Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Call of Saigon

We arrived in Saigon on May 1st, International Workers' Day and the perfect backdrop for setting foot in our second Communist nation. Vivid yet outdated to our post-USSR eyes, "hammer and sickle" banners and bold red flags with a single gold star hung from trees, buildings and lightposts, fluttering in the hot wind next to Nokia, Nivea and Nike ads. Interesting....communism and capitalism coexisting peacefully on one pole! Seeing the hammer and sickle is still strange to me, especially when it's flying above a street with unmistakable French architecture packed with people in conical hats and bustling with business. It's just not what you expect communism to be.~> read more


But that premise bodes perfectly for Vietnam -- the country is just not what you expect it to be. And it's great!

Because Andy and I stayed in Backpackers Budget Hostels in New Zealand and shared common living areas like the kitchen and bathroom (sigh...glad to be done with that and back to guest houses and hotels!), we talked with a lot of travelers and gathered recommendations and reflections on Vietnam. Most of it was good and we were excited. Tales of dynamic cities, towering pagodas, custom-sewn clothes, oodles of noodles and friendly yet cunning people danced in our heads as we cleared the stony-faced customs officials. In the airport, we were on our guard and pressed hard for our cab driver to use the meter. But that proved no problem, and as we zipped by the May Day/Labor Day decorations, we began to dissect and digest the surroundings of Saigon.

Or, as the government likes to call it, Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon was re-named post the "American War" (that's's NOT called the "Vietnam War" here!), after the country's most revered leader-communist-philosopher-patriot-cult of personality. Ho is everywhere in Vietnam! And his image, which adorns everything from money to mopeds, is a funny cross between a white-haired Mr. Miyagi, Colonel Sanders (KFC recently opened here since Vietnam is no longer embargoed) and a Vietnamese peasant. In fact, we heard a funny story about someone else noticing the similarity between "Uncle Ho", as the people fondly refer to him, and KFC's Colonel and voicing this to a Vietnamese person who tartly responded, "No, Ho Chi Minh was a general!!!"

Besides lipstick red political banners and the face of Uncle Ho gazing wisely at you everywhere, Saigon sports a long, slow kiss of the French. Once the heartbeat of of "Indochine", France's colonial folly in the 19th through mid-20th centuries, Vietnam has the best of Parisian city planning and baguette boulangeries. Every walk in the city includes the smell of crusty French bread, the curvy shadows of art nouveau entryways and a few fountains and circular plazas that remind you only of Paris. Tall, impossibly skinny buildings the color of Easter candy fill Saigon, their decorative balconies sagging under the weight of wet and dry laundry, and their narrowness reflects French tax laws which based the fees on width instead of depth or height. Of course, the clever Vietnamese figured a smart way around that law to house their large families without paying handsomely by building tall (5 -7 floors of curvy stairs) instead of wide! In the city center, there's even a French-built Hotel de Ville that makes you swear you should be searching for the peaks and points of Notre Dame the distance, but then you look closer and see guards in vivid pea-soup green uniforms with red trim and a gold star protecting the doors and remember this is a Communist nation.

However, from where Andy and I sat in Saigon's sidewalk cafes and rooftop bars, on motorbikes and park benches, this doesn't look like or feel like a Communist nation. Capitalism is alive and both free enterprise and free thinking are afoot. There's an open show of religion; you see Cau Dai cult figures, Catholic crucifixes and Buddhist altars on every block. The Bourgeois are out and about, and wearing knock-off Bebe and Diesel! Yes, people wear conical straw hats in Saigon...but while commuting to work at multinational corporations and shops instead of rice paddies. The West inspires what's hot: posters of David Beckham, Mischa Barton and Coldplay adorn stores and all Vietnamese children in the internet cafes happily instant message on Yahoo. Yes, there are bread lines to satisfy our archetypical image of Communism, but it's for a baguette made with "La vache qui rit" cheese, fresh vegetables and some mysterious, terrifying pate--and the Vietnamese are eating this for breakfast or lunch as they dash about their busy, modern day on motorbike after motorbike after motorbike. (check out the link at the end of this message to see just how many there are!)

Saigon is especially vibrant at night. To walk its wide streets, and bravely cross them by taking a deep breath and diving out into the sea of motorbikes, is to see Vietnamese life in it's most pure form. Families sit on their haunches or on the tiniest plastic step stools (that look like a foot rest to me), barely levitating above the cracked sidewalks, gathered around low tables heaped with noodles, rice and grilled meat. A real wood fire in a silver metal bucket sizzles nearby, usually heating a banged-up kettle for coffee or instant noodles, and the whole family of grandparents, parents, children and babies chatter happily while clacking chopsticks against teeth and petite porcelain bowls. The air smells of singed flesh, warm fruit, Chinese herbs, motorbike exhaust and cigarettes...the staples of life in Vietnam...and you see nothing but smiles on both the weathered and fresh faces of Saigon's residents when walking late at night, the time when the work is done and family time begins.

As a whole, we're finding the people in Saigon are extremely eager to do business and make either dollars or dong, day or night. They're friendly, smiling, sweet and without malice toward us, even though we carry the navy blue US passport. They RUN to get change for the big bills the ATM dispenses to enable our purchases, always try upsell and bargain hard for every dong. In fact, bargaining with the Vietnamese is hilarious as you wrangle, dicker, barter and haggle over a price on a calculator in spirited, smiling fashion. Then, when the Vietnamese see your final price, they feign heat stroke and shock and must sit down because your price is so low and they have to feed their children and this price simply won't put food on the table...blah, blah, drama, drama, drama. But, then we start to laugh and they laugh, and we start again on debating a price and usually reach something fair.

But, you simply MUST calculate your restaurant bill EACH time to make sure the frequent errors, which are never in your favor, are corrected. So Andy, Mr. Math, must always be on his toes! It also seems a price isn't a real price until you've seen what the locals paid and then what you're charged. I guess when you're at the heady crossroads of capitalism and communism, something's gotta give. Andy and I find what gives is the clarity and permanence of pricing for those of us already familiar with free enterprise. However, so far, Vietnam's vibrant atmosphere makes that pale in comparison.

More photos:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Pictures. I loved the one of Andy soaked with sweat and the bag stuck to him--priceless!
Love, Wendy

7:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home