MY FIRST HOUR IN SAIGON: CAN I SURVIVE VIETNAM’S NO-FACEBOOK ZONE?

As first impressions go, I’ve had much better: Ho Chi Minh City (previously and sometimes currently known as Saigon) and I didn’t exactly meet cute. During the descent late Sunday afternoon after a nearly two-hour Air Asia flight spent sitting next to a fidgety woman given to coughing fits, there was nothing particularly alluring about the view from above. The sky was overcast, and the terrain appeared to be completely flat. Inside the airport, the people working behind the visa window were surly, and the money that the ATM machine outside of the airport dispensed to me had way too many zeroes.

By the time I found a taxi to take me from the airport to my hotel in District 1 of the city for 450,000 đồng (or about US$22), I was beginning to thaw a little. Maybe my frustration would give way to excitement once I was in my hotel and online, catching up with everything I’d missed while I was up in the air. (I’m still curious to know the full story behind Amy Winehouse’s death.) Off we went, and almost as soon as we hit the road, my heart nearly leaped out my chest. I’d never seen so much traffic that involved so few cars. Motorbikes seem to outnumber the autos about 3 to 1 in HCMC, and there’s absolutely no method to the madness that is traffic here. A fellow visitor told me that he was hit by a bike on his first day in Saigon!

I’d been warned by an American girl I’d met on Friday night in Kuala Lumpur about the out-of-control cyclists, but I assumed she had been exaggerating. Adding flattery to near-injury, my driver kept firing personal questions at me: “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “Are you single?” Inappropriate, I thought, unsure whether he was just making conversation or hitting on me. Then he offered to be my personal driver for the next three days. Cost: US $300. Naturally, I declined.

By the time we arrived at Asian Ruby Hotel, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Ho Chi Minh City. I liked my $57/night room, which came complete with a view of the Siagon River and complimentary breakfast. The Wi-Fi, which worked perfectly, was free, too, but when I tried to log onto Facebook to update my status, and let everyone know that I’d arrived okay, I found out something that I knew would define my entire time in Vietnam.

Facebook is banned in Vietnam. Apparently, the people in charge of deciding what you should and shouldn’t be doing online, have decided that FB is a potential forum for the dissemination of dangerous ideas. In other words, logging on to FB could be tantamount to being a traitor. I was up for a little treason, but my laptop wouldn’t even take me to the website. I immediately begin plotting my escape from Vietnam for Tuesday, two days before I had intended on going to Manila.

In the end, though, I decided not to make any rash decisions on an empty stomach. Good thing, too. The food at the restaurant, which the guy working the door described as “Hong Kong-Malaysian” cuisine, had me considering giving HCMC a chance. Maybe it might even do me good to get away from Facebook for a few days, especially since I still have access to pretty much every other website (Twitter, YouTube, Manhunt… MANHUNT! Clearly the people in power aren’t being driven by holy-roller morality.) Before social networking and travelling with laptops, I used to go on vacation alone and be totally cut off from my friends back home. I always had a great time, and met interesting people. There’s no reason why my experience in HCMC can’t be exactly the same.

Just be patient with those friend requests, and if I don’t “like” anything or respond to your wall posts for a few days, bear with me. I’m not in Kansas anymore!

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Filed under Air Asia, Amy Winehouse, Facebook, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Manhunt, Manila, Siagon River, Twitter, Vietnam, YouTube

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