Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon)
Days 312 & 313
Saigon is Viet Nam’s largest population center. It is a dynamic city that was once the capital of South Vietnam, before the American War. Today it is a peaceful, but not very laid back city full of people, pollution and noise.
The people live in the streets here too. Whole families spend their days working, eating and living on the street, sometimes just outside their doorstep if they have a door. Others not so fortunate live on the sidewalk out in the open air. Many times they block off an area with plastic for privacy. It is normal to see people sleeping on mats with their shoes off and the rice pot resting on a cold stove.
There is also a part of the city that is very modern, with wide avenues and tall bank buildings. It feels just like being in Chicago or New York, but here the people don’t live on the streets. As a matter of fact this part of town is fairly clean and different that the rest of the city. It is also very quiet, it’s on the outskirts of this area that I find most interesting. Life in the city beyond the pristine avenues is real and very different than any life I have ever been familiar.\
Rejoining the Odyssey group after having a very high emotional fun week away is rather daunting. I missed all my friends, but I didn’t want to get “sucked” back into the negativity of the problems. I just wanted to end my trip on a high note and go home. However, my camp gear was taken away from me and the others in Hong Kong. Now I have to stick it out until Singapore so I can collect my stuff and go home. It was only 2 weeks away.
I arrived in Saigon just after dinner was over, I wasn’t hungry but was to keyed up to go to sleep just yet. I explored the neighborhood to see what it had to offer. As it turned out, our hotel was located in a touristy section of the city, there were souvenirs shops and internet cafes all over and they were still open.
The Viet Nam soccer team in playing in some tournament and the entire city is going nuts. Everywhere I went people were intent on watching TV and not paying attention to customers or anything else. It was nice to be able to look around without the constant hassling, “come into my shop!” Above the roar of the soccer game there was personal peace and quiet for me at last!
My second day began with uncertainty of what I should do. There are so many sites to see in the area, many folks were taking the 12 hour tour to the Mekong Delta. It would have been my first choice except I have a moratorium on “12 hours of forced anything down my throat if I have another choice.” So I passed on that. Other folks were taking in the Chi Chu Tunnel tour another 1/2 event that let big people crawl around in spaces built by and for people who are 1/3 the size. Preferring not to be a “mole person” I emitted that option too. I just didn’t feel strongly about what to do, only what NOT to do!
So I headed for the Internet Cafe. Along the way a cyclo driver pulled up alongside me. He was polite and started a conversation. My first instinct was to say, “NO!” but instead I listened to him and answered his questions. One thing I found out, is that if you are talking to one, the millions of others leave you alone! This is a good thing!
Chong as was his name, pulled out his “book” as he was peddling alongside me. He turned to the page where an American had written a testimony, it was a good reference. I read that and saw a resemblance to my resume, sort of. I felt some compassion for this guy who was trying to earn a living by cycling me and others around on a beat up, rusty old cyclo.
I asked him, “how much?” He said you pay me what you want. It was a new approach for me, not knowing how to respond, I thought what have I got to lose, I don’t have a plan anyway and the internet will be there later, so in I hopped.
Once again, lead by serendipity, I made a good decision. Chong told me he would show me the sites of Saigon and not to worry, I would be happy. He did and I was.
Riding on a cyclo and not having to peddle is a real kick. It goes much slower than if you are riding a single bike, for a person who loves to watch people it is perfect the world passes by much slower, the view if more in depth than in a faster vehicle.
We had a little conversation, as much as his English would allow, but for the most part I sat, relaxing and watching the world go by. It was delightful.
My tour took me to the Reunification Palace which served as the Presidential Palace for almost 20 years. Today it is open to the public and looks the same as it did the day the communists took over Saigon. The grounds were nice, nicer than I had seen anywhere else in Vietnam.
Chong pulled the old, “you must see the Lacquerware factory,” on me. I didn’t fall for it. All the tour guides get a commission for taking tourists to the factory. When the tourist buys, they make some money. It is a real pain, because every time they do it, you get taken to a very aggressive, high pressure selling place. It is awful. Once when I was riding the “open bus” all the passengers sat still in open protest refusing to exit the bus. We didn’t want to see anymore factory tours!
I told Chong, “no thanks”. I wanted to go see the market. He wanted to know what I wanted to buy, I told him, “nothing”, I just want to see it. He didn’t understand that, but he took me and waited for me to return. After that he just took me on a tour seeing a few sites, but understanding I didn’t want to go into museums or Temples and especially places that had an entrance fee. Viet Nam is famous for ripping off the tourist with entry fees for really worthless tours. I just said no, with one exception. That being the War Remnants Museum.
The War Remnants Museum is a collection of U.S. planes, helicopters and anything that the U.S. left behind after the “American War” as they call the Viet Nam War. Also housed at this compound are very graphic photos of troops, injuries, after effects of agent orange. It is a very sobering unglorious exhibit of the nastiness of war. Of course it is very one sided.
I arrived at the Museum like royalty in my cyclo. It was a kick to get there the same time as an Odyssey bus full of my friends. Chong just eased my chair up to the curb and I neatly stepped off onto the sidewalk. Inside I searched out a cold drink, but on the way meet a guy with one eye and no hands. He was trying very hard to be of service to me and I could tell that I was in for a rough escape.
I forget his name, but not his story. At age 7 he stepped on a land mine as a result he lost an eye, his hands and arms and it scared his face. Today he appears to be very capable as he grabbed a diet coke from a refrigerator, placing a straw under the tab then putting it on the table in front of me, finally opening the can, using only the short stumps of what was left of his arms.
I watched him, knowing he was doing this for my benefit. It saddened me to think such a horrible event should happen to anyone. He pulled a photo of his family out from the box he was working with, letting me look and admire his wife and two children. Then came the pitch. He wanted me to buy a book of stamps, “no” a book of coins, “no” a book about the war, “no” I kept telling him I had no room in my suitcase.
I asked if I could give him a donation, he told me, “the police will arrest me if I take tips, Please buy a book. He was asking way too much and I told him so. I offered him a more than fair price and grabbed my coke, getting ready to escape. He took my price, I bought freedom and he sold a book.
The Vietnamese are still living off the American War. I saw it everywhere.
The museum was interesting but since it was so one-sided I had a hard time appreciating it. I know men who died here, and I know some of the South Vietnamese wanted us there. Have they forgot?
My cyclo tour of the city was a terrific way to see Saigon. When I was hungry, Chong took me to a real Vietnamese neighborhood restaurant, where I choose my lunch from a glass enclosed buffet wagon. It was rather scary at first, but I was buoyed by the supportive comments I’d read regarding eating in such places, as written by the Lonely Planet Vietnam Food Book. I risked it all and had a marvelous lunch while chatting with my Aussie table mates. The cost of my non-tour lunch was 78 cents, that included the bottle of diet coke!
After 5 hours of sightseeing, Chong dropped me off in front of the hotel. I asked him how much and this time he actually answered me. He wanted 15,000 dong which was about $10. I know I could have negotiated him to half that price, but then I also knew I had more money than I could spend between now and when I left the country. I could give it to him or waste it somewhere else.
I paid him. He thanked me profusely for “helping him”. It warmed my heart when he said he would “always remember me.”
One of my challenges in Viet Nam was to try and capture the scope of the traffic. I took dozens of photos, but I’ve never been totally satisfied with the results. This picture was taken from the seat of my cyclo while making a turn. Traffic lights mean absolutely nothing in Viet Nam, but I swear I could walk across the street blindfolded and not get hit, just as long as I continued in a smooth predictable gait. It’s hard to believe, but it works.