Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Saigon is Dangerous

Wasn't Homer requesting to be tied to the mast when his ship passed the island of the Sirens so he won't succumb to temptation? This place, Saigon, might be even more enticing to get sidetracked. Of course, now, the second day here, this is only my first impression, but ...
On a warm, very warm, humid day ...
I went with my hopelessly scratched glasses to an optician for some new ones - so I can actually really see the many beautiful women on motorbikes, on foot and in sidewalk cafés, without squinting through an opaque haze with one eye.
One-day eye-glass service, for a hundred-dollars per pair, including examination, instead of six-hundred dollars with a one-week service in New York, prompted me to buy two pairs. Anyone know an easier way to make a thousand dollars that quick? The optician's wife and children slept on the floor behind the display counter.
Eye-glass mission accomplished, I meandered over to the Phò noodle palace. If ever there was an international best noodle soup contest, Vietnam would win, hands down - if I was the judge. On the way back to my wonderful twenty-dollars a night digs at Madam Cùc's hotel - okay, no stars, no window, but AC, ceiling fan, wifi, bathroom, TV, included breakfast and dinner (if you wish), and a super friendly staff, young giggly girls that pat my belly and coo "smiling Buddha", I bought a bagful of logan, passed a good looking sushi restaurant, made plans for dinner there, bought a TIME magazine, sat down and read it over an Italian double expresso, turned down a couple of massage offers - very good, all over, very happy, not much money! - and tried to decide how long I could stay here and still do the other thingsI have planned before my flight to Switzerland out of Bangkok on March 22.
Now, during the midday heat, I sit under the fan, peeling and snacking logans and write on my iPad.
The streets look like rivers with a bank-to-bank totally silent current of motorcycles, only interrupted by an occasional honk. The newer models run practically soundless. The old, noisy, two-cycle engine ones with visible exhaust clouds are a thing of the past. Crossing those rivers of traffic takes some getting used to. With total disregard to what's coming towards you, one steps out and, without changing walking pace, marches across. The river judges your progress and flows accordingly, in front and behind, past you. If you don't want to risk a heart attack, don't look left or right and just keep going steady. Things will be just fine - at least that is what local wisdom suggests. There is no alternative. Trying to cross streets by dodging that river of traffic is impossible.
That reminds me of a fellow scuba diver's remark in the Cayman Islands. Sometimes, while diving in certain areas, you float by groups of Barracudas, the ferocious-looking torpedo-like fish with a mouthful of sharp teeth. They keep you in sight, always facing you as you pass, like a group of suspicious, armed soldiers, but you don't really worry because it is a well known fact; Barracudas don't bite people.
"I wonder," my dive buddy said, "I wonder if those Barracuda also know that Barracudas don't bite people.


In the really nice place where I had my expresso, an American sat in the far corner from me. In a loud voice, he told a Vietnamese man at the next table how stupid Vietnamese are. "I worked here for nine years and they are all waisted," he said. "My job is to select people for scholarships but almost none of you qualify." He didn't say who he did that selection for but pounded the table to make his coffee cup jump: "You all don't like my face because it looks western," he stared at his table neighbor, "you yourself must know that, I can tell from your expression you don't like my face." He framed his face with two hands. It looked like the man at the other table wanted to deny. The American didn't let him. "You know it is true, don't try to deny," he said.
If someone in that coffee shop had asked me where I am from, I would have pretended I didn't understand English.

Discussions over breakfast:
Breakfast is served in the lobby/reception/entrance at Madam Cùc's, our zero-star hotel. We sat on a bunch of really fancy, carved, mahogany chairs with mother o' pearl and eggshell inlay (I can't imagine how those clearly expensive chairs got into that cheap place).
An Israeli, he made sure we all knew he is a professor at Israel's MIT, and got his PHD in London, went on about how one needs to be crazy to stay at a place (where we all were) like that. With the horrible, noisy racket, he said, he didn't sleep all night, not even an instant. He is changing to a hundred-dollar-a-night hotel, he said.
I didn't know what noise he talked about, because I slept.
An Englishman from the idyllic, quiet, northern England Lake District said he liked the noise, it made him feel like he was in a lively, vibrant place.
A black girl, German born and raised, totally fluent in German, said she didn't know what the fuss was about. "For God's sake, it was music," she said.
A French schoolteacher from Lyon complained about the baguettes. "Never mind the coffee," he said, "this used to be like France before the Americans came. They used to know how to make bread. This now is even worse than McDonald hamburger rolls," he said as he stuffed his omelet into the supplied roll.
Our coffee perked, we ate our omelets and our bananas and, noise or no noise, we all agreed we liked Saigon.
I said I am grateful Nestcafé exists.
The Israeli protested, Nescafé is not coffee, he said. He likes Vietnam coffee,
The Brit drinks only tea,
The German girl doesn't care.
The Englishman told the German girl about the Vietcong tunnels he' visited, the Israeli described how loud the birds sing outside his window back home - he doesn't mind that noise - the German girl decided to also visit the Vietcong tunnels, and I decided not to visit the Vietcong tunnels.
One man's nectar is another man's poison.
I signed up for a three-day boat trip through the Mekong Delta, that ends up in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The visa I can get at the border, I am told.

Today I was in another Saigon, simply by walking in the opposite direction from my digs. Hyper modern buildings between wide, mosaic sidewalks alongside wide boulevards with landscaped center dividers have replaced the old houses in crooked alleys in my neighborhood.
I am happy to live in the crooked alley part of town.
The arm of the Mekong that flows through the city carries that floating vegetation one sees on just about all rivers in the tropics. That greenery must have been real pretty in the days before we started to decorate it with colorful plastic bags, styrofoam containers, bottles, floating whitefish (as discarded condoms in the HudsonRiver are called) assortments of wrappers, old, unwanted toys and broken utensils. Also, the water smells - not nice - bearing testimony that the vast masses of humanity along the river's course channel into the river whatever they don't want in their cities, villages or near their dwellings - and that stuff smells.
Two well-dressed ladies also strolled along the riverbank when an empty water bottle from them rolled towards the water's edge. I ran, caught it and returned it to them. That got me a look as if I was a lunatic. One of the ladies took the bottle and this time, instead of letting it roll by itself into the water, tossed it in, over my head. Having touched that thing that had rolled on the ground, she took a tissue from her pocketbook, wiped her hands and - guess where the tissue went.

Musings about traveling alone - or not.
If I was with one of those two ladies with the empty water bottle, no matter what wonderful other things she might be, I would probably not be happy.
In the Indian restaurant last night, where I had yummy Tandoori chicken and cold beer, I idly observed others.
One couple talked over dinner that had just been served, as couples used to do before such old fashioned things, like dinner talk, got replaced by SMS on Blackberry, iPhones and Droids. The woman smiled at the man, got up, gave him the finger and left, food untouched. He looked embarrassed, ate his food alone, paid and left also.
Next table.
A couple, she looks Asian, he Caucasian, order dinner and get drinks. He talks to her while she stirs, and stirs, and stirs the crushed ice with the drinking straw 'til, totally bent out of shape, it becomes useless for the purpose. Her body language says no to everything he says. They eat in total silence.
Another table.
Two elderly Frenchmen, quite obviously gay, get a bottle of wine. One touches it then says to the Indian waiter, "it is too warm."
"I will bring you ice," said the waiter.
"Ice in red wine!" the Frenchman said, like in shock.
Another table.
Two women, I think Brits, during the whole dinner scan the Vietnam Lonely Planet. One reads a section (probably about what sights to visit in and around Saigon), hands the book across the table, the other reads, sometimes agrees sometimes disagrees. One would read out loud a part, like to convince the other about the desirability of doing this or that, the book changes hands again, gets examined, discussion continues.
My table.
I am happy that, when I am done with my meal and drink, I can get up slowly, or fast, change my mind, sit down again and order another beer, when I get outside, on a whim turn left instead of right, no matter what time it is, I can go to my room to watch TV news or decide to start a night on the town, buy a new pair of flip flops from a street peddler because the ones on my feet look like they have had it, have an double expresso and a Hennessy, buy a bar of soap because the other one is almost gone and I want to wash my shirt because it smells sweaty. I run into the woman from Arizona I'd met earlier. We go for drinks. Okay, I won't wash my shirt tonight and I won't watch TV news.
I don't know how I ever again would be able to routinely discuss my moves before moving - or have someone else direct my moves - and still be as happy as I am now.
Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, I decided to join a group from Madam Cùc's breakfast club. They were signed up for a full-day city tour of Saigon, the kind of thing I normally stay away from. The unusual decision came after I looked up on a city map where I had been in my wanderings on foot and it became clear I'd seen but a minuscule part.
A man picked us up at Madame Cùc's. Like a troop of sheep we followed him to our bus. Other troops like ours arrived from other directions, from other hotels or guesthouses. A very funny man, our guide for the day - he gets to practice and fine tune his jokes daily - gives us the rundown.
"First I bring you to the war museum, then, because you will feel horrible after you have seen what our enemies did to us with Agent Orange, with torture, with many other war crimes, I bring you to a coffee shop where they will serve you a special coffee, for free." He went on to describe how, to produce that particular coffee, they fed coffee beans to a certain kind of Wiesel. After they had gone through their digestive tract the poop gets collected, the undigested beans sorted out to thus become the most delicious coffee. After that I bring you to the Chinatown market, then to a temple, then we have lunch. After lunch we go to a rehabilitation center where Agent-Orange-genetically damaged people produce lacquerware. You can watch them work. After that we visit the former South Vietnam's presidential palace, then the Saigon cathedral and the post office.
I could barely contain my excitement about the things to come.
The war museum was a shocker. Fully aware that always the victor writes the history (in this case the North Vietnam communist Vietcong), it made you sick. Photographs of torture that made pictures of Irak's Abu Graig(?) prison look like Sunday pick-nicks, with pictures of Napalm burn victims, torture pictures with laughing, cigarette smoking US troops watching amusedly, piles of dead children, the incredible assortment of antipersonnel ammunition, the war material, different tanks, artillery pieces, bulldozers, vehicles, airplanes, helicopters, etc. etc. (with numbers supplied about how many were left behind after we got out on helicopters from the roof of the American Embassy).
The Wiesel poop coffee tasted good after that. That special elixir was served in a souvenir wonderland. Apart from the special coffee beans you could also buy little clay figures that peed on you if you threw hot water on them - as a helpful sales person demonstrated - and ten-thousand other, totally useless things that some people buy to bring home as souvenirs.
I managed to get out unscathed.
In the Chinatown market stacks and stacks of dried shark fins were on offer. I thought that was illegal, but obviously not there. Besides shark fins they also had bird's nests, many sizes, shapes of sea cucumbers, pickled and dried. Anything, if it exists somewhere on the planet as food, it is probably also for sale at that market.
At lunch I had the worst spring rolls - ever. The wrapping seemed to be made of latex and the inside of clay.
The temple? Why, after a sojourn in Burma, would I want to visit one more temple, anywhere. The Saigon version was so puny, anywhere in Burma they would hide it out of embarrassment.
The Agent Orange rehabilitation center was sort of an assembly line for lacquerware production with most of the employees in wheelchairs. The showroom beyond had so much off the stuff for sale there must be huge, mechanized production facilities, somewhere.
The former president's palace? I wouldn't know what to report about it. Neither particularly fancy, nor particularly big, the only thing that stood out was its blandness.
Same thing with the cathedral, same thing with the post office. Beats me why the post office was included in the tour. Built by the French in the mid 1800, it is simply what post offices in bigger owns looked like then.
Now I know why I don't usually go on such tours.
Back in the streets, my eyes wander.
In the stream of motorcycles one stopped somewhere in the middle. The woman driver dug from her very tight pants a cellphone, put it to her ear and started happily talking, right where she was. The traffic stream continued undiminished around her.
A very old woman, in a typical Vietnamese conical straw hat, drove past me on a screamingly purple bike with racing stripes.
Motorcycles as population control?
Not because of lethal accidents. It is simply that the three million motorbikes in Saigon can't accommodate more people. It is totally clear they cannot load more people on them. Typically, in front of the driver stands the master of the house, the son. Behind the driver, squeezed between Daddy and Mommy, is the little one, well protected and kept warm by the bodies in front and behind. From Mommy's back hangs the shopping basket. From some of those bags the family's Fido peeks out.
Tania asked in an e-mail if, now that the Burma thing went sour, I stopped doing the "tourism thing" since I find so much time writing.
The reason for the writing lies in certain regional advances. Now, in modern times, even super cheap digs, hotels and guesthouses, like Madam Cùc's, tend to have fans and sometimes even AC. During the tropical, searing, steaming midday heat those things are irresistible, but one cannot simply sit by a fan and do nothing. A perfect excuse for luxuriating by one is writing - so, I write.
Nobody forces you to read it.
I enjoy the clear view through my new glasses.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Ernst!
    Your Saigon saga brings back fond memories of our dear friend A Dong who in addition to working in the lab with Kevin (you've heard the stories of the hamster research??) also owned and operated along with his entire extended family a Vietnamese restaurant near us in Southern California. We marked every special occasion as well as many meals as possible at A's place. His family members would carry Ashleen around on their hips while I ate. They would bring us delights from the kitchen that weren't included on the regular menu. It was where pho (sp?) became Kevin's all-time favorite dish. Best of all for me, though, was the special coffee. Continuously sleep deprived, with two children under age six, working a 40+ hrs/wk job at the time, there were many days where I craved a cup of coffee. I would run down to A's restaurant at lunch for the most delicious glass (yes, glass not cup) of Vietnamese coffee--the best coffee ever!!