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I miss Saigon

by Michael on February 3, 2012

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From Michael ~ Yesterday, on our last day in Saigon, I strolled around the city streets for one final look. I miss Saigon already. Its current name is Ho Chi Minh City, but it was in the news a lot when I was a kid and it will always be Saigon to me. Apparently to the locals as well, they wear the old name like a comfortable sweater.

We arrived in the middle of the week-long Tet Lunar New Year. For four days the city, usually known for its vitality and chaotic streets, was practically deserted as shops and restaurants were closed. Most residents went to the countryside for the week. Picture an empty beach town in the winter and you get the idea. Each day as more people returned we were introduced to the city gradually as it awoke from its holiday induced slumber.

It’s the city where we got lost one sticky night on a meandering back alley and ended up at a Buddhist convent. The nuns acted as if they cater to befuddled tourists all the time, taking us in, feeding us and even giving us a bag of fruit for our journey. If they were Italian they could have been my grandmother. (There’ll be more on this in a future story.)

Buddhist nuns Vietnam

Little Rocky enjoyed his evening and meal at the Buddhist convent.

It’s the city where we learned how to navigate our way through the four million mopeds that seemed to all be on whatever street we were trying to cross. The first few days we were tentative about leaving the relative safety of the curb. Our experience in Beijing had taught us that pedestrians are moving targets, like ducks in a shooting gallery waiting to be picked off.

But we watched the nightly ballet of riders as they approached major intersections that lacked traffic lights. With the tight choreography of the USC marching band they managed to intertwine their routes and avoid a collision. So we stepped off the curb, a moving rock in a river as the riders streamed around us. We learned to go with the flow, advice that has stood us well on our year-long journey.

It’s the city where a new friend had me jump on his motorbike to give me a ride for a quick errand. Never mind that I was more petrified flitting through traffic on the back of his motorbike than walking, it’s the thought that counts.

Saigon motorbike

A new friend in Saigon.

Surprisingly, it’s also a city that loves Americans, despite a history that gives them more reasons than most to be bitter. Maybe it’s because every other person we met has a relative that lives in California. I think it’s because unlike many parts of the world that are stuck in reverse as they dwell on past wrongs, Vietnam is forward-looking as it eagerly strives for its place on the world stage.

If you’re intrigued, now is the time to visit. In a few years those four million motorbikes will start to become cars. Then the traffic will probably be more like the death match of Beijing. When that day comes I fear Saigon will lose a bit of its innocence.

The following video shows rush-hour traffic at the main intersection in front of the Rex Hotel. If you tried to choreograph this scene with stunt drivers for a movie it would take weeks:

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

John Discepoli February 3, 2012 at 11:53 am

That video reminded me of the rotaries in Boston

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Us February 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Ah the rotaries in Boston, what good times we’ve had negotiating those.

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Mary Lou Tucker February 3, 2012 at 11:35 pm

Fabulous city. Wonderful people. Crossing the street the first few times was all the heart workout we needed. But you get used to it don’t you?!

Happy trails!
MLT

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Us February 4, 2012 at 7:30 am

Just go with the flow. We also learned, almost the hard way, not to speed up or slow down. Whe’re okay with the not speeding up bit.

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Richard Needham February 4, 2012 at 11:35 pm

I feel much the same way as Michael about Saigon, and Vietnam in general. The people are friendly, hold nothing against Americans, and will go out of their way, as your experience with the Buddhist monks attests to (and, by the way, what a picture!). The language is also distinctly beautiful in it way, with a lilting tonal quality. I will long remember being invited to play a round of a chess-like game by a group of older men in Dong Thap Province one hot summer lunch hour while strolling the streets outside the company I was working. In these situations, laughter and friendly gestures convey brotherhood beyond the bounds of language, and make you forget the seeming meanness that seems to abound in so much of the world!

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Us February 5, 2012 at 12:11 am

Thanks Richard. We saw men playing that game and wondered what it was.

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Barbara February 5, 2012 at 1:49 am

It sounds like you found a special place. My Dad was there in the war and had memories of Saigon with it’s beautiful colonial era buildings and the French culture.
I enjoyed your video; what an incredible precision ballet that is!
Peace & happy trails to you both.
Barb

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Us February 5, 2012 at 10:07 am

We’d love to hear more about your father’s stint in Saigon sometime.

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