Ho Chi Minh City: First Impressions & Motorbike Mania

As a newcomer to Ho Chi Minh city, I have to say – it’s a lot to take in.

From the minute I stepped out of the airport, I realized this isn’t Paris or even Tokyo – it’s another beast entirely.

To be honest, these first 48 hours have been hard on me.

The traffic alone is the stuff of nightmares – my first morning I had to walk across a rotary to get to the Viettel cellphone store to buy a SIM card and was 60% sure I wouldn’t live to make it to the other side. I’ve probably seen more motorbikes in my first hour here than I’ve seen in my entire cumulative life.

Absolutely everything here is different – there is nothing familiar. I don’t know how to get a cab, I don’t know how to pay a bill, I don’t even know how to cross the street. Not exactly an empowering feeling in a new city.

Most difficult of all, I’m doing it alone. It’s one thing to navigate a new city with a friend or family member, taking the unexpected roadblocks in stride with a chuckle. But alone it just feels overwhelming.

Not to mention I came with a week’s notice and little to no planning. So I’m trying to research cities, flights, trains, and tours while also working remotely. It’s quite exhausting.

I’m also a bit ashamed to admit that not having access to my smartphone has been upsetting as well. I bought a SIM card first thing when I got here, without realizing that my phone was locked. I’ve contacted my service provider T-Mobile back home, but they say I still need to wait 48 hours until I can use the new SIM card.

Obviously, this is my fault for not researching this better back home. As long as it works eventually, all will be fine. But for now, it’s difficult because my phone acts as a life vest for me.

It’s what I use to navigate new areas, how I get around by calling Ubers, how I research the best food nearby, how I stay in touch with friends, etc. Not having that makes all the culture shock I am experiencing even harder.

I’ve also already been confronted with the tourist price-jacking I’ve heard so much about. Despite reading all the research online to ONLY TAKE Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis, when I landed at 3am I didn’t feel like putting up a fight when a different taxi vendor approached me but promised they’d do the meter. The driver apparently didn’t understand my address, drove around extra, and claimed I owed him $30 (although I know for a fact that is WAY over what the cost should be from the airport).

I’ve experienced food and drink price jacking too. In most of these situations, it means a few extra dollars here and there. I don’t really mind the pricing itself, but it doesn’t exactly make foreigners feel welcome.

I’ll admit part of the issue is that it’s difficult to argue in a foreign language, so I end up taking the easy road and just agreeing to whatever vendors recommend (for example, I got roped into buying a 30GB data plan, which is definitely way more than I need – and I don’t even know what I got for calls or texting).

I’m not trying to complain – this is all part of the experience, and I know that. I just need to document what I’m going through because it’s a lot to take in and writing about how I’m feeling helps.

I’ve done solo trips before in Europe and Eastern Europe, so I thought this would be similar. I’ve done some traveling in Tokyo alone too. But Vietnam is different. Really, really different. I think doing this trip solo will prove a much bigger challenge.

vietnam traffic

Folks have already expressed surprise that I’m traveling alone here, suggesting I book tour packages. But I’m going to do this alone. I know I can, and I’ll feel proud when it’s all done.

I have the tendency to be quite hard on myself when I travel – I want to see everything I’m supposed to see and make the most of every day. But this is a workcation too, and I have people depending on me to reply to emails, edit blog posts, and continue the day-to-day work I do at home. I need to be OK with taking things easy and not moving at a break-neck pace.

I’ve also felt a bit ill since I’ve arrived. Whether it’s the pollution (I get why everyone wears masks here – the motorbike exhaust is overwhelming) or something else, I don’t know, but it doesn’t do much for my mood either.

Since I’ve done a lot of winging in this article, let’s end with some optimistic bits:

Highlights:

  • The breakfast at my hotel has been AMAZING! Some of the best meals I’ve had here so far.
  • Amazing experience at the War Remnants Museum – will talk more about that later.
  • Even though I still earn a few grey hairs with every crossing, I’m getting pretty good at crossing the street.
  • I’ve booked a food tour on a motorbike tonight – exciting!

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