As expected upon arrival I became an instant millionaire.
Dong millionaire, that is.
At the currency exchange counter at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, I handed over $200 U.S. and got back 4.1 million in the Vietnamese currency. Makes you think you can buy something big, until you fork over more than 50,000 of that for the taxi ride to the city center.
The first thing you notice in HCMC, the commercial center of Vietnam, is the traffic. There is a lot of it, and it seems like it’s pretty close to a free for all.
Sure, the cars and ubiquitous taxi cabs pretty much obey the few traffic lights (only at major intersections) but the tens of thousands of motor scooter riders generally do not. They zip through the lights, go the wrong way, drive up on sidewalks, and play chicken with pedestrians on the street and the sidewalk. The two-wheeler is king.
Most longtime Boston drivers I know consider themselves the badasses of the roadway. Brother and sister, you ain’t got nothing on these folks. Put you behind the wheel here, and quite possibly, for the first time ever, you are the white knuckled stiff on the street.
Beyond the traffic, HCMC seems to be booming. There are new, or newish, luxury hotels in the city center. Hyatt is toward the end of a renovation of a huge and pretty property here. Add to that a number of high rise office towers, with more going up. The Bitexco Financial Tower runs 68 floors, has views equal to those at the Hancock Tower or the Pru in Boston, and has a spectacular helipad that juts out of the upper floors like a dinner plate barely hanging on.
The big fast food companies are here: McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Canton-based Dunkin Donuts and more. And the restaurant scene booms. Lots of upscale eateries, local joints and more street vendors than you can count. At night many of the sitdown places I've seen are jammed.
It’s not all bright spots, though. Just beyond the city center, some of housing looks very rundown. There are a large number of buildings build in French Colonial style with very picturesque balconies (from the time of the French presence here) that saw they best days a long time ago. On many the paint has peeled and they are stained with air pollution. Most of the scooter drivers wear masks to protect from the exhaust fumes that visibly hang over the streets. And we have been warned repeatedly about pickpockets, though haven’t had that experience yet — fortunately.
While in some of these neighborhoods many people seem to be struggling (the minimum wage here just increased to a range of 14-18 USD a month), every person we’ve met is unflinchingly warm and kind and seems genuinely happy to have Americans here. Which I have to say is wonderful, because I certainly haven’t felt that welcome in every foreign land I’ve been fortunate to travel to. More as the week goes on.