Thursday, October 12, 2006

Starting out in Vietnam.
Oct 9-10

In the beginning...

I'm starting a long (5 weeks) in Vietnam and Cambodia. I'm still thinking about whether to post these blog entries in real time or whether to space them out. If stories start accumulating then I'll be hitting you with too much to read every couple of days - something no one has time for in this busy age.

I'm now in Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon. I'm still trying to figure out the place, a mix of Asian and modern though it seems modern is winning out in most places. I've spent the first day in jet lag daze, walking a bit around, but mostly napping.

A school of motorcyclists

The first thing to learn in Saigon is how traffic behaves and what part you play in it. Coming by taxi from the airport you get your first glimpse of Saigon moving around you. There are a lot of motorized vehicles, though the number of bicycles is not negligible. Some people are dressed in western clothes, while some wear the canonical hats (supposedly women's hats) on their heads.

Once you start walking around, you get a slightly changed view of the city. 90% of the traffic around you is made up of motorcycles, mopeds or bicycles. The cars are either trucks ferrying goods, or taxis. It's a bit misleading since a lot of the motorcycles are also taxis - they'll let you sit behind them and hug them while they take you where you want to go. They are called, not surprisingly, is "hug me" in Vietnamese.

See for yourself - this is an intersection right when the light turns green:

Now for a lesson in crossing the street. You saw all those motorcycles? In an intersection they sometimes behave themselves but often enough you need to cross elsewhere. I found the "how to cross the street" tip in Lonely Planet: Don't run! Start walking slowly across the street. Keep watching the cyclists to see if they are going behind or before you, but you'll notice that they shift to accommodate you!

The amazing thing is that this is true for any kind of vehicle. The taxi from the airport wanted to do a U turn. At first he went all the way to the right as if he was parking, letting all the traffic flow around him. Then he slowly started edging into the street, turning the wheel to reach the center divide. As he did this, traffic behind us shifted to move to the left of him. Since he was turning, the back of the car was still blocking most of the right-side lane, so traffic couldn't go there. That didn't stop them - they just kept going around him until they were traveling down the other side of the road. Eventually they managed to go on his right and he could complete the turn, doing the same to the traffic from the other side.

And here's when you find out drivers here do it differently than you do. As anyone edges into the street, western drivers would stop so as not to hit him, but not swerve since they might hit the person on their right or left. Here, they shift a bit and amazingly enough the entire block shifts with them. It's like watching a school of fish change direction without anyone formally coordinating the maneuver.

The curse of the Buddha

With my paranoia greatly enhanced from my lens disappearing in Saint Petersburg, I was very cautious walking around Saigon. I took it out carefully, locked the bag and kept my hand on the lens at all times, having it hanging in front so that I can see it.

And paranoia rewards itself - everywhere I went, people looked at me and talked amongst themselves. In Peru I once caught a guy pointing me out to his friend to steal something from my bag. This was much worse. Almost everywhere I looked someone was looking at me. There I was, the rich tourist with the expensive camera just waiting to be milked.

After a while, when nothing happened, I tuned my paranoia down a bit and started rethinking what I've been seeing. As it turns out, while I was walking around gawking at Vietnam, Vietnam was gawking at me. They've not seen anyone like me. It's not the skin color or facial features which they think is from America (I guess no Indians come here). It's my size! There don't seem to be any fat people around here and definitely not as big as me.

On the other hand, I do remind them of the happy Buddha. While Buddhism teaches to not want things (achieving nirvana when you've reached the level of not wanting anything in the world), there are other secondary Buddha figures. One of the more prevalent is the happy Buddha who's statue can be seen anywhere sitting down with his big stomach sticking out. Rubbing it is supposed to bring good luck. It seems the Vietnamese think the same about mine. Random people in the street reach out to touch it. This definitely doesn't fit with the American version of personal space. I wonder if it should be considered more of a sexual harassment or religious persecution :)

On the other hand, I've already had quite a number of pictures taking with me and have a great conversation starter!

To give you an example, this girl who barely spoke English brought this kid by to touch me (only my hand, thank god). She came back later to have him see me again but also touch me herself, just in case...

While there are a lot of internet cafes in Vietnam, finding ones that have a enough memory on the PC to allow some photo editing is not easy. I'll start a serious album next time I stop in a big city with the right PCs and network connection. Until then, you'll have to suffer with the photos and movie above.

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Nedim said...

Hey Eran,

The image of you as the great Buddha with the Viatnamese nation lining up to pet you -- now that's true happiness -- nirvana maybe? :) Enjoy yourself.

Anonymous said...

Hi, eran ...

since I'm a Traffic-Engineer, I was very upset to see that the video-clip didn't show on my PC


anyway, take care and hope to see you sometime ...

Moshe G.

Yael said...

i enjoy reading it...
the video however, didn't come up. what am i missing... other than you? :-)

Suzanne said...

hope you are having a great time. you'll start seeing the real beauty of VN when you start traveling the country side and the beach areas. Have a great time and thanks for sharing your experience.

Anonymous said...

i enjoy reading it too. i tried to load the video over and over again but with no luck :(