Thoughts and observations from Ho Chi Minh City

I just spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city and commercial hub of Vietnam (also known as Saigon). I have traveled to South-East Asia multiple times. However, this was my first visit to Vietnam. Here are my observations and thoughts, with a certain focus on aspects of urban life, tech and infrastructure.

The near-death but also amazing experience of crossing a road

Road
Vietnam is infamous for the craziness that happens on its roads. Basically every grown-up among the country’s 93 million population owns a motorbike. Thus, the dynamics and (unwritten) rules of street traffic are very different than those in car-centric countries. For tourists, crossing a road in Ho Chi Minh City (or Hanoi, which allegedly is even more crazy in regards to traffic), can become a near-death experience: The motorcyclists do not stop for pedestrians. So standing on the site of the road, even at a pedestrian crossing, won’t make anyone hit the breaks. Instead, the rule is to start walking – no matter if there are plenty of motorbikes approaching.

If you have never been to Vietnam or a country with similar conventions, you might now wonder: How do you do that without getting killed? The answer: There is somewhat of a silent agreement between motorcyclists and pedestrians: The people on the motorbikes stick to moderate speeds and drive around you as long as you walk slowly, in a predictable way, without suddenly changing your direction or pace. It sounds insane and highly dangerous to Westerners. It also is. Yet, it does work, and over time and with some practice, you get better at it. Check out this video to get a better understanding of the process (there are plenty of videos on YouTube about the “art of road crossing” in Ho Chi Minh City).

However, even after 7 days, I still had a mental barrier that made me be very hesitant to just walk onto a road with 5 lanes in each direction, with 50 motorbikes (and few cars, who are trickier to handle) approaching at medium speed. A few times though, there was no other option. While you walk there, in the middle of the road, facing all these motorbikes, you feel terrified and amazed at the same time. As exposed and vulnerable as the situation might be: There is also the sense of an incredible, extremely efficient cooperation between pedestrians and motorcyclists. It feels almost as if you can remotely control the motorcyclist’s brains, who will constantly try to adjust to your walking position and speed while they get closer.

In any case, my advise is: Better don’t have a look at the list of countries by traffic-related death rate before you cross a road in Vietnam or otherwise participate in road traffic there.

Apart from that, downtown Ho Chi Minh City (District 1) was quite walkable, which I value very high (and which keeps me from traveling to Jakarta). However, with tropical climate and during rain season, walking a few kilometers in the city means that you will be soaked afterwards.

Easiest SIM-card purchase ever

Vietnam is not covered by my international roaming plan, so I had to purchase a local SIM. Buying a SIM can be cumbersome in some countries, like Japan, even though it just got easier even there. However, being up and running with a local SIM turned out to be easy as pie in Vietnam. In fact, I do not recall another country I visited where it went so smoothly: Right in the arrival hall of Ho Chi Minh City’s International Airport, there are shops where you can purchase a local SIM. The staff shows you a list with the available options (amount of data etc) that you choose between, then immediately activates the SIM and puts it into your phone. If it works, you hand over the money. Zero personal information is required. Basically, you surf completely anonymous. Considering that Vietnam is a one-party state which officially still strives for communism, this is a curious fact. I read somewhere that officially a registration is necessary, but that vendors simply activate the SIM cards using fake information. Not sure if true, but either way, it is good for tourists. I chose a package including 1.5 Gbyte of (quite fast) 3G data and some calling minutes for which I paid about $13/€11,50.

No blocking of major Internet services

A couple of years ago, the Vietnamese government was quite busy trying to block major Internet services like Facebook oder YouTube. However, I did not encounter any blocking of these services, and people I talked to about that confirmed that lately this has become a non-issue. However, the country is still quite active when it comes to blocking Vietnamese websites and limiting freedom of expression for Internet users and bloggers. According to Reporters without Borders, Vietnam is an “Enemy of the Internet”. For foreigners visiting the country, accessing their favourite sites and apps should not be a problem though.

Safety and Scams

Before my trip I read up a bit on Ho Chi Minh City and was surprised about the amount of comments mentioning bag and smartphone snatching, theft and scams. Reading all this made me act pretty cautiously when it came to using my smartphone in public. Basically, I avoided doing that as much as possible. In fact, you hardly see anyone checking their phones in public, except in cafés and stores. This is very different to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong or Thailand.

However, the good news: I did not encounter any issues, and despite being very observant and walking many kilometers each day, I did not witness any incidents either. Even in the crowded, noisy and in parts seedy backpacker area of Ho Chi Minh City I did not have safety concerns. Obviously it might have been different if I would have walked around looking like a stereotypical tourist, with large rucksack, camera around my neck and so on. Generally though, the people in Ho Chi Minh City are extremely friendly, especially to foreigners. My subjective impression is that the level of friendliness and helpfulness I experienced even was higher than in Thailand. I neither found the amount of unsolicited approaches towards strangers higher than in Thailand. I also completely managed to avoid being cheated by taxi drivers. While Ho Chi Minh City is said to have its fair share of questionable taxi services looking for unwary foreigners, the two most common ones, Vinasun and Mai Linh, are inexpensive, reliable and always use the meter. I even noticed credit card readers, although I paid cash. I have no complaints.

People’s excitement about speaking English

While most people in Ho Chi Minh City might not be very fluent in English, I noticed a significant enthusiasm for using the words and sentences they knew. It seems that Vietnamese don’t experience the same insecurities about their language proficiency as for example Japanese people. For visitors that is great, because generally, you get by rather well in Ho Chi Minh City with using English. Especially young people are eager to speak English with you. One day, while walking through the city, I was approached and asked if I would have a few minutes for a chat with some local students. I noticed several groups of Vietnamese students (I guess 7th grade and higher) already chatting with other tourist-looking people. I agreed and talked a bit with a bunch of locals who were pretty excited to practice their English skills. I really like the idea of enabling students to practice a foreign language that way. Obviously, for the foreigners visiting Ho Chi Minh City, it is a good opportunity to ask some questions about local life.

Bangkok vs Ho Chi Minh City

modern

As I have been to Bangkok many times, I was constantly in automatic comparing-mode. The public consensus seems to be that Bangkok is more vibrant, more international, more modern and generally a bit more exciting. I do not want to question that per se, but I nevertheless found myself frequently thinking that Ho Chi Minh City in parts actually felt more pleasant and more modern than Bangkok. I found the roads to be in better condition, and during a whole week, it happened only once that I smelled sewage. In Bangkok, that happens all the time.  Also, I experienced less pollution than in Bangkok (possibly due to less traffic jams, since motorbikes don’t clog the roads as much as big cars). Ho Chi Minh City is, with the exception of rivers whose water looks rather nasty, cleaner, and – importantly – much greener. There are plenty of parks, and many roads feature larger and smaller trees on the sides (something typical also for Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur). Also I found the restrooms of cafés and restaurants generally to be pretty clean and comparatively pleasant. Most cafés and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi by the way, although usually you have to ask for the password to access the network.

A part of the city that looks like California

A part of the city that looks like California

Most likely my impressions have to do with lower expectations and some sort of selective perception on my side. But considering that Vietnam is economically still much weaker than Thailand and thus less developed on paper, Ho Chi Minh City actually managed to impress me with its modern downtown and plenty of newly constructed high rises. Unfortunately, no subway system exists yet. Although that is about to change. One area in which downtown Bangkok easily wins over central Ho Chi Minh City though is shopping. I did not even see a single mall that could be compared to those in Bangkok.

Each place has its own security and valet staff

Because of the role of the motorbike as the essential daily mobility tool for pretty much every person in Vietnam, special solutions for parking had to be found. At least in Ho Chi Minh City but most likely everywhere in the country, stores, cafés, restaurants, service facilities and offices have hired their special security staff. These men (I have never seen a woman in the profession) usually wear some kind of uniform and perform tasks related to “valet parking” (taking the motorbike from the customer and parking it as well as returning it) and security. Even young Internet startups like Ticketbox which I paid a visit to have their own valet and security guy outside the office. The company’s CEO Mike Tran told me upon asking that this is simply standard and an expected service by customers as well as employees, who don’t want their motorbike to be stolen. While this work hardly will earn a lot, that type of job most likely employs tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese men countrywide (depending on if this is a phenomenon that exists only in major cities or anywhere).

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