The Streets of Saigon

I was exactly on the hundredth page of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American when we left for Vietnam. Thirty years after the country has known peace, I wondered how much of Pyle, Thomas and Phuong were left. As a tribute of sort to a war-ravaged country, my husband Darwin and I wanted to keep a somber mood all throughout our journey, a kind of a reflective pilgrim instead of joyous trip, but Vietnam was bent on making us have a good time.

We only had a couple of light bags so we opted to take the train to the airport. I was also wearing a new pair of green wedges so I wanted to road test those beauties before the real walking begins. We made sure we have ample time to loiter around Singapore’s Changi Airport, so some hours before our flight, we were already there on the terminal lounge, enjoying some fly-me-to-the-moon seats, free internet and warm breakfasts.

We boarded at a quarter past eleven. As we were excitedly settling on our seats preparing to grab a few winks, my elbow hit something on the arm rest. I looked on both sides and there on the little space between the window and my seat, and then again between my seat and Darwin’s, rest the stockinged feet of the Vietnamese woman at the back! I know of rude cinema-goers who prop their feet up on the seats in front of them, but this is the first time I have ever experienced it on a plane! Darwin told the woman off but she glowered and pouted at us as if we’ve done her a great injustice. Later on of course, when the energy of Vietnam finally crashes into us, we’d realize the folly of getting annoyed over such trivial incidents.

After a two-hour ride, the pilot announced the decent. It was already two in the afternoon (Vietnam time), and under the midday sun, the country looked so brown and barren. From above, we caught sight of the wide, muddy Mekong Delta River and some pastel-colored houses nearby. As we taxied down, we saw a lot of old and battered fighter planes parked under deteriorated hangars. The whole place looked abandoned and almost lifeless as opposed to the action it must have witnessed thirty years ago.

Even before the announcement came, most of the passengers already got up and opened the overhead bins. The flight attendants seemed so used to the sight that they didn’t even try to hustle them down and get them to sit. It was amusing seeing that such eccentricities are not exclusive to Filipinos. The queue to the immigration was really slow and the locals looking so eager to return home were getting impatient. When we found our luggage, we went to the custom counter and lined up but we realized that, like in the Philippines, queues are not respected here at all. If it wasn’t for the officers in scary moss-green uniforms, I would have felt at home.

We came out of the airport to a warm, humid afternoon air and we immediately spotted our hotel driver, who told us in broken English that he’d run for the car and we should wait at the gate. It was a good chance for us to look around – women wear western-styled blazers over their traditional “ao dai” dresses, men were languidly sitting on the floor. The place looked too small and relaxed for an international airport. On the drive to the hotel, our car competed with thousands of scooters; many loaded with an entire family or piled up with stuffs. It’s a wonder how the drivers are able to see the road or keep their balance. Scooters here overwhelmingly outnumber the cars so they rule the road, and my, rule they do! Women drivers hang on to their vanities by wearing tailor-made masks that shield the face from dust and sun. They cover their arms with long silk gloves, very similar to those used with ballroom gowns but slightly longer. Men, on the other hand, wear long-sleeved shirts or jackets.

Our driver didn’t say a word throughout the whole ride and because we were busy absorbing the street scene, we didn’t start a conversation either. We’d find out later that although the locals are friendly, they are not very eager to please tourists. People here don’t get starry-eyed at the sight of foreigners. After the sincere hellos and customary checks, they pretty much leave you on your own. Having experienced the almost-bothersome hospitality of the Thais or the Balinese, we find that the Vietnamese people are admirable in this regard.

Our hotel is located at the city center and after a quick rest, Darwin and I started with our walking tour, both of us eager to be jostled into the flow of Vietnamese life. The travel books we’ve read warned us of the danger in crossing the streets and having come from Singapore where the traffic flow is orderly, we had a hard time in the streets initially. The traffic lights serve no purpose here as nobody actually follows them. But amazingly, the traffic flows smoothly and the pedestrians get to the other side of the road unscathed! A piece of advice though – make peace with your gods before ever stepping into those roads!

We first looked for a travel agency and booked a tour to the Mekong Delta for next day. Along the way, we passed by
Dong Khoi Street, the elite shopping street of Saigon. The street is lined with elegant boutiques and quaint shops selling fine Vietnamese silks and lacquer wares. Ladies in their traditional dresses hand out fliers for some spa salons and a few children in decent clothing sell pirated copies of travel books and novels to foreigners. Dong Khoi is a pretty picture of pleasurable shopping and it’s hard to believe that thirty years ago, tanks rolled in this very street and shattered almost everything.

After booking the river tour, we walked on to our first tourist stop – the town hall. It is a newly painted building with a definite French architectural influence. In the park across, there’s a black statue of “Uncle Ho” with a child. The historical Rex Hotel, used to be the intelligence base of the Americans during the war, was on the right. The Continental Hotel, where most of the events in Graham Greene’s book happened was also close by. It was still early in the afternoon and except
for us and a couple more tourists, the plaza was deserted.

We then walked on to look for the famous Ben Than Market, one of the places listed under Patricia Schultz’s “1000 Places To See Before You Die”. Judging from the chaos on the streets, we doubted very much if we’d ever get to see Ben Than Market before we die! We stuck to the sidewalk which was dangerously close to the cars, motorbikes and bicycles that zoom past. Darwin and I minded the traffic at the start but after observing how confidently the locals walked by, we slackened off a bit.

People cooked, sold merchandise, and socialized in these sidewalks. It is common to see a group of people squatting on the floor and eating “pho”, there were even empty bowls at the bottom of some electric posts. In some corners, food kiosks made up of very small tables and even smaller chairs abound. The smell of basil and lime were everywhere. It was all beautiful and chaotic! The sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh are very unique stages forever showing an endless dance of varying acts and
paces.

Ben Than is one of the largest markets in Ho Chi Minh City and is altogether a world in itself. Sea life of every shape, countless shoes and sandals, jewellery, fabric, and clothes compete with dried fish, food booths and even appliance stores. Locals sit on low stools eating small bowls of “pho”, vendors promptly expand their stalls into the aisles as new customers arrive. Darwin and I had a coconut juice at one of the food stalls and instead of napkins, wet facial wipes served in a plateful of ice were offered when we finished our drinks.

After taking a few photographs, Darwin and I continued walking to the direction of the Notre Dame Cathedral. We stayed clear of war museums and chose to explore the present-day city instead. Poverty is very much visible as we walked along, and it was heartbreaking to see elderly people going around the streets begging for money. Nonetheless, a few meters away, lovers were walking hand in hand; some were even perched on top of their scooters, balancing precariously while kissing. Nobody minded us while we took photographs of the surroundings, although some taxi drivers parked near the curb were eyeing us, unsure whether we are foreigners or locals.

The Notre Dame Cathedral is a very small and simple version of its namesake in Paris but nevertheless striking in its red-orange glory. Vietnam is indeed the Paris of Asia, the pearl of the orient. Aside from the ubiquitous French baguettes, some buildings still have windows with French-styled shutters and pillars with ornate carvings. On the right of Notre Dame is the Central Post Office, another immense relic from their French past.

We then hired two motorbikes to a place famous for Vietnamese pancakes (called bahn xeo). Let me take a short detour here and tell you about my road skills. Ask my sister Vanie, who used to take me on some afternoon rides around our town in (supposedly) Mama’s scooter, and she’d tell you that I’m the world’s worst passenger when on a bike. It’s because whenever Vanie makes a turn, the scooter leans over so far to the side that our knees almost touch the ground, so I … I shift my weight to the other side to counterbalance it! Makes sense to me! But I wonder why, after Vanie announced that to the family, nobody wanted to drive me in the scooter anymore.

So, back to the search for the famous pancakes. Darwin was taking blind shots from his ride while I sat behind my driver’s bike, nervously clutching the steel bars at the back of the rear seat. Bicycles and cars are supposed to stick to the right side of the road but it seems that going against the traffic or making a full instantaneous U-turn are just as common! Amazingly, everyone just seems to make way for anyone. They were all able to figure out who’s going where. I actually closed my eyes on a few occasions and I could my feel my hands getting sore from squeezing the steel bars. But I grinned and swallowed it all in the name of experience.

After a few minutes and a few squeals of fright, we finally arrived at the pancake place. I promised myself I’d be walking my way through Vietnam from then on but when I stepped off the bike, I smoothened my hair and realized that the last time I had this kind of fun was when Darwin and I went margarita drinking and went home very drunk! I grinned at the driver and gave him the thumbs-up. It was definitely one unforgettable experience!

Bahn xeo is a crepe filled with bean sprouts, onions, some bits of shrimp and pork. It was served straight from the hot pan with a big basket of fresh lettuce, basil, mints and sauce for dipping. The waitress noticed that we didn’t know how to start so she demonstrated the proper way of eating the cake – with her unwashed hands, she wrapped and rolled the cake and the vegetables together into one delectable piece.

With tummies satisfied, Darwin and I took another scooter ride to the Saigon River where we watched ferries transporting locals and bikes from and to the other side. There was something melancholic about the scene and I remained transfixed. I was reminded of the movie “The Lover” (based on the book by the French novelist Marguerite Duras about a French girl and a Chinese man in Vietnam) which had some beautiful and sad scenes on a ferry boat.

It was getting dark so Darwin and I decided to take a cyclo ride around the city. Cyclo is basically a bicycle with a cushioned seat attached to the front, so the passenger is in front and may I highlight, faces the danger of being thrown out if the driver at the back hits the breaks. Lucky for me, Jhov, my driver, was a gentle
breaker (if such a skill exists). It was a strange feeling being up close and personal with the opposite traffic and I thought for sure I was going to die a couple times when we were pedaling through traffic circles with motorbikes, cars and trucks barreling toward us, but again, amazingly, we lived!

Ho Chi Minh City is certainly more alive at night. Some empty sidewalks that we passed by early in the afternoon were now filled with vendors setting up instant food booths. Several music joints were playing loud music; Ben Than Market was transformed to a long line of street restaurants.

We wanted to sample the local food so Darwin asked his driver, Tham, to take us where the locals love to eat. We thought it’d be something similar to the hawkers in Singapore but to our shock, they took us a to a dirty curb on some pebbly road with some men sitting on small chairs drinking some sort of a whisky and eating some sort of food. Darwin and I looked at each other in horror! We both wanted to give up but the very friendly Tham guided us to a low table and seated us to a low stool, so low that my knees almost touched my ears (I’m exaggerating).

They ordered food (duck porridge) for us and in between stories, Jhov, with all his good intentions, served us duck pieces using his own chopsticks (I can write a 1000-word story of his chopsticks’ journey). Darwin was secretly laughing at me while I simultaneously said no-no and thank-you. The man seated on the next table chewed on some bones and spit it out at the graveled floor, then a fat cat came and ate whatever was left. Despite the strangeness of the situation, we were all gay and happy – men, cats and bacteria alike – the man on the other table even raised his whisky glass to me. But while Tham was relaxed, Jhov on the other hand was speedily consuming his beers then started talking passionately about Americans killing Vietcong. It made us a little uncomfortable so I told Darwin in Tagalog that we should just say goodbye and leave. We paid for the whole dinner, and at that time, we thought the bill was cheap (until we had an awesome dinner at a restaurant the next day and realized that we were duped). Jhov, Tham and the kiosk-in-the-dirty-curb owner were all probably friends.

We took a cab back to the hotel and after freshening up a bit, we decided to go out and drown the taste of dirty duck with coffee. Our walk led us to an elegant cafe at the back of the opera house where we had beer, sandwich, ice cream and of course, coffee. It was almost midnight when we walked back to the hotel and we laughingly shook our heads when we reminisced about our day.

Going around the city at the back of a scooter and in front of a cyclo, eating duck and drinking beer off a dirty curb may not be someone else’s idea of a vacation. But as Darwin said, we shouldn’t travel to Asian countries expecting to be amazed. We should explore them with affection. Ho Chi Minh City may not be picturesque or
breathtakingly beautiful but it definitely captures the senses. It makes you realize what obsessive cleanliness and constant worshipping of convenience have robbed you of. It jolts you back to the simple delights of the unforeseen and the unexpected.

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