A selection of photos from our week in Saigon:
A selection of photos from our week in Saigon:
We’re back in the US, but here’s one more post about our time in Vietnam.
1. On our way out to the Mekong Delta, we went through an industrial area, with machine shops, brick-making facilities, and the like. As we drove, we passed a three-wheeled bicycle that you see all over in Vietnam, with a cart in the front over two wheels and the driver over the rear wheel in the back. Lashed to the cart were several steel beams, probably 8-10 of them, each about 2 inches tall and 10 feet long, weight of the whole thing unknown, probably several hundred pounds on three bicycle wheels and a non-existant suspension system. And if that’s not odd enough to imagine, the whole thing was moving at around 30 mph, pushed along by a motorcycle whose driver had his left foot on the bolt of the right front wheel, while the respective drivers of the combined conveyance chatted away with little attention to their Rube Goldberg machine. Wish I’d have gotten a photo of it…it’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.
2. Even though the streets of Saigon were packed with motorbikes, you saw very few people wearing helmets, and when they did, they tended to be construction helmets that weren’t even strapped to their heads.
3. I got an email from a reader a few days ago wondering why I was referring to Saigon as Saigon rather than its official name of Ho Chi Minh City, the name given to the city 24 hours after it fell to the North Vietnamese. Most of the city’s inhabitants still call it Saigon, so I was following suit. It’s also quicker to say and to type.
4. Cao Dai is a homegrown Vietnamese religion (established in the 1920s) that is an amalgamation of several other religions. On our trip to the Mekong Delta, we visited a Cao Dai temple, which looked like it was designed by Liberace’s interior decorator. Over the altar was a sculpture depicting Buddha, Confucious, Jesus, and Victor Hugo (!!), and I think they were all holding hands or something.
5. On one of the entry forms you need to fill out before arriving in Vietnam, it lists some things that are illegal to import into the country, including:
weapons, ammunition, explosives, military equipment and tools, narcotics, drugs, toxic chemicals, pornographic and subversive materials, firecrackers, children’s toys that have “negative effects on personality development, social order and security,” or cigarettes in excess of the stipulated allowance.
Children’s toys? Negative effects on personality development, social order and security? Bwa?
6. I can’t find too much about it online, but one of the more interesting things we saw in Saigon was the photography exhibit at The War Remnants Museum. The exhibit consists of hundreds of photographs of the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War) taken by some of the best photojournalists who were working at the time, including Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Horst Faas, Huynh Thanh My, Robert Capa, and Kyochi Sawada. A powerful and moving record of a tumultuous period in history.
7. Speaking of The War Remnants Museum (which was formerly called The War Crimes Museum and was a little more one-sided in the past), it wasn’t until a couple days after I’d gone that I realized that remnants referred to all of the stuff that the US had left in Vietnam after the long conflict, literally the leftovers of war. Tanks, planes, cars, helicopters, guns, photography, children deformed from the effects of Agent Orange, a population depleted of young men, horrific memories, and, finally, a united Vietnam.
We had a couple of notable lunches in Saigon. The first was at Quan An Ngon. The owner of this establishment found the best street food vendors in Saigon, offered them a steady wage, and brought them all under one roof to form a restaurant. When you arrive (and after waiting for 10 minutes or more at this busy place) and are shown to your table, you pass the various cooks preparing their street specialties. The waiter was super-quick in taking our order so we didn’t get too good of a look at the menu, but we managed to have an excellent lunch.
A couple of days later, we checked out La Fenetre Soleil (the link is in Japanese, but the photos are good). As you probably know, France ruled Vietnam for about 100 years and the influence can be seen in several aspects of life there. La Fenetre Soleil feels quite French (circa 1940), mostly due to the architecture of the building and the deliberate styling of the proprietors. There are a few tables, but we sat in two ridiculously comfortable stuffed chairs and lunched on banh mi with cold drinks. A very cool place to chill out and have a small meal or a drink…comfortable enough to lounge for hours.
 A great idea, BTW. I wonder if such a thing could work in NYC?
 Or some other city somewhere else. I live in NYC so I spend a lot of time (publicly and privately) wondering if things I notice elsewhere could work where I live.
During our almost-three weeks in Asia, I suffered some gastrointestinal discomfort from too much soda in a bag and then a weird neck injury where I twisted it the wrong way and it just hurt really bad (and now I can’t really look at anything that’s not directly in front of me), while Meg sliced her foot open on some glass and got sick (not the bird flu…probably). All this is in addition to our tired & sore feet from three weeks of hardcore walking.
Then this evening we’re strolling to dinner and I smacked my head into a metal box hanging off of a pole I totally didn’t see (the pole or the box…see my head motion problems above), which actually knocked me off my feet and flat onto my back on the pavement. Luckily, everyone within a 25-foot radius heard/saw this and came right over to see that I was OK (I was), which kinda made it worse because of the embarrassment factor but was also very nice because everyone was so friendly/concerned. The gentleman whose slab of pavement I had horizonatally deposited myself onto produced a tissue and a green liquid of some sort, which I dabbed near-but-not-on the welt on my head just to be polite because of my concern re: the liquid’s antiseptic qualities. After I collected my wits, Meg and the shopkeeper brushed me off, got me standing, and we continued onto dinner, a little slower and more in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve gotta say, as much as I’ve enjoyed our trip, I’m happy to be heading home to some familiarity.
 The sound that a crowd makes when something strange/bad happens in its vicinity is univerally recognizable no matter the language or culture.
You know how when everyone knows something you don’t know and after a little bit you get a funny feeling that you know that they know something but you still don’t know what It is and you end up with your palms outstretched and your shoulders slightly hunched generally feeling like a dope while everyone chuckles at your ignorance? Getting caught in a tropical rain storm is like that, except that instead of everyone chuckling at you, you just get massively wet.
I was out walking the other day, heading to the travel agency to arrange our daytrip to the Mekong Delta. People generally don’t walk large distances in Saigon like one might in NYC. The sidewalks are crammed with motorbikes (motorbike parking lots are right on the sidewalk instead of dedicated structures), people selling things, and cracked or otherwise uneven pavement. But old habits die hard, so I was out walking.
All of a sudden, there was a flurry of activity. Motorbikes started driving all over the sidewalks, routing around the traffic jam that had developed in the intersection. The sidewalks cleared. I was a bit too busy trying to negotiate the sidewalks with all the motorbike coming at me and from behind me for me to register that something was afoot — it was only afterwards that I put it all together. Then it started to rain, just a sprinkle at first. A man selling something out of a basket by the side of the road produced a plastic poncho seemingly out of nowhere, slipped it on, covered his basket with a plastic bag, and quickly took off around the corner, leaving his basket there on the street.
And then it really started to rain. Big huge drops falling fast. I looked around and found myself on one of the few streets not lined with awninged shops so I sprinted for cover under a tree. The traffic was as thick as ever, but I noticed that as soon as the rain started, all the motorbike drivers and passengers magically had ponchos on. Stupid prescient locals. Meanwhile, my tree was not up to the task of stopping a torrential downpour. Already soaking, I sprinted for a nearby (thankfully unoccupied) pay telephone, above which was a small awning, just big enough for one skinny kid from Wisconsin.
Ten minutes later, the rain slacked enough for me to run the remaining 100 yards to the travel agency. Dripping like a wet dog all over their floor, the woman asked me, “you get here by taxi or walk?”
“Walk,” I replied.
She shook her head in pity. Turns out there’s another reason why people probably don’t walk much around here.
Since recording the walk signal sounds in Hong Kong, I’ve been a bit slack in documenting the sounds as I travel around Asia (because frankly the iPod is one more thing I don’t want to lug around with me all day). Stuff I’ve missed:
From eGullet: one week in Saigon, a rambling, verbose, meal by meal report.
Where to go for the top eats in Saigon, including best French, pho, and banh mi.
For our first lunch in Saigon, we met up with Graham from Noodlepie, a Saigon-centric food blog. We cabbed it from our hotel to Quan Co Tam - Banh Canh Trang Bang to have one of his favorite Vietnamese dishes, banh trang phoi suong (literally “rice pancake exposed in the dew (at night)”). Here’s the outlay:
It’s a simple dish; just boiled pork wrapped in thin rice paper with an assortment of herbs, pickled onions & carrots, cucumber, and raw bean sprouts. As you can see from the photo (or the much better photos that Graham took on a previous trip), the plate of herbs that they give you is quite impressive and varied; one smelled like lemon, another like fish. All wrapped up and dipped in fish sauce, it’s delicious and simple.
Afterwards we headed to the market, Graham for dinner fixings and us for some browsing around. Before we parted, he treated us to a sugarcane & lemon drink (mia da) and a pennywort smoothie (not as bad as I’d thought for something that tasted like salad through a straw). Thanks for the nice lunch, Graham!
On our first night in Saigon, we ran across a little shop that offered for sale, among other things, lots of 60s/70s-era Zippo lighters.
Me: How do you suppose they came to have those?
Meg: I don’t want to know.
I was born in 1973 and don’t have much of a connection to the Vietnam War (it’s referred to as the American War or the Resistance War Against America here)…my dad was in the Navy but served before the war really got going and was never sent to Vietnam. But for some Americans, I could see how being here would be difficult.
Update: I’ve been told that the Zippo lighters are fake, made especially for the tourist trade. We read about this in our guidebook, but these looked pretty authentic to me. Regardless, a sobering reminder. (thx adam)
The statue of the Virgin Mary outside the Notre Dame here in Saigon has apparently been weeping and the locals are flocking to see it. (via np)
One of my favorite things to do in new cities is to observe how the traffic works. Traffic in each place has a different feel to it that depends on the culture, physical space, population density, legal situation, and modes of transportation available (and unavailable).
Everyone drives in LA and Minneapolis, even if you’re only going a few blocks. In San francisco, pedestrians rule the streets…if a pedestrian steps out into the crosswalk, traffic immediately stops and will stay stopped as long as people are crossing, even if that means the cars are going nowhere, which is great if you’re walking and maddening if you’re driving. In many cities, both in the US and Europe, people will not cross in a crosswalk against the light and will never jaywalk. In many European cities, city streets are narrow and filled with pedestrians, slowing car traffic. US cities are starting to build bike lanes on their streets, following the example of some European cities.
In NYC, cars and pedestrians take turns, depending on who has the right-of-way and the opportunity, with the latter often trumping the former. Cabs comprise much of the traffic and lanes are often a suggestion rather than a rule, more than in other US cities. With few designated bike lanes, cycling can be dangerous in the fast, heavy traffic of Manhattan. So too can cyclers be dangerous; bike messengers will speed right through busy crosswalks with nothing but a whistle to warn you.
In Bangkok, traffic is aggressive, hostile even. If a driver needs a space, he just moves over, no matter if another car is there or not. Being a pedestrian is a dangerous proposition here; traffic will often not stop if you step out into a crosswalk and it’s impossible to cross in some places without the aid of a stoplight or overpass (both of which are rare). More than any other place I’ve been, I didn’t like how the traffic worked in Bangkok, either on foot or in a car.
Traffic in Saigon reminds me a bit of that in Beijing when I visited there in 1996. Lots of communication goes on in traffic here and it makes it flow fairly well. Cars honk to let people know they’re coming over, to warn people they shouldn’t pull in, motorbikes honk when they need to cross traffic, and cars & motorbikes honk at pedestrians when it’s unsafe for them to cross. Traffic moves slow to accommodate cars, the legions of motorbikes (the primary mode of transportation here), and pedestrians all at the same time. Crossing the street involves stepping out, walking slowly, and letting the traffic flow around you. Drivers merging into traffic often don’t even look before pulling out; they know the traffic will flow around them. The system requires a lot of trust, but the slow speed and amount of communication make it manageable.
 This is the principle behind traffic calming.
 That traffic calming business again.
 Not that it’s not scary as hell too. American pedestrians are taught to fear cars (don’t play in the street, look both ways before crossing the street, watch out for drunk drivers) and trusting them to avoid you while you’re basically the frog in Frogger…well, it takes a little getting used to.
We’ve arrived safely in Vietnam. Saigon is by far the most European stop on our trip, which makes sense because Thailand was never colonized by a European power and Hong Kong was British and therefore not European. There are cafes, French restaurants, European architecture, public spaces like squares and parks, etc. It feels like Europe here.
And there are a lot of dongs here. The Vietnamese currency is the dong. Our hotel is just off of Dong Khoi. I’ve seen several restaurants and shops with “Dong” in the name. Beavis and Butthead would love it here; I myself have been making culturally insensitive jokes pertaining to the currency and my pants pocket all afternoon.
 The only SE Asian country never to have been so colonized.
 Hello, angry Brits! Of course you’re European, but you know what I mean. For starters, you’ve got your own breakfast, as opposed to the continental.
 The 50,000 & 100,000 dong notes are plastic and see-through in a couple spots. US currency is so not cool.
When I first conceived of doing kottke.org on a full-time basis, one of the things I wanted to do was to go to Asia and document the experience for the site. Several micropatrons asked me to use their contributions to, quote, “get out of the house, for the love of God, and go somewhere nice and take pictures and tell us all about it”. Unquote.
So, that’s what I’m a’gonna do. In a couple days time, we (Meg and I) will be traveling around Asia for about 3 weeks. We’ll be heading to Hong Kong, Bangkok (where we’re meeting up with my dad, who has traveling and living cheaply in Asia down to a fine science), and Saigon (or more properly, Ho Chi Minh City). We’re planning on having internet access for most of the time, but we may be without it for short periods, so updates might be sporadic at times, but they will happen as often as I can manage.
What will probably not be happening is the usual updates to the site, i.e. non-trip related stuff. Few remaindered links for 3 weeks…I don’t even think I’m gonna open my newsreader. No movie reviews, no book reviews (with one possible exception). No posts on sandwiches, Web 2.0, or popcorn (ok, everyone stop cheering). Bottom line, the usually scheduled kottke.org programming will be interrupted by a 3-week Asian travelogue.
I’m leaving the comments open, so if anyone has any suggestions on stuff we should see, things we should do, food we should eat, we’d appreciate it.