Strolling in Saigon

Trip Start Aug 04, 2011
Trip End Jan 04, 2012

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Monday, September 19, 2011

A free day with no tours but with a plan in mind, we take to the streets of Saigon. After a lay in we're a little refreshed and visit the Reunification Palace. The building is grand, however reminds me a little of a civic centre on the inside. As tourists we are able to pop into many of the meeting rooms, a cinema and some underground war rooms as well as viewing the terrace on the roof where the Vietnamese took the southern capital in 1975 by raising a flag. The tanks crashing through the gates of Reunification (post war name) Palace while Americans clambered onto helicopters to escape are some of the iconic photos from the 70's. We picked a good time of day to visit and the place wasn't crowded. A little bit plain, but another tourist bit ticked off the list - Palace - done.
Onwards from here we popped in to Notre Dame cathedral but the place was closed (it would open again at 3pm for visitors), so we planned to come back and visit on our way back through. We had a look around the inside of the french colonial post office which architecturally speaking was very interesting and was still working efficiently for the Vietnamese post. Was a good stop off, and gave us the chance to sit down for a few minutes.
A long walk down a street with 5 star hotels on one side and the American Consulate and History museum on the other (the history museum has lots of tanks and war vehicles outside including one of the tanks that broke into Reunification Palace, however we were a little museumed out at this stage) took us to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens were introduced by the french again and house the Saigon Zoo. Not missing a chance to ogle at some animals we paid the steep fee of 8 000 Dong (About 25 pence) each and headed inside. At first not an animal to be seen. Kate had read that there was a new safari being built somewhere and these animals are due to be moved. Once we saw the animals I would suggest if they could move them yesterday it wouldn't be too soon. They have all the obvious; tigers, lions, white tigers, bears, etc but the vast majority are being kept in cages completely unsuitable. It was a little saddening being as close as we possibly could to these animals and seeing confusion in their eyes. A white tiger padded up and down it's enclosure (never has a name of a room been so apt) with it's nose pressed against the glass and we were mere centimetres away. The Lions had a concrete enclosure smaller than that given to a group of monkeys with a small bowl of water in the searing heat. I found it a little distressing. Moments of enjoyment came from seeing the monkeys swing around and watching Kate talking to a lizard who seemed to take affection to her. He kept rubbing his face against the glass when Kate was close, but we think it was because he had something on his chin.

When you pay 25pence for a zoo, you wonder why bother charging at all. Surely it is worth paying more to make sure the animals are housed properly. However, sadly, in a country where the people with money are sure to get richer and the poorer much poorer, caring for animals is just not the top of the priority - which I will return to later.

We did enjoy the zoo, and the gardens are still lovely although the zoo seems to take the majority of the space. Kate seemed to get bitten to pieces during a short time of staring at the White Tiger which we have attributed to a rogue ant, the hunt is on to find him but we feel he may have skipped the country.

Walking back to Notre Dame we stopped into a Coffee shop for a quick snack western stylie and paid more for two coffees, a little pastry and some cheesecake than we had for a 3 course dinner and casks of alcohol just a day before. It was nice though for the air-conditioning, the cleanliness and the cake. Stepping outside we were somewhat thankful for the humid temperatures - the coffee house had been freezing! Maybe 7 weeks into travelling we are adjusting. Bit late really.

Notre Dame was lovely. A classic building with the obvious quiet that allows you to stop and take a few minutes to think about everything. It gave me a chance to get a bit of clarity as I start worrying about the next bit of the travelling and at the same time miss people at home a little. Over the past couple of days with Kate's birthday we have had a lot more contact with home than we have had for weeks - I realised how close people are to be contacted, but yet how far away we actually are. Reality kicks in I guess. I sat in peace with Kate, not Roman Catholics, but I don't think the big man would mind us sitting and taking in the quiet along with those at prayer.

After Notre Dame we walked past the Opera house and back to the hotel. We crossed many a road during the rush hour and laughed at how accustomed to it we had become. It was no longer a challenge although mopeds come at you from all directions. Thinking back to Shanghai 7 weeks before, this terrified me. I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds as we crossed as you may as well. Keeping a constant pace is the key. Complacency is also key. Some pillock nearly ran over my toes as my eyes were closed. OK, won't be doing that again.

In the evening we found a different cafe which turned out to be the sister cafe of where we ate last night. The restauranteers kept running drinks over from across the road every time we ordered. The menu was nice, and we have worked out that it doesn't really matter where you eat- it tends to be better, in larger quantities and a hell of a lot cheaper than anywhere in the UK. Sitting and people watching, which is probably one of mine and Kate's biggest hobbies in common we took in the Vietnamese people. It was truly an interesting but saddening evening.
We watched a lady a couple of metres away working solidly all night making some rice concoction and selling it consistently for hours. People would pull up and sit down on a little plastic stool and eat out of bowls, or the lady would make take away. This meal cost 5000 Dong. Even if the woman sold 10 'meals', she would only be making a little over a pound. The sad thing was that she was actually doing very well. She was one of the fortunate ones.
We saw disabled people walking around begging for money, maybe 1 an hour. Old ladies, 1-2 an hour. Youngish mothers being followed by their toddler children trying to help out selling odds and ends. And tourists simply ignoring them all, not even acknowledging them. We have kind of tailored quite well an apologetic but definite No. We acknowledge these people - they do exist. On occasion, we give a few nothing notes to placate them. But it just seems a little rude to sneer at them under your nose (which I saw some young girl backpackers do - far too many "mummy paid for me to travel" types). The prostitution is another twist to this sad story. There are levels of it. There are the obvious, girl jumps off the back of a moped being driven by a young man as they approach a western traveller. She speaks to the westerner and strokes his arm a little. The man declines and she jumps back on the moped to try again. We watched one girl disappear after a knock back, and then we watched the same girl 40 minutes later being knocked back again. This is the obvious side of prostitution. Next is the bar girls. They sit around in bars and pick up men from here. They are very obvious.
The 3rd is what we witnessed the most. The companion. She attaches herself to a western man and they appear to be a proper relationship. An escort service if you will. The man gets what he wants (we witnessed a bar full of ex-pat obviously single men all in this similar position) in the form of companionship, and the woman gets security. At some point maybe she'll love him, but it's probably never going to be the case.
We will be sad to leave Vietnam because of the people. The place itself can be ugly. It can be amazingly beautiful and diverse. People do try and take advantage of you, but only because they need to. They are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful and they make this place what it is. Crazy Vietnam.

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