Monday, May 29, 2006

Who wants to be a millionaire? Looks like I have no choice...

Much to my own personal surprise, I find myself a millionaire today.

There are more than 30,000 Vietnamese Dong to the Pound so, on arrival, I hit the first ATM I found (for those of you planning on visiting Ho Chi Minh City, there are two at the airport and both accept Abbey-issued VISA ATM cards) and withdrew 2,000,000 Dong, in crisp 50,000 Dong notes.

So, what do I think of Vietnam so far? Travelling in the city is like being surrounded by a swarm of bees, with the buzzing of mopeds and 125cc motorcycles everywhere you go. Crossing the street is like crossing the start of a race, with ranks of riders waiting to surge away as soon as the light changes in their favour.

It's very humid here, with humidity at about 80% and when it rains, it takes it very seriously, with torrential downpours and fabulously explosive electrical storms. I sat one out drinking draught stout in the ubiquitous Irish bar, Sheridan's.

One of the quirky features of the city are xe om, which are motorcycle taxis. You don't need to flag them down, as there seem to be thousands across the city, eager to take you wherever you want to go (for a price, naturally!). Having spent four days in Mumbai riding around on the back of my uncle's bike, I wasn't terribly tempted but if the price of a taxi is anything to go by (13,000 Dong pick-up and 7-8,000 Dong per km thereafter), they're probably very cheap. Don't worry, they'll find you long before you start looking for them.

Ho Chi Minh City is a mix of free market vibrance and old-fashioned control economy. I found myself in a coffee bar which would look entirely at home in New York or London, with baristas, iced coffee and wifi access. Young people with laptops and western clothes wandered in and out, presumably discussing the sorts of things that young people discuss everywhere (unfortunately, I don't speak Vietnamese).

There is a stock exchange and you can read the overseas press, watch foreign television and unless you checked your passport for the visa which is headed 'Socialist Republic of Vietnam', you wouldn't really guess that you were in a notionally communist country.

I am certainly intrigued enough to want to come back for a real explore and, if you want to find out what a modern communist state looks like, this would be an excellent place to start. But don't delay too much, I can't imagine that it will stay like this for long...

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