Motomania - Welcome to Saigon
There is a madness to Saigon. As the streets become less rural and you move to the city center of this energetic metropolis, there is one sight that you can not get out of your head: the masses of people on motorbikes and scooters. From our seat in the bus, we could watch the organized chaos from a distance and wondered what it would be like to actually be amidst all of it. We were surprised that every rider was wearing a helmet - a safety precaution that is not enforced in the other Southeast Asian countries we had visited. The final bus stop happened to be a short walk from the backpackers area in which we hoped to find a place to stay, so we walked the few blocks, luggage in tow.
And so began the quest for a room. Some had a five story walk up, others had mattresses that were just unacceptable, while others were just not worth spending a penny on. Patrick planted himself in a chair, with a book and our bags, while I went out scouting for a place to stay. The touts on the street all had a spare room to offer, but I was somehow determined to find the right place on my own. After a few "We're full" I was beginning to loose steam and then of course the right place at the right time presented itself, called the Phoenix 74. I gave my name, got Patrick and soon enough we were making ourselves at home. Tired from the bus travel and not yet prepared to deal with the touts selling package tours and god knows what else, we stayed inside for as long as we could. It is interesting to experience the fatigue that is associated with the constant haggling over prices. The constant barrage of questions and pleas to take this taxi over another, or buy some dried fruits or a pack of gum from the snotty nosed toddler while his mother extends a hand in your direction. It becomes tiring and we were feeling it.
But we were also excited to be in Saigon (yes - the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but most locals call it Saigon and we think it's sexier that way). We pulled ourselves together, grabbed the walking tour plan and set out to explore. We found a great place for some ribs and magical fresh fruit juices and just watched the people go by. We saw backpackers arrive, with sweaty brows and a heavy weight of their backs. We watched the touts approach them and offer deals too good to be true - some were ignored, others were welcomed with a sigh of relief. These small relationships that get built every few minutes are intriguing to watch. We formed our own short relationship with two moto drivers who after a bit of negotiating agreed to drive us to the Sheraton Hotel, where we were hoping to enjoy a drink on the rooftop bar. "Yes, yes, Sheraton, yes, yes." And with that, we each climbed aboard, put on a helmet and off we went - into the monstrous traffic of Saigon.
And for that experience, it was worth every penny. Whether we reached our destination or not, that became unimportant, as we weaved through hundreds of riders. The sound, the wind, the smells were unbelievable and could never have been felt within the confines of a car or bus. Patrick and his driver were doing the navigating, and realized there had been a misunderstanding - something lost in translation. We would have to back track to the Sheraton and simply enjoy the extra city tour that we were receiving. Now looking back on it, this was one of my favorite 30 minutes in Vietnam.
The rooftop bar was indeed the perfect place to enjoy a Mojito and watch the setting sun over the rooftops of Saigon. My God, we were in Vietnam. This place that seemed so out of my grasp and so distant was right here and I was sitting in the middle of it. We had met many travellers along the way, who had not enjoyed Vietnam and in fact spoke quite negatively of their experience here. I closed my eyes and knew it would be different for us.
Pho for breakfast
Pho is a Vietnamese food staple. Mostly it is eaten for breakfast or early lunch, though it is available though-out the day. Pho 24, a chain of pho restaurants, was supposedly one of the best places to indulge in this delight, so we were thrilled to have one minutes from our hotel. Abandoning the Western style breakfast of bread and some sort of egg, we walked right into Pho 24 and ordered two piping hot bowls of the noodle soup. The beef is added right before serving, so that the heat of the broth cooks it slightly. Accompanying the bowls, is a large plate of ruffage - including lettuce, mint, bean sprouts and chillies. This is added per individual taste. The whole thing is divine. That, with an iced Vietnamese coffee with sweetened milk - it really doesn't get any better.
After our hearty breakfast, we walked through a park and then got to the end of the sidewalk. We wanted to go to the market over there, but that meant we had to cross the street. We had watched locals cross - slowly and calmly, one foot in front of the other. If you wait for an opening, you could still be standing there at dinner time. And so, with one deep breath, we stepped into the ferocious oncoming traffic. Every bone in your body says no, because it goes against your survival instinct. But as you walk, you look to the traffic, make eye contact and they just move around you. We read that most foreigners come and try to bolt across the street as fast as they can, which is actually the worst approach. The slow, methodical one allows the moto drivers to see you and change course accordingly. And it seems to work for all. We were across, we were alive.
We arrived at Ben Thanh Market and the sensory overload awakened our consumer beast, and it was hard to say no. In Laos and Cambodia we had felt rather uninspired to spend money on unnecessary things, but somehow here, in this huge market hall, we were consumed. Embroidered linens, ceramic wear, shoes - the list is never ending. I grabbed a few embroidered lingerie bags to distribute as gifts back home and with that we continued on our walking tour. I figured, we'd return to the market later. The map led us though neighborhoods and back alley ways. Again, I was intrigued to see how consumer items are sold in most of Southeast Asia. It is by item category - car parts and accessories on this street, bedding and pillows on the next. One block will be only tire stores - and from a drive-by perspective the tires all look the same. Same with the next block that is selling only electrical cables. And the next that is selling baby furniture. Fascinating to see how the world works.
We visited the Saigon history museum it housed a number of old fighter planes and helicopters used during the Vietnam War. To be able to identify the battle or the brigade that actually used this machinery made us again realize how recent this story really was. Before heading to the War Remnants Museum, Saigon's Vietnam War museum, we caught our breath over lunch. There I discovered my second favorite Vietnamese dish: Bun. Patrick ordered it on a whim and what arrived was again a big white ceramic bowl, with room cooled rice noodles inside. On top were nestled a few piles: marinated/grilled pork, mint, chopped peanuts and bean sprouts. On the side was a dish of sauce - something like a sweet chili sauce that was to be poured over the entire concoction. I loved it - I think Patrick was happy with it. (I kept trying to find it again and soon realized that it was a delicacy of the North.) We quenched our thirst with fresh lemon juice with soda water under the lush canopy, a treat that can be found almost everywhere. Perhaps it is their version of American lemonade, but the two can not be compared.
The War Remnant's Museum is a solemn reminder of the atrocities of war. Half propaganda, half personal documentation, it is somber and telling. It is primarily made up of photographs, which tend to depict the truth as seen through the eyes of the photographer. The first room is a tribute to the journalists and photo journalists whose work enabled the world to see what was happening during wartime. Their stories and their determination to seek the truth was terribly humbling. Seeing the faces of lives lost made my stomach tighten in knots.
Outside there are more tanks and helicopters, along with a display of unexploded ordinance that has been collected throughout the countryside. The topic of land mines was often broached by guides throughout our travels, especially in Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam is no different. Inside the photo gallery continued, with a whole section dedicated to the victims of land mines throughout the world, the continuing affects of Agent Orange on the embryos and children born to parents exposed to the chemical and the massacre at My Lai- an incident that showed the darkest side of the American military. Included in the photos were of course the images that were made famous in Life Magazine, like the Girl in the Picture. While in Vietnam, I was actually reading a book of the same name, that depicts the life of the little girl running naked and burned from the napalm attack. To see the actual photo in front of me, made everything around me stop for a moment.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with exploring the lighter sides of Saigon. We visited the Notre Dame cathedral, left over from the French colonial period and the Post Office next door, that has retained the architecture of its colonial days as well. We sent one last package (or so we thought) of the things that we would not need for the duration of our trip - I were so convinced that anything that was bought from here on out would simply be carried with us. In Vietnam, you bring the contents you are wanting to mail to the post office and each piece is reviewed. Then the postal employee prepares the box and simply takes your payment. A few forms later (and 8-12 weeks later) the box arrives on your doorstep.
Outside we decided to explore the rest of the city by motorbike because we had so enjoyed our moto ride from the previous day. After some serious negotiating, we had two drivers, two helmets and a plan to visit Saigon's oldest and most unique pagoda, Giac Lam. We arrived at the gates, at the magical afternoon hour when music is played within the sacred halls of the pagoda. We sat on a bench and simply let the deep resonance of the gong permeate the air. When the music ended we snuck inside for a look. Silent and pristine, this pagoda was truly special. The most impressive sight is a candleabra made of bronze buddha figures and red glass candel holders - it was incredible. Back on the motobikes, we headed to Chinatown, to a market that was supposed to be one of the bigger ones in all of Saigon. Patrick's driver actually accompanied us inside, though we quickly realized we had arrived at a bad time - the stalls were closing and the owners seemed more distracted by that process than our potential for money spending. I was again stunned by the amount of work that is done once in the morning and once in the evening, everyday, just to get the stalls prepared and open for business. Mostly fabrics and copycat items, we weren't missing much, just the experience to see the locals in action. The sun was setting and so was our energy, so we returned to our neighborhood. For dinner we found the Indian restaurant that had been recommended in the LP (Lonely Planet Travel book) and then had one drink at the corner bar before deciding a movie in our room was just what we needed.
Chu Chi tunnels
The day before we had reserved two spots on an organized tour of the Chu Chi tunnels, the underground network used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. Difficult to explore on one's own, the group tour seemed like an acceptable solution. We inhaled a baguette, fruit salad and tea at the cafe across the street and then waited anxiously for our bus to arrive. After a bit of a wait, we were shuffled over to the next street, where we joined several other tourist groups, all clamoring to get a seat on the tour bus. Again, managed chaos. Each tour agency booked on the same bus, so even after we boarded, we managed to rounded the block and waitat at another agency for more passengers. Our guide, a Vietnamese with excellent English, a brash attitude and a personal relationship to the war (he was probably 55 or 60 and was involved in some sort of military training of American GIs), gave us a significant amount of information about the area we were about to visit. We had an obligatory stop at a handicrafts factory - the ones that are sponsored by the government to help handicapped young adults (usually the victims of Agent Orange or land mines) be part of society and self-sustaining. It is commendable and at this location we could actually see the work being done - but it still feels contrived and forced.
The tunnel network is mind blowing. In a short propaganda film we were introduced to the underground tunnels and how they impacted the war. They were built by the Vietcong and allowed them to infiltrate an American base in the area, in the middle of the night. The American army had no idea they had built their base next to this underground city. The tunnels had an infirmary, living quarters, supply rooms and cantina, with air ducts at certain points. Seeing a miniature model of the tunnels, plus a few of the primitive fighting tools made me realize how primitive and gruesome the fighting of the Vietnam War really was.
The primitive boody traps hidden in the ground proved yet again how brutal this war was. Holes in the ground with metal and wooden spikes insured an utterly painful death for anyone who fell in. These were barbaric reminders of war - in the dense jungle. We could hear the next attraction before we actually saw it. It was a shooting range, where you could pay to shoot a number of different military grade rifles and guns. As we approached, the devastating boom of exploding ammunition echoed through the otherwise tranquil country side. It is a disturbing sound - the sound of a gun and we both thought this was a completely unnecessary tourist experience to offer here. My dad used to speak about the sounds of war - I think I know what he was talking about. We learned later that many come to Vietnam to pay to shoot things and play "war" - I still get surprised by what people find pleasure in. We waited while some took a shot or two, before continuring with the tour.
And then we got to the tunnels. Walking above them was bizarre and then when we descended the few steps and I peered into the hole that I was supposed to walk through, and my stomach turned. "Good God," I explained as I got into a squat position, took a deep breath and inched my way through the narrow opening. I had to keep reminding myself that there was an exit and that I would be okay - this is not an experience for someone who suffers from claustrophobia. And I did not make it through to the end. I took an earlier exit and simply waited up top for Patrick to make it out the end. To imagine humans living in these tunnels and carrying weapons, while being surrounded with the death and destruction of war, humbled me. After being here, you can not deny or dismiss the psychological impact of this war - this was a war we should have never been fighting.
The bus ride back to Saigon gave us time to digest the tunnels and the piece of history that we had just experienced. And it is a recent piece of history, making the impact more profound. My father's two tours of duty in the Vietnam War would accompany me throughout our whole time here, always under the surface of my consciousness. I wanted to soak it all in - try to make sense of the senseless. I wanted to understand my dad a little bit more and hoped perhaps something in this country would help me do it.
We were dumped back in our neighborhood in Saigon and needed a distraction. In romanticized scenes of a historical Vietnam, one is often seen riding around in a rickshaw type contraction - with seat and driver. They are called simply tricycles and we learned that by the end of this year will be banned from central Saigon. The streets that they are allowed to travel now is already restricted - because they slow down the motorized traffic. Now becoming a relic of the past, we figured we needed to get a ride. So we found two willing drivers who agreed to drive us to the market we had visited yesterday. Slow and methodical, this was a delightful way to get through the city. We arrived at the market, made a list of what "needed" to be purchased and set up a time to meet. We clearly needed a bit of retail therapy to soothe the feelings of the rest of the day - we did a fairly good job.
Water world, Saigon style
We had delayed our departure from Saigon in order to meet with family friend's of mine for dinner tonight. A bit full of historical information and cultural experiences, we opted for a bit of unadulterated fun - the water park. A taxi drove us to the edge of town to this massive complex of slides, pools, tunnels and wave pools. Certainly not high season, nor built for foreigners, we were experiencing a little slice of local life. There were families, groups of teenagers and couples enjoying the waters in the afternoon heat. The most impressive slide was up a three story tower. At the bottom, you put your inner tube into a machine, that then zaps it up to the top and it is waiting for you when you come up the stairs. It is this same tower that housed the black as night, can't see a thing water slide, that made my heart jump into my throat. With speed, you twist through this black tube and see nothing and only hear the screams of the person sharing your tube. Patrick dared to explore some of the riskier slides, while I let my queasy stomach settle in the calmness of the floating moat that encircled the whole thing. I stayed out of the wave pool, because even that made me feel a bit sea sick.
After enough water time, we packed ourselves up, walked to the entrance, found a restauarant that served Pho, shared a bowl and then found two other tourists who were looking for a cab back to the same street in Saigon. We had enough time at the hotel to shower and rest before meeting Odile and Patrick for drinks. Drinks turned into dinner at a delightful French restaurant, with lovely cuisine and even better conversation. They have been living in Saigon for 20 years and shared their experiences of the changing face and shape of this city and this country. These simple moments with kind friends are always a perfect way to spend the last night, before moving on the the next adventure.