Flights into Saigon (via Singapore) were pleasantly uneventful – apart from being served a Chilean Sav Blanc with distinctive unplalatable Chardonnay flavour. Then the Asian holiday fun started – endeavouring to buy an entry visa at the airport for US$25. I’d advise anyone contemplating this course, it’d be much smarter to pay a bit more and get it processed at the VN embassy in advance of your flight.
Having deplaned, it took all of 1 1/2 hours to exit the terminal. All government officials in VN are Communist Party members, with the entry visa operatives I imagine being fairly low level bureaucrats, with no interest in providing an efficient welcome for excited tourists. An unfortunate initial impression of the country. A team of 8 people stood around behind their safety glass barrier that had multiple customer counters, with just one officer accepting the completed entry forms. These were then passed to another desk where visas were glued in passports. The process concluded at another counter where an officer would occasionally call visitors forward to make the cash payment. Not a smile to be found anywhere. Much frustration and disbelief expressed by Western tourists. At one point, when all the staff disappeared, not to be replaced for twenty minutes, the penny finally dropped that we were witnessing an uncoordinated shift change. Processing then resumed at a snails pace.
This experience was totally at odds with subsequent very happy, very cooperative interactions with people in Saigon streets – in shops – hotels and restaurants – markets – even when language hasn’t been shared. Interesting to note that English is now being taught in primary schools with children attending for half a day / 6 days a week, only because the population growth has far outpaced the availability of school resources. To achieve a living wage, I’m reliably informed that teachers need to take in extra curricular tuition – with kids from low income families obviously being thus disadvantaged.
Locals commonly use the city name ‘Saigon’ rather than ‘Ho Chí Minh City’. But posters and billboards of Uncle Ho, and the VN flag twinned with the now defunct Soviet Union’ ‘hammer & sickle’ flag are in abundance. People at all levels seem happy with their lot as they go about daily life, accepting the Communist Party directs all policy and administration. Many people have told me they’ve moved-on from the internal divisions & horrors of the recent past that reached into almost every family. They see just one untrusted foreign threat : China. There is no apparent animosity to Americans, but it is widely expressed towards the growing influence of Chinese business & tourism. The Chinese & related Khmer Rouge invasions post-1975 – known as “the friends wars” – are not forgiven. Our travel guides freely admit that corruption exists in politics & business.
It’s not uncommon when chatting to someone in a shop or restaurant – or even pavement traders – to find they have a relative or two in Australia who they may have visited, and that they are aware of various Australian city names.
Our group was fortunate on our first day in country to spend the day with a local expert historian who gave an excellent insight to the deep & complex history, geo-politics, and heritage of VN – including a central Saigon walking tour. He is an advisor to the government and relates that sadly the driving political force underpinning Saigon’s rapid development is a desire to replicate Singapore city – create a new “pearl of Asia”. Architecturally & historically significant districts been lost, with the program rolling on. The main Chinese quarter – Cholon – is still in tact, much of it as it has been for centuries.
VN’s population is approximately 96 million and the economy is expanding rapidly, with it seems like thousands of apartment blocks mushrooming. And yet the majority of people & families – including the professionally employed – eat most of their meals seated in the street, on a pavement, or at very basic ‘fast food’ stalls. The new appartments don’t have western style kitchens.
Five metro train lines are either planned or under construction in Saigon. By far the major mode of transport is by low-powered Honda motorcycle – many millions of them seemingly always on the go. Astonishingly, many of these carrying not just the driver but up to 3 adults. I’ve even seen a family of 2 adults with 2 children, plus pet dog. Traffic flow on the laneways – streets – highways – and even footpaths can best be summarised as organised chaos that needs to be seen to be believed. Crossing a road, even at a traffic light controlled intersection can be an act of faith and desperation. There are very few conventional bicycles in use. Except for regional coach travel, there appear to be relatively few commuter bus services.