Monday, 17 November 2014

"Saigon...shit...I'm still only in Saigon"

Guest blog from my number 1 daughter who is travelling in Vietnam and
is now my window on the world. 

From the air, Saigon was the largest metropolis I had ever seen. As the plane
dipped beneath the clouds, all I could see was city block after city block 
sprawled for miles, no ending beyond what the eye could discern. And a brown 
snake slithering through the middle of it. The Mekong River. Welcome to Ho Chi 
Minh City.

One deaf, but slightly more experienced backpacker and a map-reading
aficionado  Scouser disembarked the plane. 

We took a taxi - with the meter on at our insistence but still managed to get
ripped off by our escort adding another zero. I took several backward steps away
hastedly as Alex unleashed his scorn-ridden Liverpudlian Scouse fury upon the
driver, who scratching his forehead, was really only trying to rip us off by 2 
pounds. But Alex was having none of it. 

We were in the Pham Ngu Lao district. After having a good look around - we are
clearly in the backpacker part of the city, we trundled down a narrow lane to 
where the map reading aficionado insisted the hostel would be. I learnt very 
quickly on this trip, his navigation skills only apply when he is wearing his glasses. 

Receiving a very warm welcome at Diep Anh Guesthouse, the owner took us
through the entire history of HCMC in the space of half an hour. Quite a skill. 
Following this, he gave us very detailed itineraries of multiple tours we could go 
on. After this, we were allowed to fill in our forms and hand in our passports which 
would permit us entrance into the hostel. We dumped our bags in our room and 
headed straight out for some Ban Pho. The only thing we had really come to 
Vietnam for. 

Sitting on a street corner on colourful plastic chairs, crowded in at every angle by
local Vietnamese men slurping away, we regaled in our feast of the Vietnamese
delicacy - Ban Pho - noodle soup with beef, spring onions, beansprouts, lime and
an array of herbs I did not recognise upon taste. The languid humidity which is
such a staple of South East Asia left us sweating profusely into our soup, adding
nice level of salt to our already sumptuous feast. All around us were shops, bars 
and restaurants with fluorescent flashing lights illuminating deals and the all night ‘
Happy Hour’ and all we could hear was the loud hum of thousands of scooters
passing us by with no pause in the traffic. Vietnamese women in silk pyjamas
carrying their wares on their shoulders with a pole holding a make-shift set of
weight scales carrying bananas, pineapple and other fruit we could not put a name
to. The smell was deliciously foreign - a mix of fresh food, the stench from the
drains, the fumes from the bikes. The sights was a never-ending array of ethnic 
vibrancy so far removed from Western culture. Other backpackers hastened 
across the road, zig-zagging to and fro the constant ascent of Vietnamese on their 
scooters with face masks intended to protect them from the metropolis’s pollution. 

With coffee and tea being our staple in the mornings, the next day we encamped
in a bland cafe to plan out our route to the day’s cultural beehive of places to visit
and see. A long walk found ourselves at the War Remnants Museum which
documents (entirely one-sidedly I must warn) the devastation caused by the
Vietnam War. A sobering exhibition of Agent Orange, which was one of the
poisons that American planes dropped over the forests in Vietnam as an attempt
to defeat the never-ending guerrilla warfare which they had found themselves
fighting in. These were graphic images of first generation or second generation
children born deformed, disfigured and mentally disabled through their parents
absorbing the dioxine unleashed on them. A child enraptured by a butterfly. A
child holding his dad’s hand whilst locked in a tiny wooden cage (he could not
prevent himself from eating anything that came his way, and his dad was an
exception to these culinary habits). Children smiling as they made crafts with their
feet to sell to local tourists. One would think that this was enough, but we had
another three floors to explore which hit us at all angles at the supposed
victimisation and cruelty the Vietnamese faced upon fighting the Americans for
independence. The other three floors captured images from the war itself - a
US soldier with a toothy grin holding up the head of a local farmer who had
exploded from standing on a grenade, a well where three young boys had hidden
from the solders (two shot and one disemboweled), the haggard faces of US
solders wading through rice paddies, completely foreign to their land. The top floor
was dedicated to world photographers and journalists who had chronicled their
experiences of the war (and was a vast relief to the directness and one-sidedness
of the Vietnamese portrayal of their images on the floors below). But it left one
wondering exactly what the correct balance was in the war - which lens (none of
them rosy) by which to view Vietnamese history. The US war planes, helicopters
and tanks outside left Alex in an excited dance with his camera.

We meandered to the Independence Palace, of which I won’t say much, except
it’s not a very pretty palace and it has lots of big rooms. The best part was
probably seeing the helipad on the top floor and looking out onto the city. We
stopped in the General Post Office so that I could send a postcard home to my
family, Alex sitting patiently whilst I scribbled away. Then we stopped for lunch
at Nha Hang Ngon which offered street food in very stylish surroundings - we
sat under a domed ceiling with plants hugging the pillars around the open square.
We were surrounded by Vietnamese chefs quietly cooking various local delicacies
and we could watch them as they prepared our food. We ate more Ban Pho and
shared what was described as ‘pork chops, egg cake, shredded pork and sticky
rice’. It was all delicious and only cost us 100,000 Dong (less than £3). 

The Jade Emperor Pagoda, a 30 minute walk away, was a multi-tiered temple
created by the Cantonese congregation and contained large black macabre
statues, apparently made of paper mache. We stood in silence as several men
and women filled the air with joss sticks, chanted and stuck candles into
everything. Locals would donate a fee to light a cluster of joss sticks with their
palms clasped and shaking them reverently at all of the looming gods
surrounding us. Outside was a pond of terrapins, and I confess we spent more
time watching these - me cooing away at them and Alex taking pictures of the
biggest, the fastest or the baby.

Ben Thanh Market was a bustling street market, reminiscent of the outdoor markets
in Bangkok where there was multiple ways in and out but you would never end up
back where you were. People ate in the middle of the narrow corridors, thrust various
cloths under our noses, grabbed our hands to get us to come and see their stalls. We
emerged fairly quickly and, as always, fairly stunned at the colourful chaos that a
shopping market can provide. 

Getting my way, but realistically with little resistance from Alex, we went to the Beautiful
Saigon Spa for a massage to relieve those tight knots and bumps we had naturally
gained from our hours of walking around the city. It was a new experience, compared to
the Thai massages we both have more of a feel for (ha!) and started with the
 submerging of our feet in a cinnamon foot bath. We were also presented with a cup of
something which could only be described as smoky bacon flavoured water. New to us
indeed. The most exciting part for me, and least for Alex, is when we were asked to don
a pair of grey shorts, a short chequered dressing gown and blue crocs. We were wearing
exactly the same clothes for all of five minutes. It winds Alex up considerably. Sadly, we
did not get any photos. I won’t go into too many details about the massage because that
feels a bit like rubbing it in your faces but it was divinely indulgent. I did have a little giggle
when I peeked over and Alex was lying on his front and had his arms pulled behind his
back. He was being jerked around by the tiniest masseuse I had ever seen. If I had my
hearing aids in, I could have sworn he let out a little yelp...

Lazily, we crossed the road for a third course of Ban Pho and some BBQ pork noodles.
We read our books and fell asleep at 8.30pm, like a pair of contented dogs.

Strangely, given the size of Saigon, nearly all of the must-see sights are condensed within
a square block of a couple of miles. I have no doubt that one could probably explore
Saigon forever - soaking up the aromas, dodging the traffic and taking on an almost liquid
diet of drinks and Ban Pho. When we walked through the park from the palace, we stopped
to watch one guitarist singing soulfully in Vietnamese. A few metres further down, another
guitarist was making a complete hash of The Beatles (all corroborated by Alex and not the
deaf one). This was, in its own way, the lasting impression of the city of Saigon - a city which
aims to please its tourists through a sharp contrast of quietly celebrating its own culture
whilst loudly courting to what they believe Western travellers desire.

*Title of the blog can be attributed to one of my favourite films 'Apocalypse Now'.

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