Welcome to Vietnam

Vietnam. We’re not off to a strong start you and I.

The flight was tiring passenger next to me was too tall for his seat. His legs keep creeping to my already crowded side of the row. He jeeps in his sleep and often awakes with a start and a look on his face like he just escaped from thr clutches of a monster, some big dark thing that nearly got him and might still be out there. He looks out the window periodically for confirmation that he’s still here. Or maybe he’s just looking for a thing on the wing. Who can say.

Six hours later we arrive in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam.  It’s close to 11 pm and the sky somehow looks the colour of sweat.  We’ve flown another two hours back in time.

Arrivals. My first sight is a man in a green uniform with bright red epaulets. A golden star sits in the middle. I’m in a communist country.

The airport is different looks different. Faded beige walls and carpets, plastic seats out of a food court catalogue. It’s not the ultra modern Narita. It’s what would happen if an old shopping center had to accommodate international arrivals and departures. It’s the Dorval mall of airports.

I get ushered to the line for my visa on arrival,  wondering all the while if it will get approved or rejected. I have all the paper work and the fee money (in USD), but part of me doesn’t trust that everything will go according to plan. II hand the main behind the counter my letter of admission, declaration of intent, my passport and a photo. I go wait on one of those plastic seats with other tired looking travellers. A half later later,  I’m told all is good. Welcome to Vietnam, that’s 45 dollars please.

By the time I’m outside looking for a taxi, it’s closing in on 2am. I need to get to my hotel before then to check in. As I look for cab drivers and one appears out of nowhere and puts his hand on my bag. I tell him where I need tomget before 2 and he says okay. We power walk to his van. Inside I don’t see a rate meter and immediate assumption is this might be one of those rip off cabs. We quickly talk price, and by that I mean waving money around. If he gets me there on time, no sightseeing, I honestly don’t care. When he sees enough, which turned out to only slightly higher than what I was ready to pay, he snatches the money from my hands and we’re off.

That made for one interesting cab ride. Welcome to culture shock.

It takes me less than a minute to realize roads don’t work the same way here as they do back home. There are more scooters and motos than anything else. People young and old ride these two wheelers like rocksts. They talk on cellphones, talk to each other, hold hands across two bikes, and drive more than 5 wide alongside each other on a two lane road. The cab bobs and weaves in and around traffic, honking at the sight of ever car, moped and scooter on the highway. They honk back, darting in and out fromeverwherefrom everwhere. There are no turn signals or working stop lights that I see people willing to respect. Driving in the right lane seems to be more of an honor system than a traffic law. The same for stop lights.

Forget about right of way. It’s like the entire highway code works according to an unspoken code of conduct involving equal parts insanity, courage and an invisible yield sign.

Vendors stand behind silver carts with steam rising off their backs. Men huddle on old plastic stools, mbaeely higher than their shins, drinming beer and eating street food. I see children burning coloured papers in a driveway. Turning left always involves drive in the wrong lane for about a hundred feet, through opposing traffic, before making the turn.

I expect to see an accident at every corner. Every vehicle which turns into traffic makes me think of of a bowling ball rolling towards the pins and miraculously missing them each time. Instead, the cabbie drive on and talks of Toronto and life goes on.

The sights by the side of the road are no less foreign. Vendors stand behind silver carts with steam rising of the back. Groups of men huddle around tables and sit on stools no higher than their shins eating street food. People snooze on hammocks and on the top of their scooters right by the main highway. People parked everywhere, in the road and on the sidewalks. Two kids burn a mound of coloured paper in a driveway.

Somehow we don’t die. It hasn’t clicked in yet that everyone drives this way, everything is normal, just another evening in Vietnam’ largest city. 20 minutes later I’m at Hotel Victory, a three and half star hotel for 30 bucks a night. It looks like the old run down Snowdon theatre. It’s 1:56 and the fun has only just begun.

I make it to reception just in time before the doors close. The lone clerk looks up from the desk and asks if I’m the guy who booked through That’s me. He slides a key across the counter and I’m left to find my way up to my room.

The first thing that catches my eye in the room are those wonderful stains on the carpet. Okay, there have been worse. Then I notice the yellow stains on the bed sheets. Time to flip those over. Test out the bed. Not too bad, if a little hard. The air conditoner hums over head. I hit the remote but it doesn’t want to go below 25. Peeking into the washroom I notice that there’s a drain in the middle of the floor and a hose coming out of the wall nearby (I later learn this is a main stay for washrooms in Vietnam. Just spray down the floor when it gets dirty and let the drain take care of the rest). No sooner do I return to the main room that I hear a dog begin to bark outside. He keeps going. All night. At least his yapping drowns out the sounds of scooters and the honking which never stops either.

So that’s what a three star hotel looks like in Saigon. Thank God I still have those ear plugs.

The next morning I awoke grumpy and uncomfortable. I had unpleasant dreams and my body ached all over. My feet were still killing me from all the walking I did in Tokyo, a sort of pain in the bones that felt like I was walking on clothespegs. Now my back was sore from the mattress too.

The one redeeming factor was that the room came with meal tickets for the breakast buffet. Here’s hoping.

I head down to the lobby. The place is fairly busy. There are numerous staffers behind the desk and a curious number of security guards patrolling the lobby, the dining hall and one in the elevator at all times. It felt kinda like prison. Fortunately, the buffet looked and tasted impressive. Though maybe so would two pieces of toast after all that.

Nevertheless, they knew how to do a good breakfast at this place, even if the room was shit. Plenty of pastries, croissants, and other western staples, along with local fruit which would be exotic back home, stir fried veggies, noodles, soup and the whole works.

And then the coffee. Sadly I spilled my first cup all over the buffet table. Not a strong entrance that morning. But once I get an actual cup oh my.

It’s clearly not arabica coffee. Instead of tasting watery, burnt and acidic like it would at Starbucks or Tim Horton’s, it’s almost as thick as syrop, and sits at the bottom of the cup like oil, but it’s also crazy aromatic and incredibly tasty. It’s bitter but not offensively so. I think they might have sweetened it a bit with cane juice, or else it had a natural molass flavour to it.

It was good. The first of many good coffees. And many bad rooms.