On A Roll In Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam's biggest city by wheelchair
By Philip Cowan
The Bureau Asia
First published 24 Apr 2020
At heart I’m adventurous.
I often fantasise about traveling to remote places, experiencing different cultures, and testing myself to thrive and adapt in any situation.
But in reality, I like routine and prefer to be comfortable.
Adapting is something that we’re all having to do at the moment out of necessity, and it's anything but comfortable.
A trip to the supermarket is about as much adventure one can experience for the time being until this pandemic gets sorted out.
Like most of us now, I have a lot of time on my hands to think.
My imagination runs wild about all the things I'd like to do if and when life returns to some kind of normal after COVID-19.
I also find myself reflecting on the travel that I've done and the many times during those trips I would've traded anything to be safe and sound in the comfort of my home when things got challenging, like during my last trip to Vietnam to visit my brother, for instance.
He's lived in Vietnam for over 10 years and had been trying to get me to visit him for some time to show me what a fantastic country it was.
But to be honest, I was terrified.
At this point, I should probably reveal that I broke my neck 26 years ago and have been a quadriplegic ever since.
Going to the supermarket in a non-pandemic world can be challenging enough, so the thought of hopping on a plane to a developing country is off the charts for someone like me in my position.
Still, being somewhere else and experiencing new things, I believe, is one of life’s greatest joys, but for me, getting to a destination can be nothing short of traumatic.
You really need to have your shit together.
The reality is that I need almost the same amount of baggage for one night as I do for one month, so a trip needs to be worth the preparation and the money.
Even in Australia, it's not always pretty, and it all starts at the airport.
Sure, I might get to board the plane first, but that only means that I get to sit in a cramped and very uncomfortable seat for a little bit longer than everyone else.
The longer the flight, the more excruciating it becomes. People are often surprised that I don’t stay in my own wheelchair during the flight and ask me why I don't do that.
The answer to that question is simple – I don’t know, the airlines have never asked, nor do they care.
Perhaps the new normal after COVID-19 in the travel industry will mean less focus on mass-tourism, where packed tour buses clogging the streets of tourist landmarks disgorging tourists to trample over everything before being rounded up and shuttled off to the next spot on a map, will give way to more sustainable, thoughtful and, heaven forbid, more accessible travel.
The first leg of my Melbourne to Ho Chi Minh City odyssey was an eight-hour flight to Singapore where I stayed for three nights. To be fair, my local GP had given me some sweet sleeping pills, so the flight wasn’t too bad.
Yet, I always get anxious about whether my wheelchair has been banged up from being tossed under the plane by careless baggage handlers (we’ve all seen those videos) and to see if all of my equipment has made it to my destination unbroken.
The first overseas trip that I ever took was to the USA and the important piece of equipment that I need to get in and out of bed had gone AWOL – but that’s another story.
Thankfully, this time in Singapore, everything had arrived in working order.
I had read that travel for people with a disability in Singapore wasn’t too bad, but let’s just say that the bar is set pretty low in my community when it comes to expectations and accessibility, so I wasn't getting too excited, yet.
As it turns out, the taxi ride to the hotel reminded me of the time two friends used a couple of wooden planks as a makeshift ramp to wheel me up into a van, only then to have my head forced up firmly against the inside of the roof – highly illegal and unsafe, but apparently this is standard in Singapore, too.
As for choosing accommodation, especially for overseas travel purposes, it usually involves a fair amount of luck.
I’ve spent hours searching website after website, reading review after review, looking at hotel galleries, and sending countless emails to hotel managers over the years to obtain information about wheelchair accessibility for my trips.
But the truth is, when it comes to wheelchair accessibility, you never really know what you’re going to get, anywhere, until you arrive.
This is no different from anyone else, but I need advance notice to plan for how I'm going to adapt.
This time round for my trip to see my brother in Vietnam, I rolled the dice and left it in the hands of a travel agent, partly because I believe I shouldn’t have to go through this every time I want to go somewhere, but also because it means that I have a better chance of holding someone else accountable if things aren’t of minimum requirements or as they have promised.
To be fair, the hotel in Singapore turned out to be quite good (remember the bar is set pretty low though) apart from the fact that the toilet was too wide for my commode.
Despite that, my short stay in Singapore was okay, but to be honest, the taxi ride and the rubbish bin incident were about as adventurous as it got.
I didn’t get to taste a laksa or see much of the city, including the opportunity to visit Changi Museum that commemorates Australian POWs held captive by the Japanese during WW2 in Changi Prison after the fall of Singapore and where both my grandfather and great uncle spent years until the end of the war.
The extent of any sightseeing that I did was during another cramped taxi ride back to the airport.
With my chin pressed to my chest and eyes strained sideways so I could catch glimpses of the impressive Marina Bay Sands, I was ready for Vietnam but I had to get there first and I was growing more anxious by the minute about what challenges I might face in Ho Chi Minh City.
After all, Singapore has long been regarded as “Asia-lite” among travellers because of its infrastructure, easily observable rules and cleanliness.
Ho Chi Minh City, however, from what I’d heard, was at the opposite end of the spectrum and was striving to be like Singapore but was still falling way short.
I was just hoping this time that if I had to do my business in a bin again, it might at least come with a view or soothing music piped into the bathroom through Bose speakers.
Anyhow, my brother had told me to lower my expectations when it came to the airline Jetstar Asia and to be ready for anything.
Now that I look back, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that just getting on the plane to Ho Chi Minh City would be yet another shit show.
As you know by now, I find flying to be extremely stressful. Time is my best friend in airport environments and having plenty of it to deal with things when (you guessed it) the shit hits the fan, is precious.
I had booked my flights with Qantas who, in my experience, are the best of a bad bunch when it comes to flying with a disability.
My flight from Singapore to Vietnam was with Jetstar Asia. Jetstar Asia is a low-cost airline based in Singapore and an offshoot of its parent, Jetstar Airways, which is the low-cost subsidiary of Qantas.
Put it this way, I avoid Jetstar Airways when traveling in Australia at any cost, but for the sake of convenience, this time I flew from Singapore to Vietnam with Jetstar Asia.
Any fears I had about flying with them were quickly founded at Changi Airport.
I had made my way to check-in well before staff were ready and I waited patiently, hoping one of them would see me and proceed to check me in. That didn’t happen, but to be fair, their interest in any of the other passengers on my flight was close to non-existent as well.
For the first time on this trip, I felt as though I was being treated equally.
After finally checking in and having to convince staff that I’d already paid for the mountain of oversized baggage I had with me, I was asked to wait out of the way until an attendant arrived with an airport-issue wheelchair. You’ve seen them before getting about airports, rickety old public hospital-grade models with fixed armrests that wouldn’t pass a roadworthy test even for Vietnam’s roads.
This is the part I hate the most about flying.
Seeing a part of you that you depend on everyday to function being wheeled away is distressing.
Every time it leaves me, I wonder whether I’ll ever see it again, let alone if it will be in reasonable working order.
Some airlines will allow me to proceed across the air bridge in my own wheelchair, but still, I need to be lifted, carried and then plonked into a narrow and ill-fitting aisle seat. Whereas, some airlines want me out of my wheelchair well before boarding time.
Well, after all these years, I still don’t know, but I assume, judging by the condition my wheelchair is in each time I’m reunited with it at my destination, it’s used for some kind of crash testing by baggage handlers.
This is par-for-the-course for travellers with disabilities, even in Australia sometimes, where accessibility is still grossly misunderstood in 2020.
I was relieved that my flight from Singapore to Vietnam went well. My transition through Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City went smoothly, too, after I’d prepared myself for the worst in the best way that I could, mostly through focusing on the present and not agonising about what may be in-store on arrival.
As it turns out, I enjoyed a swift passage through immigration and was reunited with my luggage and a relatively unscathed wheelchair.
Exiting the terminal, I wheeled the gauntlet comprising a sea of expectant faces waiting for their loved ones to emerge through the doors from the air-conditioned comfort of the terminal into an atmosphere of heavy humidity and intriguing smells.
I’ve experienced nothing quite like it before and perhaps will never again.
Shortly after, I spotted the familiar face of my brother, who had pulled up in a five-seater cab. While planning for my trip, we had talked about our plans for transporting me around once I was in Ho Chi Minh City.
At one stage we’d considered renting one of those ubiquitous three-wheeled motorbikes with flatbed trays on the back used for carting anything and everything about. Believe it or not, it almost happened. We got so caught up in the imagery of me sitting up on the back of an open-air tray in my wheelchair cruising through the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City alongside dumbstruck commuters gawking with a mix of bewilderment and humour, that we nearly signed off on it.
After all, Saigon (as I came to call it, too) seems to be a place where anything is possible if you have the imagination and the will.
Such was my brother’s lack of faith in the ability of cab drivers in this city to “actually know anything”, he had also previously tossed up the idea of hiring an ambulance after his recce to see if the airport to city hop-on hop-off bus could accommodate wheelies failed badly.
And so it was, I would make my grand entrance to Saigon down leafy Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in the vicinity of the sobering War Remnants Museum, then down alongside the remarkable time capsule that is the Reunification Palace to my right, and then left past the attention-grabbing French colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral riding shotgun in a Vinasun taxi that smelled of sweat, cigarettes and what I later found out to be pandan leaves.
I need to note that getting into a cab is a very difficult thing for me and it’s the main reason why my brother had been hesitant to recommend one.
I can’t do it on my own and it’s not something these days I can wing without any practice (I’m over 40), but I’d practised in the weeks leading up to the trip and it had given me some kind of confidence that we could pull it off in Saigon.
Once in the front seat with all my gear piled in the back, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself.
Here I was crammed into a taxi (at least in the front seat) with a Vietnamese driver who didn’t speak a lick of English and who seemed to toot his horn every few seconds when there wasn’t even another vehicle in the way.
Perhaps he just sensed my excitement and was putting on a show.
It was fun, weaving through the flood of motorbikes, some carrying entire families of four and five and I caught myself wondering what it must be like for the workers who have to make sense of the tangled mess of electrical wires at the top of the kerb-side power poles when there’s a blackout.
My sense of wonderment was swiftly dulled however, when the five-star hotel I was booked into was much less than promised.
Chosen for its central location on famous Hai Ba Trung Street and adjacent to Le Duan Street – the wide, tree-lined boulevard that the Viet Cong tanks famously navigated as they roared their way down to what is now known as Reunification Palace and burst through the cast-iron front gates on April 30, 1975 signalling the end of what the Vietnamese call the American War – I'd had high hopes.
I had paid top price for my seven-night stay here and had hoped for and expected more from a renowned international property that spruiks luxury and retreat, but sadly, accessibility for all travellers is clearly not on their agenda.
Fortunately, however, they did provide a bin in the bathroom.
Their so-called “handicapped rooms” (as luxurious as they promise) also turn out to have less than adequate toilets for commodes.
I’m not sure about you, but my idea of luxury doesn’t mean having to shit into a rubbish bin and then feel ashamed about it afterwards.
And as for retreat, well, there was definitely an urgent need to evacuate the space after my ablutions each morning with what I imagine was a similar amount of urgency as the US military's withdrawal leading up to the fall of Saigon and the liberation of South Vietnam at the hands of the National Liberation Front back on that day in '75.
Everyone I know who has visited Vietnam has loved it. Then in the same breath, they have also remarked that it would be a terrible place to get around in a wheelchair.
There’s definitely some truth in that.
The footpaths are for the most part a mess and in some cases non-existent. Where they do exist, they are often paved with cobblestone or suffer from the kind of Stage 4 concrete cancer that leaves public thoroughfares crisscrossed with jagged cracks and pockmarked with gaping holes.
I lost count of how many terrifying times I came incredibly close to getting a microscopic view of the detail of Vietnamese concrete work when my caster wheels jammed up against the lips of uneven slabs of cement, stopping my chair dead in its tracks and thrusting me forward and to the side.
And when motorbikes parked in the way meant venturing onto the street, it was like a high-speed life-sized game of Frogger, especially when crossing.
But it was exciting.
I’m proud to say that I’ve crossed pretty much all of Saigon’s major streets during peak hour, including Ton Duc Thang Street that runs along the Saigon River just up from the monument that celebrates the fearsome looking Tran Hung Dao who in the 13th century repelled two Mongol invasions – victories widely regarded as among some of Vietnam’s finest military feats.
Yep, we did that.
I say we, because my brother was the one pushing me from behind wherever we went, using his local knowledge to negotiate the traffic and a calming tone of voice to settle my nerves.
At peak hour around 5pm one day, we even tackled the busy Nguyen Trai Street known for its clothing outlets.
The two of us had had the bright idea to do a loop of the central District 1, an area of about 7.5sq km.
First, we wheeled down the expansive Nguyen Hue Boulevard that has in recent years been turned into a walking street, before taking a lift to the observation deck of the 258m high Bitexco Tower to get a bird’s eye view of the city.
Across the street we ate a banh mi at Nhu Lan bakery, a Saigon institution that my brother says he’s never seen closed in all the years he’s lived here.
From there he wheeled me through the nearby and fascinating Cho Cu Ton That Dam, one of central Saigon’s oldest wet markets and then across Ham Nghi Street past number 39 which was where the first US Embassy in Saigon was located from 1952 until 1965 when a car bomb was detonated outside killing 22 people and injuring 183 others. The original building still remains.
By now I was beginning to question the wisdom in undertaking what was turning out to be an arduous sightseeing roll beneath Saigon’s intense tropical sun, it’s heat radiating up off the pavement directly into our faces.
Nguyen Cong Tru Street in the Nguyen Thai Binh neighbourhood is an interesting route, not ideal for wheelies, but it takes you past the monolithic French colonial-era State Bank of Vietnam with its mix of European, Cham and Khmer aesthetics that pay homage to the city’s influences throughout its history.
Behind the bank is Cau Mong or “Rainbow Bridge” which is one of the oldest bridges in Saigon that connects District 1 and District 4 across the Ben Nghe canal and has a historic link to Gustave Eiffel.
All the while throughout the neighbourhood there are merchant shophouses with shops at street level and residences on the floors above.
Not too far from here is Le Cong Kieu Street a.k.a. Antiques Street which is a quiet street with small shophouses crammed with trinkets and bric-a-brac and, if you’re gullible enough, ancient lost treasures salvaged by pirates from the skeletons of shipwrecks sitting on the ocean floor in the depths of the East Sea off Vietnam.
Across the way is the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum if you’re after something a bit more authentic.
But my brother had already turned my wheels in the direction of Saigon’s ruddy backpacker neighbourhood centred around Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien and De Tham Streets not too far away.
By night he tells me that it’s here all kinds come out to play, but it was now around 3pm or “beer o’clock” as he likes to say, and the only treasure we were intent on getting our hands on was an icy cold 333 or Saigon Special.
After a refreshing lager, he pushed me down Bui Vien Street and then turned us right in the direction of the beautiful Huyen Si Church on the corner of Ton That Thung and Nguyen Trai Streets where there in the gardens, we contemplated how we were going to get ourselves back to my hotel which was almost three kilometres away.
By now it was 5pm, the street noise had suddenly elevated to a din from all the traffic and there was really no other way home but for my brother to push.
The sight off us pushing down the centre of Nguyen Trai Street, then through the hair-raising roundabout at New World Hotel and onto the one-way street of Ly Tu Trong must’ve raised plenty of eyebrows.
But to the locals’ credit, they did what they always do and drove around us, gave way at the appropriate times and not once flipped us the bird.
Now I understand what my brother means when he says joining the traffic on your own set wheels is one true way of feeling part of the community here.
This is just one of the many fond memories I have of visiting Saigon.
Even though I was way out of my comfort zone, I was still able to find a way of having some kind of routine during my stay, like every morning after breakfast when I was ready for the day, I would just sit outside the hotel and watch the street while I waited for my brother.
It looked chaotic, but to me it somehow looked organised and the city danced to a tune that I couldn’t interpret.
And then, of course, there were the people.
I found them more than willing to help, whether it was the xe om driver rousing from his siesta to move his motorbike to make way for me on the footpath, or the students hanging out practising their English at the front of the charming Central Post Office who approached me and offered to lift me chair and all up the stairs so I could see inside, or the fabulous wait staff at the delicious Quan Bui restaurant who mobilised without prompting to lift me straight into their establishment.
Importantly, I don’t remember an occasion when someone looked away or seemed wary of me, in fact, the Vietnamese behaved quite the opposite, they approached me and always seemed willing to help and chat.
After seven days in Saigon, however, I was exhausted and ready to go home. I’d had my adventure and was longing for some comfort and routine.
On departure day while waiting in the hotel lobby for my taxi to the airport, a message from Qantas came through on my phone.
Instead of the upgrade that I’d been dreaming of, it was a notification telling me that my connecting flight from Singapore to Melbourne was going to be delayed for 10 hours.
I knew then that I was heading back to reality.
Writer: Philip Cowan
Photos: Matthew Cowan & Melanie Casul
Editing & Layout: Matthew Cowan
Copyright: The Bureau Asia
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