Ms. Saigon

I admit I did say “Good morning Vietnam” when I looked out on the city from our hotel room that first morning

This past weekend, we took the first of what we hope will be two trips to Vietnam. This first trip was to Saigon, now officially named Ho Chi Minh City, but apparently no one other than a few government officials refer to it that way.  Before this weekend, pretty much everything I knew about the Vietnam war I learned from the musical Miss Saigon. Of course, I remember the terrible nightly newscasts that would be on tv in our kitchen during dinner. (Yes, we did watch tv during dinner growing up. Somehow, I managed to still turn out okay, although I guess it explains why my four siblings all turned out the way they did – just checking to see if any of them are reading my blog). The images from the news back then are etched in my memory, but I can’t say I fully understood as a kid what it was all about, nor can I say I fully understand it now either. Everything else I previously knew about Vietnam I learned from the various ladies back home in Brookline who do my nails. But since they are mostly speaking to one another in Vietnamese, I hadn’t picked up a lot from them either (other than an occasional nail fungus way back when I used to have acrylic nails – just kidding, this only happened once and it was probably my fault not theirs.)

Saigon traffic

The first thing that strikes you about Saigon as soon as you leave the airport and get onto the road is the traffic, which is mostly comprised of motorbikes. This photo can hardly begin to convey how incredible it is. Everyone is on motorbikes – young and old and all ages in between, families of four with one kid in front and one squeezed in between the parents, babies strapped to their mothers chests, women in dresses sitting side-saddle. I even saw one family with the dog tied to the front of the bike (I swear I am not kidding about this and it is not at all intended as a jab at Mitt Romney – in fact, the dog story is the one thing I actually like about Mitt.) Many people riding the bikes wear face masks to protect against the exhaust fumes, but not everyone wears helmets – rarely were the little kids wearing helmets even when the parents were, which leads me to believe they either don’t sell kid-sized helmets there or, more likely, people can’t afford to buy helmets that will be quickly outgrown.

Quite a bargain at $4

We were warned by our tour guide, Yang, who took us around on Saturday that the key to crossing a street is to trust the bike riders to know how to swerve around you and, once in the street, never to start backing up to avoid one, because you will get hit by another one coming up behind you. I’m sure you get used to it after a while and learn how to negotiate the street crossings, but it is very scary. In fact, Moshe told us that an MIT professor was killed in just the way Yang described a few years ago while visiting Vietnam. By the way, I was traveling with two esteemed professors of transportation (Moshe and our friend Maya), who have been around the block a few times (no pun intended) when it comes to traffic, and they were both pretty amazed by the scene in Saigon. Maya even videotaped the traffic throughout the weekend so that she could show it to her class back at her university. And Moshe engaged in an intense bargaining session with a very persistent and cute teenage girl at the open-air night market to obtain the coveted Saigon Traffic t-shirt pictured at right, which he wore to teach his MIT transportation class via videoconference this past week.

Maya emerging from a Cu Chi tunnel

We devoted Saturday to visiting the countryside and started out bright and early with a private driver and tour guide in a comfortable van, which enabled a very tired Erez to catch up on a lot of sleep. (I had to recap for him that evening all of Yang’s remarks during our driving time since he slept through them.) Our first destination was the Cu Chi tunnels, (about 1.5 hours outside of the city, but still part of Saigon) which were instrumental in the success of the VietCong during the war and a major part of their strategy. (I think you’ll be much better off reading about the background here on Wikipedia). The actual tunnels have long since collapsed, but the site is set up so that you experience the whole sense of the tunnel system, how elaborate it was and how it factored into the war. They have recreated some small length of tunnel that you can go down into and walk or crawl through, although, as Yang assured us, they have considerably widened the tunnels to allow fat-assed westerners (my words, not his, but I know that’s what he was implying) to go into them. We saw a couple of actual tunnel entrances that still exist and, let’s just say that there is no way my hips would have fit through them (all I could think of is that scene from Winnie the Pooh where he gets stuck halfway through the hole in Rabbit’s house). Despite Yang’s assurances about the tunnel for the tourists being wide enough, my claustrophobia led me to stay above-ground. Moshe also opted not to go in for different reasons from me, but Erez and Maya took a quick tour.

My son the warrior

For Erez, the highlight of the Cu Chi visit was the firing range, where you can, for a small additional fee, shoot rounds of live ammunition with the military gun of your choice. Erez chose an AK47 and, according to his Facebook post from that day, his life is now complete (I’m thinking he has a couple more things to experience before he can say that, but it’s his life not mine.) I didn’t really approve of this activity. And the idea that firing a gun is built into the tourist experience at a site like this seems pretty awful. But I consented because he really wanted to do it.

I stuck to more domestic activities as shown in the photo down below. I’m not sure what exactly I was supposed to be doing with this contraption, but it had something to do with the process of making alcohol from rice.

Me churning rice into alcohol.

Erez looking nervous that this fish was going to be the only food for lunch (it wasn’t)

From Cu Chi, we drove another couple of hours to the Mekong Delta, which is where tour guide Yang grew up and where his parents, who were on the side of the south Vietnamese during the war, still live. [His father, who is a doctor, was interred in a "re-education" camp for several years after the war, which doesn't sound like it was a pleasant experience. Ironically, according to him, it was his mother who should more logically have been "re-educated" since she was a teacher, while his father just focused on healing people. But the north Vietnamese government wasn't that concerned about re-educating women.] At the Mekong Delta, we got on a motorized longboat to one of the island villages where we had a delicious Vietnamese lunch and walked around the village.

On the Mekong Delta

From that village, we went back to the river and got on a small canoe to travel down a much narrower tributary to another island. The canoe boat rowing is a female-dominated industry. These women, who row sitting the whole time on the edge of the boat on their haunches, are pretty impressive. On this island, we went to an outdoor cafe where we had tea and sampled local tropical fruits while some musicians performed traditional Vietnamese music (later that night, Erez said to the rest of us, “did anyone else besides me think that music was horrible?” I have to admit that my western ear has a hard time appreciating eastern music, so I agreed with him, although it was still an interesting experience.)

Tea, tropical fruits and live Vietnamese music!

 

 

The boy from the honeybee farm, Yang, Maya and several hundred bees – yikes!

The final stop on this island was a place where they raise honeybees. I mentioned a few times to Yang that I’m allergic to beestings but he assured me that these bees don’t sting. Then when we arrived, he introduced us to the boy in the photo who he said once got stung 10 times – and lived to tell about it. So much for the bees that don’t sting. The rest of our group sampled tea with honey and candy made with honey, while bees flew around. I tried to keep a distance, thinking all the while of what would happen if I got stung by a bee and went into anaphylactic shock in the middle of the Mekong Delta. I would put my money on the lady who rowed the boat being able to get me quickly to a hospital. But all’s well that ends well and we ended up buying a couple of bags of the honey/sesame candy, crossing back to the other side of the river and heading back to the city in the very comfy van (nap time again for Erez).

 

$3 = 63,000 vietnamese dong

That night for dinner we decided to go to the pho restaurant, now called Pho 2000, that is famous for Bill Clinton having visited it back in 2000, when he became the first American president to visit Vietnam since the war. As a result of this visit, the Vietnamese love Bill almost as much as I do. Despite my allegiance to Bill, we decided that we really like ramen noodle soup, which we eat a lot of here in Singapore, better than pho, but the historic significance of the restaurant and the price ($3 for the bowl in the photo) made it well worth the trip.

Fruit seller at the night market

Dessert – another Vietnamese dish called sticky rice – was obtained at a food stand in the famous Ben Thanh Market (Night Market), where we also bought some really cheap, low quality souvenirs (including aforementioned Saigon Traffic t-shirt). The sticky rice doesn’t sound or look like something you want to eat for dessert, but it was really really good once they put sugar and some kind of sauce (I have no idea what it was and don’t think I want to) all over it. Very colorful too.

 

Sticky rice vendor stand

 

And the finished dessert – tastes better than it looks

Our second and last day in Saigon was spent in the city itself visiting a few of the more famous tourist sites, first and foremost the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes. Apparently, American tourists didn’t love that name, so they changed it – but I can assure you the content remains the same. I have been to some depressing museums before (Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem), but, for me at least, this was worse. It did not feel good to be an American walking through this museum which was mostly photographic exhibits and displays of weapons, including chemical, used in the war. You realize going through the museum that you are seeing a biased portrayal, but it doesn’t really matter in terms of the effect it has on you, and more importantly, on the effect it had on the people who suffered as a result of it. Suffice it to say, no photos to go along with this part of the blog post.

Quite a long word in Vietnamese for table

We also visited the Reunification Palace which had been the seat of the south Vietnamese government, and was eventually bombed and occupied by the north Vietnamese. I didn’t take too many photos there, but the photo on the right, taken in the kitchen, is of a particularly helpful sign that Erez pointed out to me. I don’t think we ever would have figured out what this flat metal surface was without the translation.

 

 

Lunch that day was a lesson in how many different ways it’s possible to prepare rice. We ate at a restaurant near the palace called Ngon that had a beautiful decor and many different varieties of rice dishes. We had “broken” rice with pork, fried rice with salted fish, and “burnt-bottom” rice with two different kinds of sauces. I thought my family was unique in liking the burnt, crunchy rice on the bottom of the pot when I make rice on the stove (this doesn’t happen very often anymore now that Trader Joe’s sells individual packets of microwaveable rice). But in Saigon, it is actually something you order from the menu and it was delicious. Like a very crunchy and flavorful rice cake that you eat with a delicious seafood sauce.

We had a late flight out that night and I was sorry to have to leave so soon. For me, it was impossible to be in these places and not be constantly thinking about what it must have been like there during the war – for the Americans and the Vietnamese. Yang said that a lot of vets come over to visit and tour Vietnam and they interact with VietCong vets while they are here. It is hard to imagine what it must be like for all of them if I, who barely had a clue what was going on during the war, had such a visceral reaction to being in these places. We are hoping to go back to Vietnam to visit Hanoi in the north and take a cruise on the Halong Bay if we can find another weekend to do so.

I want to end this post by commending myself for refraining from posting a Facebook status at any point during our trip that said “Good morning Vietnam!” which I’m guessing anyone who knows the movie is tempted to do when they are there. Special thanks to my son Erez who helped me restrain myself by telling me how idiotic it would be (which he says about everything I post on FB or this blog site).

380 Comments

  1. Shari, loved your post. It sounds like you are having a great time being in Asia, and I want to visit Vietnam even more than before. You all look great in the pictures btw. Can’t wait to see you when you get back and hear more. Robin

  2. Another great post.( and yes, I read every one, so no insults for this sister, please. I would probably never cross the street if I was there. It sounds like an awful experience, and may be the same way in Thailand. Can’t wait to see your post week re Hanoi. I feel that I am living your trip with you through these posts.

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