Posts Tagged With: saigon

Vietnam: Random Stuff That I Forgot About Earlier

I always think of stuff that I should have written about a couple of days after I publish a blog post. So now I have collected several of them from various stops in our trip, and will dump them on you all at once. Starting with the observation that Vietnamese seem to eschew carpeting: every floor surface, everywhere, seemed to be tile, especially tile with the same coefficient of friction as Teflon or black ice. Which makes walking around after you get out of the shower a disaster waiting to happen; I would be interested to know how many deaths and serious injuries are incurred by falls at home in Vietnam, compared with some arbitrary other country.  Raising the danger into the stratosphere is the fact that bathtubs are influenced by French interior design: tub walls are very high, much higher than in American tubs. If there are no grab bars present — and they’re usually not — then you’d better have some training with Cirque du Soleil before climbing out of the tub, or you are facing doom.

Just wanted to get that off my chest. Some more geographically-specific items:

  • Nha Trang is a Navy town because of the Cam Ranh Bay naval base, sort of like San Diego in its way. (And like San Diego, it is a big tourism and resort town as well.) Unlike San Diego, however, the residents — and this includes unsuspecting tourists staying in high-rise hotels — are awakened at 5:30 AM every morning by Reveille being played over loudspeakers in the street. (Well, not exactly Reveille but close enough: it’s a military fanfare played on a bugle.) Seriously people, I am not only not on duty, I am paying money to be here. Could you please let me sleep?
  • Saigon, of course, was the last outpost of the American-backed government, and fell to the Communists in April 1975. It is likely that you have seen this photo of the last helicopter leaving town, taking off from the roof of a nondescript office building that, not at all coincidentally, was a CIA command post.

Well, the neighborhood has changed a wee bit since then, so here’s that same building today:

No skyscrapers in 1975 Saigon!

  • Hoi An is where I ate silkworms for the first — and I assure you only — time in my life. The skin kind kind of pops a little bit and then they are squooshy. That cringey feeling that you are now experiencing is about right.
  • Major cities have a ride-share service called Grab. You use your phone app to call for a ride, and you can also use it to deliver food from participating restaurants. You would call this Uber and Uber Eats. In Vietnam it is called Grab and Grab Food. Oh, and I should probably mention one other difference besides the name. Here are the vehicles and the drivers:

…and that about wraps up Vietnam for us. Tomorrow I’ll put up a final post with Flickr links (just images, no words) if you are interested in seeing a larger set of photos than appeared here in my blog posts.

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Cu Chi Cu Chi Cool

If you are old enough to remember the war, you may recall that the region near Saigon was bedeviled by the ease with which the Viet Cong were able to move around and disappear from sight via a network of tunnels. The largest and most elaborate of these by far was the Cu Chi tunnel network, only about 20 miles from the outskirts from Saigon. Total length of the tunnels in the complex was, amazingly, close to 100 miles, which as you might suppose took some time to accomplish; the work began years before the Americans showed up, when the French were the bad guys. (And make no mistake: they were.) The tunnels were built in an elaborate multi-level structure to protect against bombing, flooding, and gas attacks; the Americans and others knew about them but their architecture and extent were so elaborate that despite deliberate flooding and gas attacks, large sections remained intact and operational.

Life in the tunnels was claustrophobic, dark, badly disease-ridden, literally suffocating, and generally exceedingly nasty.  Air was supplied through vents poking up to the surface, disguised as anthills and termite mounds. And surface exits were very well disguised trapdoors. Here’s our tunnel guide doing a disappearing act; he popped up again through another trapdoor about 100 feet away.

And here I am following him because, well, that’s what we’re here for, right?

It was rough going down there, strictly hands-and-knees territory. There were side branches into rooms that variously held supplies or medical facilities at the time. But it was all very primitive, dark, and grungy. It is amazing that thousands fighters spent long stretches of time down there; injured fighters requiring extended medical care could be underground for months. At any given time half the tunnel denizens had malaria and 100% had intestinal parasites.

Some of the tunnels were less cramped than others, and these have been tourist-ized — lit, dried out, and the floor sort of semi-paved — so that everyone could get through without a debilitating amount of crouching or crawling. Here’s Alice emerging from one section.

The region around the tunnels was heavily booby-trapped during the war, and a display area at the tunnel exit contained some samples of these, mostly trapdoors in the ground in the form of disguised rotating or swinging panels that dumped you onto assorted kinds of extreme pointy nastiness. The idea was not to kill, but rather to maim, thereby not only taking the combatant out of action but forcing the enemy army to spend time and resources taking care of him.

So not your typical tourist attraction. And in keeping with the surreal theme, once you exit the tunnel areas you can buy ammunition and rent various weapons to vent your frustration at a nearby shooting range: M-16’s, AK-47’s, and heavier stuff as well so you can get all that pent-up hostility out of your system in a big way. (I can imagine “Build Your Own Booby Trap” workshops as well, but they don’t actually have that.)

Speaking of catharsis, our visit to the tunnels was followed by lunch with two former Viet Cong officers, a major and a captain, at the major’s beautiful home. (He is now in charge of veterans’ affairs in this part of the country.) Neither spoke English; our tour lead Phil interpreted.

Both readily answered questions, the most obvious one being “Aren’t you, like, pissed off?” But they aren’t, which may not be too surprising since they both ended up in very comfortable situations. But the major (on the right) has a son who was disabled by exposure to Agent Orange, and if he is bitter he is hiding it well. He stated (through translation) that they weren’t looking for regret or apologies; they were looking for science and technology, and medicine, and tourists, and investment. All very politically correct, but no doubt true as well.

We had three veterans in our tour group, though only one of them was at this lunch (the guy in blue at the end of the table in the above photo). And at the end of the afternoon, as we shook hands with our hosts, this is what he and the major did:

I asked Phil later about this and other war-related personal encounters. In keeping with OAT’s cultural immersion orientation, we met a number of former Viet Cong and South Vietnamese fighters on this trip, and the meetings were all “kumbaya moments” of one sort or another, all sincere I’m sure, but nonetheless planting a seed of skepticism in my cynical soul. So I laid it out to Phil: we killed roughly a million Vietnamese and basically laid waste to the country for a dozen years. Surely there must be a significant contingent of locals out there who, speaking honestly, would say, “Yeah, Americans killed half my family, and I hope you all die.”

Phil’s answer was enlightening. He agreed that yes, surely there are still some Vietnamese that feel that way. But Americans were only here for a dozen years and despite all the violence that happened during that time people feel that we were basically a historical blip in the grand scheme of things. Before the Americans there were the French (for a century!), and before them there were the Chinese, and before them there were, well, each other. There has long been significant enmity between the northern and southern parts of Vietnam; the relationship mirrors in several eerie ways that between the American north and south, with the latitudes reversed. Southern Vietnam is much more economically developed, technologically advanced, and outward looking; they view the north as backwards, and the people as yokels. There is even a distinct northern regional accent which when heard in the south marks you as the Vietnamese equivalent of a redneck. Phil cited all this, and said it was a civil war, one that had been going on for centuries and which in some ways — very low-key, and without the shooting — continues today. The Americans made it worse, everyone felt, but in the end they were just part of the mix that was a much larger and longer conflict. Which in the end makes it much easier for them to forgive us; better to forget the whole thing and get America to help Vietnam move forward. And if that actually happens — which it seems to be doing, at least in some areas — then those officially-counted 58,220 American deaths might possibly have been worth something after all.

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The Mekong Delta

We have been home for exactly three weeks as I write this, and I still have a couple of Vietnam destinations’ worth of blog posts in my notes. Normally I try and write these up while we are still in country, but time and energy levels did not really allow that, so these are all rather after the fact. But hey, I’m here, you’re here, so let’s go.

The Mekong Delta is sort of the Amazon Basin of Vietnam, a network of rivers that collectively create a cauldron of biodiversity. It was the scene of an enormous amount of bloody fighting during the war but is now a placid center of agriculture, fishing, and tourism. And coconuts. They are very big on coconuts there. In fact, the Mekong used to be home to the Coconut Religion, which I swear I am not making up. Adherents to the Coconut Religion — who counted John Steinbeck’s son among their number — advocated eating only coconuts and consuming only coconut milk. The religion, such as it was, was founded in 1963 and even at its peak numbered a paltry 4,000 followers. The authorities declared it a cult and banned it in 1975, possibly out of envy upon learning that Coconut Religion monks were allowed to have up to nine wives. (Historical note: 1975 is the year that Saigon fell and the country was reunified under the Communists. You might think that both sides had more important things to worry about that year, but somebody obviously was all hot and bothered about those priapic coconut cultists.)

Anyway, wives are more parsimoniously distributed these days, but the area is still big on coconuts. We visited a coconut candy factory: here is a photo of some gainfully employed but presumably very bored women, hand wrapping coconut candies all day long.

“Keep wrapping. We’ve still got to make 5,000 Almond Joy bars by sundown.”

 

(It would appear that this was Bring Your Child to Work day.) The machines in the background mix the mix up the coconut goop from which the candies are fashioned; everything is done by hand.

I should mention how we came to this place, which was via a pleasant boat ride on the Mekong River.

The lower boat is a cargo boat, not our little tourist barge. Note the traditional eyes painted on the prow.

You will be unsurprised to hear that adjacent to the coconut candy station was a gift shop, where pretty much everything was made out of or otherwise related to coconuts. The one exception to this were the whiskey bottles with the dead cobras and scorpions added to impart that certain je ne sais quoi venomous flavor.

Yep, they poured us samples into those shot glasses. Yep, we drank them. At this point you are no doubt wanting to ask, “OK Rich, how does Dead Cobra Whiskey taste, compared to the usual “reptile-corpse-free” whiskey?” And the disappointing answer is, that I have no idea. I am almost a complete teetotaler; I don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol and can barely — if at all — tell the difference between rotgut rum and single-malt Scotch. To me, all whiskey tastes like it has a dead snake in it, so there was nothing unusual about this stuff. Sorry.

Flushed with the warm glow of alcohol-infused snake venom, we bid our coconut enthusiasts goodbye and traveled a short distance via golf-cart-like shuttles to listen to a short performance from some local traditional folk singers. Here’s an excerpt, about 1 1/2 minutes long.

I call your attention to the women’s voices in particular, which they pitch to a high chanting timbre. You can hear the effect quite clearly starting with the solo performance about 45 seconds into the video. It appears to be quite typical; we heard a number of such performances throughout the trip, and the women usually song in that high, almost whining warble. I confess that neither Alice nor I find it particularly pleasant; you may feel differently.

I have mentioned in an earlier post that we seem to be experiencing quite the diversity of transportation modes on this. We can add sampans to that list, since that was our next means of travel after the singing concluded. A sampan by definition is a small flat-bottomed boat used on inland waters. Here in the Delta they’ve been weaponized as a means of assembly-line tourism, as we lined up, four at a time, to take about a quarter-mile trip down the river.

The woman in purple, our gondolier (so to speak), you would suppose would work quite hard to paddle people that quarter or half mile, a zillion times a day. And that is doubtless true, up to a point. But is there something you cannot see in the photos. In the bottom photo, hidden beneath the woman’s feet inside the hull of the boat, is a motor, which she turns on to power the boat back upstream after dropping us off. So it’s all a little, um, Disney World-ish. The boats are real enough, the motive power a little more modern than anyone lets on.

We returned to Saigon in the late afternoon and rested for an hour or two before climbing aboard our next transport device: Vespa motor scooters, for a nighttime tour of the city. The Vespas are slightly less throaty and rumbly than our earlier motorbikes, but the adrenaline rush of zipping through nighttime traffic in Saigon no less satisfying. Here’s Alice (red jacket and white helmet at left) behind her driver in typical Saigon traffic chaos.

Down main thoroughfares, and through alleys we putt-putted. Our first stop was a very-local-indeed seafood restaurant in an alley, a sea of formica tables amidst a hubbub of locals, where among other dishes we dined on squid beak. (Spoiler alert: it tastes like calamari.) I am also proud to report that it was in this venue that I won a chopstick-handling contest among our travel group, by transferring 15 spheroidal garlic-coated peanuts into a bowl in 20 seconds. Alice was a close second, but I am the one now in possession of the coveted Wooden Vespa, a nice little model about 8″ long that will no doubt end up in the hands of a grandchild in the near future.

Then it was on to Hồ Thị Kỷ Street, home to Saigon’s flower market…

…and a walk down an alley to try our handing at cooking a rice crepe over an coals. Not dropping the crepe into the coals is harder than it looks.

We ended the night with a drink on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower to get a panoramic view of the city, then a quick jaunt across the river to see the skyline.

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Don’t Miss Saigon

“Saigon” means “cotton trees”, possibly referring to the kapok that used to grow in the area. Now, of course, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM, though the river that flows through it is still the Saigon River and people use the city’s two names interchangeably. By either name, it has 14 million people and looks like New York on motorbikes, only bigger. It’s a powerhouse of a city, the beating economic heart of Vietnam. Saigon’s GDP per capita is twice the national average, and its various industrial parks account for 25% of Vietnam’s entire GDP. This is not a city that you visit, it is a city that you plunge into.

Saigon IMG_9066

The view from our hotel balcony.  The spaceship-like building in the center is the tallest in Saigon.

We arrived at around 9:00 this morning after a short flight from Dalat and were immediately struck by the contrast with Hanoi. Saigon is very substantially and very obviously more modern, more Western-oriented, more orderly. (The drivers actually obey traffic signals here, at least most of the time, unlike everywhere else in the country.) Our hotel is right in the middle of District 1, the most upscale and busiest part of downtown; the streets around our hotel sport Dior, Louis Vuitton, and similar establishments.

But our first stop after arrival was a grim one, and of course a requirement for anyone coming to Saigon on an organized tour: the War Museum. (Technically, its name is the War Remnants Museum.) It is three stories of everything about the war, needless to say from the winner’s (i.e., Vietnamese) perspective.

Saigon IMG_9023-PanoYou might reasonably expect such a place to be a full-court propaganda press, but it’s much better than that, quite compelling and affecting. There is the required dose of propagandistic vocabulary and rhetoric — the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong are invariably “patriots” — but the displays for the most part let the facts speak for themselves: statistics on how many tons of bombs dropped, how many dead, and so forth, all copiously illustrated with photos and artifacts captioned in both Vietnamese and English. There is an entire room dedicated to the ravages of Agent Orange, particularly among children; I lasted about 10 seconds in there. There is a large gallery filled only with archival photos from well-known war photographers such as Robert Capa; there are many American weapons; and there is a gallery dedicated to documenting the American antiwar movement, including a lot of information about resistance among the American soldiers themselves. There is a replica of the infamous “tiger cages” where VC prisoners were held and tortured.

Saigon IMG_9038I was both impressed and moved. Unfortunately it all makes a very compelling case for how criminally stupid and cruel on a massive scale we as a nation behaved in that era.

More happily, the French influence on Saigon’s architecture is visible everywhere, and there are some very beautiful buildings. Among the more famous of these is the opera house and, unexpectedly, the Central Post Office. Here’s the former:

Saigon IMG_9060-Pano…and here’s the interior of the Post Office, which was built about 1890 and whose interior inexplicably resembles a train station (which it never was):

Saigon IMG_9048It’s a popular destination for visitors — people even get married there — so there’s a constant hubbub. You can see a souvenir marketplace in full swing in the foreground, with the actual post office counters at the back.

After a lunch of pho and some afternoon downtime at our hotel, punctuated by a ferocious thunderstorm and two-hour-long downpour, we went out to dinner and walked around the neighborhood with Phil. This included an amble through the conveniently located red light district, which is probably not part of OAT’s official itinerary. But it was well worth the diversion for its weird entertainment value. The area is a few square blocks, narrow streets full of restaurant and massage parlors with names like “Happy Spa”. The clientele is primarily visiting Japanese businessmen; there was quite a lot of Japanese signage. And the women were all clones, or so it seemed: every one had long straight hair, wore an ankle-length diaphanous dress in a monochromatic pastel shade, and sported voluminous pneumatic cleavage. At one point as we walked down a narrow back street, lit by Japanese lanterns fronting restaurants and “spas”, a phalanx of these women — at least 15 — came marching down toward and past us. It was like some shift change had happened and the clones were all going home, or maybe it was some kind of Macy’s parade, in either case displaying enough silicone to caulk every plumbing fixture in Vietnam. It was quite a sight, and I wish I could show you a photo of it, but taking a picture of them seemed like a really bad idea.

Tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta, and after we return we are scheduled to have a Vespa tour of the city at night. That should be a blast, at least if it doesn’t rain. It will also add to our list of “non-standard forms of transportation” that we have used on this trip. So far that list includes, in no particular order:

  • Funicular tram
  • Cable car/ski lift
  • Car ferry
  • Motor scooter
  • Tractor
  • Junk
  • Rickshaw
  • Dragon boat
  • Golf cart

Tomorrow we should add “sampan” and “Vespa” to the inventory.

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