks like it functions great. It is very inexpensive and buses seem to come often. I will jump on some in the coming time ahead, but for now, the appearance is a well-functioning usable system. The taxi system also appears to function well and is affordable. To get most places you’d want to get within the city isn’t going to run you more than a couple dollars. Mai Linh and VinaSun are the two noteworthy contenders, and you will see Vinasuns everywhere.

Actually: the bus system is very well run. You hop on and either pay the driver or pay an assistant on board. As for taxis, it is best to use Vinasun. If you need to use Mai Linh that is okay as well. However, with both of these (and even moreso with the other cab companies) you really need to be alert to them driving you around in circles. If you aren’t familiar with the area, you can pull out your smartphone with GPS to see if they are doing crazy things. If so, be firm with them as to your destination. They will understand the tone of your voice. Secondly, take a photo of their taxi cab ID card which usually hangs under the rearview mirror. When you take the photo, make it obvious to them that you are taking it.

There have been times where the taxi driver caves in and says that he will charge less than the mirror (knowing he has been caught). There have been other times when I have just told the taxi driver to let me off wherever I was and we agreed to part ways without exchanging money. They are relying on you being ignorant, soft and lazy. And, to be fair, there are often taxi drivers that do not play games. This is no different than any other city. Just be alert.

Where do things get real interesting? On foot. In the downtown district and thereabouts, the traffic is a sight to behold. Not so much in the Los Angeles-styled gridlock storyline, but in the “holy heck everyone is about to die…nevermind” storyline.

Buses are the kingmakers. If you are a pedestrian, a bicyclist, a motorbike magician or a car, you have the same predator, the bus. As such, the bus is essentially the top of the food chain. Logically, you would think, that this means the pedestrian is at the bottom of the food chain but alas, it seems the only other real threat is the automobile.

You see, anything without four or more wheels seems to work together in a mind-boggling world of efficiency. Most intersections have no pedestrian crossing lights or signal lights. The motorbike magician does not want to hit you and you do not want to get hit. As you walk across the road, the motorbikes and bicyclists will just barely drive around you and you will ever so slightly adjust your constant speed crossing the street to allow that to happen if need be. You do not step out in front of a bus. You try your best not to end up in front of cars. The moral of this story is, there is a lot of activity going on in the street. Pedestrian signal lights that you took for granted back home only exist on major corners, and even that is to be used as your backup plan. When you walk here, you need to first observe and understand the unwritten rules and then follow them as best you can. Eventually the amount of brainpower (which on arrival is probably 85% of total capacity) devoted to ensuring a successful street crossing becomes a much smaller percentage of the pie, but no matter what, Saigon is not a place where you can mindlessly walk from point A to point B.

Of course, this is where we find ourselves jumping to the conclusion that the streets are dangerous, but I think that is just as flawed as jumping to the conclusion that street food is dangerous. Rather, the whole system here is crazy when viewed against what you know, but it works quite amazingly on its own accord. If you suddenly turned your little rusted motorbike sharply into oncoming traffic attempting a turn in Europe, you die. If you suddenly turn into oncoming traffic here in Saigon, you are just in the simple process of gaining passage. I am not advanced enough to know how that system works, but it definitely does.

Actually: having now driven in HCMC, I can attest that traffic here follows a very orderly system. Without all the rules, the people are forced into being human with each other. Taking a left hand turn across oncoming traffic is not such a crazy idea here. Rather, you are working with everyone on the road so that you can take your left and they can continue straight. It looks like complete madness but it actually seems to have more of a heart than developed countries where everyone is hiding in their automobiles.

As for walking, it may be a terrifying experience anywhere from a day to a week. After a while however, you get the hang of it and it really is easy to walk around. Remember, motorbike drivers aren’t crazed maniacs looking to mow you down. As long as you figure out good points to cross and how to walk at a constant speed with ever so slight adjustments, you will be fine. It will take some time to get there I assure you, but once you get there, walking around downtown is not a big deal.

You want to observe something amazing in everyday life here? Stand up against a wall—so that you don’t get run over—with a view of a downtown Saigon street and observe the vast amounts of non-verbal communication and group understanding that happens in what, at first glance, seems to be a reckless sea of traffic pandemonium. Developed countries rely more on mechanisms to ensure orderly traffic flow whereas a place like Saigon relies essentially on person-to-person teamwork.

Morning Traffic in Saigon

Morning Traffic in Saigon

Impressions and Early Observations of Photography in Saigon

Some photographers will do anything to get their shot. If that means ripping up the social contracts of the day, and acting as tyrannical beasts, then so be it. I don’t really have any advice for this class. For the rest of us, you are looking at nice light and activity in the early morning (0500-0900) and evening (1700-1830?), with subjects being relatively accepting of having their photos taken. I am still getting a feel for this observation, especially considering that sometimes money is expected in poorer societies (which so far has not been the case here). Asking permission and smiling both have worked well. As for night photography, I am still getting a grasp on that. I am really appreciating the textures and intricate details of the streets, and that obviously disappears at night, so at this moment, I am having the best luck in the early morning and evening. What I plan to continue to explore is the lights generated by the motorbike swarms at night. We will see.

Actually: street and night photography are great here. Your biggest problem really is remaining alert to your surroundings so that your camera doesn’t end up driving away from you at a high rate of speed. The people are more often than not accepting of it. There was one instance when I tried to take a photograph of a ladies fruit on her cart (wasn’t even taking her photo) and she went berzerk. Smile and move along. 

The Vietnamese people in Saigon

First impressions? Intelligent, resourceful, friendly, hard-working.

Actually: I still think so

Weather in Saigon in October

You want to visit Saigon in October? I think it is a fine month so bear with me. October is a transition month, as it seems, from the wet season to the dry. October is generally humid, with temperatures around 85-90F (30-32C), and bouts of rain. As you move along in October, the humidity and precipitation is more apt to decrease, but the good news is that the rain showers generally are short-lived. So, in a sample day, you might wake up to clear skies, you walk around or hang out in clear skies, you eat lunch with clear skies, and then maybe it rains for half an hour in late afternoon. By night, you are eating again in clear skies. As for humidity and temperature—both are bearable although I’d recommend having a room with air conditioning. And while I can’t speak comparatively to December, I note that the city isn’t saturated with tourists right now.

Actually: the weather everywhere is crazy everywhere it seems. However, the strong afternoon rain showers are just the wet season is gear. When you hear rainy season, you think it just pours 24 hours a day. But in reality, it just means it is probably going to rain often (if not every day) and often times just in short bursts. Thus, it is still feasible to travel without much hardship in rainy season. The bigger issue I feel is the heat you want to withstand.

Conclusion of Week One

I landed late at night at the airport and was able to find a Mai Linh taxi (as suggested in the Vietnam Travel Guide). The taxi driver drove in a direct path, and being so late, we weren’t hung up in the crazy traffic that occurs around rush hour. Upon dropping me off, he tried to shortpay my change explaining that he had to pay an exit fee at the airport. Such is life. Things have gone well so far, generally.

Actually: I had read on the internet that the exit fee is a scam. I have gotten into a series of discussions with taxi drivers who demand this fee. The last of these had me telling the taxi driver to wait out front while I checked his story with an airport official. He was saying that I owe the exit fee when he leaves the airport even though he was dropping me off. Long story short, the airport official after making a bunch of calls confirmed that the exit toll is the responsibility of the passenger. By this time the taxi driver drove off, figuring that he was losing more money waiting I suppose. But, the important takeaway is that if they are charging you a reasonable exit fee, just pay it. It seems legit.

This post was a response to post #001 Initial Observations in Saigon, Vietnam.

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Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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