the madness, the madness… (Saigon, Day One)

Candidates so far for the most insane thing I have seen on the back of a 50cc Honda motor scooter in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City:

  • An entire family of four, sharing a single poncho in a torrential downpour.

  • A 2’ by 4’ double-sided, internall lit restaurant sign.

  • A 2’ by 5’ glass window pane, being held vertically between driver and passenger.

  • Somewhere between 8 and 10 100-roll soft packs of toilet tissue and paper towels.

Greetings from Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, where the engine of Vietnamese commerce has been distinctly identified, and it’s the Honda Cub. There are literally millions of the things here, clogging every street, sidewalk and occasionally restaurant interior in the city. Crossing the street takes nerves of ice and bowels of titanium; walking on the sidewalks diminishes but does not eliminate your chances of being turned into roadkill by an errant scooter (or city bus).

I kinda like it here.

Okay, the story thus far: we arrived on Friday morning after a 90m flight from Singapore. Saigon’s airport is neither the burnished monstrosity that Singapore, Shanghai or Bangkok are, nor is it quite the welcome-to-1955-motherfucker shock that is Cambodia. It’s small but functional, and we breezed through customs in no time at all.

From the air, Saigon has a sort of Lego aspect to it: all of the houses are two or three stories, blocky, and painted in pastel colors, often alternating between floors. From street level, in the cab to the hotel, it’s sometimes a bit shabby-looking, but very obviously in the grips of a sea change. Just over a decade ago, the Vietnamese government insituted the local version of Perestroika (doi moi, I believe), and Vietnam has been rocketing along from the 19th century to the 21st ever since. Currently, they appear to be roughly in 1987, but give it another few years…

Anyway, we’re staying at the Rex Hotel, a vast colonial-era enterprise that was, famously, where the US Army would give its daily briefings to journalists during the war. After dumping our stuff there the first morning, we were famished, and wandered a few blocks to Saigon’s largest market, Ben Tranh, for lunch.

Just walking down the streets here is a full-body sensory assault. The sidewalks are littered with open-air cafes, lunch carts, porta-grills, hawkers, cyclos, scooter taxis and just people hang about, all of whom you must pick your way through in order to reach…the intersections. About which, a word or two.

Miranda observed that if Rome and Shanghai’s drivers were to breed, Saigon would be more or less what would result. There are, I think, maybe 30 traffic lights in the entire city, of which no more than 50% are operational at any time, and which are considered advisory (at best) by cars and busses, and completely decorative by the scooters and cyclos. To cross the street, the method appears to be to simply wait until traffic thins out a bit (there are generally no “breaks” as such), and then to simply step off and walk, maintaining a constant and deliberate pace. Slowing down or stopping is ill-advised, and reversing direction would be fatal. It takes a bit of getting used to.

So yes, Ben Tranh Market: the size of a New York City block, Ben Tranh is a huge enclosed building with a clock tower in back. Internally, it is divided by two main, wide “avenues” crosswise north-south and east-west, but each quarter block thus demarked is itself built out of hundreds of little stalls and shops, with incredibly narrow passages in the negative space between them. Picking your way though them is a delicate process, especially since the shop owners tend to perch on the floor in front of them — rarely, even in Asia, have I ever felt so conspicuously outsized. The market’s quarters each vaguely specialize in one sort of mechandise — clothing and cloth, prepared food, groceries, housewares, etc — but there’s a lot of overlap and cross-pollination.

Lunch at Ben Tranh was at one of the ubiquitous bun stands: wide, slightly udon-like rice noodles with a tasty broth and whatever accessories (chicken, shrimp, beef, tendon, tripe, peppers, veggies) that you care to point at. It was beautifully refreshing, and happily my stomach seems to be dealing with the local flora and fauna without complaint.

As we were in the market, the afternoon monsoon started to come down, beating out a cacophany on the steel roof, so we stayed inside for a bit longer, poking around the stalls to the general amusement of the locals.

After the rain let up, we picked our way back to the hotel through some back streets, finding a defunct Hindu temple and a great number of t-shirt hawkers. From the hotel, we took a cab to the day’s big objective: the Ho Chi Minh City Institute for the Blind…and Massage Academy.

Training the blind to be masseurs is, apparently, a long-standing tradition across Asia, and Saigon is no exception. For a shockingly small amount of money (by western standards anyway), we were led into (seperate) air-conditioned rooms and completely and thoroughly worked over for an hour by a succession of masseuses. After the nearly 24 hours of continuous airplane travel in coach, this was indescribably wonderful, and we wobbled out of the place on somewhat shaky legs.

The plan after the massage was to make our way over to Saigon’s backpackers’ district to book a tour to the Cao Dai Temple for the next day, but the weather had other ideas. We’d gotten about two blocks down the street when the skies opened up and commenced with a deluge of biblical proportions. We quickly skipped into a camera/film store where a very bored looking young man was putting all of his attention into a series of comic books, and waited out the storm. And waited. And waited. As we watched, first the storm drains backed up. Then the street flooded. Then the sidewalks flooded, the whole process taking no more than 20 minutes, and the rain still coming down in sheets. Staggeringly, the rain did not deter the traffic in the slightest: Saigon’s scooterists simply threw rain ponchos over themselves, their passengers and their bikes (or didn’t) and blasted on through. Despite a general approach to the conditions that would have given my MSF teacher a coronary embolism, there were, amazingly, no accidents that we saw.

After about an hour, the rain began to let up a little bit, and we decided to make a break for it. I rolled up my pants to the knee, thanked the gods for my decision to wear sandals that day, and we headed out. To our embarrassment, we quickly realized that we were no more than a block from the travel agency, but getting there involved crossing a street that was at least a foot deep in backed-up rain sewer water. Praying that we had no open cuts or blisters, we tromped on through it.

Setting up the tour was a quick and painless process (props to the people at Sinh Cafe Tours), and afterward we walked out to see an empty meter cab on the other side of the street. We attempted to wave to him to wait for us, but he misread our intent and quickly pulled a u-turn through oncoming traffic to get over to us. (Repeat to self: this is normal. this is normal. this is normal.) No fatalities caused, we piled in and headed back to our hotel, detouring around flooded streets as necessary.

After washing off our feet, we headed back into the night for dinner; feeling tired and under-adventurous, we ended up at a touristy place called “Givral” a block from our hotel, which was sort of forgettable. A quick passegiata later, we succumbed to jet lag and collapsed in a heap in our room at 8pm.

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