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Into Ho Chi Minh City

by Going Slowly

Today, we'll be cycling into the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, and this morning, we'll have to face the grating music: it's highway time. The traffic-free rice paddy paths we've enjoyed for the last two days can't get us there. Procrastinating the inevitable, and knowing the full well the consequences, we masochistically sleep in well past our alarm.

When we finally get moving, we've timed our ride in the worst possible way: we'll be cycling into the city during the most brutal hours of mid-afternoon sun.


Our spirits are flagging as we stop for lunch, eager to escape the heat. It's time for yet another plate of white rice and meat, just like we ate yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. While we pick at our food, we reflect about how uncharacteristically excited we are to reach the "backpacker ghetto" of a major city; we want Western food!

After finishing our meal, I try to order a second iced coffee. Even though I ordered a pair of drinks successfully about ten minutes earlier, the man who brought us our drinks the first time cannot seem to understand me now. Feeling like we're in the twilight zone, I try over and over to communicate that I want one more cà phê sữa đá.

No matter what I say, no matter how I say it, the man doesn't understand. First he brings water in a glass. Then, after a few more tries, he brings a cup of ice. Then, a bottle of water. Maybe he can't fathom the idea of someone having two coffees? Since I'm failing miserably for some unknown reason, Tara tries to get the point across.

She starts with the Vietnamese we've learned, then tries English, and then miming. When even that fails, she tries French too. None of it works. He brings us tea. He brings us a coca cola. He brings us our bill. Anything but another coffee. This is so annoying!

Whether or not we get a second iced coffee is completely inconsequential to our frustration. It's just that communicating in Vietnamese has been more difficult for us than any other language. Encounters like this happen regularly, and it can be slightly maddening. In the end, we give up, pay, and hit the road.


As we enter the largest city in Vietnam, the traffic density rapidly increases at an unimaginable rate. Soon, it feels like we're riding into a potentially dangerous bee hive or hornet's nest. The streets are writhing with the chaotic buzz of noise and movement as we pedal onwards into a colony of racing scooters.

Ho Chi Minh Traffic

When our road intersects with another, we stop and stare, mouths agape, at the mass-merging that ensues. Instead of just one blob of individuals moving as a collective, now there are four colossal swarms heading straight towards each other without the slightest hesitation. Surely everyone is going to crash?!

Tyler Riding in Ho Chi Minh City

What follows is a miraculous and mesmerizing dance of tangles and weaves, ins and outs, betwixt and between and through; each scooter travels within a hairsbreadth of another without actually colliding. Breathing deeply, utterly focused on the path ahead, we join the fray. Carving through traffic is both terrifying and exhilarating.

Vietnamese Family on Motorbike

Into the city we go, towards a guest-house listed in our guidebook. We have no plans of staying in it, but the near vicinity of these recommendations usually has some great competition. Arriving in the right neighborhood, we stop to get our bearings.

The moment we roll to a halt, we are accosted by people selling sunglasses, others trying to rent motorbikes, and one particularly persistent man touting cheap rooms in the narrow, labyrinthian alleys that wind their way behind this city block. After some quick roadside deliberation, we decide to check it out.

Tyler holds the bikes while I am led into a dark maze of open apartments by a friendly Vietnamese man. Laundry criscrosses overhead, while people nap, windows open, their heads just inches away from my feet. Suddenly, I find myself pressed against the wall of someone's home, almost falling through their door, in order to let a scooter blast through a narrow opening.

Tidy Power Line

I am now officially lost in this maze. After a five minute walk, turning eight different corners and disappearing through several smaller side-corridors, we reach my guide's hotel. Really it's just his family's home, so I take off my shoes, and he leads me upstairs, telling me how clean the place is, how homey it is, how cheap it is, how there is new air conditioning, and a separate shower.

I know immediately that I don't want to stay, but I wait for him to give me his spiel, say I have to talk to my husband about it, and follow him as he unravels the tangled route we took to get there. The friendly man deposits me back on the main street where Tyler waits, and as I walk towards him, I shake my head, giving him a knowing look that means, "Nope, gotta keep looking."

Without missing a beat, Tyler thanks him and graciously turns down his offer, but the man hovers and tries to bargain. Meanwhile, I slip into the hotel right in front of us on the main street. The place isn't anything special, but it is clean and quiet and out in the open.

I feel bad having said no to the nice man, and then picking something else while he's standing right there, but I don't know how to communicate what I'm thinking. I had wanted to say something like this:

I'm sorry. I know you could probably use the money, and I like that your family runs the place, but right now, I don't want your caring and kindness. I need to be somewhere open, spacious, and quiet. Most of all, I'd prefer a place where nobody wants to know how I'm doing, where I came from, where I've been, and where I'm going tomorrow.

As we make ourselves at home in our room (which costs the same amount as the labyrinth guest-house), ready to be settled for a few days, we discuss the growing reality that we're traveling so slowly these days that our original intention of cycling the length of Vietnam just isn't going to be possible without a visa extension. It'll take five or six days to get, but we're okay with the down-time.

Now, it is time to write, and hopefully, Skype with our family.

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That's hilarious - we have exactly the same problem in India. The tea cups are tiny paper cups the size of an espresso and we have never managed to communicate that we want another one. They just glare at us, utterly confused, and then throw the cups away over their shoulder. Frustrating but kind of funny!

We're almost finished cycling in India and flying to Bangkok on 9th March to cycle down Thailand and Malaysia.

PS let us know if you manage to work out how to reorder
Posted by Freddie & Guy on February 25th, 2011 at 6:17 AM
Hey guys! Our re-ordering attempts never did work, no matter how many people taught us what to say. Ha! That's awesome they just throw the cups away while staring at you like you're an alien.

Looking forward to meeting you two in Bangkok! We'll have some SE Asia guidebooks available for the taking if you want them. :-)
Posted by Tara on March 3rd, 2011 at 2:48 AM