Thursday, January 7, 2010

SAIGON (2009)

     Riding into town from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City (hereafter Saigon, as many still call it) I was struck by the modernity of it all. Glitzy stores named (in English) Love Affair, Itsy-Bitsy, Peek-a-Boo, Splash and Soho appear amidst old-fashioned Vietnamese shops and food stalls, run by village women wearing conical straw hats. Expensive condo developments entice you with names like The Lancaster, The Legend, and The Heritage. The sidewalks feel as though they’re being laid in front of you as you walk. There’s construction everywhere, a surge of economic uplift (which disappears quickly as you leave the city) along with aggressive mercantile energy.  There’s little feel of Communist severity here these days. It’s a lively place, bordering on the chaotic, but the mood is upbeat and the place is colorful--many buildings are painted blue and pink, red, yellow, and green (it looks like Mexico City from the air). 

     When I think of Saigon, I can’t get the traffic out of my head.  It’s one of the most fascinating displays of human adaptive behavior I’ve witnessed anywhere, a fusion of stock car racing and ballet. Motor bikes—thousands and thousands of them-- far outnumber cars (the few you do see are often exceedingly expensive BMWs, Mercedes and bulky sport vans). The city is filled with constantly flowing traffic, helmet-clad drivers beeping and honking ceaselessly like a flock of flatulent sheep. 

     The traffic moves like a school of fish heading downstream, tilting, veering, swarming, speeding up and slowing down, sliding in and out, directed by an unconcious voice of the collective. I saw a man holding his infant son with one arm as he drove, engraving the motion into the boy’s body.  People hop on, side-saddle, and zip off with ease, like slipping on a pair of flip-flops and going for a stroll. I saw no accidents (except my own, when I got knicked by a bike going the wrong way), few applications of brakes, and a paucity of traffic lights to control the frenzy. It appears to control itself. The show is amazing, especially at traffic circles.

     Crossing the street or riding on the back of a motorbike provided some of the thrill of being in Saigon, something akin to the mixture of fear and fun that you get in an amusement park. At many intersections, one must simply walk into a gap in the traffic and hope that the waters will part as you inch your way across the street. My technique was to stand near a sturdy local, take a deep breath and enter the fray with them.

     On Saturday night along the park the kids line up their scooters, front wheels pointing toward the street, and hang out around their bikes near the Ben Than Market. As many people undoubtedly live in tightly confined spaces, one’s motorbike can become an extension of home. Even when it pours, thin plastic hooded raincoats come out, and the traffic roars on. Few people walk, and pedestrians have minority status.

     The visceral thrill of the traffic make Saigon’s other attractions seem tame. Most of what’s interesting to tourists is located in District One. It’s surprisingly fancy, with designer stores, swanky high-rise hotels, and small, well-kept parks. The old Rex Hotel was fun for a drink; you can imagine Saigon in it’s colonial days. But we found a more intriguing view of Saigon outside the center. We hunted for a street market we’d noted on the map and ended up at Cho Ng Th.Trung (off Dai Lo Tran Hung Dao in District 5). Passing by an area of casket makers, their shops decorated with colorful funeral adornments, we saw a woman making paper lanterns, carefully painting their caligraphic images, and we saw enough nurseries to suggest that house plants are a popular here. We had one of the best meals of our stay at this neighborhood market—a noodle soup brightened with a pile of mixed aromatic herbs heaped on just before eating. The fact that the fresh noodle factory was just across the street guaranteed their freshness.

     Although there seem to be hundreds of tour companies offering trips outside the city, we opted to visit the Cao Dai Temple, about 3 hours north, on our own (with the help of a hired car and driver).  There are no expressways in Saigon, so it took almost 2 hours of driving before we reached true countryside. The blur of urban construction was fairly uniform and modern, its most distinctive feature being sheer expanse.

      Cao Dai, founded only in 1926, is an eclectic mix of religion, philosophy and mysticism whose deities incude Jesus, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo. It claims millions of adherents and at one point was so powerful that it had its own army. We arrived in time for the daily noon service, in which hundreds of white clad men and women chanted in unison amidst gaudy, Disney-goes-Hindu décor.


     The mania for learning English makes it fairly easy for western travellers in Saigon. We met Kim, a 24-year old health insurance salesman, who also runs a small guest house where he hosts a weekly English club on his rooftop terrace. He urged us to come as it was Halloween and he wanted help with decorations and make-up. I sat next to four bright eyed thirteen-year old girls with black Halloween smudges on their faces.  Their English was impressive. “So what do you think of Obama?” I asked. “I like Bush better,” one of them answered. “My aunt lives in Missouri and she told me he was better because he sends out a lot of Christmas cards.” I don’t know how I missed that fact during the presidential debates, but I tried to suggest that maybe thinking about a dishonestly begun war and the deaths of thousands would provide a better standard of judgement.  Her eyes opened wide and she replied, “Yes, maybe I should think about that.” While most of the English students were quite young, I sat next to one older woman who was missing a few teeth.  She is a maid who cleans the house of a couple from Bulgaria. I wondered how many maids in other countries were learning English. 
 At Quan Loan (at the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Ly Tu Trong) we sat on little plastic stools along with other guys drinking beer and downing snacks.  The pickled vegetable fried with garlic, grilled okra and whole fish with miso dip, the beef satay, and the shrimp “sweet leaves” salad were all expertly prepared. So good, in fact, that we didn't notice the fumes of passing motorbikes.
Quan An Ngon (160 Pasteur) is an attractive and popular (with tourists and locals) upscale restaurant  where you can see the food being prepared, street stall style. It's a good place to try traditional dishes in a nicer-than-market setting.
Dín Ký (137 C. Nguyen Trai) restaurant is worth a visit just to read the menu: crocodile, chicken testicles, ox penis and deer tendon were just a few of the oddities you’ll find. We ordered the 'black chicken' which came whole in its truly black broth in a little crock.
     Other Saigon food highlights include the already-mentioned Ben Than Market, which has numerous food stalls with photo menus. One stand offering an amazing variety of shellfish served juicy scallops tossed with chile and herbs that was outstanding.

     Ché cháp cam (“sweet soup”) was another market treat—we had a different one each day. These colorful drinks combine coconut with a wide array of small additions: tapioca pearls, sago buttons, beans, corn and more providing curious textural contrasts. 

We first stayed at the Sophia Hotel (about $50 per bnight) which was clean and neat, rooms a bit small but well appointed, nice bathroom, free internet. Later we switched to the Duna Hotel.  The top floor room 901 has great views. The free tube of toothpaste at the Duna was the smallest I've ever seen, barely one good squeeze, its color  a frightening emerald green, the texture a mix of window putty and gummy bears. But how surprised I was to see it, tucked into its white cardboard carton along with a perfectly serviceable toothbrush, at a $25 dollar a night hotel.  The place had charm, if not elegance.  I liked the area better than that of the Sophia.

 A few other highlights of Saigon are:
The Reunification Palace, designed by Paris-trained architect  Ngo Viet Thu is a designer's dream-come-true of high 1960’s style.
The Museum of Fine Arts is notable for its fine colonial architecture, but the art collection itself (especially the newer stuff) is almost a joke. 
Check out Nguyen Trai street at night for a glimpse of what young, trendy Saigonese are up to. 
The  zoo and botanical gardens offer atractive relief from the steam heat. 

While Hanoi definitely trumps Saigon in terms of charms, I found the brassy energy of the place extremely seductive, the food great, and the people, as all over Vietnam, warm, welcoming, and inquisitive.  

1 comment:

maggie said...

Im really looking forward to being able to catch up reading your new blog... from Prague!