May 22, 2003

War history, music and massage on the street

As we neared Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) one of the most obvious things I noticed was the quality of the road. The road was quite good for the entire trip, although by the time we reached the outskirts of Saigon itself it was very wide with several lanes, including some narrower ones on the sides for motorbikes and bicycles. As we drove into the city I couldn't help but notice how many more motorbikes and people there were when compared to Cambodia. Saigon is a large city complete with tall buildings, shopping malls and lots of entertainment options. Upon arrival in the "backpacker area" of Saigon we were immediately surrounded by people who wanted to take us to see their guesthouses. We're fairly used to this by now so spent the first few minutes waiting for the other tourists to disperse, and then started comparing prices among the various touts. We eventually went to have a look at one place which was a bit pricey at $10, although it was a very nice hotel with extras like AC, fridge and TV. After a little while we found a friendly older lady who said she had rooms "just around the corner" for $4. We followed her through several narrow alleys lined with residences to a narrow guesthouse with just one room on each floor. It was clean and family run so we decided to take it for our two nights in Saigon. After getting settled in our rooms we met up with some fellow travelers from Holland. We had first met on the minibus on the way out of Phnom Penh and had gotten better acquainted on the way through the Mekong Delta. After meeting up we got some supper at a place filled with Vietnamese people for about $1 per person. They did at least have a vegetarian section on the menu, although there were no descriptions of the dishes so I just ordered the first one on the list which turned out to be great.
Japanese musical performance
After supper we went to the second half of a free musical performance by a traveling Japanese group. They played both Asian and Western classical music, but used traditional Asian instruments the whole time. They also had an award-winning guest soprano who wasn't screechy and did an excellent job. I must admit that a couple of us weren't that excited about going to see a musical performance, but Sujoya (who teaches music) really wanted to go and it turned out to be great. Also, the auditorium was very cool compared to the muggy weather outside, thanks to the air conditioning, which made the show even more enjoyable.

cathedral at night
Our next destination was also not particularly exciting to some in our group, but Jonathan really wanted to find the Hard Rock Cafe so that he could buy a t-shirt to add to his collection. As we wandered around town looking for the Hard Rock Cafe we enjoyed seeing a couple of nice cathedrals which were illuminated. We also got a chance to see a little bit of what our guidebook referred to as "Sunday night live". Basically, on Sunday nights people like to cruise around on their scooters and motorbikes and there is one street in particular where we could watch lots of young people "cruising". Another sight that we found a bit surprising was that of couples "parking" on their scooters in the park areas of the city. It's certainly not Europe or the US, but they definitely have more public displays of affection in Vietnam than in Cambodia. While still more or less searching for the Hard Rock Cafe we wandered into one of the very fancy 5 star hotels to look around a little. We rode the elevator to their rooftop restaurant, but decided it was out of our price range when we saw the menu. Even a soft drink was something like $3 which I suppose isn't that unreasonable when compared to western prices, but seemed high to us. We started to get a little suspicious about whether or not there really was a Hard Rock Cafe in Saigon because most people we asked didn't know where it was. Finally, we found someone who could give us directions and walked about two blocks around the corner to what was labeled as the Hard Rock Cafe. Inside they had decorated it with the usual musical instruments, records and posters but it just didn't feel quite right. Perhaps it was too small (it really wasn't very big and had a low ceiling), or perhaps the pool table in the corner just didn't fit. The shop did in fact have t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale although the menu was the dead give away that this place was not really part of the franchise, but was instead just a blatant copy. The actual items on the menu were even pretty close to the real thing, but the design, quality and frequent English mistakes made it obvious that things were not what they seemed. We decided not to stick around, but Jonathan went ahead and bought himself a nice copy t-shirt (which cost less than the real thing probably would have) on the way out. Back out on the street we explored a little more and definitely saw plenty of places where you could get anything you wanted with the right amount of money. Vietnam may be a communist country with stricter control of "social vices", but they certainly haven't been eliminated. This sort of thing is however much more discreet than it is in Phnom Penh or of course Thailand.

massage on the street
We did do one more interesting thing before catching a taxi back to our hotel that I should write about. We had read and been told about some interesting street vendors in Saigon. The first type goes around making a distinctive sound with spoons which seems a bit strange if you don't know why they are doing it. These people are in fact advertising soup which they will deliver to you from a nearby restaurant upon request. The second type of vendor rides around on a bicycle shaking a string of bottle caps rigged up to form a shaker similar in design and sound to a baby rattle. These guys (and they are all men) are offering massage services. They carry a small case with a mat and will give you a massage right on the street, or in your hotel room if you prefer. After hearing about this Daren and I decided that we should try it out for the cultural experience, if nothing else. Once we indicated a slight interest to one of the massage vendors, he actually followed us around for the better part of an hour before we decided to go ahead and try it out. We decided to split an hour between the two of us for a total price of $2. The massage itself was very good although there are probably better settings. One thing is for sure though, there's definitely nothing like lying on the side walk at night in a busy city watching cockroaches scurry across the side walk a few meters (yards) away from your face while having a massage. It was a great and unique experience, even though we turned down the option of hot glass suction cups which was also available.

tunnel entrance
The next morning we were all up bright and early to catch a package tour to the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were used by the North Vietnamese troops during the "War of American Aggression", as it is sometimes called in Vietnam. It was very interesting to learn how they would hide in the tunnels whenever the American patrols came by. They even had rigged up a system of filtering the smoke from cooking fires to that it wouldn't be noticed from above ground. Most of the tunnels were quite narrow so that the typical American soldier with all his gear would have a much harder time getting through than the typically smaller Vietnamese people who didn't carry much more than a weapon, ammo and a little food/water. The tunnel entrances were camouflaged very well, some were even underwater in the nearby riverbank. Some of the tunnels were very close if not actually under American bases as well, which made quick escapes possible after night time raids.
booby trap
There were also lots of booby traps on display, most of which looked quite lethal. Some of these traps were originally used to hunt wild animals but were adapted for war use. We went through one stretch of small tunnel that was about 400m (1300 feet) long where we had to crawl most of the way. This stretch of tunnel seemed very long, but was only a tiny fraction of the length of the tunnels used during the war. After crawling through several tunnels we sampled some rice and tapioca root, which tastes a bit like potato. Apparently the soldiers would plant this type of root along their supply routes and then come back to harvest it after a few months. It grows very quickly and easily in this part of the world so was a low hassle food source. We also watched a craftsman make a pair of shoes using old car tires for the soles and old strips of inner tube for the straps. A couple of other tourists on our tour had large feet and had ordered some custom sized "Ho Chi Minh Trail Sandals".
choose your weapon
The last stop on our tour was the firing range. Another person in our tour group decided to take the opportunity to fire several of the available guns at the cost of $1 per bullet. I wasn't very tempted to try it out myself, but it was interesting to watch and hear.

$1 per bullet
Upon arrival back in Saigon the 4 of us decided to hire two cyclos for a 1 hour tour of the city. Cyclos are basically bicycles with a big seat in the front for the passengers and are usually operated by middle aged or older men. I've read that many of these men fought along side the Americans and haven't been able to find any better jobs since the war. In many cases former members of the South Vietnamese army were sent to re-education camps as well. Anyway, we enjoyed our daylight tour of the sights in downtown Saigon which included several cathedrals, parks and skyscrapers. We ended our tour at one of the large local indoor markets. We browsed in the market for a while before spending the rest of the afternoon walking around the downtown area exploring various stores and side streets. We also got a chance to check email and I got a much needed haircut for $1. In the evening we met up with our Dutch friends again for an excellent meal at a reasonably priced vegetarian restaurant. They even had some Mexican food on the menu which I couldn't resist ordering. After supper we bought our open bus tickets to Hanoi and booked seats for the morning bus to the town of Dalat. Jonathan and I then wandered around the city a bit more before heading to bed.

Posted by andrew on May 22, 2003

What a great way to get your information out. We enjoyed in very much. Thanks heaps.

Posted by: Richard Schwartz on May 23, 2003

Hi, always nice to hear from you. Like the pictures. They say so much. Hope you are well,

Posted by: Janella Riter on May 24, 2003