Today, after 8 days in Saigon, we head off to Mekong delta. While Saigon always looks so nice in the movies (try “Good Morning Vietnam” or “Cyclo”), we actually prefer Hanoi.
Why? Mostly because Saigon is basically a collection of wide straight roads, lined by tall new buildings. If you want to see one of the few nice buildings / churches / pagodas, you gotta walk for half an hour looking at the same scenery. And while you’re at it, you can easily mistake this place for any other new metropolis.
Saigon isn’t all completely boring though, all you need to do is to leave the main road and enter into one of the thousands of little alleys. Most of them are barely 2 meters wide, but they’re full of life – people are cooking food, washing huge piles of plates, playing cards or Chinese chess, someone is trying to get through all of this with a motorbike, women being busy receiving a pedicure (we were surprised to see, but here all women have their toes in peachy condition). Through the open doors leading into tiny flats, you can hear sounds of Vietnamese soap operas and every stranger is curiously observed. Its all very exotic for us, while for many Saigoners, this is every day life.
Once we realised that there isn’t too much left to see around here, we decided to sample the cultural life – visit a jazz club owned by a famous Vietnamese jazz saxophonist. We were greeted by incredibly steep drink prices, but once the music started, we forgot all about that – for whole three hours we enjoyed some classic covers and also some jazz and Vietnamese folk music fusion, the latter so nice we even bought more of it on a CD for a massive $10. Overall, we spent the day’s budget in several hours and the staff had some funny ideas about what good service is, we left some honest feedback in the guestbook, but we had a good time. Unfortunately the last moments of the evening were turned sour by a couple of drive-by bag-snatchers, who nicked our bag with the camera and a notebook full of useful survival tips. Oh well.
I should also add here that there’re many a tourist in Saigon and the locals are more than happy to charge them small fortunes for everything. In 8 days we only met a couple of genuinely friendly locals; the population seems much nicer in smaller towns. The local police force fit in just perfectly – on us visiting the station, they didn’t even pretend to be working :)
We spent a few evenings in the company of Germain, a French-Canadian visiting Vietnam for the second time and with several friends here. Every other day we also went for a massage at the Saigon Institute for Blind People and traveled to visit Cu Chi tunnels. There, Viet Cong guerrilla fighters gave lots of trouble to the American army over many years of the war. The tunnels are strategically arranged over 3 levels, full of booby traps, dark, narrow and run over 200km in length, we are told in the introductory propaganda and strongly anti-american video production. A moment later and we get to experience what its all about – after crouching for a couple of hundred meters in an almost pitch black, narrow and stifling tunnel, we emerge covered in sweat and exhausted. And to think that the guys, although shorter in height, always carrying a torch and a rifle, did that for days w/o going back up (for Americans were bombing the grounds regularly), its impressive to say the least. These days though, all the traps have been removed and the only regulars in the tunnels are cute little bats.
Saigon is also home to the Jade Emperor’s pagoda. The building is ancient, with peeling paint from its meticulous wood ornaments and statues of lesser gods and goddesses. We found the entire courtyard full of thick incense smoke from the hundreds of visiting Vietnamese, who were lining up with bunch of incense sticks in their hands to say a quick prayer to each one of the deities. From the thick clouds of smoke, a resonant sound of the gong was heard. Add that to the exhaustive heat of +35 degrees and the human traffic and you naturally feel spiritual & light-headed :) Its unfortunate that we have no pictures to show.