Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Senses of Saigon, Vietnam

Aug 19th, 2012 - Aug 21st, 2012

(Roles reversed for a change, Julian jumped to writing this entry before I had a chance! Saigon is therefore from his perspective with my editorial and additions.)

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh city, formally known as Saigon.  It was bizarre coming into the city and being surrounded by towering english billboards advertising western products such a Coke-a-Cola and Oreo.  We realize that its been about 6 weeks since we have been subjected to adverts or frequent roman alphabet and it was a bit of a shock.  We arrived late in the evening and sought a tuk tuk to take us into the city centre to find digs. The often repeated traipsing from door to door down an alleyway containing half a dozen hostels and budget hotels started at shocking $24 a night and eventually secured us a room for our usual $10. Whilst we were leaving the first establishment stating $20 was "far more than we usually pay" I was amused to hear a girl who had overheard our discussion in the reception area, chastise her partner telling him "You see! I told you we were always getting ripped off". It's sometimes gratifying to hear we're not the only ones paying "white man" prices. I hope they bargained a little harder for the remainder of their trip; $5-10 a night goes a long way when you're travelling for six months or more.

Shortly after securing accommodation we went out in search for food and were surprised to see the street stalls and restaurants in the process of packing in for the night at 10pm.  With only one obvious establishment still serving within a stones throw from our hotel we found a seat and each ordered a mushroom hotpot.  We were expecting a clay pot of noodles, mushrooms and veggies in a broth to be pulled from the oven and places directly before us and were surprised when they began an elaborate setup of our table.  We were soon presented with large pots of broth set upon a miniature gel burner, alongside which were placed uncooked noodles and raw beef, wild mushrooms and cabbage. Eyes wide we were thankful when they demonstrated noodles and cabbage to be cooked first followed some of the most beautiful mushrooms I have ever seen and the beef thereafter.  The result was one of the most incredible dishes I have ever eaten and it was in the three days that we spend in Saigon that we understood, finally, why Vietnam was renowned for its food. Had our visas permited I would have spent a couple weeks here simply exploring the culinary delights with no care at all to the effects of my waistline! 

HCMC (easy to write, but Saigon still falls to the tongue instinctively both for us as well as the city residents) feels a little less frantic than Hanoi despite the larger population.  Vietnam's second city is a bustling metropolis to be sure, but with the more frequent smiles of the south and the more recent change in political leadership, the atmosphere of the city definitely feels more relaxed. Let there be no mistake; the traffic is the same horn blowing chaos that the Vietnamese appear to have embraced, yet the narrow streets of Hanoi seem to have opened up here, allowing much more space for the masses in Saigon although the same road etiquette applies. Every time you cross the street you put your life in the hands of those riding around you, but the shoulders bumping on the sidewalks are a little less firm and several times we were stopped by locals just to find out what we thought of their country or as an opportunity for them to practice their English. Saigon residents appear to be very proud of their home and desperately want to show it off as an international, cosmopolitan, modern city showing, at least on the face of things, that socialism can work alongside commercial interests (although I am still flummoxed at the blend). One particularly telling conversation I had was with a local businessman; he stopped in the street to ask if I was OK as I paused for a drink from my backpack. His english was excellent having worked in Australia for some years and we walked together with his wife for several blocks.  His daughter was heading for university in Reading, England; just a few miles away from where I grew up and although he said he was happy with the idea, apparently his mother had concerns and he asked me back to his home to see if I might go some way to allay them. I only had a couple of hours before Brianne was due to wake from her siesta and didn't want to disappear without her knowing where I might be so felt I had to decline however one comment from him struck me as ironically important. When I mentioned on how proud the residents appeared to be of their city, he said "We want to show the Americans, we can get on just fine without their help". I don't think they understand the irony: The drive here for western dollars is as strong in the south of the country as anywhere else in Vietnam. Perhaps that wasn't the "help" he was thinking of.

The one sight that interested me more than any other in Saigon was the Independence Palace. Former residence of the governing body of the south before reunification, it is infamous for the scene of the tank busting through the gates effectively signalling the end of the war in '75. We headed for the palace early on the first morning, anxious as ever to avoid the crowds and have the place to ourselves. Wandering through Tao Dan park we strolled amongst the hundreds of locals in their morning exercise routines. Games of badminton were going on and I was asked to join when we paused to watch three young men playing the current craze; a development of the hacky-sac, with six sprung plastic discs about 3cm across stacked together with a feather sticking out of the top. The ensemble is kicked with a surprising variety of athletic moves between the players, sometimes over a badminton net. I declined with a rueful smile, my footballing skills (I am well aware) are far from up to the task and we continued on to the palace. 

Seeing the Palace for the first time evoked excited emotions in me like those of a schoolboy. This is an iconic, award winning building, built to feng shui design with hidden Chinese characters within the architecture (as illustrated in the guide), but for me, this is where the Vietnam war ended. Over the preceding weeks we had followed the birth of a country out of 100 years of war and occupation and this very spot effectively ended our journey. From Ho Chi Minh's seat and his embalmed body lying in the Hanoi mausoleum, through the DMZ and to Saigon. We'd seen the bomb damage in the ancient city of My Son and the craters left behind in the fields, now used as fishing ponds by the farmers. The infamous tunnels, the bullet holes in Hue and parts of the legendary Ho Chi Minh trail. One man's desire to unify an independent Vietnam brought an entire nation to civil war and back again, holding off the Chinese, removing the French and US occupations and finally to a precarious birth of a nation. He is immortalized in the name of a city and on the currency he appears on every note. His bust and his image still adorn prominent places in every town in Vietnam, north and south. I had been almost regretting our first foray into the communist world until this point. The people generally came across as less happy, the noise of traffic and the horns of vehicles unrelenting, the temples degraded to shops in Hanoi and even in the hill town of Dalat the image of Buddha scratched away from existence. But here, coming out of the palace it all made some kind of sense. Tank #390 sits in the gardens forever reminding the people of the struggle for what is still a very young country and although the socialist overtones and anti American propaganda get a little wearing from time to time, the history is written for all to see. 

On our way 'home' one evening the voices of angels lured us before the feet of a statue of Mary at the Chuch of Notre Dame where candles were lit and a choir sang out into the night.  Couples conversed and children in pyjamas played quietly and despite the chaos of Vietnamese traffic surrounding us it was a most peaceful moment.

Vietnam is moving forward into a modern world. Businesses are allowed by private ownership and a new age is slowly dawning. The ruling bodies allegedly keep a close eye on proceedings, enough to be 'felt' by ourselves on occasion and corruption is as rife (if not more so) here, as within the rest of the peninsula. Government sponsored jobs such as the police force or sought after positions within the ministries are purchased as are (we are told) promotions. "The one problem with a corrupt system of government, is that it works so well". Those at the bottom of the pile, the poorest of the cities are as desperate here as anywhere but I see fewer beggars in the streets and more smiles from the pedi-cab drivers and street pedlars here than from their equivalents in London or Buffalo, NY; perhaps because they are an accepted social class and therefore considered as part of society rather than ostracized and excluded from it as a minority, as we do with the poor in the west. I am not saying I believe a corrupt socialist system is a right system, far from it, but it certainly does not appear to be the ogre my generation, brought up at the end of the Cold War, had been led to believe. 

This trip around the SE Asian peninsula has, so far, been made most interesting from a dispassionate perspective; by the people I have met and talked with. Most we have met (apart from the top 5% earners) feel oppressed in some manner shape or form, but the complaints are no more severe than those I hear from friends back home and very similar to those of any 'first world' country. I have met staunch advocates of dictatorships and democracies; communist nationalists and hill tribesmen who's horizons barely exceed 5km from the place they were born and one theme remains common throughout pretty much all except the poorest of those: If I work to support my loved ones, and pay the dues my society demands; my life is relatively at peace. The biggest social issue I have seen is that of perceived wealth. The poor's acceptance that they are poor forever and the rich's expectation that they deserve to be so. A tuk tuk driver we met and employed for a day regards himself as amongst the 'poor', but he owns his own business and can afford to send his children to school, much more than the rickshaw driver sleeping alone in the seat every night. He has the ability to expand his income selling advertisement space on his tuk tuk or investing in a postcard rack for his clients perusal and the mind to do it, but still he complains to us he is 'poor' rather than that food and schooling is expensive. Our Malaysian friends told us that image is everything. It matters not where you live, if you have a car to show off around town you look wealthy and therefore are rich. It's a superficial status thing that society here has adopted, kind of like the 'bling' culture coming out of LA and when you get down to brass tacks, it matters not one jot. I am not wealthy and I certainly do not mean to judge without walking a mile in their shoes. I own no car, no television set nor a wall to put it against or a roof to cover it with. I will bargain for an hour or more over less than $5 to allow me to continue my travels; but every morning I wake up healthy and with a smile on my face. I count my blessings and consider myself a rich man.

Recommended read:  When Heaven and Earth Change Places is a 1989 memoir by Le Ly Hayslip about growing up during the Vietnam War, her escape to the United States, and her return to visit Vietnam 16 years later.

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