Thursday, 17 January 2013

Saigon - Rats and the Horrors of War

Alleyways in Saigon
Some people insist that the largest city in south Vietnam is actually called Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) but most people continue to stubbornly refer to the place as Saigon.

To further confuse the issue the railway network timetable refers to Saigon but the airports fly to HCMC. It’s all very confusing but it seems it is the people in the north (those that effectively won the war and therefore secured the change of name in honour of Uncle Ho) who insist on referring to the city by its modern name but those that live here seem to resolutely refuse to adopt the change.

It’s very confusing.  I’ll stick to Saigon.

We arrived at the main railway station (they haven’t changed the sign at the station so according to that we had arrived in Saigon) and were immediately accosted by a taxi driver who turned out not to be a taxi driver at all but this is such a common occurrence by now and we were past caring; the fare was reasonable so we jumped in.  None of the real taxi drivers seemed to want our business and we just wanted to get to our hotel.

We both expected Saigon to be bigger, busier and more modern than Hanoi.  We had visions of state of the art high rise buildings everywhere and wide boulevard like roads jammed with scooters.  We got the roads and the scooters by the bucketful but District 1 (the backpacker district) is not high rise nor it is particularly modern.  In fact, there are a few main roads running through it and then a maze of alleyways running between those roads, where many of the hotels are located, reminding us a little of Beijing’s hutongs.

Mayhem on the streets
The street numbering system takes a bit of getting used to (and even when you do, it can still be a bit random as numbers do not always run consecutively).

The address of our hotel was 283/19 Pham Ngu Lao which means that at number 283 Pham Ngu Lao you will find an alleyway and if you pop down that alley and look for number 19, you will find where you are looking for.  If it was 283/19/3 you would be looking for another alleyway at number 19, and so on.  It all makes perfect sense after a while and it does seem to work.

So we found number 293, wandered down a tiny alley which wound around to the right and found our hotel, at number 19 no problem.  We had booked 3 nights but ended up staying 4.  It was still early so we dumped our bags while they got our room ready and went out for a mooch about.  In the backpacker district there is no shortage of cafés, restaurants and bars all catering to a mainly western market.  And there is no shortage of westerners; Saigon is full of them.

We found a nice little café, did the coffee and beer test (both a reasonable price) so we sat down for breakfast which was delicious.  As we sat eating breakfast we were approached every couple of minutes by street vendors selling sunglasses and lighters but each time we politely declined. By the time we were finished it was an hour later and our room was ready so we headed back.  It was mid-morning and the heat and humidity were stifling.

We were to return to Saigon twice and stayed at three different places.  On our first visit we stayed at a hotel we booked online and our room was on the fourth floor but we had a window (two in fact – real bonus in Saigon where windows are at a premium), a fan and air conditioning which were particularly welcome because the Saigon heat was exhausting.

For our second stay, we went downmarket and stayed at a hostel which was very cheap but a bit shabby (not a problem but just not the sort of place you want to hang about), with no window but air conditioning.

When we returned to Saigon for the last time from the Con Dao Islands we only needed one night so we decided to just pitch up and find somewhere, which we did.  The first place we went to was booked up so were sent around the corner to their sister hotel which was also fully booked and they in turn sent us across the alley to another guest house which had a room and turned out to be amazing – at $20 for big room with a huge window and a (small) balcony  it was by far the best place we stayed in Saigon and there are many more guesthouses like this along the little alleys running between the main streets if you have the time, energy and inclination to wander about. 

A fine example of the wiring to be found
all over Asia
Back to when we arrived in Saigon for the first time, when we checked in it was still only mid-morning but we were sweltering.  The Saigon heat takes a bit of getting used to.  We lay down in the air conditioned room and stayed there contemplating the ceiling until one of us said that we really should get out and explore our surroundings a bit more.  However we needed hunger as an added incentive so we waited it out just a little longer in our cool oasis before we ventured out onto sizzling streets of Saigon again.

Suitably starving, we set off around the block familiarising ourselves with our surroundings.  Along the way we were accosted every 10 feet or so (albeit a little half-heartedly, probably due to the oppressive heat) by those street vendors again, trying to sell us sunglasses (very good very cheap) or a lighter (with a demonstration thrown in, and an assurance this was a genuine Vietnamese souvenir).  It soon transpired that these vendors are everywhere in Saigon, carrying large boards with sunglasses and a box of various lighters. 

It was becoming increasingly apparent that sunglasses and lighters were a bit of a Saigon specialty, although “authentic handmade fans” come a close second.  Each time we say no with a smile indicating that we already have perfectly good sunglasses (pointing at the perfectly good sunglasses we are actually wearing) and more lighters than you can shake a stick at (and Paul with a dainty fan is just not a good look). 

The vendors in Vietnam are not annoyingly insistent and they do eventually wander off although Paul did have to beat off a particularly enthusiastic shoeshine boy one lunchtime but it was all in good humour.  The heat seems to get to everyone and slows everyone down a bit. 

And most people we came across in Saigon seemed to have a smile.  It is a big city, with a lot of tourists and a lot of people trying to make money out of those tourists, or simply trying to make a living one way or another, but for all its mayhem, we found it to be a laid back and friendly city.

The mayhem is largely due to the sheer number of scooters and motorbikes on the roads.  We thought Hanoi was bad but Saigon knocks spots off it. 

A lot of the roads are wider and therefore lots more vehicles will fit, and not an inch is wasted.  At the few traffic light control junctions we crossed, we were amazed at the sheer volume of scooters and motorbikes and the fact that we didn’t see more accidents or near misses.  We did eventually see one little accident from the bus as we were leaving Saigon for the last time.  One motorbike rear ended another, and a third behind them braked too hard and the rider came flying off.  All three riders seemed to get up OK although Paul said one of them had a nasty injury to his foot (flip flops really don’t give you a lot of protection).

The War Remnants Museum
Otherwise they all glide in between each other gracefully and effortlessly.  They manage this with a skill that is to be seen to be believed, here in Saigon more than anywhere else we have been. Paul says it a bit like downhill skiing – you don’t look behind you, you just concentrate on what’s in front.   It seems to work (most of the time).

One of the aspects of the big city which is not so obvious during the day but becomes glaringly so after dark, is the sex industry, and I find that particularly sad.  That there is sex tourism is obvious and inevitable. At any time of day you can see any number of beautiful young women on the arm of a fat old git.  Whilst I accept that love is blind is certain circumstances, it does seem that love blindness is of epidemic proportions in South East Asia and I personally just don’t buy it.  If the girls were in control of their lives which they invariably are not in any sex industry anywhere in the world I would be more blasé about it, but they are often so young (and yet so old at the same time) and you cannot help but think whether this was really their first choice of a career, and therein lies the tragedy.  

We have seen a few “characters” throughout Vietnam who are obvious culprits taking advantage of the sex industry over here but what really angers and disgusts both of us is the rampant paedophilia.  We have had many brief encounters with the kids in Vietnam who are so happy just to say hello and wave, or try to practice their English with us.  They seem much more innocent than kids at home, much happier just running about in the street with their friends, playing on the beach, just generally having childhoods.

Then Paul will point out me that a particular girl is probably about 12 (they look much younger here) and would be a target for the despicable paedophiles who swarm here to exploit the poverty and vulnerability of some of the people (and often the greed and/or evil of others).  There seems to be a half-hearted attempt to curb child sex tourism but it is only that and it makes us both physically ill that anyone could exploit an innocent anywhere.

Back to less serious matters we have to admit we weren’t very adventurous in Saigon.  We went to a couple of restaurants that we liked, and returned to them both frequently (they had upstairs seating from where we could observe the comings and goings on the streets below, without being hassled to buy a pair of sunglasses (or a lighter).

The Dove of Peace - a constant throughout Vietnam
We also made friends with a rat in one of the restaurants.  I’m not going to divulge the name of said restaurant because information like this is likely to put it out of business (some people can get very sniffy about vermin but it isn’t like it was in the kitchen).

The food was very good, the beer was cheap and the service excellent.  We first spotted Ratty pop out from under the bench seating and over onto the little balcony early one evening and from thereon in we started to feed him, surreptitiously of course.  He was a fast little bugger, lovely and plump with a sleek brown coat, and he particularly enjoyed bacon, chicken and pizza. 

When we returned to Saigon for the last time, we visited this restaurant and, keen to see whether Ratty was still about, Paul threw some bacon onto the tiles.  Oddly enough, two geckos turned up and seemed to show an interest in the bacon and we watched as one tiny little gecko hauled his own bodyweight in bacon across the floor.  I never knew geckos had a penchant for bacon but you live and learn!  However, the geckos just had a few nibbles and eventually Ratty did come and claim the bacon for himself.

Saigon is a huge city and we are afraid that we didn’t explore very much of it, mainly due to the oppressive heat.  We did however make the effort to get to the War Remnants Museum which is dedicated to the Vietnam War.  We had read that it was harrowing but one-sided (which you would expect) but we were surprised.  Personally, for us, we found it to be a no-holds-barred but factual (as far as we could tell) account of the damage this war inflicted on the country of Vietnam, its people and the land.

There was an exhibition dedicated to the children of the war which was informative, encouraging and heart-rending all at the same time.  School continued throughout the war, despite all the death and destruction that comes with any war, with children living in dreadful conditions.  Many were orphaned, or injured or maimed themselves, and they were forced to take on responsibilities far beyond their years.  There was tribute throughout to certain individuals who despite the hardship and tragedy had excelled in these times and went on to become famous musicians, writers and artists.  Overall, it was a positive message giving credit to the youngsters of Vietnam. 

Women throughout history are given credit for their part in any struggle which forms part of Vietnam's history and this war was no exception.  Many women fought in the same conditions as the men and much is made of their contribution.

Parts of the museum were dedicated to the affect and the legacy of the chemical pesticide sprays using by the Americans during the 10 year period 1961 to 1971.  Agent Orange, phosphorous and napalm were all used to destroy forest and crops throughout Vietnam.

A sculpture made from bullets
and shrapnel
Agent Orange comprised 60% of the chemicals used.  It was a known and contains one of the most deadly dioxins known to man.  This is well documented.  It is also hugely carcinogenic and there are claims it remains within the DNA through generations.  It is said that you would only need 85g of the stuff to annihilate a city of 8 million people.  It's really not very nice at all.

In this particular section of the museum it was explained how these chemicals had a catastrophic effect on the Vietnam countryside and its people.  20 million gallons of Agent Orange alone was sprayed throughout Vietnam over this 10 year period, wiping out food for civilians causing famine, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of people and livestock, causing miscarriages and birth defects in unborn children, and untold health problems which continue to this day.

There is a huge collection of quite distressing photographs demonstrating the on-going effects the chemical warfare had, and continues to have, on the population in terms of birth defects and congenital illness, and general health problems (not to mention the poisoning of the land).  There are whole families, whole towns even, with a high proportion of children born with birth defects or health problems and they are continuing to be born over generations 40 years later.

There was also evidence of the affect these chemicals had on the US soldiers and their allies.  They included a famous statement from one of the US servicemen who flew planes spraying the chemicals, and who resolutely denies to this day ever having suffered any side effects as a result of his contact with the chemicals.  Sadly there are plenty of other statements from other US and allied soldiers who contradict this view and it certainly is accepted in most of the western world that that those directly involved in the Vietnam War returned with more than just horrific memories of a war.

Exhibits outside the War Remnants Museum
In our view, this was not a completely one sided account but an account of how one war affected all those involved.  We are of course well aware of the absence of any reference to any wrongdoing by the winning side which kind of does support the one-sided argument but so long as you bear this in mind, you cannot help but be moved by the overall message.

Another section was dedicated to the worldwide campaign against the American involvement in Vietnam, and references to the many foreign supporters of north Vietnam who committed suicide in protest, notably in the US and Japan.  Oddly, there was no mention of “Hanoi” Jane Fonda anywhere either here, or other museums we have visited with reference to the war.  I can’t help but wonder why.

We actually found the museum to be a surprisingly well balanced (as far as is possible) presentation of what actually happened and the overall tone was not anti-American as you would expect, mainly because it drew upon opposition to the American government from within the United States as well as around the world.   It concluded on a positive note, with the message that we have heard throughout Vietnam as one of putting the atrocities and battles with former enemies of the past into history and looking forward to the future, working together with new friends.

A tank under a huge rubber tree outside the War
Remnants Museum
As well as the museum we also visited the massive Ben Thanh market where we stocked up on some clothes but neither of us are keen shoppers at the best of times, never mind in the heat of the Saigon.  For us, the market could not be described as a particularly pleasant experience but that is a purely personal opinion from 2 people who would rather be doing anything else rather than shop.  Others may find themselves in heaven (you know who you are!).

In our wandering about the city to the museum and to the market we passed through a couple of parks and, as Paul says, they do a good park the Vietnamese, and it’s true.  All manner of tropical plants thrive in these ridiculously hot and humid conditions and because it rains quite a lot, it is also very green.  It seems you are never far from a green space in Saigon and the tropical trees will give some shelter from the scorching sun.

All in all we really liked Saigon.  It was no ordeal having to return twice and while the heat is oppressive, it does slow everyone down a bit so you don’t seem to get hassled quite so much.  There is much more to explore here, lots of markets and districts if you have the energy and the inclination.  We simply enjoyed being here, soaking up the atmosphere in between jaunts off to other places.



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