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Go-Go Saigon. Bag snatchers, street kids, and more

I flew from Bangkok to Saigon… “Whoa, just a minute there, buddy, c’mon, everybody knows it’s called Ho Chi Minh City now.”... Okay. Technically it’s Ho Chi Minh City. But allow me to explain. Ho Chi Minh City refers to a small province that includes a very large city that until 1975 was officially called Saigon. This city is divided into seventeen districts. The central downtown district, District 1, is still officially called Saigon. The rest is officially called Ho Chi Minh City. If you see something official, like an address, an airline ticket, a publication, it will probably read Ho Chi Minh City, or just as likely abbreviated to HCMC. People who work for the government or are otherwise speaking the official line, (tour guides, etc.) will probably call it Ho Chi Minh City. But out on the streets almost everybody you meet will call it Saigon. The buses read Saigon. Cafés, hotels, stores, anything that uses the city name, uses Saigon. Throughout the entire southern Vietnam region you will hear it called Saigon. ‘Nuff said. Forget about Ho Chi Minh, it’s Saigon.

Saigon is a city in transition with no shortage of the contrasts that you’d expect to find in a city pulling itself out of the depths of what we once called the Third World and now politely call underdeveloped. But no sooner do you think it’s broken free that you turn a corner to come face to face with a group of homeless children shaking cups in your face. Around another corner dilapidated buildings that should have been torn down years ago house dozens of families living six or more to a room. Out front, garbage fills the street. But around the next corner are shops selling Gucci and Chanel, Armani and Versace. This is a city where incomes run about three times the national average. There are about eight new high-rises, half of which are commercial office buildings with one bearing the ubiquitous Citibank name. Several small shopping malls have been constructed and a more ambitious project is underway: a shopping mall and entertainment center combined with three high-rise residential towers. A regular visitor to Saigon commented that the changes are coming more rapidly than ever and the past two or three years have been truly remarkable. She then pointed out the increase in the number of women now wearing make-up, jewelry, and fashionable clothing, a true economic indicator if there ever was one.

One of the more exhausting aspects of Vietnam is the seemingly constant price haggling one must undertake with locals who want to get into intense bargaining over something absurd like 3,000 dong. Officially the dong exchanges at about 13,800 to the dollar, but usually for convenience’s sake it’s more common to change on the street where you’ll get about 13,500, but whatever rate you’re exchanging at, haggling over 3,000 dong is haggling over about 22 cents.

In any event, though not for 22 cents, the haggle began the moment I set foot outside the airport. I knew the metered taxi fare should be about four dollars into central Saigon. The dollar is widely accepted in Vietnam, and though technically illegal, it still operates as a second currency and is certainly more convenient for higher priced items. Who wants to pay 1,245,000 dong for something, anyway? I look around for an official taxi line. There wasn’t one, but a few guys latched on to me offering to take me in to town for six dollars. So, I look for option #2, a motorbike taxi. None to be seen. I’ve just set foot in a new country after spending nearly an hour with immigration and customs and now I’m supposed to haggle over a dollar. Six dollars he wants? Sure. Whatever. To keep things looking legal he turns on the meter anyway giving me the opportunity to see exactly how much extra he was going to make.

I knew in advance that most taxi drivers from the Saigon airport would try to steer you to a hotel that will pay them a commission for bringing you in.  “Pham Ngu Lao,” I said, revealing no specific hotel name and only directing my driver to the budget section of town; a ghetto of inexpensive hotels, cafés, travel agencies and other businesses suitable for the cheap traveler. I often prefer to avoid such areas, but as it was my first day in a new country it would make for a smoother entrance. Anyway, sure enough the driver immediately tries to shove a stack of hotel brochures and business cards into my hand. “Pham Ngu Lao,” I repeated. Again, he tries, asking me if I had a reservation somewhere already. We went back and forth several more times until finally arriving at Pham Ngu Lao. The meter read 60,000 dong, about $4.40. Okay, he wins $1.60.

Before I can barely even exit the car a most slimy-looking character with shifty eyes tries to drag me off to some hotel that will pay him a commission. I ignore him and start walking down De Tham Street where most of the budget hotels are. This same character continues trying to shove a card in my hand, but also stay one step ahead of me. He’s walking a step ahead of me so that when he sees me turn towards a hotel he can run in, tell them he brought me and try to get some money.

I had only passed a few buildings when I spotted a decent looking place appropriately called the Hotel 265, located at 265 De Tham Street. It advertised hot water, air con, free breakfast, and clean comfortable rooms. Sure enough my uninvited companion runs in ahead of me. Both the receptionist and I ignore him. She shows me a room - clean and comfortable - so I agree to stay. Back downstairs the same tout with the weird eyes is still at the counter holding a card for the hotel he wanted me to go to. He’s looking at me as if to say, “How could you do this to me?” I then tell the receptionist that this guy had nothing to do with bringing me here and don’t give him any money, but I didn’t have to. She already knew who he was, which I kind of figured anyway.

It was already late afternoon and except for an unremarkable Vietnam Airways lunch I hadn’t really eaten that day so I went to one of the many cafés across the street for a snack. I struck up a conversation with another American and then set out for a short walk before dinner. One thing I had been warned repeatedly about Saigon was theft. The two most common forms are child pickpockets and motorbike riding thieves. In the former, a group of children (anywhere from two kids to as many as ten) surround you, distract you, and start probing you with sticky little fingers. In the latter, a motorcycle pulls alongside you and the pillion rider will try to snatch from you whatever valuables you have; cameras, hats, sunglasses, jewelry, whatever. In my few days in Saigon, I twice had to fight off children, and had one attempt made on my camera from a pair of would-be motorcycle riding thieves.

Well, a short walk generated no crime sprees that day except for a generous amount of cyclo drivers hustling for my business. Many of these drivers are former South Vietnamese soldiers stripped of their citizenship eking out meager livings as they can. It’s not at all uncommon to encounter a scruffy, seemingly homeless cyclo driver, souvenir vendor, or food vendor who speaks fluent English, having once been educated in the United States courtesy the US government. Unfortunately for them, following the completion of their American education they became officers in the South Vietnamese military. Upon the South’s defeat, they were sent to be “reeducated” (imprisoned) for any number of years, stripped of their citizenship, and left to fend for themselves on the streets.

The following day I sought out a motorcycle taxi to take me around Saigon. I mainly just wanted to get a feel for the city and shoot some photos of the daily life that plays out in Saigon. Our first stop was along the Saigon River, a major inland port. The river is home to huge freighters while numerous small boats that serve as home to many of Saigon’s residents line the river’s tributaries. I observed these homes from both river and land. At one such area, immediately onshore was a small fruit market. My driver told me that by night it would not be safe for me here, but daytime was no problem. I walked around, my presence clearly surprising some of the residents, but most of them regarded me favorably, some hamming it up for a picture. One group of men invited me to join their card game but seeing as money was on the table I wisely declined.

On two occasions this day robbery attempts were made against me. The first incident occurred at one of the city parks. Thao, my driver, had warned me about bands of children here. I was watching some teenagers rollerblading in a fenced-in course when I felt a tugging to my left. A young child was pulling at my arm ‘hello, hello’. At the same time I sense the ever so faint probing of tiny fingers on my right front pocket where a slight bulge would have revealed the presence of my wallet. Quickly turning to my would-be thief I see a dirty young boy of about eight grinning at me. With a firm shove I pushed him away and walked off. The second attempt baffles me. When taking photographs with an SLR it’s pretty much impossible to hide yourself and your camera, as if your white skin, light hair, and big nose weren’t enough. At some point I attracted the notice of a pair of would-be motorbike riding thieves. During our travels, Thao turned down an empty street. A motorcycle zoomed up from behind and the pillion rider grabbed at my lap expecting to get a camera, instead he got an arm that remained attached to its owner. They sped off empty-handed. It was standard Saigon modus operandi: they followed us until we hit an empty street and then sped up to make the grab. Do not, I repeat do not, go around Saigon with an SLR camera hanging around your neck. Instead, wrap the strap tightly around your wrist a few times and hold the camera tight in your hand, leaving no significant amount of the camera strap exposed.

Saigon traffic can be quite disorientating and is almost entirely of the two-wheeled variety, motorized and unmotorized. There are no highways, only surface streets and a few wide boulevards, but the roads are generally in good condition. On two occasions I had the pleasure of riding pillion through traffic on a Friday morning at 7:30 a.m. I don’t know how they do it. Though only moving at most, 15 mph, we frequently had but inches between our neighbors and us. We did actually make contact with our neighbors twice but to no harm. Apparently this happens a lot. These roads are going to be a mess once four-wheeled vehicles take over.

Sitting at an outside café table in the Pham Ngu Lao area one can expect the following to occur in the time it takes to eat your evening meal: A mother with a dirty young child will beg money from you. A dirtier eleven-year-old girl carrying her even dirtier and naked three-year-old brother will beg money from you. A man with almost no face led by a young boy will beg money from you. I saw this, it looked like he survived a close range grenade blast. He had a crater where the right side of his face used to be, he still had most of his mouth and head, he had a hole where his nose used to be, and no eyes. Meanwhile, a man will come by with a stack of foreign newspapers, and be happy to buy one back from you when you’re finished. A very pleasant young woman will come by selling photocopied books. Lonely Planet guidebooks, books about the Vietnam War, and books by well-known Vietnamese authors were just some of what was available in her stack. A young boy will come by offering to clean your shoes. A man will come by with an assortment of cigarette lighters and small nick-knacks. Then a woman will come by with another assortment of cigarette lighters and small nick-knacks. A man will come by with hammocks. A child will come by with chewing gum and cigarettes. Another pleasant woman will come by with more photocopied books. Another man will try to buy back the newspaper you just bought from the other guy. A legless beggar on a board with wheels will shake a hat at you. Another young boy will come to clean your shoes...

Foreign newspapers are allowed in Vietnam but they are censored first. In Saigon I was able to get the Bangkok Post every day but only the ‘officially approved’ version. Officially approving the newspaper means removing the classified ads (don’t want the people to see what great job opportunities exist in Thailand), and then blacking out any article or segment of article unfavorable to the Vietnamese government. It was quite funny really, to be reading the newspaper and come across entire paragraphs obliterated with black magic marker. Even funnier was that by holding the newspaper under a good light you could usually read most of what you weren’t supposed to read. The censored paragraphs usually had something about political opposition (there’s no such thing as opposition in Vietnam), were critical of government policy or were otherwise putting the Vietnamese government in a bad light. They did not however, censor articles that spoke of problems in Vietnam if it was a problem that the government could claim it was working to solve or could be blamed on foreign countries.

Some Saigon observances: With little effort a family of four can all ride on the same bicycle. Conical hats are worn almost exclusively by women and look absolutely ridiculous on foreigners. A motorbike can carry about thirty live ducks, fifty if they’re dead and feathered. An ao dai is perhaps the most beautiful article of clothing a Vietnamese woman could ever wear, and any western woman who buys one might as well flush her money down the toilet. Don’t even try.

The ao dai (pronounced ‘ow yai’ in the south) is a traditional form of women’s clothing. It’s made of silk and consists of a pair of pants (usually white) like pajama bottoms; and a top that can be any color. The top is a single piece that is like a long sleeved blouse but has front and back panels that reach down to about the knees. Ao dais, especially the white ones, are very revealing, absolutely see-through. They are the standard school uniform for high school girls, and I suppose college as well. They are frequently worn by office workers, hotel and restaurant workers, and are suitable for any formal occasion. From 1975 to 1989 they had all but disappeared from Vietnamese society, thank the communists for that, but have since made quite a resurgence. Ao dais began their return to popularity in 1989 when a group of beauty contestants from Camau (in the Mekong Delta) appeared in a show wearing them.

A Vietnam dream. Imagine, you are walking down a quiet country road in the Mekong Delta. Hot, 93 degrees, sun shining, around you are electric green rice paddies, coconut and sugar palms swaying in the soft breeze. A few simple houses dot the landscape. Up ahead you make out three figures approaching on bicycles. As they come nearer you make out the white ao dais - the girls holding the panels with one hand, their long silky black hair flowing in the breeze from under their conical hats. They see you. "Hel-loooo," they shout - followed by a burst of giggles. You return their "hello" waving back at them. They erupt in full laughter, "hel-looooo, hel-looooo, how are you-ou-ou," they repeat again and again in chorus, their words broken only by their laughter. And they continue on their way, turning again to look back at you one last time as they wave and call to you, "bye-bye-ye-ye," and giggle, giggle, giggle. Giggle indeed.

Though I spent a lot of time wandering around Saigon I did take in a few tourist sights. Saigon really doesn’t have all that much to see; it could be done in two days if wandering the streets isn’t your thing. I visited three museums: the War Remnants Museum (a.k.a. the War Crimes Museum), the Revolutionary Museum, and the Art Museum. I also went to the Reunification Palace.

The War Remnants Museum is mostly a photographic exhibit on the “American War”, as it’s called over here. The yard is filled with a few tanks, airplanes, and other miscellaneous ‘war remnants’. There are also some weapons and full-scale reproductions of the ‘tiger cage’ prison cells the South Vietnamese used when imprisoning the VC. But most of the museum is photographs. Though generally anti-American, the presentation is apparently a little more balanced than before, but make no mistake about it, this is definitely the Vietnamese version of history. To their credit, they have finally acknowledged that the war came under a lot of criticism in the United States, and they do show some photographs of antiwar demonstrations in America. There is also the famous photo from Kent State of the young woman leaning over her fallen classmate. Many of the photographs are quite graphic: An American soldier holding a corpse by the hair that is maybe 40% complete, na palm victims, babies born deformed from agent orange and other chemicals used in the war (seen in photographs and more graphically with fetuses preserved in jars), and also the devastating effects the chemicals had on agriculture. One walks away properly reminded that war sucks, even if they do ignore the fact that the VC was not free from committing its own share of atrocities.

The Revolutionary Museum is just that, a museum chronicling the development of the creation of the independent Vietnamese state. Again, it relies heavily on photographs but has plenty of artifacts, too. It is also very unbalanced in its presentation. A glaring example, and one I wish I had complained about to somebody in charge (though I’m sure they’ve heard it all before, but maybe they should hear it again), is where they show photographs of protests against the American War from thirty different countries. Guess which country isn’t included? But for comic relief there’s a photograph from Saigon of a group of Vietnamese playing in a rock-n-roll band circa 1970 with the following caption: “The youth’s minds of the southern Vietnam was poisoned with pornographic literature, film, and music.” Despite the one-sidedness, it is still a well laid-out museum housed in a magnificent old palatial building in the heart of Saigon.

The Art Museum, is, well, interesting. Fortunately it cost only 10,000 dong (about 75 cents) to get in. Most of the art is of a revolutionary nature and is revolutionarily bad, but some of the prewar stuff is okay. They do have a floor devoted to ancient artifacts of varying quality. I did see one piece of wood reputedly a few hundred years old, described as a “Buddha”. I looked at it again and again and I never could see the Buddha. If I was walking in the woods and stumbled across that piece of wood it’d have been firewood in a heartbeat. The first floor displays the modern art, if you see something you like you can buy it. I didn’t see crowds rushing to pull the paintings off the wall.

The Reunification Palace, formerly known as the Presidential Palace, is the former home of the South Vietnamese presidents. It was here on April 30, 1975 that VC tanks busted through the gate and Saigon fell. One tank still sits in the front yard. You are lead from room to room by a friendly tour guide whose pronunciation and rate of delivery rendered about 80% of what she said incomprehensible. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting building. They show you just about everything. You see the residential portions and the official areas where meetings and other matters of state were conducted, all of which have been left almost exactly as they were found in 1975. You are also taken downstairs to the Operations Room, the Communications Center (stacked high with now ancient radio equipment), and through some of the tunnels that kept the South Vietnamese leaders out of sight. There’s also a game room and small private movie theatre. Up top, there’s a big ballroom, and out on the roof, a helicopter, reportedly the same one that landed on the roof on that fateful April day in 1975. There, two young Vietnamese students struck up a conversation with me. They were women, both about 20-22 years old. They were studying tourism and wanted to practice their English and tourism skills on me. No problem, they couldn’t be any more incomprehensible than the official guide, but the girl who did most of the talking spent more time making jokes than practicing the official Vietnamese tour guide script. This was fine by me, it was probably more interesting anyway.

People are shy to talk critically about their government. Riding on the back of a motorbike one day I was talking with my driver about the existence, or lack thereof, of foreign investment; something often hindered by bureaucracy, corruption, and constantly changing regulations, which no one, not even the powers-that-be in Hanoi seem capable of keeping up on. Needless to say, foreign investment in Vietnam has not come as quickly as many had hoped. While my driver was happy to discuss the lack of investment and development, he didn’t want to talk about the reasons, not even from a motorbike going down a rural highway at 30 mph. All he’d say is “Shhh, cannot say, but you know…” saying in essence, yes, we blame the government, but let’s not talk about that.

Sometimes you’ll meet someone who, usually for some idealistic reason, refuses to touch a guidebook. While people can and do become overly dependent on them - especially Lonely Planet books - they do serve a function and I'll admit that I do carry a book in my bag if it's the first time I'm visiting a country. Witness the following conversation I had with a fellow tourist at Kim’s Café one evening. He had just spewed an epitaph on Lonely Planet to which I commented, “You never look at a guidebook?”
“Never,” he replied.
With that settled he then asked me about Cambodian visa regulations (of course he wasn’t going to look in a book) as he had purchased a plane ticket to fly to Cambodia from Hanoi.
I told him, “If you’re flying into Phnom Penh you can get a visa on arrival at the airport.”
“I’m not flying to Phnom Penh, I’m flying to Vientiane.”
“Okay, that’s in Laos, you don’t need a Cambodia visa you need a Laos visa.”
“I’m not going to Laos, I’m going to Cambodia,” he said quite resolutely.
“Okay, if you fly from Vientiane to Phnom Penh you can get a visa at the airport. But regardless, as you’re flying to Vientiane you need to think about Laos visa first.
And I haven't been to Laos, so I don't know what the Laos regulations are.
“But I’m not going to Laos,” he again insisted.
“Yes you are. You have a ticket to Vientiane.”
“I know. Vientiane is in Cambodia.”
“Uhh, no, Vientiane is very much in Laos.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. You have a ticket to Laos not Cambodia.”
“I do? Really? No. It’s Cambodia. I know.” He pauses. “Laos? Really?”
“Yes, really. Vientiane is in Laos, Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and that’s where you would fly to from Hanoi if you were going to Cambodia.”
“I don’t understand. I wanted to go to Cambodia. I thought Vientiane was in Cambodia. Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. You’re going to Laos. Better get a Laos visa.”
“How’d this happen?”  I didn’t see a need to answer that question. He continued, “So what do I do? Vientiane is really in Laos?”
“For as long as anyone can remember.”
I wonder if he bought a guidebook yet.  

About 65 kilometers northwest of Saigon is the Cu Chi Tunnel complex. This is an elaborate network of tunnels the VC built during the war. They lived in them, turned underground rooms into hospitals, into war planning rooms, dining halls, whatever. There’s two areas open to visitors, an original section at Ben Dinh that’s been set-up for tourists (well-marked booby traps, and a general widening of one fifty-meter section to allow large foreigners to crawl through), and another area at Ben Duoc that’s entirely a reconstruction designed for the lazy tourist. I went to Ben Dinh. These must be seen with a guide. There are several good reasons for this. One is the existence of booby traps, carelessness could have fatal consequences. The other reason is they don’t want you wandering around inside the tunnels getting lost, stuck, or bitten by a cobra, viper or other friendly creature now inhabiting the tunnels. I was put in a group with six other tourists, who all appeared to be Japanese. After an introduction we were taken to see the booby traps. About six or seven different varieties all designed to produce gruesome effects via long metal spikes. Then the guide took us to a clearing inviting us to find the secret entrance to the tunnels. I looked around, saw a flat spot covered with leaves and exactly two seconds from when the guard had made his invitation I had found the way in.
“You been here before, I think,” he said.
“No.” And I paused for a second and then said with a laugh, “I’m American.”
The guide seemed to think that was funny.
The next stop was to see the remains of a blown-up American tank. Then you’re taken to the fifty-meter section of tunnels, which you crawl through. It’s hot, damp, and difficult. We were then shown various rooms: a makeshift operating room, a meeting room, a bunker, and a kitchen with a most ingenious way of filtering the smoke out through various exit holes that could be far from the actual source. We were than shown various means of disguising entrances and creating false entrances (with booby traps). The Cu Chi Tunnels were certainly one of the more interesting things I saw in Vietnam. And as you’re crawling through these damp musty tunnels, sweat pouring off your brow, don’t forget they lived in these things. No wonder they won.

I had the opportunity one morning to visit an orphanage. From talking to Kim, of Kim’s Café fame, I learned that a friend of hers was an American who among various trades, did charity work in benefit to children in underdeveloped Asian countries. I never did manage to sort out the details of her various projects. But in any event I got an invitation to come along and visit an orphanage.

The Long Hoa Orphanage, run by a Buddhist Monk named Thich Vien Giac, is home to 106 boys age 5 to 16. They have plans to open a facility for girls in the future but the funds are presently lacking. The orphanage is on spacious but simple grounds along a small waterway on the outskirts of Saigon in District 7. The home was opened three years ago. Though the oldest boy is presently 16 they will be permitted to stay until the age of 18. A school is on the premises, but some of the lessons have to be on weekends when volunteer teachers are free to come donate their time. During the weekdays the older boys receive vocational training at sites around Saigon. The boys begin to receive English lessons at age 12.

The total number of staff is 18, most of who are half-day volunteers. Full-time staff includes two monks, two kitchen staff and two caretakers (a.k.a. ‘parents’). There is also a part-time nurse who comes to treat the standard childhood ailments. So far, the home has been spared any serious outbreak of illness. Each child costs the home about 250,000 dong (a little over $18) a month and funding comes entirely from individuals and temples. They receive no money from the government or from any established NGO. Most of the children were abandoned and brought by relatives who could not afford to care for them. The majority comes from north central Vietnam (between Da Nang and Hanoi), the poorest region of the country. Relatives rarely visit as few can afford the 1000 kilometer-plus trip.

My impression is that the children are well cared for. The first thing that struck me was the exemplary level of respect and politeness the children showed their foreign visitors. They gave us a greeting I’ve not seen before. The children would, with their elbows in their hands and the arms against their stomach give a respectful bow with a “Hello” or “Good morning”. Nothing was too important to excuse giving a visitor the proper greeting. As we were touring the grounds it was mealtime for the children, the few stragglers sprinting towards the mess hall still stopped to give the proper greeting before resuming their mad dash for brunch. We soon joined the boys in the mess hall, which is actually a small cramped room with about six tables providing a very cozy eating environment. Once inside we were treated to a song, lead by a couple of monks and one young boy who definitely should consider a career in singing.

Creative talents are strongly encouraged here. In one room dozens of examples of the boys’ abilities are on display. Paintings, woodcarvings, ink drawings, and mobiles are just some of their creations. Some of it is good. After their meal some of the boys were set free to chat with us, but most of them just hammed it up for the cameras. Overall, they seemed quite happy given their circumstances and I’m confident that the good monks at Long Hoa are going to turn out 106 productive members of Vietnamese society.







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