Thursday, January 13, 2011

Welcome to Saigon

After a morning layover in Hong Kong, I boarded an 8:50am Cathay Pacific airlines flight, this time a Boeing 767 that would fly south the next 2-3 hours to Vietnam's largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, or what most Vietnamese still call Saigon. As I was sitting on the plane, I became increasingly more nervous as it was finally starting to set in my mind that I was about to spend an entire semester in a completely different part of the world. A country I had never been to before. I was excited yes, but anxious. Two Vietnamese siblings, a brother and sister currently living in California's Orange County, were sitting to me and gave me a colossal amount of useful information, tips, and even taught me how to say "Hello" in Vietnamese- the first word I learned and said correctly. With the plane in the air, I continued to read deeply into my Lonely Planet guidebook about Vietnam, a resource I strongly recommend to anyone. Put it on your packing list.

Looking out the window and listening to Linkin Park's "New Divide," a perfect song I thought for the occasion, I watched as we descended into Ho Chi Minh City towards the runway. I wasn't even out of the plane yet and it just looked hot and tropical, which was totally fine by me coming from freezing cold, snowy Wisconsin. Minutes later I heard a Cathay Pacific flight attendant announce "Ladies and gentleman we'd like to welcome you to Ho Chi Minh City where the current time is....," which got me even more excited and anxious to finally be in Vietnam. After more than a year of applying, planning, waiting, and even more waiting, I had landed in the country I have been destined to study in and explore.
Off the plane, I passed through immigration and customs where my student visa was examined, passport stamped and waved through. I waited next at one of the most unorganized baggage claims I had ever seen. It was kind of hilarious when every five minutes the conveyor belt would get choked up, clogged with suitcases, as handlers jumped in and began absolutely throwing luggage out of the way. Bag, well, big heavy clunky suitcase in hand I went through another customs checkpoint and out the door, into Ho Chi Minh City. The next scene reminded me of my trip to Guatemala four years ago, walking out of the airport to hundreds of smiling, excited, and curious faces holding up signs and shouting names. I saw "Robb DeGraff Loyola" scribbled on a piece of paper being held up by my to-be Vietnamese roommate, Giang. We had been chatting on email back-and-forth so it was so cool to finally meet him. It was a bit intimidating at first, but once we started talking I felt a lot more at ease and the ice had bene broken. Our next task was to flag down a cab and head to our guesthouse, and like in big American cities, this was a task that took a few times. Finally a little Toyota Yaris pulled up and we were off!
Never have I seen so many motorcycles and motorbikes (scooters, mopeds, Vespas, etc.) in my life. The traffic in Vietnam is quite honestly one of the most exhilarating and scary things I've witnessed. People are absolutely wild behind the wheel of aging busses, and the very few cars that swim in a crowded sea of motorbikes. No exaggeration here, there are millions, and millions, and millions of motorbikes in Vietnam. They're cheap, reliable, and easy to get around on. The Vietnamese treat them like cars.

They wash them, customize them, haul around their entire family or loads of cargo, and even use them to deliver ice cream, blaring an animated cartoony soundtrack from a sole loudspeaker. I'll do my absolute best to get videos of the traffic here in Saigon because it really is unbelievably fun to watch first-hand. I'm writing this blog post right now from the mezzanine balcony of our government-run hostel (guest house). On the shaded street below I see a man riding a motorbike that's towing a big trailer behind it, a security guard spraying down and detailing his motorbike, and another man cleaning the rims of his with a toothbrush. As the months go by, I'll do a more in-depth post about the cars and transportation of Vietnam later.
So as I was hanging on for dear life in the back of that Mai Linh taxi cab, I got to know my roommate better. Giang is currently a sophomore at the local university I'll be going to as well, studying international relations and wants to be a reporter when he graduates.

He likes photography too, which is awesome for me because we've already had many great chats about cameras. Once we arrived at the guesthouse and moved into our room, #207, I gave him a Green Bay Packers shirt and a bag of my favorite American candy: Red Vines.
What's my favorite part about this guest house, which by the way is fenced in with a moving gate and monitored by security? The fact that nearly all of it is open and airy. I've been here in Vietnam for about 48 hours so far, and let me tell you, this is truly a fascinating country. I find myself constantly leaning on the ledge of our second-floor balcony, with my four other travel companions from Loyola: Gabe, Besty, Jimmy, and Alex, just looking out onto the street below, soaking up this amazing new culture and life we're now exposed to.

I cannot begin to explain how grateful I am and how incredible it is to be here in Vietnam right now.

Cheers and enjoy the rest of today's photos,