Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Saigon Day 2 - Extreme Tourism

4 January 2011:

Woke up this morning, looked down at my feet and burst out laughing. My normally finely turned-racehorse like-ankles were still swollen to the size of turnips. Absolutely revolting. All I needed now was some saggy knee high stockings, carpet slippers and a housedress and I'd be one of those poor creatures they'd find dead in her house after 3 months having been half eaten by cats. My feet and ankles had puffed up during the horror flight to Saigon and even after a cold shower and some rest, they weren't showing any signs of abatement. Ah well....you get that on the big jobs. Looks like it's my Ipanema thongs for today's footwear.

I'd had trouble sleeping last night and kept waking up a various intervals, which is quite frankly, bloody annoying. My eyes looked like an Arabian sandstorm had swept through them and my skin felt like the Dead Sea Scrolls. The humidity is turning my hair into something resembling Little Orphan Annie. Dear God, please don't let me meet George Clooney today!!!

Get dressed and whip downstairs for breakfast. I love it when other people cook for me, and my omlette was done to perfection. Our guide and driver are due to collect us at 8:30am for our full day city tour of the former Southern capital.

Grab the camera and head to the lobby, where we meet Lam, our beautifully delightful tour guide, and our driver Hieu (Hugh). They were both just lovely, lovely people and very friendly. Hieu was driving a big 4WD. Normally I am one of these people who believes that they should be banished from the streets, however on a day like today, where we have to do battle with the 6 million (not 4 million as I've just discovered) motorcycles, as well as cyclos, livestock, pedestrians and goodness knows what else on the roads, I'm all for being locked in my designer air conditioned tank. As far as I'm concerned, these are extreme road conditions!

Our first port of call is the central city Pagoda. Luckily it was still quite early and there weren't any tourists about; just those locals going to pray before heading off somewhere else. The air was loaded with incense and spirituality. It's very quiet and the gardens are beautiful. The monks look at us with some bemusement. We are permitted to take photographs but I distinctly feel that we're intruding on some private and sacred moments and I try to be as quick as possible. Lam tells us all about the Pagoda and its history and about particular aspects of Buddhism, which is the principal religious system in Vietnam. Christianity, of the Catholic kind, comes in second. We spend quite some time at the Pagoda looking at its treasures. There are thousands of small photographs of people - these are the ancestors of the locals and their photos are kept in the Pagoda so that people can visit them. There is a table with a large photograph of a young man who looked to be to be in his 20s. He had recently died, and his photograph, together with all the accompanying gifts for Buddha (fruit, money, incense sticks etc) are kept on this table for 49 days after the death. Buddhism has some beautiful aspects to it and I always find it peaceful to visit its shrines and temples. We walk around in silence and admire the beautiful timberwork and ornaments. We then visit the gardens and the cemetery where the monks are buried. It seems strange to see tombs with giant red swastikas painted on them, but we need to remember that the Nazis stole this symbol from the East, and here it has the absolute opposite meaning of that which was used for the purpose of evil deeds and world domination. 

Hieu waits patiently for us while we look around and take in the experience. We see a lady with three cages packed tightly with finches. I find this quite disturbing as the poor little birds are crammed in so tightly together. She is selling the finches to the visitors. The birds are the symbols of the ancestors, and when people come to pray, they buy a bird and release it so that their ancestors can feel comfortable in the next world. As always, there are sleeping dogs lying and as the proverb recommends, we leave them that way.

Back into the car and off to our next sight, which was the huge Cholon (chilin) Market. It's the wholesale market where everyone comes to buy their wares to onsell at the retail markets. It is packed to capacity and heat, combined with the narrowness of the lanes crammed with people simply defies competent description. We all get seriously claustrophobic and have to go outside for a breather. I spied the most divine pair of shoes and make a silent note to self to look for them tomorrow at the retail markets. Lam assures me that they will be there. 

We head off for another religious experience. This time it's the Chinese temple where they worship many gods. Again, the air is completely overloaded with incense and my already red eyes go into overdrive. I now look like Satan's sister after a big night out. Not a good look. However, the temple is gorgeous and we spend awhile soaking up the atmosphere and the peaceful surroundings.

Off to again to another sight - this is a lacquerware factory. Lacquerware is very popular in Vietnam and there are some absolutely beautiful products are for sale. I bought up big the last time I was here. We would have escaped without buying anything, except we all feel the distinct air of expectation that we were obliged to buy something. We all duly purchased small items, and that was fine. The funniest sight as we were leaving the factory was that of all the men having a sleep on their mats on the floor whilst all the women were working. We wanted to take a photo but thought it a tad inappropriate. We all had a giggle to ourselves about the continuing state of the universe.

As we are driving through the city, the girls gasp in horror every few seconds as motorbikes slide within millimetres of the car and there is a sheer wall of traffic everywhere one looks. There are loads of roundabouts in Saigon and it reminds me very strongly of driving in Paris. The only difference is that the pace is a little slower. People tend to drive more slowly in Saigon so that they don't hit anyone on a bike or anything else. There are horns tooting everywhere, but unlike home, they're used for their intended purpose - to warn of danger or the fact that there is a vehicle just next to where you are. The girls pretty much spend the period we're in the traffic with their eyes firmly closed and their hands gripping the seats with a whitened deathlike grasp. I'm in the front and am loving every minute. I feel like CNN photographer as I snap off loads of photos of everything in front of me that's moving. The sights, colours, sounds, smells and general bustle of Saigon simply has to be seen to be believed. As we pull up at traffic lights, we are completely surrounded by motorbikes, which provides myriad opportunities for interesting photos, particularly when there are whole families on the bikes and they have luggage and possessions with them as well.

We were then taken to the most beautiful restaurant for lunch. It was called Boulevard and everything about it was fabulous - the decor, the service, the food. We had a 7 course lunch and it was magnificent.

After lunch we head over to the Reunification Palace, a huge tourist mecca where there are scores of people just like us staring in open-mouthed wonder at the opulence of the palace. Many of us will have seen the footage of the tanks exploding through the front gates of the place in 1975 when the North Vietnamese captured Saigon. Those images will stay with me forever. We spend quite some time at the palace looking at its rooms and hearing the history. It's an absorbing place and it's easy to get lost in thoughts of what it would have been like in old Saigon. 

We go to Notre Dame Cathedral, which is a replica of the one in Paris. Two of us spend some time saying prayers for our families and friends. It's beautiful, and there's a statue of St Anthony in there which I find very comforting. One of the benefits of a Catholic upbringing is the comfort one takes in the security of rituals. Many of the Catholic faithful were in the church at the same time as us and I found it an uplifting experience. We headed over the road to the old Post Office, where the ceilings are too, too divine and the old French colonial influence still seeps out of the walls. We also snap off some photos of the City Hall, another French masterpiece.

It is stinking hot, there are people everywhere, we're tired and desperately in need of a little lie down, but we're having the time of our lives. We are having a massive day and there's little time to blink as we make our way around this extraordinary city. 

After a few more stops here and there, we finally end up at the War Remnants Museum. This was once called the War Crimes and Aggression Museum, but for the sake of PC, the name has been changed. This is an extremely confronting and disturbing experience, but history cannot be allowed to forget, and therefore I think it's important for us to go there. I spend the whole time there thinking of my mother, brother and uncle, all of whom would be deeply moved by this place. There are hideously graphic photographs of mangled corpses, dead children, people being tortured, villages burning etc, and there is a whole room dedicated to the use and effects of Agent Orange and napalm during the war. For my generation, the Vietnam War was one of the most important and frightening events of the 20th century and I believe we owe it to ourselves as Australians and to the Vietnamese people to pay our respects to what happened. I cannot imagine that the Americans would be at all pleased about anyone seeing this museum, but history must be told from both sides. The most disturbing thing of all was seeing the dead baby fetuses preserved in formaldahyde - so disgustingly deformed they don't even look real. The last time I was in Vietnam, I was taken to an orphanage where some of the small children and babies were showing the effects of the poisoning that occurred through the use of Agent Orange. These are the children of the people were who babies and small children themselves during the war, and the effects of the toxic chemicals are still coming out 35 years later. Some of the children I saw looked exactly like the aliens one sees in an episode of The X Files and it was so horrifying I had to be taken outside to compose myself. The tears flow freely when seeing these sights and it gives anyone with any modicum of decency pause to think of the horrors of war. 

We then head back to our hotel where Lam gives us a map and some instructions about getting around tomorrow. We give Lam and Hieu a tip and thank them profusely for their time, their patience and their knowledge. It's been a massive day already, and the night is yet to come!!

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