As we were anticipating our time in Vietnam, I certainly didn’t expect that we’d spend seven nights in Saigon. We’d been here 13 years ago and just weren’t that into the city. So we booked three nights and figured we’d move on after that. Instead we extended that stay to five days and then booked another two between Con Tho and our upcoming trip to Con Dao. It’s really quite the exciting, vibrant, colorful, tasty, smelly, loud, historic city.
There have been some real changes in the years between our visit. Mark observed that per capita income has doubled over that period, so there’s just a lot more money sloshing around. One little example of that – or maybe an example of something else, but my guess is it’s about economic progress – is that when we were here in 2001 you couldn’t walk a block without someone asking if you wanted a ride on their scooter. Now it happens occasionally, but what’s noticeable is that it’s only middle-aged and older guys offering. Presumably younger guys have other ways of making money and in a shrinking market – the Vietnamese now all have their own scooters – there just isn’t the demand.Some things, though, don’t change. I made a return visit to the old Presidential Palace, home of President Thieu from 1966 until the fall of Saigon (or, from their perspective, the liberation of Saigon; the victors do, after all, write history) in 1975. The building hasn’t changed, nor have the rooms, which have been maintained in all their 1960s and 1970s glory. My experience of it did, though. I remember thinking of it as just kind of cheesy, like most ’60s architecture.
This time, though, I had a different appreciation of it. Sure, the game room is incredibly dated and seems to be mission only Austin Powers, but the building itself had this great airiness, a flow and openness that made it seem cool even in Saigon heat. Spacious rooms, grand corridors, flowing air, it just really works. My favorite room, though, was the Salon of the 4 Cardinal Directions of Peace, an isolated room on what is otherwise the roof of the building. It was intended by the architect as a place for the President to find the calm necessary to make important decisions about the country’s future; it was also known as the meditation room. For President Thieu, though, well not so much. He turned it into a party room to entertain 100 or more guests, complete with hard-wood dance floor, bar, and bullet-proof glass. Maybe that says all you need to know about the short-lived Republic of Vietnam.
And everything you need to know about modern Vietnam is that they sell a little food and some refreshments up in that “mediation room” that turned into a party room. Here you are, a captive audience up on the fourth floor of the building, it’s pretty hot, and they charge – get this – just under $1.00 for a beer. A buck! A taxi to the restaurants we enjoy costs maybe two bucks, making us wonder how the economics can possibly work. We’re certainly not complaining, but it’s a pretty cheap place to travel, even if you live well.
At any rate, along with this museum I did a long walk to Cholon, the old Chinatown market area. Walking through miles of Saigon streets is quite the assault on your senses, just constant noise and intensity and assault. I swear the attitude of some of the scooter drivers is simply “If you don’t like my driving, stay off the sidewalk!” Crosswalks honestly mean nothing and stoplights are, for scooters, merely suggestive. The horn is essential gear and pretty much means “Get out of my way because I’m coming through no matter what you decide to do.” It was about five miles from our hotel out to the big market and nearly every inch of it was intense. Sounds, smells, crowds, all that. And in case you’re wondering, when I say “smells” I’m not talking fried chicken or apple pies; there are a lot of smells you’d really rather not experience.
So that’s pretty much it. Some great food at bargain prices, a nice hotel, beautiful Tet decorations, fascinating history, and everything in motion. That’s Saigon.