Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saigon (July 4-7, 2011)

New friends in Saigon
“Cheers,” someone called out and we all raised our mugs filled with Saigon beer, clinked them together and then taking a drink.  My first night in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) was incredible.  The city goes by both names and there seems to be no rhyme or reason that I could discern as to why someone called it one or the other.   In 1975, after the end of the war, the northern victors changed the name of the city to Ho Chi Minh, in honor of the leader who had led the communist party in its opposition to colonial rule (he fought against the French, Japanese and Americans as well as against South).  The maps now all read “Ho Chi Minh City” even though most often have Saigon under the name, in parentheses.   I thought maybe those from South Vietnam would be more likely to called the city by its colonial name, but that wasn’t the case as I even talked to those who were from the north and worked for the government who referred to the city as Saigon.  And all over town, the name Saigon remains, on hotels and restaurants and even beers.
I’d gone into a restaurant on my first night in the city.  Everything was in Vietnamese and the staff spoke no English.  I was trying to figure out what’s what.  I hadn’t yet learned the difference between com (rice), bun (noodles), pho (soup), ga (chicken), heo (pork), bo (beef) and ca (fish).  If you know those words, you can eat well in Vietnam!  As I was looking at the menu with a phrase book, a man in the next table, Lian, asked if he could help.  I was looking to go simple (with some fried rice or noodles and pork) while Luan really thought I should have some octopus or try some of the other things on the menu.  I ordered and he went back to his table where he was with four friends and his sister.  Before my meal came out, they invited me to join them and immediately ordered more food.   Bach tuot nhum dam (octopus), bach tuot nuong muoi ot (squid) and chan ga nuohg (chicken feet) started appearing.  We cooked the octopus at the tables and wrapped it a rice roll, with vegetables, and dipped it in a fish sauce.  There was a precision to Luan’s instruction that I was expected to follow and was chastised when I experimented by dipping in another sauce or adding different ingredients!  I think they were a little disappointed that I’d eaten everything in front of me before, except for the chicken feet (which are okay, but you can’t exactly fill one’s stomach by gnawing on those spiny bones with little meat).  More beer was also ordered and we spent the evening talking and laughing and sharing about our families and, of course, toasting one another.  I was a little worried at what my share of all this was going to cost.  Although the prices were cheap, and I was sure I had enough, I’d yet to go to the bank and the only Vietnamese money I had was what was left from the exchange of my Cambodian currency for another traveler’s Vietnamese dong.  In the end, this was of no concern, for they wouldn’t let me pay.

Cyclo driver

On my first full day in the city, I headed to the War Remnants Museum.  I was planning on walking but a cyclo driver talked me into going with him.  He had a book with notes from tourists he showed that praised him and his English was good.  Although Cambodian (he moved to Vietnam in 1970), he talked about being a soldier for the South.  I swear he said 15,000 dong, or about 75 cent for a few blocks, but then he insisted on it being 150000 dong (he even showed me, at the end of the ride, a price list).   I argued for a few minutes (I could have taken a cab for a 1/3 of that price, but I paid it figuring it was a cheap lesson.  I was out maybe $5 from what such a ride should have cost me and I never again went with a cyclo or xe-om or motorbike taxi without being absolutely clear on the price, generally having the money in my hand that we agreed on, handing it over only after I had arrived at the destination.  Then, the most amazing thing happened.  The guy asked me to write in his book!  I started to write about the guy being a master con-artist or to say something about his clever “bait-and-switch” scheme…  He suggested that I say what I paid and how good the service was, but in the end I refused to write anything good or bad.

I spent a little over two hours at the museum (and could have spent another hour there, but at 12:30, they closed for an hour and a half for lunch).  It was insightful, especially the exhibit on war correspondent photography.  As expected, there was quite a bit of revisionist history going on.  Instead of Khe Samh being a battle that the Americans won (for whatever reason we thought that hill was valuable), the battle was reinterpreted as a diversionary tactic by the north to distract the Americans as they planned the Tet Offensive.  According to the museum, they never wanted to take the hill!  If that’s the case, that “diversion” cost the north a huge number of soldiers! However, it is true that although we may have “won” the battle, having the reports of the fighting at Khe Samh on the evening news for week after week did a lot to turn Americans against the war and in that way, the battle was a victory for the North.
Much was said about American atrocities (from the use of Agent Orange and Napalm to My Lai) and nothing about Vietnamese atrocities such as the mass summary executions in Hue during Tet or their treatment of POWs.  The museum theme was a nationalist one, pitting the Vietnamese people against the French and latter the Americans (mostly ignoring the fact that South Vietnam was a sovereign country recognized by many other nations in the world and that at best, it was a Civil War).  Although they showed the number of troops by other nations in Vietnam (the Americans had by far the most, but there were significant number of troops from Korea and Australia and a few from places like New Zealand and Thailand), the museum depicted it as being a war with America.  Outside of the museum were left over American tanks, planes and helicopters.  There was a special exhibit devoted to Agent Orange, with photos pointing to the lingering effects from use of the defoliant. 
Notre Dame
After the museum kicked us out for lunch, I walked around the town some, checking out the Notre Dame Cathedral (you can tell the French were here), the Post Office (another colonial building that’s quite a sight), the Reunification Palace, and the Continental Hotel (made famous in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American.  Then I went down by the river and learned there wasn’t much of a riverfront in Saigon (unlike Phnom Penh).  The night before, after eating with my new Vietnamese friends, I had come back to learn that my computer wasn’t working.  (I’m traveling with an Acer netbook),  I found a place to have it checked and they recommended I take it to the Acer Support Center which, surprisingly, was only about a kilometer away!  But the support center closed at 5 PM, so I would have to do it the next day.  As darkness fell, so did the rain.  Instead of venturing out far, I grabbed some dinner at a stall not far from my hotel.
Continential Hotel

Inside the tunnels

The next day, I signed up to take a tour bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are located northwest of the city ($6 for the bus and another couple bucks to enter the museum).  On the way, they stopped us at a place that did traditional handicrafts, but most of us were not buying.  Then we left the city, driving past rubber plantations to the museum that’s built upon a Vietcong tunnel network in which they would hide from American and South Vietnamese soldiers.  Here, they did show the ugly side of the war as they had set up booby traps that had been used by the VC.  There was also a firing range where, for a little over a dollar a bullet, one could fire an M-16 or other weapons used by the Americans and the Vietcong.  In a way, the War Museum in Saigon had left out the VC role in the war, but at Cu Chi, the VC’s role was highlighted.   The trip to the tunnels ended with a 100 meter crawl through a tunnel.  I was surprised at how poorly the tunnels were ventilated and that they were warm, not cool as one would expect underground.
I got back around 2 PM and grabbed a quick lunch from a street vendor, sitting in the ubiquitous plastic chairs they all have around their stalls.  As I ate, I listened in a conversation of an American living here.  He was talking to an American couple who had asked him why he decided to move to Vietnam.  He said because it’s cheap and because of the Vietnamese women.  According to him, he is paying $150 a month for an apartment and, he added, all the single foreign men he’s known that has moved to Vietnam have either married or picked up a girl to live with within six months of arriving in Vietnam.  Hearing his comments, I couldn’t help but to think of Fowler, the British journalists in The Quiet American who has a Vietnamese lover whom (at least in the beginning of the book) he was willing to dump when he was reassigned back to London.
After lunch, I picked up my computer from my hotel and headed to the Acer Support Center.  Although it is out of warranty, the guy figured out quickly what happened (probably a power surge and when I tried to reboot it, I had not taken out the battery long enough to discharge the built up electricity).  He then checked it out to make sure it was running and gave it back to me, telling me they’d be no charge. I was shocked and happy (and you’re reading this blog thanks to his generosity).
Jade Emperor Pagoda
I spent my final morning in Saigon reading in the park.  I had brought along a copy of Milton Osborne’s book, The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future.  It was a timely book to read while in Cambodia and Vietnam.  The author, who first came to the Mekong region in the late 1950s and later served in the Australian embassy in Cambodia, did a wonderful job of linking together the history of the river with his own experiences.  After finishing the book, I went to the Post Office to mail stuff home and then headed to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a Cantonese temple that is perhaps the tackiest temple in all of Asia, with its pink and red walls and over abundance of dragons and turtles.  (After seeing the Cantonese temple in Hoi An, I now wonder if tacky and Cantonese are synonymous.)  Outside the temple, sellers are offering birds and goldfish as an offering.  You can release a bird or a goldfish inside as you say your prayers.  Once inside the temple, I wondered just who those offerings of goldfish were for as the ponds were filled with turtles that, I sure, would have seen a goldfish as a tasty snack.
I come back to the hotel and pick up my bag and then jump on the back of a motorbike and have a xe-om take me to the train station for the overnight trip to Da Nang.  At the station, I pick up a “fast food” shrimp burger for dinner.  When the open the gates, I go and find my cabin.  At 7:20 PM, the train pulls out of the station.
Post Office


  1. I remember when the war ended and a lot of refugees came to the USA from Vietnam. I worked a mess hall at camp Chafee where a lot of them stopped and ate some seriously good food.

  2. Wow Jeff. Just catching up on your adventures.
    Sounds like you may not want to come back to north american cuisine!!!
    You ARE going to write and publish a book on all this- arent you?

  3. This was a fantastic read! Vietnam and its history is one of the few recolectioms
    I have of my history class.
    I'm not surprised the price of the cycle ride went up. That is typical in some countries with tourists.
    And the American who moved to Vietnam? I can understand the cost of living or liking the area, but obviously he has not been lucky with the ladies anywhere else

  4. Enjoyed this post, too. The version you got of Khe Sahn is not new to me. I've read the same thing in an American account of what happened there. It was a diversion...Glad your computer was an easy fix.

  5. We have a huge Vietnamese community here, all refugees, of course. Some of them have been clients. Thanks for these posts for a better "eyes on the ground" feel.


  6. Wow - Jeff. You make me feel as if I'm experiencing this myself. I'm so glad that you are finding kindness wherever you go. This makes me want to talk to my brother-in-law about Vietnam again. He did two tours back in the day - first as a draftee and then an officer. He had an opportunity to command and went back. He was drafted the day after he graduated from Wake Forest University in the 60s. He's never wanted to talk about it much, but I'm curious if he would go visit now.

    Here's a strange bit - they show a real clip in the film Forrest Gump of some GIs singing Christmas carols and my bro-in-law is in the group.

  7. This was wonderful. Both the writing and the pictures. Wow is right WOW!!!!!!

  8. this is great...we already covered i am jealous, but getting to experience through your words is certainly a treat...

  9. Thanks for continuing to share your experiences in your travels. It's educational for me as well. And I enjoy hearing of your interactions with the various people you meet.

  10. I thought I left a comment here the other day...hmm Anyways. loving the travel posts and I love the food description in this one immensely. Vietnamese food is my favorite over here.

  11. It all sounds so interesting and wonderful. I'm slowly trying to catch up on posts. Your are always a treat.

  12. What a fantastic tour you are taking us on. I wish my short time in Saigon had been during a time of peace. If you have the time here are two blog posts relating to my one visit to Saigon.