(Continued from Vietnam by rail V: Nha Trang)
Day 11: The heat is on… in Saigon
Day 10 of my journey was very relaxing and low-key. I did nothing besides renting a bicycle and repeatedly circling around the Nha Trang area – eventually ending up at the station and catching the final train in my rail discovery of Vietnam. The train heading to Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and is home to over 7 million people. Under its former name – Saigon – it was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina (go break your tongue) and later of the independent state of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975. In 1976, after losing the Vietnam War to North Vietnam, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Even then, its former name, Sài Gòn, is still widely in use. Please allow me thus fore to refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon also. For the sake of good memory, if nothing else.
My train pulled into Saigon’s central station at around 4am. As always upon my appearance anywhere, motorcyclists rushed to offer lifts. Interestingly, unlike in the rest of the country, Saigon bikers were wearing uniform, in navy blue. We eventually agreed on a price with one of them and headed off to my final hotel of the trip – Lan Lan 2 of Saigon.
As I was coming in early, the hotel receptionist first tried to charge me for half-day stay. I shrugged and said I would rather go walk around and return after a while. Horror ran through my counterpart’s eyes. I followed his look and realised it was still pitch-dark outside. Big deal! I happily waved goodbye to the shocked receptionist (who by that time agreed to check me in within only four hours instead of nine) and ran out into the night. Saigon was finally mine!
I selected the hotel mostly because of its location. Bang next to Ben Thanh market, it was central enough to be convenient – and in a quiet enough street to avoid the ever-roaring traffic noise. At 5am, the market was already awakening to the new day; some stalls had even stayed open through the night. I wandered to the central Cong Vien Van Hoa Park and found scores of people exercising in groups. Some were even doing salsa classes. Whoever thought salsa could only be danced late at night rather than first thing in the morning!
I fell in love with Saigon unconditionally and instantly. The few people I encountered on my first morning could all speak decent English, making my life much easier than in Hanoi and (especially) Sa Pa. The streets around were incomparably cleaner than anywhere else I had seen in Vietnam. Trees were planted abundantly throughout the city; high-rising modern buildings populated the skyline and Western-style coffee chains dotted the corners. I felt I had finally reached civilisation – at that remaining in Vietnam, as the familiar street vendors, morning exercisers and motorcyclists distinctly confirmed. Saigon was a perfect blend of the local and the imported, of tradition and progress; it had such an obvious “capital city” written across that I wondered why it would ever have to stay in the shadow of Vietnam’s official capital, Hanoi. It was like juxtaposing Latvia’s Riga and, say, the provincial little Aluksne.
But then again, it was the North that won the war 36 years ago.
After enjoying a filling breakfast at the 24/7 “Quynh” eatery specialising in Phnom Penh style rice noodle – the waiter joined two shrimps on top of my soup to make a heart, could you beat that? – I walked towards the Rach Ben Nghe canal of the Saigon River for a morning view. The sun had by then risen. The day was wonderfully clear, and the buildings lining the canal were softly reflecting in the largely untroubled – if only slightly smelly and polluted – water.
Like Paris, Saigon is divided in numbered districts. While taking pictures innocently in District 4 just across the canal from central Saigon’s District 1, I was approached by an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who introduced himself as Kham. I could tell by his looks and spoken English that he had lived abroad for a while. Correct; he had spent several months in the US and only came back recently. Came back? When most of the country was desperately trying to leave?
Kham nodded. He was given the US citizenship and awarded a military title in the US Army but hated it in the States – hated after only six months because the “Americans had no idea what really happened during the Vietnam War”. Was he involved in the war, then? He nodded again. He used to fight on the side of the South and was put into a so-called re-education camp when the Americans had fled in a rush and the North had taken over. In 1989, the Reagan administration entered into an agreement with the Vietnamese government that Vietnam would allow the soldiers and officials held in re-education camps to emigrate to the US. Kham was thus allowed to leave Vietnam in 2001 – after 26 years of imprisonment.
I nearly dropped my precious camera on the ground. 26 years in a re-education camp! I had to hear more; luckily, Kham was also visibly enjoying his curious camera-armed new acquaintance and invited me to visit his home. Normally I try to be cautious about entering strangers’ homes (especially in foreign countries), but this case was different. The journalist in me woke up and refused to go back to sleep.
I followed Kham through a busy market and a maze of narrow streets. Saigon’s numbered districts vary greatly by the level of wealth and population mix. Kham was leading me deeper into District 4 – a poor area occupying an island separated from mainland Saigon by the Saigon River. We eventually reached a narrow house in one of the backstreets, where, like in most Vietnamese homes, the wide open doors allowed passers-by an unrestricted view of the interior. Life in Vietnamese cities was very much in the open, quite literally spilling from the house onto the streets.
I spent over an hour talking to Kham. He told me more striking details about his life in the re-education camp, which could perhaps fit better in a different post. What I remembered best (and took an immediate note of) was the poem Kham wrote about the war times. The author was very willing to share his work, and I will quote the poem here:
“Vietnam War Memorial, California“
by Kham Nguyen
Two of us with covered heads and faces
Waiting for the flowers to blossom
The natural spirit is in our hearts
The death forces us to die together!
No waiting for the grand opening
No need to present
Two of us are also Heroes among Heroes
“COMMAND OR DIE!”
Be happy my friend
For a free spirit…
For improvement of future generations
That are proud of us
We sacrificed our lives
To happiness for them today…
The evening falls over there
And the grievousness-sorrow of
Our Spirits will always love VIETNAM!
I felt sorry for Kham and the other Vietnam War veterans who fought for the South. There he was – undisputedly a brave soldier and a hero – yet not really belonging to either conflicting side anymore. Not able to fit in the US yet still looked at oddly by the North’s veterans in Saigon. Feeling he deserved more attention from today’s generations and not finding it. Looking back towards the past yet dreading it after years at the “torture camp”.
But our ways had to part there. Having bid farewell to my new friend near the Ông Lãnh Bridge, I embarked on a long self-led walking tour of Saigon. When I enter a likeable new city, it almost feels like a bright fire igniting inside. There is nothing stopping me; the only foreseeable plan is then to walk myself into oblivion and sense the new place from within. Walking puts me in intimately close contact with a new location.
12 hours of uninterrupted walking later (stopping only to click my camera), I must have covered about 30km. My route first led me north of the hotel, along French-esque tree-lined avenues. It was there when, for the first time in Vietnam, I saw Vietnamese white-collar workers – in suits! – dashing back and forth oozing business – and taking an occasional break in Western style coffee shops. Just like we in London stop at the local Starbucks!
One street – Hai Ba Trung – was curiously full of Japanese looking individuals and Japanese food outlets. Why, I wondered; the puzzle was resolved when I spotted a Tokyo Mitsubishi office building nearby. The Japanese certainly liked their food enough to import even the fruit! (which to me looked at least identical, if not inferior, to the same mangoes and apples sold everywhere else in Vietnam).
One of the sites I could not miss in Saigon was the former US Embassy, currently serving as the US Consulate. I had for a while been obsessed with the Vietnam War (in case you haven’t noticed yet) and absolutely had to face the building from where the Americans made such a rushed retreat on 30 April 1975, marking the victory of the North and the end of the US direct intervention in Vietnam. Back on that day, more than two thousand people were airlifted by helicopters to a military ship waiting for them off Vung Tau in the South China Sea. Masses of Vietnamese raided the Embassy building, crying out not to be left behind – but left behind were many. I still shiver as I imagine that day many years ago. In short, I had to see the Embassy and put some real life images on my imaginary account of events.
The former Embassy looked peaceful in the rays of the calm late afternoon sun. The familiar starred-and-striped flag was resting on the flagpole over the thick fence. Local people were forming a long queue by the visa section. There it was, the place so historically legendary, so tranquil – and forever transformed.
I reached the Saigon River again and continued towards the Rach Ben Nghe canal I had already crossed in the morning. I was not planning any museum visits that day but accidentally walked into the Ho Chi Minh museum by the Khánh Hội Bridge. The museum shop featured some truly timeless classics – such as the postcard I ended up buying, picturing the Great Leader holding a young girl. The caption beautifully read “Nobody liked young children quite like Uncle Ho did”. Isn’t it just brilliant?
I then returned to mainland Saigon, enjoyed two fresh fruit juices at Ben Thanh market and moved on towards District 3. The insanely busy traffic makes large Vietnamese cities seem like in the middle of a rush hour at pretty much any time – but there could be no mistake now. School children were flowing cheerfully from every school gate, their mothers and fathers waiting outside on motorbikes to pick them up. Everywhere around, roaring motorbikes were taking their owners home. Crossing a central street would be an absolute suicide; the flow of ubiquitous two-wheeled vehicles – and occasional cars and buses – seemed almost continuous.
I had a particularly fun time watching the Nguyễn văn Cừ bridge, where literally hundreds of drivers were trying to exit at the same time. It certainly looked a safe affair to me – accelerating in such a thick mass of vehicles would be impossible, as was colliding. I think if all the motorcyclists suddenly decided to stop, I could easily cross the wide bridge by stepping on their vehicles alone – without ever touching the ground.
I crossed the Saigon River for the nth time that day and walked back along its southern side. The sun was setting rather impressively over the water, submerging Saigon’s well-illuminated skyline into twilight. Many locals had come out for the same evening riverside walk I was doing, and I suddenly felt part of this massive, ceaselessly active city.
Up at 3:45am and having walked pretty much ever since, I finally gave up and made it an early night. The comforting thought was that I still had two nights to spend in this wonderful city full of discovery. The amazing Saigon!
What the islands are to Nha Trang, the Mekong delta is to Saigon. It is almost impossible to leave the city without embarking on a Mekong delta tour with one or another tour company. The differences in itinerary are indeed minimal; tours are offered for one, two or three days. I was by then so hooked on Saigon though that leaving the place for longer than a day was clearly not an option – so I went for a daytrip.
Mekong River delta is the region in south-east Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the South China Sea. The Mekong delta region covers a substantial area of south-eastern Vietnam. Mekong River is itself not lacking titles; it is the world’s 10th longest river and runs through six countries (China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam), of which Vietnam is the last on its way to the sea.
My tour was rather a standard one out of dozens that run daily from Saigon to the settlements of My Tho and Ben Tre. Only about 70 km south of Saigon, the two are among the closest stopover spots for Saigon-based travellers. I would have loved to explore more of the delta – or indeed delve deeper afield, away from tour groups – but my schedule was too tight. And I was meeting a friend – a Vietnamese friend! – in Saigon later that night, but let us go in order here.
After arriving in My Tho, we boarded a small covered boat, indulged on a free coconut and crossed to the other side of one of Mekong delta’s numerous smaller branches. It took us some time to get to Con Phung island; there was certainly no shortage of water around the Mekong delta. Our guide told us salty water entered the river at high tide and did damage to Mekong’s fresh water fish – as well as local communities which are heavily dependent on fish supply and trade.
We then visited a so-called “coconut candy” workshop. Massive presses were used to squeeze milk and oil out of coconut flakes, which was then boiled with sugar, chilled, shaped into dough and, eventually, bite-size candy. The taste reminded me of condensed milk with a nutty flavour. Some varieties featured durians among the ingredients; I must have swept the samples off the counter. It is just too lucky that so few other Western visitors do justice to the wonderful fruit durian is.
We also tried some (so-called) snake wine and coconut vodka. Both were decidedly weaker than my benchmark (read: Riga Balsam, Latvian national drink at 45 per cent alcohol), so I downed them without much effort. A group of 10 Korean people watched me in silent admiration.
The programme further continued with some cycling into the local countryside and a simple (yet delicious) lunch. We then boarded a so-called “banana boat” (used to navigate along narrower branches of the delta) and got to do some paddling with the locals. Awaiting us was more food and drink: local exotic fruit were washed down well with some delicious honey tea to the sound of Vietnamese traditional music and singing. Everything was much of a tourist affair, but I was so tired from days of masochistic “death by walking” itineraries that I didn’t mind. Occasional tourist action doesn’t hurt even the keenest of travellers.
One could assume I went straight to bed soon after getting back to Saigon. I am a self-confessed early bird, after all, right? Well, not really. Despite my love for early nights, this one was an exception. The programme co-ordinator from my 2004 summer language course in Frankfurt, Germany – good old Thang himself was in town! Just when I had told everyone I did not know a single soul in Vietnam. Oh well – now that’s what I call happy news!
The time we spent with Thang and (briefly) some of his colleagues from Siemens opened my eyes a little on the expat lifestyle in Vietnam – and confirmed my first impression that expats could really have a sweet life in Saigon. The city had numerous conveniences for westerners, for a fraction of the western price. I will never forget the fabulous gym occupying the top floors of a high-rising building – with exercise machines siding the transparent floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Saigon’s central Ben Thanh roundabout. We common people could only watch the privileged ones from the ground. I kept thinking I would REALLY not have a problem living in Saigon for a while. The city had grown on me within barely two days.
After an extensive gastronomic tour and some souvenir shopping, Thang and I finally settled at Chilli Pub where our evening drew to a close. I got to see an impressive concentration of locally based foreigners; the bar was visibly among their popular hangout spots. English, German, Australian and American – it was much of a usual mix. The mix I wasn’t really missing in Vietnam but could not help envying, for once. After all, it was them – not me – living in the amazing Saigon!
Day 13: Saigon, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye
Despite the 2am bedtime the previous night (a shocking four hours past my daily schedule), I woke up early. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and it was my last day in Saigon. Usually I start longing for the familiar surroundings of London after barely 10 days in a new location. I have even vouched never to book a holiday exceeding 10 consecutive days again. A round-the-world trip is simply not for me. For the first time in history though, I had absolutely no desire to return to my “base” in London. Saigon was perfect. Could I please stay?
It was Saturday and streets were unusually empty – for a large Vietnamese city, anyway. I first headed to the Reunification Palace in District 1 for my first historic injection of the day. Also called Independence Palace, the structure used to be the home and office of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was also the site where the Vietnam War ended when, during the 1975 Fall of Saigon, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.
The interior (complemented by a golden bust of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall) looked peculiarly old-fashioned and reminded me of similar official buildings dating back to the Soviet times. Visibly battered ring dial telephones on every desk were my personal favourites. Did we really use these as recently as 15 years ago?
When I was about to leave the building, a familiar melody suddenly sounded near the kitchen on the ground floor. There could be no mistake; “Oh Susannah” was being played on traditional Vietnamese instruments. 36 after the end of the War, an oriental version of the classic American tune was echoing in the former stronghold of the American presence in Vietnam. Who would ever have thought!
The music show did not end at that though. Outside the Reunification Palace in an adjacent park, another musical action was clearly taking place. Hundreds of teenagers were cheering their peers performing on the stage; the contrast with the enforced silence inside the palace building was indeed deafening. I carefully mingled into the otherwise homogeneously Vietnamese crowd and made my way towards the centre of action.
Largely resembling a cheer-leader talent show, the performance was impressive in its spirit of unity and belongingness. Boys and girls wearing matching outfits were doing acrobatic moves to the sounds of loud rock music and dance classics. Oh, and some truly trashy pop tunes, clearly a must at every celebratory event (of any kind, weddings included) in Vietnam.
I doubt I could ever get tired of admiring the unique team culture of the Vietnamese. One must start nourishing it at a very early age! Reluctantly, I had to leave after over an hour and headed towards the War Remnants Museum – my second share of history on the last day in Saigon.
The War Remnants Museum primarily contains artefacts of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Among the most disturbing exhibits were photo images of children (mostly Vietnamese but also some American) born deformed as a result of the use of Agent Orange spray during the War. Graphic photographs further immortalised the scenes of the wartime action and the associated deaths and atrocities – such as during the notorious My Lai massacre on 1968.
The museum was not for the faint hearted. Silently I walked from one blood-curling exhibit to another – until I just could not do it anymore. Tears were streaming down my face as I turned away to leave. “How sad, how very sad”, the people around me were whispering; many of them sounded American.
How truly horrible wars are.
I felt like I could not handle any more museums that day and went to the Saigon Zoo instead. The home for several rare orchids, ornamental plants and over a hundred species of mammals, reptiles and birds, the Saigon Zoo is a popular weekend getaway spot for local families. The Zoo makes a joint complex with Saigon’s Botanical Gardens. At a 133-year age mark, it ranks in the Top 10 of the oldest zoos in the world.
Finally in the late afternoon, my cultural programme for the day was over. I went to meet Ahn – the local woman I got to know through Thang at Chilli Pub the night before. She insisted she would show me around Saigon and take me to meet her family in District 4 (near where I had met Kham the Veteran earlier).
I have to admit that, by that time, I still did not know any Vietnamese people too closely. And somehow I had been prejudiced into thinking that what the locals were solely after (as far as foreigners were concerned, anyway) was money. If not through begging – in fact, I saw very few beggars in Vietnam during my stay – then by getting paid for a certain service which they’d compellingly force upon you. In Ahn’s case, I was not sure anyone would be interested in mere “showing around” a foreigner without asking for a compensation of some sort. I admit it here. I had been deeply prejudiced before meeting Ahn. Thanks to a fraction of doubt though, I eventually agreed to meet her.
And I did not regret it. Ahn seemed to be different. She genuinely wanted to get to know me; took me around on her bike, introduced me to her two children and mother, sat me down in her simple home, drove me back to my hotel and insisted that we shared a durian together. Finally I had found someone to appreciate the yummy fruit as much as I did! And, most importantly, Ahn refused to take any money my guilty conscience tried to tip her. She really behaved like a friend towards me. Thank you so much for the wonderful company, my dear! I very much hope we can meet again.
It had been a long, emotional, busy day – and it was coming to an end, just like my 2-week visit to Vietnam. I resisted until the end: packed my backpack as slowly as I could, took time to pay for my room and hitch a motorbike to the airport. I then sat there for an hour, thoughtful and reluctant to leave. But the clock was ticking. There was no way back.
Six hours later, I was already stretching out on a passenger bench at Incheon airport. Korea? Really? I could barely believe the country around me was no longer Vietnam. But the food tasted different. The prices were higher. The people were dressed like there was winter outside. And there were as many as two Starbucks shops on Incheon’s grounds. An unlikely consolation for leaving behind Vietnam – a country so culturally diverse, historically rich, gastronomically pleasing and otherwise endlessly fascinating. Oh, and by the way, with much better coffee, too.
Goodbye, Vietnam. I am not sure I will ever make it back – let’s be honest, there are many places in the world I still haven’t been to – but I enjoyed every moment we have shared.
Except perhaps that New Year’s Eve train ride : )