Friday, January 16, 2009

Saigon, the city that hardly sleeps

It was once the capital of South Vietnam, but since reunification, it has ceded to HaNoi, its sister city in the North. However, Saigon is sassier, sexier, faster, turbulent, sultry, and on a path to becoming one of the must-do destinations of Southeast Asia. I haven't seen enough of it, but the people of Ho Chi Minh City (most people in the South still call it Saigon) left an indelible impression on me.

These last few weeks, I have witnessed more reporting on Vietnam in the media than ever before. In July of 2009, we will celebrate 14 years of diplomatic relations with Vietnam. A fantastic journey was featured on Link TV recently called "The Reunification Express" which symbolically represents the end of the Vietnam war with America and the re-uniting of the North and Southern parts of the country.

On board the Reunification Express, you'll see a lot of farmland and friendly people

But it also signals that despite this union, the North and South maintain different habits and ideas. The train itself is the link between Vietnam's major cities, Hanoi and Saigon. We took that train, and I was on board again every minute of the broadcast. At times, I had tears in my eyes, because everything I saw on the screen was deja-vu.

photo: it takes 36 hours from north to south, so they have to feed you.

This entire week, a news broadcast which I have started to watch religiously called "World Focus" is featuring a 4-part series on Vietnam. This is a wonderful lesson for those who still think of Vietnam as a former enemy country, with people who hate us. It couldn't be further from the truth. Vietnam is too busy growing and moving forward, and 3/4 of its population was born after the war. They aspire to visit us, link with us, and speak our language.

I will never forget this woman I met at the Qing Café

In the meantime, I aspire to see Saigon. I miss Saigon. I miss the grandeur of the Continental Hotel, even though in its company are other 4 and 5 star hotels. But they are all too Western for me and reflect little of what I long for by way of Indochina. War correspondents will tell you that this hotel was one of a few that sheltered the media during the war coverage.

the balconies at the Hotel Continental

The others were the Rex Hotel which is within walking distance, and the Caravelle, where Chuck and I spent our last evening in Saigon on its terrace looking down on the lit streets, sipping on fruited cocktails and listening to live music. Finally, the Majestic Hotel, which we did not visit, hosted war reporters and spies during that infamous war.

An evening at the Caravelle rooftop

Every report and every video of Saigon will never miss to show what fun it is to cross the street. I say fun now, but my first attempt at getting across Hai Ba Trung was heart stopping. Here's a piece of advice: if you hesitate, you will never get to your destination. Therefore, do look at the oncoming vehicles (mostly cyclos, motorbikes and bicycles) and start walking. They will go around you, even though you feel death at your door. After a few tries, it becomes second brushing your teeth.

They will never stop coming, so you'd better cross that street

What might be a bit scarier than negotiating street crossing is riding a cyclo. The men who drive them think it's very funny to launch their passengers into oncoming traffic, head on. I speak from experience. I have not tallied the accidents which may have happened with these cyclos, but it wouldn't surprise me to find some. Most cyclos only accommodate one person, even though we taxed a poor driver in the city of Hue, and were completely squeezed into his cart. We made it, but I think he must have been exhausted.

Tree lined Le Loi Avenue

Le Loi Avenue is grand for walking (avoid in extreme heat, because even though you may feel enthusiastic, you will be in a coma the next day,-again experience speaking here). From our hotel, it is quite a long walk, but our eyes tried to capture snapshots and slices of life all the way until we reached the Ben Tranh market.
This is the country's largest, has an outdoor section, and sells everything you need, and some things you've never heard of. Its endless aisles and sub-aisles are an amazing grid of activity, and we felt so welcomed by everyone despite communication handicaps. It's a joy to see people faces light up when you say you are from America.

photo: Vietnamese women are a crucial part of the workforce.
A concert on the steps of the Opera House in Nam Lon Square

The Opera House in Nam Lon Square is host to many events. They had a concert in the open air one Sunday, and on another weekend, they were holding a marathon. Next visit, I would love to go inside and see something cultural.

And if you want trendy, chic, and the very latest in fashions, amble down Don Khoi Street. You might want to plan a couple of hours, as it is impossible to resist going into every single shop you come across. I had my eye on a silk dress that was just regal in its design and simplicity. I purchased a couple of purses made of what seemed to be mother of pearl rectangles. A year later, I found the very same purses in Manhattan. A small world indeed. And among all the hooplah is the Paris Deli café, where Chuck and I met one of his corresponding buddies. He had been kind in recommending a hotel for us upon landing, and it was the right mixture of economy and authentic Vietnamese not spoiled too much by Western touches. Of course, there was internet; on the mezzanine floor of the hotel, we had free access as part of the room price.
I'll take you to the War Remembrance Museum (above photo) which is impossible to miss. And the Women's Museum which talks about Southern Vietnam's heroic women. We'll visit the pet market, and walk by the Headquarters of the People's Committee in Nguyen Hue Square, which was built by the French. We'll go to an authentic pho restaurant where a hero lived and sheltered the resistance. We will also meander around Saigon Plaza for a lesson in the modern mall and tourism attraction. And if you like books, as I do, the Fahasa chain of bookstores is there to serve you. We'll check a few restaurants and I will reveal to you the quality of health care, just in case you come down with food poisoning. Bring good hiking boots and ensure you are well equipped with bottled water. Diet coke is hard to come by and costs more than regular.

photo: statue of Ho Chi Minh in Nguyen Hue Square; in the background the Headquarters of the People's Committee
See you in Saigon.


Chuck Kuhn said...

Magical walk thru memory lane with you. How could I ever forget your face, as we met traffic Head ON going against the traffic. As I look at each post and picture, I see why I love photography (and U) I've been able to capture life in Asia and in so many other places. It's time to go..for more than 3 weeks. 3 months sounds perfect

tang thanh long said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tang thanh long said...

It's so funny to know that you wait for motorbikes stopping to cross the street! In Vietnam, you sometimes have to cross street without traffic light. In most case, motorbike will avoid you. So don't be scare!
But, I just say that "in most case"!
Anyway, thanks a lot for all your beautiful Vietnam pics!!