SE Asia Trip Dispatch: Part Two (Saigon: First Impressions)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jet lag does some strange things to the mind on the road. Waking up, sweating in the middle of the night, with no chance of falling back asleep, it sends your mind into some dark corners of the world, switching off all pleasure receptors and robbing you of all that you hold dear. But, alas, when the fog finally clears, the circadian rhythm jumps back in line, and the overhead sun no longer sends shivers down your spine when you step outside, the world comes back into focus, and you wonder what all the fuss was about.

But a step back one day, wandering the streets of District 1 at 6:50 a.m., already awake for several hours, I grabbed a mid-morning snack, a banh mi from a corner food stand, and made my way to Reunification Palace, perhaps Saigon’s most well-known landmark. It was here on April 30, 1975, that — as the blasting soundtrack on the post-tour DVD explained — the Liberation Army rolled its tanks through the ornate front gate and finally ended decades of colonial rule. For those in the West, this was known as “The Fall of Saigon,” but for most in Vietnam, it was the beginning of the end of foreign occupation, and the building is an important historical sight no matter how you view those fateful days in 1975.

The building that stands today is actually relatively new, having been built in 1962 on the same site after two defecting pilots bombed the former structure there, the Norodom Palace, the former home and offices to all of the French governors of Cochinchina from 1887-1945. Today the palace has been preserved in its Diem-era form, evoking the architectural style of the time. From the basement, where original maps from the war hang on the foot-thick reinforced walls of the basement, there is a staircase that leads to the roof’s helipad, the only other working helipad save for the American Embassy down the road.

To say that the streets of Saigon are hectic is like saying the weather is hot here: it doesn’t even begin to accurately describe it. For practicality, and ease of use, the city’s streets are clogged at all hours, of motorbikes, scooters, and motorcycles driving elbow-to-elbow, occasionally choosing to obey the few street lights that attempt to control traffic here, and vying for space to change lanes and make turns when needed.

Which also means that crossing the street is, well, a learned skill. I can safely say I have crossed many the street in Saigon and I live to tell about it, and therefore I have faced death and defeated it (barely). If you should find yourself in this position, the best advice I can give to you is that drivers probably don’t want to hit you, and they will try really hard to avoid you.

That said, look for any microsecond of space between drivers, step foot into the street (remember when Indiana Jones takes that step into nothingness in “The Last Crusade”?) and make your way forward. You’ll basically see hundreds of cars and bikes careening your way, but more than likely they’ll part and and allow you to get across eventually. The last thing you want to do is show timidness. Sudden stops or changes in your speed causes drivers to miscalculate where you will be in a few seconds, and will cause more problems.

The food: well, what can I say that hasn’t filled travel articles and volumes of books already about the cuisine of Vietnam? Perhaps what is most noticeable about the food in Vietnam is the care that every person seems to have for it. Food here is not to be eaten quickly, or thoughtlessly for that matter, but rather something that time needs to be set aside for, and preparation needs to be taken at all hours. From the earliest hours of the day (and believe me, I was up for it), street corners and markets like Ben Tanh — the largest in the city — fill up with a cacophony of activity including peeling, dicing, cutting, mixing, slathering, and hawking, all for the onslaught of hungry eaters who pour into alleys outside their homes or onto street corners near their work for a bowl of soup, or for a plate of rice and prepared meat or fish.

Here is not a place to lose weight, or somewhere to be picky about what you eat. Dark alleyway bistros with tiny plastic chairs and a metal table will likely be the site of one of your best meals of the trip. Sit down, ask for what everyone else is eating, and enjoy, and do it all again in a few hours. You’ll likely be joined by a toddler playing games around your feet, a student eating across from you, and a grandmother cleaning her kitchen behind a window behind your head.

The honking of horns, the curious smells that waft out of every alley, and the constant attention of every street hawker, moto-driver and corner straggler is something that the long-term resident probably eventually gets used to, but it’s something that instantly seems to be noticeably lost the second your bus leaves the city, a piece of a puzzle that quickly goes missing.

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