A City Boy in Saigon: Welcome to Vietnam

by R.T. Allenson

I recently got back from my first trip to Vietnam and I still can’t shake off the feeling of wanderlust. I only knew the country from the history books I read back in college, as well as the myriad of documentaries that I watched about World War II, so my knowledge of Vietnam was basic at best. I’m no stranger to travel, and I’ve been in a few countries before, but my trip to Saigon was the first time I felt a sense of culture shock.

You’d think that coming from another South East Asian country, I’d probably fit right in the country. While I can easily pass off as a native of the country (or any South East Asian country for that matter), the country was absolutely different from what I’ve been accustomed here in The Philippines.

But we’ll get into the cultural details in succeeding posts.

The Philippines is roughly an hour ahead of Vietnam, so it felt like going back in time. It wasn’t as terrible when I went to New York six years ago, which had a time difference of about 12.5 hours. I was actually quite pleased that the travel time from Manila to Ho Chi Minh was only two hours (three, counting the adjustment), as I hate riding airplanes or flying in general.

I was accompanied by (or rather, I accompanied) my mother, father, and younger sister. My sister, who goes by the pen name Roberta Fitzpatrick, dyed her hair blonde just for the occasion as she regularly does when she travels. My mother was lucky enough to get a good promotion from Cebu Pacific, so it didn’t cost that much for the tickets. If you’re from The Philippines, I strongly suggest you book your flights ahead as tickets can run out quickly.

Our plane left Manila at around 10:45pm and we arrived in Ho Chi Minh at 12:20am. The plane ride wasn’t particularly bad, and while there wasn’t any turbulence at all, I still feel anxious when flying. Due to the lateness of the hour, Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport was eerily empty – a far cry from the otherwise busy Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Immigration asked me no questions at all, and simply double checked if I was indeed who I was in my passport.

A City Boy in Vietnam: Saigon’s Traffic Vs Manila’s

Our cab driver was waiting for us patiently as we stepped out of the airport with my mother’s name written on a large piece of paper. The all-too-familiar smell of the big city greeted my senses, and I was expecting a myriad of cars lining up as they struggle to make their way out of the airport. It’s something you get accustomed to when you live in the crowded city centers of Manila.

But I would be mistaken. Granted, the time wasn’t exactly rush hour, but the traffic in Ho Chi Minh is so different from the one back home. The first thing I noticed was how long the stoplight goes. In Manila, the stoplight can be as long as a minute and a half. While it isn’t terribly long, it’s long enough to cause crowding, which in turn leads to terrible traffic jams. Vietnam’s traffic light doesn’t go beyond twenty seconds, which means the traffic is near-seamless.

My mother further explained how different the traffic in Vietnam is. The country’s people are incredibly laid back; she uses a Filipino term which is best translated as easy-going, and it apparently reflects on the way they drive. Drivers drive slowly with no apparent rush, giving way when necessary; a stark contrast to the rushing madness that best describes traffic back home.

My father was visibly agitated when a motorbike cut in front of us, complaining to my mom why our driver would let them cut them like that. She reiterated the fact that the people in Vietnam are simply easy-going and mild-mannered on the road.

The First Night Thoughts: Making the Most Out of Little Space

We arrived at GK Central Hotel, which is just a short walk away from the Independence Palace (also known as the Reunification Palace). Looking at the hotel’s facade, I was expecting that the rooms were small. Turns out this is another quirk that the country has. The hotel and the surrounding properties look cramped, but living space inside is surprisingly large.

The general layout of the building seems to be long and tall; properties have just enough front space for a car for example, with the property itself capitalizing on its height and length. Our modest suburban house back in the Philippines, for example, has a wider floor area than the hotel but it doesn’t feel cramp at all.

The hotel unfortunately only accommodates two people per room, which may present a problem for larger travel groups. I had no problems with it, although I dreaded every night sharing the bed with my dad has he’s notorious for his snoring problem.

The first night in Vietnam wasn’t anything exceptional. I did get to see the city late at night, which I would soon find out is a stark contrast to the busyness during the day. This city boy was expecting to fit right in, but as it would turn out, I’d feel like a tourist for the first time.