Vietnam: An eye-opening experience

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/22 April) — DISCLAIMER: I was in Vietnam only for a few days. But here are some impressions of things I observed during those few days that left me wondering why they’re doing very well there.

Instant millionaire

 I’m not rich, never dreamed to be one. But in Vietnam, the moment I landed at the airport and have some dollars changed to the local currency (Vietnamese dong), my oh my, I felt so rich! For the first time in my life I had a couple of millions in my wallet. But of course when you take the taxi to the hotel, immediately you’re a few hundred thousand dongs poorer. In this country, most everyone must be a billionaire (in dongs).

There are eight million people in Ho Chi Minh City and five million motorcycles. MindaNews photo by Bobby Timonera


There are eight million people in Ho Chi Minh City (or HCMC;  it was known as Saigon decades ago), and there are five million motorcycles. Whoa! If Dumaguete is the motorcycle capital of the Philippines, our tour guide Dong boasts HCMC is the “motorcycle kingdom” of the world.

Our first tourist guide Viet (yep, that’s his nickname) says the communist government in Vietnam has made it a policy to impose exorbitant tax on four-wheeled vehicles, so that buying one would cost you double, or even triple, compared to car prices in most countries. (I heard it’s like that in Singapore, too.) Thus, only the super-rich get to buy cars.

This left the Muggles with no other choice for their daily mode of transportation but motorcycles. Thus, while it is a city of eight million people, traffic is a breeze. Heck, I feel like traffic is worse in the choke points of my city of 300,000 people, no thanks to undisciplined drivers. Us Pinoys of course don’t want bikes, they’re so proletariat, y’know. We want our wide-bodied four-wheel-drive SUVs in our narrow streets. So there, we deserve the traffic.

The good thing in Ho Chi Minh City is, some of the major streets have motorcycle lanes, usually in the right-most side.

While I dread the motorcycles of my small city, with abusive drivers crisscrossing the street at supersonic speeds, overtaking on my right without warning, the Vietnamese drivers seemed disciplined. They don’t race against each other, you can’t hear screaming engines. They stop at a red light. (In my city, some motorcycle drivers think they’re exempted from the traffic light). Drivers and passengers both wear helmets all the time. A few times I thought some were wearing baseball caps; but on closer look, they’re helmets, too. They’re skillful, too, like our habal-habal and skylab drivers. I saw a lady driver with a lady passenger behind her weaving through the street while talking on her cellphone with her left hand!

Talking about lady drivers, in Vietnam, you can actually be fashionable while driving a bike. As I was waiting for my daughter Kara doing her shopping at Taka Plaza, my son Arkay and I waited at the entrance of the shop. I was feeling sorry for myself for not having brought anything to read in the hour or so of waiting. Hemingway on my Kindle was in the hotel! But Arkay sat on the entrance steps busy with his book.

With nothing else to do, I could only watch the comings and goings of shoppers on motorbikes. One woman in a nice dress parked right in front of me. As she kicked the stand, she removed her helmet, revealing some kind of hat made of cloth, apparently to protect her hair from the stench of the helmet. She lifted the bike’s seat and stored the helmet in a secret compartment. Then she removed her jacket, and placed it there, too. One of the guys waiting in front of the shop – their version of a valet, except they’re tending to bikes, not cars – approached her, gave her a claim stub, and took the bike away to a nearby parking lot. The woman fixed her hair and straightened her dress, then walked fashionably towards Taka Plaza. Cool!

Some bikes don’t have that secret chamber underneath the seat, so the biker just hangs his helmet or bag on the handle or on some part of the bike. I saw some of these bikes parked unattended in front of the shopping center. And nobody steals those helmets and bags! In the Philippines, unattended helmets, bags and whole motorcycles could be gone in sixty seconds.


One thing frustrating for tourists is the fact that most Vietnamese don’t speak English. So you flag down a taxi, tell the driver the name of the hotel, or shopping center, and he hasn’t a clue what you’re talking about. He’ll just shake his head and move on. A few times we got lucky, like when a white woman, carrying a helmet, saw our predicament and offered to help.

Kara the language major figured something out – we need to have the names of places and their addresses in the local language. We used the original Vietnamese characters we found on Google,  took a picture of the computer screen then showed this to the taxi driver using the big LCD of my Lumix. Problem solved!

Buying in their shops, you don’t need to speak to the vendors. The calculator is the means of communication. When you ask how much, they type the amount in the calculator. You make a counter offer by typing the number back. Thank God for Arabic numerals.

Finding your way around with a street map ain’t easy. Of course you get the street names in the map. But when you look at the street signs, there are a lot of words there in Vietnamese that you’re not sure if it’s the street name or some other street sign. We stayed at a hotel near a rotunda with many roads radiating from the center, and once we ended going round and round the rotunda without getting anywhere.

Now that makes me wonder: despite not being able to speak English, why are there so many tourists in HCMC? In my country, we were encouraged – nay, forced – to speak English supposedly to encourage more tourists, to earn more dollars, to improve the economy.

Last time I checked, Vietnam’s tourism industry, as well as its economy, is booming.

In my humble opinion, part of the allure that is Vietnam are the non-English speaking people. I feel more like I left home because of the totally different language. I can’t understand one word at all. Getting lost in the streets is part of the adventure.


If there’s one thing which would make me keep on going back to Vietnam, it’s their food, even street food.  Everybody eats mostly veggies and seafood. Before going on this trip, I and my son already started to diet with just a half cup of rice every meal. In Ho Chi Minh City, we may have eaten even less than this. The crunchy vegies cooked, and even uncooked, were simply great. We were eating so much green stuff, sometimes we felt like goats, or rabbits, as loads of veggies were served in front of us. But in our few days’ stay there, I wasn’t able to find a local who’s obese. Foreigners, yes, but not Vietnamese.


Tourism in our country is mostly showing our natural wonders. Thank God for all those beautiful places in the Philippines. We are so blessed!

But in the few package tours that we took in Saigon, I hadn’t seen a single head turning scenic spot. And yet, their tourism industry seems so busy.

I’m no fan of shopping when I travel (maybe I just got no money).  Instead, I’m on the lookout for breath taking scenery. I’ve been a shutterbug these past three decades and if I can have maybe five beautiful pictures that would make it to my Mac’s wallpaper, I’m happy. But for this trip, all I have is a photograph of a recently built giant smiling Buddha with bougainvillea flowers framing it.

We took the day-long city tour, where we were shown the War Remnants Museum, showing the atrocities of the Americans – the effects of the chemical Agent Orange; the guns, tanks, helicopters and jet fighters Uncle Sam used. Nothing worthy of a wallpaper picture there, but it was quite an experience. The Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the French over a century ago, is nice, but we have more exotic old churches. They have their Ben Thanh Market, but we have our Divisoria. They have an old pagoda, but we have our Binondo.

The next day we took the trip to the Mekong Delta. Their river is just like what I see in Cagayan de Oro ­– the “golden” colored water. But of course you can’t disregard the Mekong River’s historic significance, as this 4,350-kilometer long river spans several countries, from the Tibetan Plateau all the way to Vietnam.

Along the streets, I can’t help but notice that burial sites were interspersed among the houses or dotted the rice fields. Apparently,  people like to be buried in the place where they work, or where they live.

One of the things that impressed me most was how the Vietnamese seem so proud of everything they have, even tiny common things we take for granted. We were walking during one really hot morning, almost noon, and our guide Dong stopped in a shade under a tree and waited for the rest of the group. Then he picked one red fruit off the tree and showed it to us foreigners. It was the mansanitas! Reatilis among Tagalogs, what we simply called in our childhood days as “cherries.” This was worth a comment?!  Every child in rural Philippines must have climbed up this tree, eating what the bats hadn’t eaten the night before. Yet our guide Dong discussed this with pride in his voice, to the delight of those who are not from Southeast Asia. Us and a Malaysian couple who shared our table were shaking our heads in amusement. Then I remembered how a group of German visitors we had back in the 1980s  asked me to take their picture beside the, um, coconut tree.

Wait a minute. I also have a picture of myself beside an apple tree in a farm in Washington state during harvest time in the fall, the Mexican workers in the background covering their faces. Exotic is relative.

On our last day, we went to see the Cu Chi tunnels. This network of tunnels, hundreds of kilometers long, was instrumental in the Viet Cong’s war against the American invaders. These, along with the various deadly traps made by the diminutive Vietnamese in welcoming their invaders, of course are something of a marvel. Again, nothing photogenic. But crawling under these tunnels, you get to feel how the Viet Congs’ ingenuity and sacrifices were able to defeat the powerful forces.

Moral of the story?

Everyone’s sacrifice helps in nation-building. I’m not saying we all ride motorbikes around town. That would be too drastic a proposition. But maybe we don’t need wide-bodied SUVs in our narrow streets? And consume all our dollars on petroleum imports?

And this to me is the real eye-opener – Di nato kinahanglan mag-iningglis aron makadani tag mga turista aning nasura. Di nato kinahanglan mag-iningglis aron mapadagan natog tarong atong ekonomiya. Murag wa pa ta mahigmata sa kamatuoran nga ang kasagaran sa mga nasud nga maayo ang dagan, wa nila pugsa ang katawhan nga mag-iningglis. Sorry folks, though admittedly I’m a victim of an educational system that puts a greater premium on learning a colonial master’s language,  I know my native tongue just as well, both written and oral forms.

I have mastered Cebuano even if this was not taught as part of the curriculum during the 16 years I spent from Kindergarten to College.

To travel or not to travel

Travel, indeed, widens our perspective in life. Sometimes I do regret spending so much in travel when I could have bought that one nifty gadget I really love. But I tell myself: Nah, Bob, gadgets can come and go, but a wonderful experience however brief, especially with your family, goes a long way. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)