Don't Miss Saigon

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The small plane flew over the flood plains of central Cambodia, the green rice paddies of its western borders, and down to the sprawling city that was Saigon, Ho Chi Minh. From above, it was an interesting study in organic urban design. Streets sprawled along paths of least resistance between commons and the rest, it seemed, sprouted from those in random directions as the buildings alongside grew fat on the traffic of the more successful roads. I was in jeans so that I wouldn’t have to pack my large shoes in my backpack and a long sleeved thermal top to protect against the air conditioning. At 31 degrees in Vietnam’s largest city, both would prove a bit warm. Waiting at customs, an English girl came up to me asking if I was Dean. It turned out I had met her when I was hanging out with James in Siem Reap, however briefly, though I not only didn’t remember that her name was Sanna (short for Susannah) but I couldn’t recall her face. Having quickly admitted this, we passed easily through customs, grabbed our packs, and headed out to negotiate our way into the city’s heart.

We grabbed a taxi for $3 and he drove about 20m before stopping and asking for the money up front. We refused and were about to leave the cab when he grunted and started driving forward. Then we got to the gate and he wanted $5 from each of us to pass through. This hadn’t been negotiated and I felt pretty certain that was steep so we did exit the cab and walk out of the airport roads on foot. On the other side, two motorcycles were waiting and I managed to get them down to 40000/bike ($2.50) but Sanna wasn’t interested in hauling her stuff on a bike so we went in a metered cab. After all our work to avoid being scammed, we went in a metered cab. Of course there’s nothing legitimate about these meters. The second you’re not looking they jump from 60000 to 90000 dong, when the whole ride is supposed to cost about 50000 in the first place. So, our taxi cost $14 in the end which isn’t a lot in the grand scheme of things, but we were charged almost five times the real price and the jerk had the audacity to insist we were short changing him on the currency exchange.

I parted ways with Sanna pretty quickly as she is traveling on vacation money and so is quite happy to stay in places well outside my budget – nevermind transport. I found a place for $8/night right off Pham Nga Lao in the backpacker district, one of the cheapest I could find though quite expensive by my standards. It was at Godmother’s and I liked the staff and the godmother as well. Then I met with Sanna for a late lunch and we began our explorations right away. It’s interesting seeing how other people travel. She had her guidebook in hand, something I almost never do, and it made for a pretty efficient walk to our destination, the Temple of the Jade Emperor. We kind of did a combination of getting the general direction and landmarks en route with choosing streets by feel and rough general direction. It was a good mix and we crossed some interesting shops and other temples en route. The Jade temple itself wasn’t remarkable from without, but inside was great. Incense clouds gave the temple a smoky mystique as most of the light was from candles or streaking through the haze to shed a soft light to the rooms. Everywhere, some very human-looking papier-mâché figures watched with a decidedly sinister gaze.

Making our way back without the map was entertaining. It occurred to me that Saigon might have an English cinema in which I could finally see the new Indiana Jones movie, the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so after taking a look at Notre Dame cathedral – yes, the French influence is quite strong here – we saw the movie at Diamond Plaza. And I don’t know what the reviews have been, but I really enjoyed it. I admit that it seemed a little more formulaic than the others as well as more unpredictably unrealistic, but overall it was good fun, full of archaeological lore, and action. Did I think Indy should get married? No. Am I glad the hat didn’t end up in Junior’s hands? Yes. Not that I’m so against expanding on the franchise, but there’ll only ever be one Indiana Jones. Perhaps this is how people felt about Bond once upon a time?

The next day was another early one as we headed out to the Mekong Delta. I had been following the Mekong River all the way from the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos border where the mountains of China can be seen in the distance. I spent two days on it from the border of Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos and ate fish from it while in Vientiane. I slept on an island in Si Pha Don in the south of Laos where the Mekong swelled to 14 km across and crashed on all sides and I sat and watched the sunset on its banks in Phnom Penh. And now here I was at last, where the river meets the sea, where the path of my journey opens and spreads around the world on oceanic currents. But I will not be leaving Asia on these currents, at least not yet. A trip north through Vietnam and China (two countries that I suspect have a lot more in common with each other than anywhere else I’ve been) begins. We took a boat from Saigon down to the Mekong Delta which was the perfect way to conclude it, and then wandered around in that very vast area. In truth I could’ve spent days crisscrossing the delta but we had one and spent it take a little gondola ride among some of the islands, seeing coconut candy, cream, and milk being made, riding bike through the villages, and wandering the markets.

Back in Saigon, I went for dinner with several of the people from the tour at my guesthouse and then for bia huoi (fresh/cheap/draught beer) on one of the small streets nearby. Some of us made plans to investigate the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong had really harried the US troops and found ourselves watching a propaganda film the next morning. Cu Chi; A land of peace, love, and the friendliest people on the planet. Cu Chi; A land where honey soaks the valleys and the sun basks local cherries to plump perfection. The picture is painted, rather without subtlety, and then come the satanic Americans and lay the whole thing to waste, throwing out their backs in hearty maniacal laughter as bombs fall from B-52s and childrens’ tears leave craters in the barren earth. After 15 minutes on the unmitigated evil of the US and heroism of the Viet Cong, the show is over and it’s time to go look at some of the horrendous traps that were hidden in the ground for Americans coming through the forest. Spike traps and rolling wheels that pierce groin and belly. I’m not meaning to take sides in this at all; even after all the museums I’ve visited I still don’t feel I know enough of the story. I just hate propaganda, whatever the source.

Reaction aside, the tunnels, like the traps laid for the Americans (and I should add Australians, New Zealanders, Thai, and French) were ingenious. They had systems and levels to keep the water out. They had clever designs to disguise the entrances. And they were designed to make traversing them simple for Vietnamese and difficult for Americans. The latter is a nice way of saying they were built small. I wandered through some of the tunnels and was bent half over trying to cross them – and I wasn’t carrying a backpack or any military gear. Then out of the tunnels and up for a quick drink at the café while AK-47 rounds were being fired nearby with incredible loudness and back to Saigon. I jumped off the bus home at the War Remnants museum and took a sobering look around there. The propaganda here was more subtle, but that didn’t stop scores of scathing anti-American comments in the guestbook, which I perused while waiting out the pouring rain. I was admiring a tank immediately after entering and three English ladies were talking nearby. One of them was venting at Americans quite vehemently on the Vietnam war and then, when asked by her friend why the US even came to Vietnam, admitted she had no idea.

For me, the point of these war museums is to see one side of the war. Ideally, you’d see an unbiased look at both sides, but such a thing doesn’t exist anywhere I’m sure. Certainly we know that there were plenty of people in the US who were against it and in other countries too, but if you’re only reacting to the propaganda, surely you have a bit more education before you weigh in with your opinions? The museum was enlightening for me in that sense, and I thought about England’s colonial times and wondered how ashamed this woman was of the various horrible things that England had done here in Asia in the name of colonialism. This probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind except that I’m reading a novel called The Glass House about that very topic, following a young Indian boy living in Burma through to his children, grand-children, and beyond. It seems as unfair to write or speak scathing remarks about the Americans – many of whom the museum itself documents as being against the war – as it does to hold modern English responsible for things that happened 200 years ago.

But I digress. A visit to the war museum which was enlightening in an unexpected way and then a completely unguided wander first to Diamond Plaza for a trip to Narnia left me exhausted. And so I returned to my guesthouse and then went to the markets for dinner. Food in Vietnam: I’m still figuring out what’s what, but I’ll say right now that they have some exceptional spring rolls. I know, it’s nothing exotic or amazing, but whether it’s the oil or the ingredients or what they’re wrapped in, they are exquisite. Pho, a noodle soup, is typical fare for breakfast and popular everywhere. At the markets, I had some scallops (which were more like oysters than what I know as scallops) in butter, garlic, and chives; I had spring rolls; I had fried morning glory, and I had two drinks. A veritable feast at a total cost of $6. It is my intent to take a cooking course as soon as I find a fairly reasonably priced one to better appreciate what is going into the food and what makes the really good stuff good.

My final day in Saigon I spent wandering the streets, which is a very dangerous thing to do here. Not that you’ll get mugged or anything, no no. You might get pick-pocketed if you’re really unlucky but generally the worst you have to deal with are kids insisting that you need chewing gum from them or sketchy people (all of whom work for the tuk tuk mafia) trying to sell books, carting around portable scales, and you name it. I even saw someone with a virtual aquarium’s worth of live fish making a sale. But these aren’t the dangers either. The danger is crossing. You have never seen such ordered chaos. Motorcycles, cars, busses, all vying for a clear path on the road, weaving in and out, across oncoming traffic and through it, onto sidewalks, you name it. And there is rarely a break in the traffic. What this means is when you want to cross, you must steal a page from the Old Testament and attempt to part the sea. The trick is to cross slowly, making eye contact and looking in the direction of oncoming traffic, and be consistent, predictable, and unswerving. You have to have faith that nobody is going against the flow of traffic where you cross, and you have to know when to turn your head to look in the opposite direction. It is generally before you think, as there is no real dividing line (there is, but traffic’s too heavy to see it and even if you could they still wouldn’t abide by it). Do this well, and you will cross the road. Fail, and a massive bus which stops for no man nothing may be scraping you off the grille.

Saigon was an interesting stop and an exciting change from the rest of Southeast Asia. I had been getting a little tired of the inherent sameness of Cambodia, Laos, and the Thai influence there. Coming to Vietnam is a new experience and has recharged my travel batteries. The people so far have been quite friendly, contrary to popular reports, and the city has offered up plenty of interesting activities. My last day found me in the Post Office admiring the train-station type architecture, and at the Reunification Palace taking a guided tour through the three floors of meeting rooms, suites, ballrooms, and bunkers. Mui Ne was next on the agenda, an impromptu addition inspired by a photo I saw in a travel agency and a realization that I had plenty of time to explore Vietnam so I might as well not rush from highlight to highlight. And so I leave you for now, heading north to the beach and beyond.

Ho Chi Minh Photos

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