Buzzing with energy and action, Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is officially called, has a population of over 6 million. The city has not only two names, but also two seemingly distinct identities. First, there is the eternally unchanging Saigon, seductive and captivating. Like Shanghai, or Bangkok, its name alone congers a hodgepodge of exotic images: women plying the streets wearing traditional conical hats (called non la), selling goods from buckets that hang from long sticks they carry across their backs; bowls of steaming hot Pho (rice noodle soup) sold from street-side vendors, and ancient pagodas nestled down quaint, back alleys. Western-style colonial buildings can still be seen from the long-standing French occupation. Yet, in juxtaposition to all that is timeless here, there is Ho Chi Minh City, the modern metropolis hurtling toward the future. Contemporary high-rise hotels, designer shopping malls and international restaurants are stacked next to each other beneath an ever-growing skyline. Its roads teem with a million motorbikes buzzing around like swarms of wasps. The streets are a cacophony of beeping horns and shouts from beckoning touts. Full of hustle and bustle, Ho Chi Minh City has the feel of being on the move and on the make. Rooted in tradition, but with its eye on the future, this city seems a perfect paradox.
On Monday afternoon I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat airport on a direct flight from Manila. After collecting my bag and exchanging some money, I was faced with a common traveler’s dilemma: where to go and how to get there. After deciding on a recommended hotel from my guidebook, I headed out onto the streets. Immediately I heard the call of taxi drivers: “Sir, Sir, this way, where are you going?. . . this way, Sir.” After inquiring how much it would cost to get to Pham Ngu Lao, the so-called backpacker district, I was quoted $10. I thought this was strange to have a price quoted in U.S. dollars as opposed to Vietnamese Dong, but with an exchange rate of 19,000 Dong to 1 u.s.d., I guess they figure $10 dollars somehow sounds less expensive than 200,000 Dong. I then asked them how much the local bus was, and they replied “same, same.”
Suspecting the cab drivers were attempting to over-charge me and knowing there was no way in the world a local bus in Vietnam would cost $10, I opted to try my luck with the latter option. “Pham Ngu Lao?” I asked the bus driver. He stoically shook his head in the affirmative and pointed his thumb to the back of the bus. I boarded the bus, taking the seat directly behind the driver and began fumbling through my wallet in an attempt to pay my fair. After seeing several locals board the bus and pay 3,000 Dong (about 20 cents) I did the same.
Now it was time for the fun part, trying to figure out where the bus was heading and when in the world I was supposed to get off. I kept trying to look at street names and match them with the crude map in my guidebook. This was anything but easy with street names like “Le Thanh Ton” and “Ly Tu Trong.” I must have appeared to be the typical, beleaguered foreigner because I soon heard the wee voice of a young girl sitting behind me. “First time here?” she asked in remarkably good English. “How could you tell?” I replied jokingly, “I’m trying to get to Pham Ngu Lao.”
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I exited the bus at my correct stop and soon found myself in the midst of backpacker central, Pham Ngu Lao. Like Khao San Road in Bangkok, Pham Ngu Lao is a district of Saigon that is crowded with budget hotels, bars, cafes, travel agencies and souvenir shops. Nearly half of the people you see walking down the road are travelers. Pham Ngu Lao is ground zero of the Saigon Western traveler’s scene.
Upon entering the hotel I’d selected from my guidebook, a place called Madam Cuc’s Hotel 64, I was greeted by Madam Cuc herself who said, “Put down bag, you need beer.” Lao Tzu could not have spoken truer words. After sipping down a delicious, icy-cold Saigon Lager, I was asked to take off my shoes before being led up a staircase to my room. I turned to pick up my bag but was told to leave it there. “We have machine,” Madam Cuc informed me. After climbing a steep flight of stairs, we began to climb another, and then another, and then another. At the top of each of the consecutive flights of stairs I thought “O.K. there’s no way it’s any higher than this.” But sure enough, I was wrong. In the end we climbed up 8 flights of stairs, barefoot. I began to see why Madam Cuc had offered me the beer and mentioned some sort of machine for my bags.
Thankfully, the room that awaited me on the top floor was perfect and by far the nicest I’d had on the entire trip. It contained my own bathroom with hot water, a queen-size bed, refrigerator, T.V. and, most importantly, air-conditioning, not to mention an unobstructed view of Saigon. For this room I was paying a whopping $16 per night. As I turned back toward the door, I heard the cranking of a large wench ingeniously constructed to lift over-sized backpacks up the otherwise impossible staircase.
Staircase aside, I found Madam Cuc’s to be the perfect headquarters for exploring Saigon. My room’s location on the top floor gave me the feeling of living in a penthouse and the lack of an elevator made its location feel all the more private. The only drawback was the occasions that I got to the bottom of the stairs only to remember I’d forgotten my camera or guidebook.
That night I explored the streets around my hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao district. I started with a delicious meal of lemongrass and ginger chicken, accompanied by rice and five fresh spring rolls. Vietnamese cuisine is one of my very favorites, so I was delighted to sample the “real McCoy.” In addition to the wonderful flavors, I found the price to be just as pleasing, the dinner costing about $5, including a beer. With a full stomach and slight buzz, I began to wander the streets, intoxicated by everything around me.
As I walked along crowded Bui Vien street, a pair of local girls on a motor scooter came cruising by. The one driving smiled at me and I instinctively smiled back. She immediately slowed down and asked “Hey, where are you going?” “Just walking,” I replied, as I had no real destination in mind. “You come with me,” she said, “we make love one hour.” “Thanks, but no, I’m good,” I replied, taken aback by the forward nature of her offer. I continued to walk on but she soon swerved the motor scooter in front of me, blocking my path. “You come now, we make make love one hour. One million Dong.” All along her friend sat on the back seat with a flat, expressionless look on her face. “I appreciate the subtlety and coyness of your offer,” I said dryly, stepping around the scooter, “but I’m really not interested.”
Granted, maybe this happens all the time, but I have to say it was a first for me. Sure, hookers and pimps will offer their services just about anywhere in the world, but such a bold approach by two girls who appeared to be heading somewhere was quite a shocker. Obviously prostitution is a huge racket all over Asia and just about every cab driver will ask if you want “nice girl” or simply “boom-boom?” but a couple of freelance hookers, hand-picking their clientele off the busy street was something I’ve never encountered. “Welcome to Saigon,” I thought to myself with a laugh as the girls cruised back onto the street and disappeared into traffic. Although I spent two more days in Saigon, this was the only instance of this happening.
The next two days I spent exploring Saigon and visiting several museums. Although I prefer to walk as much as possible when exploring a new city, this proved difficult in Saigon. Traffic consists of countless motorbikes and scooters all zipping around with little regard for traffic rules. The simple act of crossing the street takes daring and bravery (or just plain stupidity). After several near accidents and false starts, I gave up on trying to walk and instead hired one of the ubiquitous motorbike taxis that offer their service on every corner. I found this to be a much quicker and more exciting mode of transportation. Instead of dodging the maelstrom of motorbikes, I decided to join it. The average ride costs only 20,000 Dong ($1), and you can hire a driver for the entire day for around $10.
My first stop was the Reunification Palace. Once the headquarters of the South Vietnamese government, this building was the last to fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong. According to the film they played inside, on the morning of April 30, 1975 the first Communist tanks arrived and crashed through the wrought-iron gates. In a dramatic scene captured around the world, a Viet Cong soldier rushed into the building and up onto the fourth floor balcony where he unfurled a VC flag. In a chamber nearby, the South Vietnamese President, General Minh, waited with his defeated cabinet. As the VC soldier entered the room, General Minh said, “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.” The VC soldier replied, “You cannot give up what you do not have.”
After touring the Reunification Palace I headed to the War Remnants Museum. Once known as the Chinese and American War Crimes Museum, this is the most popular museum in Saigon. Surrounding the building are several pieces of American artillery, bombs and planes captured by the VC, now standing like trophies in central Saigon. Inside is a horrifying exhibit documenting the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, referred to as “The American War” by the Vietnamese, displaying everything from the use of torture and tiger-cage prisons to the disfiguring effects of Agent Orange. There is even a plaque on one of the walls that calls U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, an abject murderer and war criminal. Another interesting and disturbing display was a sculpture made out of shrapnel, simply titled “Mother.”
Granted, the museum only tells one side of the story and some of the rhetoric seems to border on propaganda; however, I think it would be difficult for any American, even supporters of the war, to pass through the museum without feeling a sense of disgust and regret. I began to feel like a German must feel while touring Auschwitz or Dachau. I started to wonder if similar museums might one day be erected in Baghdad or Kabul thirty years from now.
While browsing through the gift shop of the museum, I was shocked to see (presumably fallen) American soldier’s dog-tags for sale. There were also military patches and medals, as well as Zippo lighters engraved by soldiers. Certainly these things belonged in a museum, but a museum gift shop? And for only $4? Needless to say, this was in very, very poor taste.
The final interesting museum I visited was the Museum of Ho Chi Minh. Housing many personal effects of “Uncle Ho,” this proved to be an interesting exhibition that reminded me of some of the revolutionary museums I’ve visited in Havana, Cuba. Among the collection on display were several of his outfits, typewriter, eye-glasses and even his will which was chiseled into metal. The museum did a good job of deifying him, and you left with the feeling he was the Vietnamese equivalent to Gandhi.
After touring the museums I explored more of the Dong Khoi area of Central Saigon. Here I was surprised to see designer stores by Gucci and Louis Vuitton that would seem more fitting in Beverly Hills than in a city in Indochina. America may have lost the military war here, but when it comes to culture, nothing stops American influence. A single Strarbucks or American movie can convert more people to the American way of life than all of the bombs and war planes in the world. . . .