Settling in to Saigon

Saigon (still the correct term for the area of what is officially Ho Chi Minh City we stayed in) is an absolute madhouse: like nothing we have seen so far even in Latin America. There are apparently 3 million scooters in the city, and they all seem to converge on any road we are trying to cross: it is a bit like swimming through a shoal of fish with the added spice that if they hit you it’s going to hurt. They’ve heard of traffic lights but seem to regard them as a general guideline rather than a rule as such – they hoot the horn more often and for longer when they go through a red light.

Each block behind the main streets is a rabbit warren of tiny alleyways (scooters head down here too) where people live, eat work and sometimes even sleep in the street (I don’t mean the homeless: some people just put a bed outside their door). Walking through the streets is to be accosted by a constant stream of street sellers offering anything from food to tours to books to occasionally themselves – I’m the one who needs a protection after dark! None of it is aggressive, but the sheer persistence gets annoying. (“Why not?” I was asked by a young woman whose offer to go “you me one hour hotel boom boom” I had politely declined. Does that actually need a reason? Well, actually, charming though you appear to be I am not quite ready on the basis of our 15s acquaintance to take the relationship forward quite that fast and anyway since I am carrying two pizzas do you not think maybe the other one might be for someone?) Julie bought a couple of books off a girl in a restaurant and two minutes later another woman – who we’d earlier refused to buy from because we were in the middle of our dinner – came back in to berate us for not having bought from her.

The real pity maybe is that this all distracts from the many Vietnamese who genuinely want to talk: to practise their English, help out – open a map on a Vietnamese street and within a minute someone will ask where you want to go, tell you how to get there (so far about 2 out of 3 get it right) – or simply find out a bit about you without taking the opportunity to try and sell you marijuana. The Vietnamese seem to love to talk: those tour guides that we’ve met certainly prefer it to listening. There is a cheeky sense of humour and willingness to be familiar as well – in one museum the guide greeted us by congratulating me on being “the most handsome man in [my] family” as I waited with Julie and the girls.

Saigon alley

A Saigon alley.

The city itself is generally quite clean and well-maintained: there are people sweeping the streets, trucks washing them down and gardeners weeding the flower beds on the roundabouts

Municipal gardener

A municipal gardener

Uncle Ho’s lop-sided beard does peer down from a few billboards, but apparently nothing like as many as in Hanoi. His statue, with his arm around a small girl carrying what appears to be a machine gun, gazes down a broad boulevard in front of the city council building: it’s probably good that his gaze is fixed because I am not sure that in life he would have approved of having a stock market ticker display just to his left, or a huge new gleaming HSBC office block on his left shoulder for that matter. Reminders of the war are all around and generally rather less thoughtful than that in Hiroshima: there is a good deal of “look at all the ingenious ways we had for killing Americans”. The Cu-chi tunnels, while providing an interesting insight into why the US was more or less doomed from the start, was a bit full of this kind of stuff (some peculiarly unpleasant man-traps on display with some almost pornographic commentary about exactly how long and how painful the resulting death and dismemberment was likely to be) and I declined the option of shooting 10 rounds from an M-16 in part because that all seems to validate this Boy’s Own view of war.

Cu Chi tunnels

In the Cu Chi tunnels. There are over 240 km of old tunnels in the area, including one that led into a US base.

Man-trap at Cu-Chi

Ingenious ways of killing intruders – often quite painfully

The girls have, naturally enough, been a bit nervous though they seem to be relaxing a little after a few days. They’re happier with the food than they were in Japan anyway: the lingering French influence means you can get good bread and coffee, both of which have been lacking since we left Argentina, and the centre of Saigon has a huge variety of restaurants so we’ve filled them up with pizza and spaghetti knowing that further north they might have to learn to love Vietnamese food. Next stop, Hué: ancient imperial capital and just hit by Typhoon Ketsana. No idea what we will find when we get there.

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One Response to “Settling in to Saigon”

  1. Pauline Says:

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