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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

March 23, 2013 - Saigon, Vietnam

We enjoyed a surprisingly nice flight on Cambodian Air, arriving at the zoo of an airport in Saigon. Frank had gone to great lengths to get our pre-approved arrival documents arranged, but it seems that didn't do a lot for getting us "in". We made it to the arrival window at 7:30 to find only a handful of people in the queue. We were thrilled to see this until we realized nothing was happening and no one was moving. I have to say that now I really can't criticize our own bureaucracy, because here there were two officials at the window and 10 or so sitting in the back passing time (playing tiddlywinks?), seemingly doing nothing. Actually getting to the window took at least 20 more minutes, at which time the guy grabbed our passports and documents and turned us away without explanation or instruction so we took that to mean that we should just step to the side and wait. We waited, and we waited while dozens more people poured off flights and pushed their way to the line at the window. 
After nearly 45 minutes of waiting, we were summoned and told that we were only halfway finished. At that point I think I shut down. I began to form a very disagreeable attitude toward this country and I wasn't even in yet! I told Frank that we were perhaps still being punished for the war 50 years ago because I swear all of the non-Americans were getting processed expeditiously. We finally got stamped and cleared and then hit the taxi stand where we had to haggle and fuss with a driver to take us to our hotel. It was now almost 10:00 PM. I was still trying to figure out why so many of our friends told us that we MUST DO Vietnam. We reached the sanctuary of our little room at the Alagon Hotel and all I wanted to do was sit on the bed and stare at the walls, which incidentally were only about 24 inches from my face. Are we sure they gave us the executive suite that we booked? Yep, this was it. Isn't it amazing what a fish-eye lens and 4 stars on Agoda will do to get you to book?
At Frank's insistence I allowed him to drag me out into the night. As we tried to cross the busy intersection adjacent to our hotel I was quickly reminded of the repeated advice we had gotten from friends who had come before us: There is no right of way or break in traffic for pedestrians. You must simply walk right out into the fast and ever flowing traffic while placing your footsteps rhythmically and constantly in front of you. You NEVER pause, turn back, stop, slow or quicken your pace until you reach the other side of the street. When you step off the curb, the hundreds of mopeds and cars simply flow around you just as a fast moving stream of water would flow around a rock.
A car and mopeds parked on the sidewalk, and the traffic that we just crossed. 
We began to call this The Saigon Shuffle. My heart beat so wildly while crossing those streets that first night I think I burned 5000 calories.

We strolled about just marveling at the mass of humanity that poured through the streets. Sidewalks are arbitrary, and are not used as pedestrian walkways. They are used as overflow traffic lanes for motorcycles and mopeds. On some corners they are designated as parking lots. At cafes they are often used for seating, crammed with tables and chairs. Some hotel lobbies and shops are used as parking for motorbikes. Amazingly it all works quite efficiently. As we turned back toward the Alagon we noticed a massive Starbucks situated on a corner not 500 yards from our hotel. Feeling a need for a touch of home, we entered. The line to the order counter was darn near wrapped around the block! There wasn't a table or chair available, but by golly we were hell bent on getting a nice cold frappucino.
the bottom floor of Saigon's Starbucks
God bless Frank, who stood in that line while I trolled upstairs and down through the seating areas constantly chair-spotting. An hour later we were seated and sipping, watching and marveling at the vibrant nightlife of Saigon and her masses. It started to get into our blood and I began to think we might like this.

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