Friday, April 26, 2013

The First Scam

TJ and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (called Saigon by everyone who lives here) on Wednesday afternoon. Despite two months of traveling, we still get a little overwhelmed when we arrive in a new country's big city. Our rule, "If in doubt, walk" still stands, though, so we found a map of the area and set off, looking for the hotel we had booked the day before.

I have to introduce Vietnam by admitting that I was nervous about coming here. It's not exactly the most American-friendly country, and we have heard very mixed reviews about it from people we have met along the way. For every person that enjoyed visiting the country, we met someone who disliked it. Although we left our hearts in Thailand and considered skipping Vietnam all together so we could return, we knew that we had to face our fears and give the country a chance. This is the trip of no regrets.

So we found our hotel relatively easily, even using our map to help out a fellow bus passenger along the way, ate a delicious dinner, and caught our first glimpse of this crazy city. The traffic that we walked past on our way to dinner was absolute chaos, so we laughed that there would be no beloved motorbikes for us - the only vehicle we could possibly feel safe in would be the big buses like the one we arrived in. Then we made it back to our hotel room and promptly booked a day tour with Back of the Bike Tours. Because we're here to face our fears, right?

Our guides picked us up this morning, handed us helmets, and helped us onto the bikes behind them. We had two ladies, both very good at English, who each drove a motorbike with one of us on it. That was it! No big group, no megaphones, no matching stickers or hats. Just four people on two motorbikes in the insane Saigon traffic.

First of all, we survived. I'm writing this from the safety of our hotel room. Second, it was an amazing way to see the city! We went everywhere, tried all kinds of different foods, asked lots of different questions about their government and religions here, and got advice on which sights we should visit around the city. These ladies were wonderful at introducing us to Vietnam, and we even enjoyed the heart-stopping weaves through crowded intersections. Maybe we would enjoy Vietnam after all!

Mangosteen - a new favorite!

Our first taste of dragonfrruit.

Then the tour ended. It was 12:30, and our guides dropped us off at the main Post Office (at our request) with directions and encouragement to visit things like the museum and the cathedral. We had a map, we had our bearings, we were good. We made it to the museum just in time for them to reopen for the afternoon, and...I decided I wasn't feeling well. Too much heat and pollution for the day, and we can always save the museum for tomorrow.

TJ, bless his heart, took the first opportunity to get me back to the hotel he could find. While we were looking for a taxi, a man approached us, offering one. I asked him if it was a "company" taxi (the kind you want), and he said yes. Skeptical, we followed him. Halfway across the street, he changed tactics and suggested, "Would you ride a bicycle?" He meant the contraptions TJ and I call "cyclos" - a three-wheeled bicycle with a seat on the front for tourists. My gut reaction was a big "No!", but TJ wanted to get us back to the hotel and thought it would be fun.

The guy took us to his friend and then jogged off around the corner. The cyclos each hold one person, so we needed two bikes for the two of us. The first guy had run off to get his own bike, which he had planned on taking us to all along. While we waited, the friend encouraged us to both hop on the bike, TJ in the driver's seat, for a photo op. When we hesitated, expecting him to charge us for the picture, he grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the bike. First sign. The first guy arrived with his bike, we both asked, separately, how much the ride would be, and both of our questions were expertly avoided. Second sign. We climbed in anyway. We weren't going very far; how much could it be?

After a peacefully slow ride outside of the rush of traffic, we pulled into familiar territory, a couple blocks from our hotel. Then we stopped. Third sign. Even with TJ's map and specific instructions, the guys were finished, and our rides were over. Since TJ was carrying the money, he raised an eyebrow at our first guy's high price, but paid him, thinking it was for a unique experience. Then, that guy immediately pedaled off, leaving my driver demanding the same amount of money from me. That high price was for ONE of us, not both. When we balked, he pulled out convenient laminated papers showing the "official" prices for one-way and round-trip, both exorbitant. We had less than half the amount left in our wallet, so TJ sprinted off to the nearest ATM (he's always doing that!), leaving me waiting with the impatient driver.

A few minutes later, dues paid, pride hurting, and final blocks walked, we angrily stumbled into our hotel room - to find that no one had touched it in the entire time we had been gone. Only the second time on this trip that we have splurged on a real hotel room, with a (gasp!) bathtub, hand towels, and maid service, and we don't even get to enjoy them! So we put in a polite call to the reception desk and parked ourselves in the lobby while our bed was being made.

Now, we're sitting on our clean sheets, feeling much better, trying to recover our sense of adventure and brainstorming how to get out of this city and gain a different perspective. Apparently it is a Vietnamese holiday and all buses, trains, and private drivers out of the city are completely booked through the weekend. Now what do we do?

1 comment:

  1. Many of my Vietnamese friends from school have said "Do not go to Saigon" without one of them, for this reason. It's apparently also a highly political environment, don't know if you ran into that. I am loving reading the blog!