Capitalist Saigon...but isn't Vietnam communist?
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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I spent about three weeks in Vietnam during a summer break almost three years ago. It was one of the most naturally beautiful, logistically easy, and cheapest places I had ever visited. So of course it was high on my list of places to bring Katie this time around. A short flight brought us from the ultra-sedate and orderly Singapore to the vibrant chaos of Saigon (now officially known as "Ho Chi Minh City". Forget any preconceptions you may have, a lot has changed since the "American War" ended back in 1975. Tall glass office towers dominate the skyline, there are tourists everywhere, every other corner seems to have a KFC, and you see far more baseball caps (emblazoned with MLB logos) than conical hats. Although the communist north may have been victorious in the war over thirty years ago, you would never know it by looking around Saigon today. This place has more capitalism per square foot than anyplace in the USA
Perhaps the most unnerving activity you can do here is just crossing the street. There are few traffic lights (due to regular power cuts) and barely any crosswalks, which combined with overcrowded roads thronged with busses and scooters, make crossing any road a bit hazardous. So here is the formula to cross a Vietnamese street and avoid injury or death: Look both ways (even if it a one way street, signs are routinely ignored) and step out when it looks like you won't get run over in your first few steps, then walk slowly and deliberately to the other side but NEVER STOP and NEVER RUN, traffic will ebb and flow around you like a stream going around a rock. Having giant busses swerving around you and buzzing scooters coming within inches is intimidating but the system seems to work, there are very few traffic jams. Despite the huge amount of vehicles, we haven't been hit or seen anyone get run over yet! Actually, I think we've gotten the hang of it and can confidently step into the busiest street without significantly raising our pulse...famous last words!
During our time here we visited most of the obligatory sights as well as took a day trip south into the Mekong River Delta. A visit to a war museum here certainly shows that the winners write the history. References to the "American Aggressors" and "US Imperialists" abound in the captions. Despite that, we have yet to experience anything other than genuine hospitality and smiles from the Vietnamese people, young or old. It seems the war is pretty much ancient history and other than the a few tours of war related sites (DMZ, Khe Sanh, Cu Chi Tunnels) given to tourists, and the occasional museum or memorial dedicated to the "Revolutionary Martyrs", there isn't much left of what happened here in the 1960's and early 1970's.
I'm not sure what I was expecting Saigon to look like, but it certainly wasn't this! My mind was filled with images from the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, conical hats and people carrying two baskets hung on each end of a long pole balanced over a shoulder. When Todd visited here a few years ago, I was unable to take enough vacation to join him for that segment of his trip, and the whole thing seemed so exotic and challenging. I have found Saigon to be an extremely tourist friendly place, quite orderly compared to a lot of places we have been, clean by American standards, and the streets are lined successful small businesses. There are manicured parks every few blocks, and all the flowers are in bloom making it easy to think you are in a pretty French city. Even the legendary street crossing stress didn't seem so scary.
We spent a day walking around Saigon taking in all the sites, including the Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace prior to "liberation." The place is absolutely frozen in 1975. The décor is right out of Austin Powers, including a Casino room with a bar shaped like a barrel, bright orange furniture and puke green carpet. The palace has a basement with a bomb shelter and lots of tunnels leading off in different directions, and the walls are lined with huge maps of Vietnam used by the Americans and the South Vietnamese in visualizing their war strategies. A lot of the communication equipment, such as short and long wave radios, field phones, telegraphs, and radars (all with USA logos on them) were still in eerily in their positions in the bomb shelter as they were the day the North Vietnamese army drove a tank through the Palace gates and took Saigon in 1975. We also went to the War Remnants museum, which I found to be an extremely emotionally gut wrenching experience, and has probably affected me more than anything I have seen on this trip.
The following day we took a day trip a few hours south to the Mekong delta to see how people lived and worked on the water. They certainly have the tourist circuit figured out there, and the tour included stops at several local shops built on the banks of the delta that made products "you can only get in Mekong Delta," which included such delicacies as coconut candies, rice paper, crispy coconut rice pancakes, and puffed rice crispies. So of course we had to support the local economy, and ended up buying a pack of those yummy coconut candies, and a pack of the crispy pancakes that we would eat much later over the next week. Yeah right... the entire pack of pancakes was gone before we even got back to Saigon that night (it was a 3 hour bus ride and hard to have them sitting on my lap the whole time), and the coconut candies were all safely in our stomachs before we fell asleep that night
Anyway...back to the delta now... Part of the tour included lunch at a cute little house on an island in the middle of the delta. We rented bikes there, and set off on our own to explore the surroundings. The streets were lined with cute little houses, most with their own rice paddy in the front yard, many with their own chickens and cows, and several fruit trees on the property. People ran out in the street from the houses to say "hi" to us and ask where we were from...it kind of felt like being a local celebrity. Our tour ended in the town of Vinh Long, which seems to be the prosperous tourist hub of the delta region, with its own tourist office, several nice hotels, and a few upscale shops. I continue to be amazed at how well set up and organized things are here for tourism.