The Liberty Gazette
January 23, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: Saigon’s population exceeds ten million. In its narrow streets, locals commute on scooters—over seven million of them—separated by inches (at best). Traffic rules are only a suggestion. Many things are delivered by scooter or motorcycle. We saw a full-size refrigerator standing upright, strapped behind the driver weaving his way through traffic.
Seems crazy, but it works for them. Westerners tend to blow up with road rage in such congestion. The Vietnamese however, go with the flow like tight schools of fish in currents converging from all directions. Pedestrian crossing is a developed skill. Make eye contact with the drivers, but don’t maintain it while progressing through the onslaught of cars and motorbikes. Move like you’re auditioning for a dance in Saturday Night Fever. We survived, (crossing, that is), but it’s not for the faint of heart.
So, Saturday night in Saigon. One block near us was closed to motorized traffic. The scene reminded me a little of Austin’s Sixth Street—but Saigon-style. Meaning, it’s not all bars and we saw no drunks. It’s just full of life. Sidewalks are parking lots for motorcycles stacked four deep in front of businesses renting space; plastic chairs ubiquitous in the space remaining. Go ahead, have a seat! Visit with Vietnamese, people-watch, and enjoy food from any of the million street vendors competing for scarce sidewalk space. Folks are friendly and sociable. I hesitate to mention New York City, but there is a heartbeat here, only it’s different. It’s settled.
Linda: Sixteen days is not enough to see Southeast Asia, but you can get a sense of things if you do it right. We use Airbnb. It gets us closer to the real life. We did the same across Iceland. With Airbnb, homeowners make extra money renting out a room, or a whole house. Some people have turned it into a business, offering travelers something hotels cannot—a non-touristy stay.
In Saigon, we opted for a family-owned coffee shop, internet café, and bookstore where they’ve added rooms. The owners were delightful and lodging there gave us the opportunity to meet more locals and experience the neighborhood. College-aged kids gathered at the bookstore with laptops. Ordering Vietnamese coffee alongside them immersed us in their culture. Fortunately, many speak English.
Of course, we wouldn’t spend much time in our room. We came to explore and had booked a fascinating activity for our first full day: a private tour down the Mekong River, through villages, markets, and the “Coconut Kingdom.” We discovered this tour on WithLocals.com, a company that arranges unique experiences with local, knowledgeable guides. Our guide was Vi (pronounced “Vee”), a lovely young Vietnamese woman who left the banking business to show the world her Vietnam. Vi is well-studied about her country’s history, geography, businesses, and cultures. Sunday morning, we hopped in an SUV with Vi and a driver and left Saigon for the farms and villages to the south.
Join us next week for a delicious trip down the Mekong River Delta.