Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
April 22-24, 2008
Every tourist should get out of the insulated confines of their tourist buses and walk the streets. I found that it was on street level that a foreigner could feel the hustle and bustle, the soul and pulse of a city, its attendant dangers notwithstanding. Capturing street scenes with my Leika lens was akin to taking portrait photos; it preserveed the look of a city at a certain age.
It turned out that Saigon was a mo-town – a motorbike town. Vrooming at rush hour, motorbikes occupy 90% of the road, relegating other vehicles to virtual car lanes! Crossing the street could be a challenge. Good thing the stop lights had timers. Otherwise, pedestrians would be playing Russian roulette with these unstoppable motos.
Downtown: District 1
Quyen Thanh Hotel, which we found in the internet, was located in District 1, a busy downtown teeming with street hawkers, moto drivers, tour operators, streetwalkers, Caucasian backpackers, and an assortment of shady characters. The streets were alive with all sorts of action. As for the hotel rooms, Quyen Thank had the 3Cs crucial to budget travelers: clean, comfy, and cheap (room rate: $12 per day) with a spacious bathroom. It should be noted, though, that the hotel closed its doors before midnight. If you jet in at night, you might be rendered homeless, as we were (see previous post). On the up side, Sa Sa Cafe, home of fantastic fruit shakes, was just a stone’s throw away.
The Heat is On in Saigon
We had been warned: April was the height of the hot spell in Indochine. On our first day, I peeled off the stuffy khaki pants I had just worn and frantically changed into my shorts. It was HOT and HUMID, like majorly, despite the teak trees providing a cool canopy over parts of the city. The locals didn’t seem appropriately dressed, though. I wondered how the Vietnamese-on-the-street, even coconut juice vendors, could comfortably wear long-sleeve shirts despite the humidity. The sartorial preference in Saigon seemed to be tailored clothes. There were many haberdasheries and many a man-on-the-street garbed in slacks and shirt.
Cam On, Vo!
Even the cabbies were well-dressed. The first cabbie we had for the day was a charmer named Vo in his uniform: a pristine white shirt and a red tie. Eventually my girlfriends engaged him in a tete-a-tete, despite his minimal English. Ayee asked him about his plans that night. We were not sure how much of the sentence he understood, but he let out a chuckle. Ikin imagined it was because of the word “tonight” and started flirting with the clueless cabbie. Before spilling out of his comfy cab, we sang our thanks: “Cam on, Vo” (cam on means thank you in Vietnamese) to the tune of Madonna’s Vogue.
Wedding by the Way
As our cab cruised past Notre-Dame Basilica, we saw a couple dressed in white having a pre-nup photo shoot beside the church. It was rather odd that even in wedding white, the Vietnamese still have their motorbikes (also painted white!) with them. Funny how the groom seemed to lovingly hold the moto while his bride was fumbling with her dress unattended. I pronounced them man and bike.
Tryst under the Trees
Teak trees (sao) towered over the city, dwarfing even some buildings. I had never seen such rainforest-size trees in an urban area. Even the sequoias in California were well beyond the city limits. The park by the Notre-Dame Basilica was one such place where the trees can be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Clearly, the cool and shade invited people for a stroll or long talks on park benches.
By nightfall, the city morphed into resplendent elegance, its well-preserved French colonial buildings beautifully bathed in light. But not all was glittering and gentrified. Somewhere near the statue of Ho Chi Minh, I was propositioned by a Vietnamese teenager, which I politely declined with a smile. Despite that disconcerting experience, the place still presented itself as a charming nocturnal promenade. We were traversing the well-appointed avenue in search of dinner. We found visual delight instead. I think we stayed hungry that night.
This was the face that Saigon left with me: dynamic and chaotic, laid-back and elegant.