Vietnam – visit quick, impression huge

Zoom, zoom go the scooters in Saigon; and so too goes my visit to Vietnam.

As I mentioned before, I missed out on the first port of call to Vietnam – which would have been to the very historic imperial relics of Chan May…the really old part of Vietnam. So, my visit was reduced to only Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). And, too, that visit was reduced to simply an evening walk-around, delicious meal, and visit to a bar. Altogether way too short a visit to do justice to this country with more history than it deserves.

But rather than bemoan the shortness of time, I must remember the simple fact that I was privileged to step into this country with such a remarkable and haunting past. I’m also recognizing that the short amount of time I get to spend in Asia (coupled with how fascinating it is) might be an elaborate ploy by the continent to get me to come back some day for a closer look. Hmm…maybe…

Andrew’s history class: Saigon (which was part of South Vietnam) was renamed Ho Chi Minh City when the communists from the north took over an united all of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was the political leader of North Vietnam until his death six years before the end of the Vietnam War. For the sake of saving keystrokes, I’m just going to use the name Saigon. Don’t read any more into my motive.

Sailing on the ship down the Saigon River, past the Mekong Delta (scene of intense fighting and massive Agent Orange application) was nothing short of eerie. Setting foot into Vietnam for the first time, I did so in the evening after work with a few others…and the effect of being en route through the country towards Saigon after the sun had gone down added to the spookiness.

The port was located a good hour from Saigon proper and the journey in gave a terrific flavor for Vietnamese life. Overhead, support beams were being installed for a new freeway to the port – evidence that communist Vietnam is adopting a very interesting brand of capitalism and openness to the western world which is fueling its place as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. However, with the freeway some years away, we took bumpy, unlit dirt roads. We went through rural areas, and the blended outskirts of the city…people living on the fringe, half-way into rural poverty and half-way towards the bustling city. I observed the quality (and lack of) of their homes, and their small storefronts. But I also observed them all gathering together in these homes/shops/restaurants, enjoying company, and going about their life.

One thing I also noticed – both in the outskirts and throughout the city of Saigon proper…was an abundance of white florescent tubes lighting everything. Every home lit in stark white, all the stores, and lots of public areas with florescent tubes just hanging there. Interestingly, I noticed this too in the Vietnamese-immigrant area of London where some of my friends live. Certainly environmentally friendly…but it’s just surprising how universal this lighting is both in Vietnam and with Vietnamese people back home. The stark white also made the country a little more spooky in mood.

The closer we got to the center of Saigon, the more things picked up. Least of all, the traffic. I am dumbfounded as to how they pull it off (and, of course, they don’t always pull it off… on the way back to the ship we saw the carcass of a demolished scooter with police investigating). 

Well, we left the taxi and found ourselves in the center of possibly one of the most storied cities of modern history.

All around lots of density and people living in various states of apartments. Some scooters very nice and shiny, others many years old. And with the poorer apartments, there were also towering overhead luxury hotels and even Gucci and Vuitton stores. It was all happening here – old Asia and new, east and west, rich and poor, progress and history, socialism and capitalism. And, like the traffic, it was all pretty chaotic. Crossing the street is an experience I’ll always remember: “just keep walking, keep walking; they’ll steer around you.” I will also forever remember the gas station with 15 scooters lined up around the pumps, little squirts going into the tanks to get them back on their way.

One of the things I wish I could forget, but never will, is the beggars in Saigon. For unlike the homeless and poor of any city I’ve been do…these were little kids on the street late at night, trying to sell us gum and saying “could you buy me milk.” They’d jump around us and play with us (as kids should, although out on the streets of Saigon at 10pm they shouldn’t be). Absolutely heart-breaking, and it’s difficult to walk away from them which, eventually, you must.

A group of us had an incredible Vietnamese meal – food I’ve always absolutely loved. And I must say it was the best Pho (Vietnamese soup) I’ve had in my life.

My stay in Vietnam was much too short to do it justice. I’d love to see some of the older areas, see the tunnels that the Viet Cong used which are now open for tourists, and get to know the country better. But, in such a short time, the impression it left is very strong indeed. Mostly, I was impressed by the people. Back home, I’ve always found Vietnamese people to be extremely nice. In their home country, they stood out for their polite nature, their smiles, and their sense of peace and happiness. This from a people who have truly endured more than anyone should have in history both recent and ancient.

Back on the ship, some of the American guests didn’t even go into the country out of principle, and I suppose I can understand where they’re coming from. 

I don’t intend to make this blog any forum for politics. But I have been feeling…going and seeing the world and its people…you start to notice that, fundamentally, we’re all simply people living our lives with the circumstances before us – and the every day citizens of Vietnam are going about it simply the very best they can. With a good spirit about it too. All in all, we’re really not that different here in this world. At least, that’s what I’m realizing more and more.

Maybe that was a little deep. But it does make you reflect pretty hard, I think.

And that was the greatest impression of all that Vietnam left: a strong reflection on our world and its people.