Saigon

April 18, 2010 Vietnam by Steve Martin Edit

Ho Chi Minh is everywhere. His smiling face beams down from posters and billboards often framed by the red flag with the yellow star. It's an instant reminder that we are in a communist country.

  

Otherwise you would never know. Shops and markets are everywhere, everything is available, nothing is in short supply and all of it appears to thrive in a free market.

Saigon is an eye opener. The smell from the traffic is overwhelming as a million motor scooters carry the population from place to place. Sometimes it is a solo rider, sometimes with a load as big as can fit, and sometimes an entire family of 4.... dad at the controls, mum at the back and two kids squeezed in between.

From what I can tell there are few road rules. Rather, the road appears to ruled by size of the vehicle and the power of the horn blasts. Traffic goes every which way you can imagine. It's bedlam. Yet nobody seems to crash and there appears to be no road rage.

Crossing the road is an adventure in itself. Our first outing with the kids is terrifying when we reach an intersection. We wait and watch, unsure when to cross. A man on scooter urges us to head out into the traffic which is pouring into our street.

With gritted teeth I push the stroller out into the road and suddenly I feel a little like Moses. The traffic doesn't stop, it simply goes around us, and as long as we move slowly and steadily we are safe. Still, it's not a good feeling to think you may be just about to kill your children! But we make it.

We had straight to Saigon Zoo which is in the centre of the city set in the Botanical Gardens. Somehow we pick up Mai, who decides to be our guide..... she just won't go away.

"Look, look.... elefan.... fie elfan!" she implores and leads us down a path. Sure enough we soon come across 5 Elephants, all rather sad in their rundown enclosure. For the next hour we see see all the usual suspects, most of which, according to Mai, have eaten at least one baby! I think, from Mai's broken English, that includes a depressed donkey in a concrete cage. It seems the animals at Saigon Zoo are rather cranky and just a little dangerous!

The trip out into the world of Saigon has startled Jo just a little bit. I can see it on her face that she's a bit unsure about this place. So am I. I don't understand the language, I don't understand the currency, I don't understand the traffic. But, I am determined to get out and breathe it all in.

We need some supplies from a supermarket. After a very confusing conversation at the reception desk I head out on my own. The streets are very dirty and the footpaths cluttered with people, scooters, tables, families & street vendors. At every corner a man tries to entice me onto his sccoter Taxi. "No, no" I say "I Walk". "Bah!" is the usual reply.

After a few wrong turns I find a small supermarket. Who would have thought I'd find Coon Cheese slices in the fridge? Or a block of Bega cheese? There is children's food and crackers and camembert and Orange Juice and fresh milk.... it makes me feel a little better that I can buy some of this stuff for James and Emily. They are doing very well, but they need some normality.

My next adventure comes the following day. We need sheets for the sleeper train to Da Nang. No one understands "Sheets"! Finally with some great mime work the Reception Manager understands. "Ben Thanh Market" he says. With Map in hand I set off thinking I can find sheets without having to go to Ben Thanh.

After half an hour I find a shopping mall. Everything you'd find in a major department store is there except single sheets. I can buy a king size quilt set through to a cot sheet set, but not a single sheet. Ben Thanh it will have to be.

At the market looking for sheets, I successfully buy 4 tablecloths..... I even haggled down the price a bit! [Think of my deflated pride when I returned and had Jo say "Um.... I don't think these are sheets?"]

After buying my "sheets" I decide to shun the taxi's and walk back. I figured on at least 45 minutes, but there was plenty to see along the way. The Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Saigon Museum & the French, German and US embassies. It was while strolling past the US compound that I notice something familiar about the building across the road.

On top of the building, which is quite rundown, is a small square flat roofed structure, about 5-7 metres square. It looks exactly like the top of the building in the famous footage of the Americans airlifting their people out before the fall of Saigon. It's not the old embassy, that was demolished and turned into a park, but the similarity is striking.

That is just another moment of recognition that I've started calling my "Apocalypse Now" moments. It happens regularly..... obviously I've retained way too many Vietnam war movies! {Kaz Horsley would be proud!}

Saigon is dirty, noisy, crumbling and mad. It has little about it to attract me, but I think it is simply fantastic.