I know I owe you all a few entries from the week I missed back there earlier on my trip, so here’s part one of two: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, also known as “the expensive place in Vietnam.” Which is to say, sure, I’d go back in a minute.
The first thing that stood out about the city was its breadth — far more spread-out than Hanoi, much like, in fact, Los Angeles, which maybe explains why all of the South Vietnamese refugees settled in Gardena. Unlike Hué, you can’t walk the whole thing, but, like Hanoi, it can more or less be divided into zones between which you take moto or cyclo and within which you walk.
Before I go any further: a note on the name. Part of the city, the part which Westerners are most likely to visit, is still correctly called Saigon, as it is next to the Saigon river. Northerners and many people from outside the Mekong Delta area call the city Ho Chi Minh; most residents call it Saigon. A Westerner can, as I discovered, call it either and be perfectly well understood. The word Saigon itself is actually Khmer, as the city was once part of that empire.
Anyway, less history, more visit. The first thing I found — and this remained true throughout my visit — was that Ho Chi Minh was cooler than Hanoi, just as Hué had been. I can’t think of any coherent explanation as to why this would be. But I was able to walk around, and to do so substantially unmolested. Moto drivers in Ho Chi Minh would only bother me every other block, while cyclo drivers were positively lazy and hardly ever showed up even when I wanted them. It was positively relaxing!
But somehow I got around: specifically, on the first day I visited the Chinese-style Jade Emperor Pagoda; Notre Dame Cathedral; the Ho Chi Minh City Museum; the War Remembrance Museum (formerly, American and Chinese War Crimes Museum); and the Reunification Palace (formerly, South Vietnamese Presidential Palace). On my second day, I travelled to the Cu Chi tunnels and got to go around town with a couple of university students I met who wanted to practice their English. Oh, and I was involved in a traffic accident while on a moto ride. But more on that entirely harmless event later.
Now, in Vietnam, everything closes between 11am and about 2:30pm. This is very French, and also very inconvenient, two adjectives which may in fact be synonyms. The main effect on a tourist, such as me, is that alternative plans must be made during the mid-day hours. If, also like me, you’re determined to eat street food, you can be sure that lunch will take no more than twenty minutes (not only will people be clamoring for your seat, but you’ll probably be tired of sitting on the little child-sized plastic stools that leave your knees at mid-chest, above the level of the similarly child-sized plastic tables that street kitchens seem to prefer). As a consequence, I hired myself a moto to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda, some distance out from the tourist center. This small temple, nestled directly in a residential neighborhood, would have been easy to miss but was beautiful inside:
Also beautiful was the city-center Notre Dame cathedral, built, of course, by the French:
Next was the early-opening Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which opened right after I finished a lovely pigeon roasted in coconut juice, onions, garlic, and red peppers, at a joint just around the corner (it works better if you say it French-style, “pee-zhon”). The Museum is in the beautiful Gia Long Palace, once the center of government of French Indochina. This late 19th century building, which may not have received maintenance since the fall of South Vietnam, has all of the touches that you never see anymore, complete with a great old elevator, beautiful interior doors, and the obligatory military hardware parked in the courtyard.
The War Remembrance Museum had even more hardware, and incredible exhibits of photos that made me feel awful about the activities of my countrymen during the American War (as they call it over here). Torture, napalm, antipersonnel munitions, Agent Orange — all of these left horrible scars and the photos were heart-rending. As tragic was the hall showing photos of combatants, almost all just before they died; this exhibit conculded with a display on the journalists killed during the war, with brief bios for each. Each photo, of American or Vietnamese or correspondent, was heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine the work required to attach a note as to how the major subjects of each photo died. The replica of the infamous prison at Poulo Condore was underwhelming, however, with no substantive discussion of French use of the facilities and “tiger cages” for the prisoners that were two to three times as large as I’d expected. Little underwhelms as much as discovering that what was thought to be terrible is, instead, banal.
Also banal was the Reunification Palace, formerly South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace. It always amazes me that the leaders of poor countries spend millions on edificies to project their grandeur, rather than on the bridges, schools, libraries, and hospitals that will cement it. Every room of the palace had little touches of power, from the different-sized chairs in the receiving room, shrinking as status declined, to the elevated seat for the President in the audience chamber, to the mere fact that there was an audience chamber. And let’s not even talk about the Casino, or the persistent use of the color yellow — the color of Vietnam’s emperors — in many key rooms. Also, the place looked like a Hilton in 1950s South Florida.
One up-side of the Reunification Palace was that I met two university students, Anh and Cuong, who had tagged along with the English-language tour I took to practice their comprehension skills. Later, we went out for dinner, and I got a good Vietnamese meal.
The next day, I went to the Cu Chi tunnels, 250 km of underground tunnels dug by the Viet Minh fighting the French, and the Viet Cong fighting the Americans. We saw a few exhibits, including an animatronic virtual Communist Bear Jamboree showing how the VC made antitank rockets from unexploded American bombs. Then we walked through a length of the actual tunnel, a bizarre dark place, only about four feet high and less than three wide. This was where the VC hid from the Americans, where they survived our bombings, where they lived, and I couldn’t see even a bit of it with the few small bulbs they had in there. After about 30 meters I gave up and took a side exit, I would have gone further but I wasn’t sure I’d gain anything from that experience except maybe a feeling of bravery for having survived such claustrophobic, dark places.
Also at Cu Chi was an exhibit on the traps used by the VC to kill and disable American soldiers. So much ingenuity was put into these instruments, and the results were awful, with many different assemblages of spikes, all designed to hurt the soldier, to prevent his escape, to maim him, and, worst of all, to lie hidden at every moment. I will allow that, after seeing these, I felt much less bad about the napalm and Agent Orange and all that — the truth is that people are exceptional at killing each other, that war is awful, and that we all do awful things to the utmost of our abilities during wartime.
Then it was back out, in a rainy evening, with Cuong and Anh, and more good Vietnamese food. One of the benefits of meeting actual natives was that I ate things I never would have thought to order, including some Com with a slab of pork that looked to be all fat but was in fact filled with tender meat (Com is Vietnamese for rice, and refers to any dish of rice topped with anything at all). On the way to that dinner, I finally got to see a traffic accident in the chaotic roads of Vietnam, in which people drive in all four directions at the same time on the same streets — in fact, I got to be in that accident. Another driver cut too close to another moto, hit it, bounced off, and hit us. Since the little motos brake so quickly, the whole thing took place at about 3 mph; the worst I got was a knee that was sore for about 10 minutes because I had to put down my foot to steady us when we were still going about 2 mph. The other guy drove off looking frazzled, we picked up our bike and got on as the traffic swarmed around us, and then it was off to dinner and a quick downpour. After dinner came coffee — Vietnamese coffee is truly incredible, I hope I can figure out how to make it at home — at a coffehouse straight out of New York, with hip Asian decor, except they weren’t aiming for an atmosphere, and live music of a rather rebellious nature, apparently unrestricted by the state. At any rate, nice Vietnamese girls don’t stay out late, they go home to their parents by 9, so I turned in early, too, and got a great night’s sleep to make up for our early departure to the tunnels, and to prepare for my early wake-up call for the boat up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, starting the next morning.