Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam (part 1)

I was a child in the 1970s, and though I have no memory of the war in Vietnam while it was actually happening, it was definitely a huge cultural presence in the US in the late 70s and 80s. My elementary schools had many kids who'd just arrived from Vietnam, whose parents had incredible stories about how they'd escaped. And until the last decade, the idea of visiting Vietnam as a tourist was something that had not occurred to me.

Everyone I've met who has been to Vietnam has reported that it was a fantastic experience, a wonderful place to see. TV personality Anthony Bourdain has enjoyed his time in Vietnam so much that he's said he'd like to live there. So when we planned the Asia portion of the trip, we both agreed that it was a place we wanted to go. We heard mixed reports about whether Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) or Hanoi was the better place to visit, and ultimately decided to go with Saigon. (We had about a week to spend there, and we've gone with the strategy of only moving once a week whenever possible.)

Interestingly enough, Saigon is just a city. From the air, it's a large urban sprawl, with the Mekong River winding through on its way to the ocean

The city itself is unremarkable, honestly. It's not as glittering and ornate as Bangkok, nor is it as scrubbbed and efficient as Kuala Lumpur. It's just a city, like any other. 

One thing Saigon does have is motorbikes. I've never seen this many motorbikes in one place before. 

The hotel we stayed in was next to a small shopping center that had a kids' playland inside.  We spent a couple of rainy afternoons there, which Carter enjoyed.

Here I'm getting a smooch. :-)

Carter even met some kids who spoke English and played with them. Both times we went, there were kids there who spoke Vietnamese to the adults they were with and also spoke fluent English with an American accent. I didn't get a chance to talk with them much, but I'm wondering if they were American kids visiting family. After months of being completely unable to communicate with other kids, Carter was thrilled to be able to talk to them.

There are many Australian, British, and American expats living in Saigon. We went to a fantastic Italian restaurant owned by an Aussie expat who'd worked in New York and  wanted to open a New York-style Italian restaurant in Saigon. He was definitely successful. It felt like we'd been transported to New York, only without the New York prices. There are lots of bars and restaurants, and the nightlife seemed pretty vibrant - not that we got to experience it much. 

We had prosecco to start, and the server brought Carter sprite in a champagne glass! He's spent more time in pubs and bars in the last five months than probably any other five-year-old on the planet.

On another night we went to the Hard Rock Cafe. I collect Hard Rock pins, and so we've been trying to visit as many HRCs as we can on the trip. We somehow ran out of time to visit the one in Bangkok, which I regret.

Carter likes mocktails! Sometimes I like his drinks more than mine, to be honest. 

We visited some of the major sights in the city on the first day. One of the museums we'd intended to go to was closed (it was Monday), so our tour guide asked if we'd like to go to the nearby city zoo instead. We did, even though Carter is not a huge fan of zoos. In my experience so far, zoos in Asia are often sort of sad places where you end up feeling sorry for the animals more than anything else. It gives me even greater respect for those zoos around the world that have committed themselves to being wild animals parks, with the animals in habitats as close to their natural environment as possible. 

Carter, as usual, enjoyed running around in the zoo more than looking at any of the animals. He was more excited about some kittens we saw in the bushes than any of the other animals. 

There was a baby hippo in one enclosure, which really surprised me. I've never been this close to one before. In the wild, they're usually underwater during the day, and also not far from their very protective mothers.

After the zoo, we went to the Independence Palace, site of the American Embassy during the Vietnam War.

This was one of the places I was most interested in seeing. I was too little to understand the fall of Saigon when it happened, but of course it's something I've learned more about since. It was really interesting to see this grand building and think about all the people who worked inside it during that time.

The building itself is open-air, for the most part. The architecture takes advantage of cross-breezes for cooling, and though individual rooms were occasionally stifling, we were there at the hottest time of year and it wasn't at all unpleasant to be in an un-air-conditioned building. Our guide walked us through different rooms and talked about important meetings that occurred in each. 

The map room was particularly interesting. I could almost visualize men in uniforms marking out strategies on the maps, cigarettes clenched between their teeth. Which is probably nothing like reality.

This row of old-fashioned phones really stood out to me.

These are real elephant feet, amazingly enough.

A highlight was the view of the helicopter pad on the roof from which the last embassy workers escaped during the fall of Saigon. This isn't the site of the infamous "last helicopter out of Saigon" with the people hanging on the ladder; that actually happened on an apartment building where one of the embassy staff lived. But still, it's such an iconic place.

There was a point at which I got weirdly emotional, and I'm not quite sure why. There was something about being in a place like this that was so full of recent history that made me feel very reflective. I mentioned this to our guide, and he asked if any of my family had fought in the war. I said yes, and he asked me their names. I mentioned  my mom's first cousin, who was killed in Vietnam, and my aunt's ex-husband, and he nodded and repeated their names, almost as if committing them to memory.

And then he told me his own story. His father had worked for the Americans as translators during the war. When the US forces pulled out, his father tried to find a way to go with them, but it wasn't possible. He then spent the next decade trying to get to the US. He escaped four times, and each time he was caught and imprisoned. Two of his brothers did make it to the US, and they now live in California, but our guide's father finally gave up. He married and had children, and tried to live his life in Vietnam as best he could. Because he had worked with the enemy, his life was hard, but he persevered. He taught his children English, and instilled in them the hope that they would be able to make it to America one day.

Of course, things in Vietnam are very different today than they were even ten years ago. Our guide has a good life in Saigon and seems to be doing well. His English skills have enabled him to work in the growing tourist industry, and though he'd like to visit his cousins in the US, he didn't intend to immigrate. I found his story incredibly moving and life-affirming, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to hear it.

Still, from what I learned talking to various people, there is still very much a rift between the north and the south. One person told us that he traveled to Hanoi with a guide from south Vietnam, and the locals there turned their back on him when they heard his accent. Since we didn't go to Hanoi, I obviously have no idea what it's like there for tourists, but I have to say that I felt very welcomed in Saigon as an American. It was very interesting.

Since Vietnam was once a French colony, there is a surprisingly high Catholic population here. The main cathedral is lovely, though it was closed to the public, so we didn't get to see the inside.

There's also an incredibly ornate 19th century post office in the middle of town.

It looks more like a train station than a post office.

I loved these old phone booths. 

So at this point, we'd seen many of the major highlights of the city. There are many sights related to the war that we elected not to visit because we thought Carter wouldn't be able to do them. It would have been really interesting to see some of that, but alas, we can't do all the cool stuff with a five-year-old in tow.

In the next post, I'll write about the two days we spent cruising around the Mekong River delta.

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