One step into Ho Chi Minh City and you realize that it’s nuts. Motorbikes are everywhere, a howling fleet of girls with bandanas driving together in giant schools along the beat up roads. Observe with awe as they swerve in unison, riding double, triple, or loaded up with absurd cargo like a refrigerator or a cage full of chickens.
Once out of the airport, into the humidity and white hot sunshine, the attack of the American began and wouldn’t stop for the next month. This was somewhere quite special. One after another, taxi drivers, motorbikes, and pirates wanted to take me into the city center. Prices started at 7 US dollars and ended up at 4$. I had no idea where I was going to stay, so I went to the Rex Hotel, a four star in District 1, also known as Saigon. The Rex is a big old, rambling joint, very colonial in feel, and right across from the stately governmental Hotel de Ville, the Vietnamese Parliament building. I knew that I wasn’t going to stay there, but also knew from working at NYC’s St. Regis Hotel, that four star hotels have gracious concierges. The Rex was no exception. The young lady behind the counter called a dozen different hotels in the 1 to 2 star range and found me a place called Bong Sen Annex around the corner for 25 bucks a night, versus 250 for a room at the Rex. “Cool”, I thought, “I’m in Saigon. Now What?”. As a traveler I knew in Central America would often say, “Let’s go for a wander”.
So out I went to take a look around, consistently meeting friendly local cyclo drivers and salesmen. Very industrious place, Ho Chi Minh City. I went to an old French colonial post office, sat down, glad to be off of the street, and scribbled a few notes in my journal. A few minutes later, an attractive Vietnamese girl was asking me to help her translate a job application she’d written in English. Next thing I knew, I was on the back of her motorbike inside the swarming motorbike derby, on a date. She was 5 foot, and I’m a touch bigger than that; I got some amusing looks from other bikers as we rolled through traffic to her favorite spot in HCM for lunch. Trang was her name. She spoke a lot of German, so we hacked our way along through lunch murdering both languages with extreme prejudice. But just like that I made a lovely friend, and we hung out together most of my 3 night stay in Saigon.
But I knew I wanted something quieter than the dirty city, so I headed north to Dalat, a mountain retreat where I heard they made some wine. It was the only time I took a local bus anywhere in Vietnam, and it was a full bodied, knee-breaking experience. Local buses pick up everything they can on their way, including farm animals (making Gary Larson smile) and the smallish van, empty when I entered it at the terminal, was crammed full of faces when I turned around 2 hours later. The drivers pass slower lorries by hugging the center line, honking incessantly, as the rest of the road, including oncoming traffic, scatters. I was unable to watch once we got into the mountains. Instead, an old farmer sitting next to me took my hand, and rubbed my soft callouses with his burnished thumb, then showed me his well worked leathery hands and feet. He was 50, but looked 70. I didn’t know what to say, so I gave him one of the two pairs of socks I had.
Dalat was nice enough. The city was saved from any bombing during the American War since generals from both the North and South had villas there. I visited my first silk factory outside Dalat, and was offered the hand of many young factory girls to be my wife. I selected the one in front in pink.
There was no access to the Dalat “vineyards”, probably since they used strawberries, mulberries, and grapefruit, but i did visit a local rice wine maker. He had caged guard dogs, to keep the place safe from thieves and drinkers with extremely bad taste. Strong, distilled booze, mostly for guzzling with multiple toasts during social dinners.
Most of the scenery around Dalat was too hard to see by foot, so a motorbike guide was recommended. I came across an apparently well loved motorbike tour guide gang called, yes, believe it or not, the “Easy Riders”. They actually find you in a town as small as Dalat. I met a young man, Hung, who drove me all over tarnation for 20$, spoke decent English, and was extremely nice. We visited a powerful waterfall called Elephant Falls.
I lost my sunglasses and almost my life climbing down underneath it, and in fact, I did lose one of two pairs of pants I brought with me. A sharp rock shredded one of the legs off cleanly. On our way back to Dalat, I had to catch an afternoon bus to Nha Trang on the coast, we encountered an isolated hail storm that nearly did us both in. I had no cover and he had no helmet, so I could hear him saying “Ow. Ow. Owww!” as we drove into the starburst size hail chunks. We pulled over under a cover at a little market on the side of the road to get out of the storm and to buy a rain pancho. Of course, my pancho didn’t fit, and bursted like an overstuffed tortilla. The locals at the scene laughed until their sides hurt. I suggested to Hung that we drive on. He was a supremely nice guy, a new father, and a wonderful guide (even though we got pelleted in the storm). That heavy storm did create a stronger bond between us. He gave me his hand stitched money purse as a gift to hold my drenched passport and actually waited for my bus to leave the station before heading home to what I hope was warm, dry clothes and his new baby girl. All the while wondering what it must be like to have enough money to travel so cavalierly, so far from home.