Published: May 4th 2009May 4th 2009
Good Morning Vietnam
At the top of the Reuny Palace
Got on a plane in Frisco
And got off in Vietnam
I walked into a different world
The past forever gone
From Still In Saigon
by the Charlie Daniels Band
Getting on the plane in Frisco
My coworkers tried their darnedest to keep me in the office for as long as they could but I wrestled my way out of there by 4 pm. I got out of there, past my coworkers, past some pretty important people whose favorable opinion of me depends a great deal on the enormous amount of time they see me devotedly engaged in my profession. I didn’t care. All I cared about was that I had an early evening flight to catch. Actually, that’s not true. My flight didn’t depart until 10:30 pm but my ride to the airport departed from my house at 5 pm exactly, and if you’re begging for a ride then you have to be a little flexible with your time. The friend who is giving me a ride is a young, beautiful and highly desirable bachelorette who is returning a favor because I had done many favors for her in the past, one of which is giving her
Hotel de Ville
Now known as the Peoples Committee Building, but there's nothing "peoplely" about it.
a ride to the airport, but on this very night she just happens to have a date with a very wealthy and financially independent old geezer at 7 pm, and my highly desirable bachelorette friend wasn’t about to ruin her chances at obtaining financial security just to give a not very wealthy but sincere and adorable little friend like me a ride to the airport for another one of his misadventures to some godforsaken place that no one wants to go to except for idiots like this not very wealthy friend of hers who is obsessed with traveling in poverty stricken countries because he happens to think that witnessing squalor, poverty, and the worst in human condition will make him an interesting human being. This was literally what she said to me. My highly desirable bachelorette friend made me feel like an idiot and a scum of the Earth but I ate it because there was nothing else I could do. I am under her thumb and she knows it. I know it too and kick myself every time for tolerating it, liking it even. I’m an idiot.
We got there at 6 pm. My beautiful and highly desirable
I guess this part was added recently. The original Caravelle had less floors. Foreign correspondents used to hang out at the Caravelle during the VIETNAM WAR.
bachelorette friend had plenty of time to get ready for her date with the wealthy old geezer. The sonovagun probably has no teeth. I bet I could deck him with one punch but that wouldn’t impress nor would it matter to my beautiful and highly desirable bachelorette friend. She only cares about his big fat wallet. Thus, I ended up tweedling my thumbs and fingers for four and a half hours waiting for my flight to depart at ten thirty while my beautiful and highly desirable bachelorette friend had dinner with the old geezer with no teeth, wining and dining her, and they are probably going to get married and live happily ever after, or at least my beautiful and highly desirable bachelorette friend will get a nice big fat divorce settlement and live happily ever after, and I can keep befriending her and desiring her while she enjoys her nice big fat divorce settlement.
So here I am at Frisco International drinking scotch on the rocks and furiously writing in my little notebook to keep my mind occupied and with no feelings of guilt whatsoever for walking out on my coworkers and walking past some very important persons
A tour group from some commie country on the side.
whose favorable opinion of me depends a great deal on my gainful employment because my “misadventures”, as my beautiful and highly desirable bachelorette friend so keenly put it, is more important to me than gainful employment. The tough global economy has put the travel industry in a precipitous position, perhaps more than any other industry. All it takes is one more bad news on the economy and the whole enterprise will fall off the cliff. People will stay home and hide their money under the mattress and stop traveling because travel, no matter how budget conscious you are, is still a luxury. It is definitely the first thing to go down the bottom of your priority list when you’re in a crunch. This is why as I sit here in Frisco International drinking scotch and writing in this little notebook of mine that I keep just for this very occasion, when boredom sits in while waiting for a flight to depart, that I only see twenty or so people around me instead of the usual two hundred that I saw when the economy was still bubbling. Now that the bubble has burst only the hardest of the hardcore travelers are
There are fewer of these nowadays.
left in the airport concourse. Even the number of business travelers have dwindled down to a trickle. I only see a few suits with cell phones glued to one ear.
I have been on many flights over the Pacific in the last three years or so and I have written about it often. Quite frankly I am tired of writing about it. The flight is always horrible, the food uninspiring, and I am always left sleepless throughout the flight and end up tired and cranky once I arrive. So here I am in Saigon, Vietnam, at the Continental Hotel, sitting down at a table in the very same restaurant where Graham Greene wrote some very important parts of his famous classic The Quite American. I am sitting here drinking a Vietnamese beer called “33” Export and waiting for my lunch to be served. Saigon so far is exactly what I expected it to be. It’s crowded, polluted, hot, humid, and stimulating to the senses in that most bizarre way that only a Southeast Asian city could stimulate. Some people would probably describe it as an assault on the senses but I prefer a less negative description, being a seasoned,
There are more of these.
critically acclaimed and award winning travel writer that I am with many astute and dedicated followers who continually inundate me with praises and compliments of the highest order. Southeast Asia makes me feel alive in a way that no other region in this world of ours could, especially places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines. Next on my list is Laos and I have no doubt that it will have the same effect on me as the other countries that I just mentioned. Right now I feel kind of drowsy. The flight that I took from Frisco to Saigon was seventeen hours long, not including the three hour stopover in Manila. This hotel itself, Continental Hotel, is a tourist attraction, or should I say a spot of historical interest. People who don’t stay here come here just to have a look-see. They want to see the table where Graham Greene wrote his famous scene, without the explosion, of course. Personally I prefer Dien Bien Phu although I don’t think I’ll be able to go there. People tell me it’s not worth going. I don’t believe them. I don’t want to go there just so I can write about it. I
A performance of some sort
want to go for going’s sake, just to go for no reason at all whatsoever.
Saigon is probably one of the most intimidating places on Earth to jaywalk; every citizen in this city jaywalks because it’s the norm. There are thousands of motorbikes everywhere, millions even. Most of them, say 99.9995%, are the two-stroke highly inefficient type which spew out tons of pollution. Many more are those wimpy looking mopeds. Many women cover their mouths and nostrils with surgical masks or handkerchiefs to prevent the harmful particulates spewed out by these two-strokers from entering their lungs. The air is thick and the humidity exacerbates the effect. You sometimes feel like you’re drowning in open air. Two-stroke motorcycles and mopeds are everywhere in Saigon, and I can’t stress everywhere enough. There isn’t a single street or boulevard not crowded by these little sonovaguns. Everywhere you go the whiny sounds of their two-stroke engines competes with and dominates the already very noisy environment. The ambient noise of Saigon has got to be at least three orders of magnitude higher than your average metropolis of this here planet Earth, all due to the overabundance of these two-stroke motorbikes that are environmentally unfriendly.
The US made UH-1 Helicopter at the palace heliport.
And if you stand in a pedestrian crossing waiting for the flow of these two wheelers to subside, you’re going to be waiting for an eternity. That’s exactly what happened to me.
Cyclo Rip Off Artist
I was waiting to cross the wide boulevard called Ton Duc Thang along the Saigon River. After waiting for five minutes I moved on to another intersection with traffic lights hoping that I would have a better chance of crossing the wide boulevard over to the river side. No such luck. Traffic lights are only mildly obeyed here. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles go regardless of what the traffic light shows; if there’s room to go these sonovaguns go. And people too. They just walk across the street with complete disregard to the traffic and somehow they managed to avoid getting rolled over by the cars and motorbikes that seem to co-exist symbiotically in this madness. I was wearing a pair of almost new white tennis shoes and that automatically marked me for an idiot tourist. Naturally a cyclo rip off artist approached me. Saigon is crawling with tons of these sonsabitches. A cyclo is a rickshaw on cycling wheels. You sit in front
To the right is Lam Son Park, the Opera House across, the Caravelle to the far end, and the whole view taken from the balcony of my room at the Continental.
like an idiot tourist while a cyclo rip off artist pedals you from behind around town for 400,000 dongs. That’s about US$20 to you and me. I had been warned about this by other travelers I met at the airport and the hotel, so I ignored the fella. He kept hassling me. I told him that I just wanted to cross the boulevard. He helped me cross the boulevard. It wasn’t that difficult after all because most of the vehicles are never moving any faster than five miles per hour, and it’s not like the majority of the vehicles are huge Choppers, Harleys, and SUVs; they’re tiny little sonovaguns that won’t inflict much damage if you get hit by one. You may end up with a broken arm, but that’s less painful than death. The cyclo rip off fella had the gall to charge me 50,000 dongs for helping me cross the street. I looked at him like he was out of his mind, but he pleaded with me, saying something about family hardship and things of that nature. I’m one of those suckers born every minute that P.T. Barnum talked about, so of course I caved in and gave the cyclo rip off artist the 50,000 dongs he asked for. Many of my friends giggled when I told them I gave the guy 50,000 dongs. In modern American parlance dong means penis. In Vietnam it’s the name of their currency. Typical American males aged eighteen to forty are idiots. Back to the cyclo rip off artist. I ate it and smiled, an then I walked away. The little sonovagun followed me.
“Where are you going, Sir?” he asked.
“Nowhere” I said.
He kept touting a cyclo tour. I kept ignoring him. I walked into a Pho Noodle shop although I wasn’t hungry. I ordered a “33” Export beer. I stayed there for at least thirty minutes or until I was sure that the cyclo rip off artist was finally out of sight. I was still kicking myself for coughing up the 50,000 dongs. Not that US$3 is anything to get mad about. I was just mad at myself for being a willing and able bodied natural born sucker.
Ordinary Average Guy
The Continental Hotel is still an elegant hotel even though it has lost much of its luster over the years. The problem with the hotel is its location, which ironically is also one of its best assets. It is located at the center of town right across the Opera House and near the Caravelle Hotel. The Caravelle was a famous hangout for the foreign correspondents during the Vietnam War fought by the Americans. There is also a park, Lam Son Park, on the other side of a six way intersection that makes this area one of the noisiest in Saigon and as I have alluded to earlier, Saigon has one of the highest ambient noises in the world. Clubs and bars play loud music till midnight. Much of it is audible through my room at the Continental Hotel. Add to that the traffic noise and it is guaranteed that you will not be able to go to sleep before midnight. My partying days are behind me. A few years ago I could have spent going out till the morning light. Nowadays I wake up before the morning light, around 4 am, and I usually go to bed at around 10 pm. That’s boring but that’s me. I’m a lot like the guy that Joe Walsh sometimes sings about and in order to block out the noise outside I listened to Joe Walsh on my iPod. Rocky Mountain Way, Life’s Been Good, and Funk #49
. I hate the Eagles; Don Henley is a pretentious windbag and Glen Fry is not much better. Joe Walsh is not one of the founding members of the Eagles. They asked him to join later, around 1976 or 1977; I can’t quite remember. He was with the James Gang before he became an Eagle. I think he was better off on his own. He wrote a song called I.L.B.T
. It stands for I Love Big Tits
. It never got any airplay on the radio, obviously, but lots of people have heard it from the album You Bought It, You Name It
. Joe Walsh is a nutty guy who likes to write songs about ordinary Joe’s living extraordinary lives. This is especially true of Life’s Been Good
. But he also writes songs about ordinary Joe’s living ridiculously boring lives, like the song Ordinary Average Guy
. Here’s a sample the song’s lyrics:
I'm just an ordinary average guy
My friends are all boring
And so am I
We're just ordinary average guys
The song is not an affront to ordinary peoples of the world but rather a song dedicated to the masses who are often ignored and ridiculed for either their lack of ambition or in many cases, lack of talent. The song celebrates the joys of ordinariness; ordinary kids and average wives, a neighbor driving a Chrysler while Joe himself drives a Dodge, working the yard on weekends picking up dog doo and hoping that it’s hard instead of soft and mushy because picking a wet mush of dog doo would be beyond the ordinary call of duty for those of us who just want to drink a few beers at the bowling lane while bowling a few frames. That’s me. I’m just not a night person. I never really was but when I was younger at least I had the energy or willing to spend the energy listening to ear splitting boom box music in some pretentious night club pretending to be having a good time while drinking overpriced liquor and having meaningless conversations with people I barely knew. Nowadays I just have meaningless conversations with people I know well in the comfort of my own home drinking cheap beer and watching sports on television. It’s less expensive and much more satisfying because I’m just like the guy in Joe Walsh’s song; I’m just an Ordinary Average Guy. Ta dadadah dadadah dadadah dadadah.
So the loud music and the honking traffic kept me awake for much of the night on my very first night in Saigon, and given that my biological functions still haven’t adjusted to the 15 hour time change and the climate in addition to my being sleepless on that seventeen hour flight over the Pacific Ocean, it made the situation even worse. I rolled, I twisted, and I turned; couldn’t sleep at all last night. You can add the jingling music to that one. That is why as I am writing this passage that you see right in front of your very eyes I’m feeling drowsy. Writing keeps me awake but the “33” Export beer keeps my eyelids open only long enough to blink before my pen slips out of my fingers and drops down to the floor while my head snaps sideways and almost slams down to the table, but fortunately I catch myself awake, otherwise the right side of my face would’ve dropped like a bowling ball in front of my notebook and slobbering my saliva on the very passage that you see right in front of you.
My spring rolls arrive. The waiter teaches me how to wrap my deep fried spring roll with the lettuce and basil leaves it is being served with and dip the whole thing in the sweet and sour sauce. For the next several minutes I concentrate on my spring rolls, and that kept me awake because my mind was pre-occupied with the food and the taste of it even though I am feeling drowsy and ready to drop like a ton of brick if the opportunity presented itself. Next came the deep fried soft shell crabs and a plate of rice. I did not realize how hungry I was. I practically wolfed down a plateful of food in less than ten minutes. My appetite surprised me. It was probably due to the long flight the day before, followed by the sleepless night. The satisfying meal combined with an ice cold cerveza was enough to put me in a coma, and that’s exactly what happened because after lunch I dragged myself up to my hotel room and dropped down the king size bed like a lead and stayed that way till the next day’s morning light, or almost. I woke up at four in the morning the next day.
The Vietnam War fought by the Americans
The next day I decided that I needed to arrange a flight from Saigon to Hanoi and Vientiane, Laos, so after breakfast I headed for the Vietnam Airlines ticket office, which was just a block around the corner from the Continental Hotel. I booked the flights and spent some major dongs in the process. It cost a total of US$253 for both flights. Right across from the Vietnam Airlines ticket office on Le Thanh Ton street is the wonderful French-Colonial building that was once called Hotel de Ville. I’m unsure as to whether it was actually a hotel or it was just called that, but whatever it was it doesn’t really matter because now it is called the People’s Committee Building. Every seat of government, every park, every garden, municipal buildings and such are always called the People’s something of such thing, but there’s nothing “peoplely” about it. In other words, there’s nothing about it which would indicate that it belongs to the people. On the opposite of the People’s Committee Building on Nguyen Hue Boulevard is a statue of Ho Chi Minh. He is posed sitting down with a little girl, like his granddaughter or something, on his lap with one arm around her shoulders. It gives the impression of a wise grandfatherly figure giving council to the common folk. This is exactly how Ho Chi Minh is viewed by the Vietnamese. A humble figure who only wanted the right of self determination for his own people, he declared independence from French rule after World War II, or Dubya Dubya Two, the big one
, as Archie Bunker would say. On the same block at the corner of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue is Lam Son Park. I noticed an older fiftiesh looking American fella scanning the scene with his digital video camera, one of those shiny new high tech types with all the bells and whistles. I walked up to him and asked him if he was a Vietnam Veteran.
He said “Yes!” He was beaming with a huge smile from ear to ear. “How could you tell?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You just have that look about you” I said.
He had a bushy mustache, large unkempt curly hair, nose hairs sticking all over the place, thick wire rimmed glasses, and he was wearing some very loud aloha shirt, beige shorts, and tennis shoes. His pot belly was sticking out and ready to rip out of his aloha shirt. On the surface he is the epitome of the Ugly American. This is exactly the type of person that I would want to stay away from while on travel but for some reason I just had the urge to talk to him and ask him a few questions. He turned out to be a pretty cool fella in the end and his wife, a Vietnamese, was also very gracious. Their story might be typical. He was a soldier, he fell in love with a local lady, they got married and got out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon and are now living in Nacogdoches, Texas. They first came back to visit Saigon in the late 90s, when Vietnam was starting to open up to the outside world, and have been coming back ever since with their kids. He told me that Lam Son Park used to be called Le Loi Park and a Marine Statue once stood over where the fountain is now. After the fall and the subsequent reunification the Marine Statue was toppled, along with all the other symbols of American presence in Vietnam. The Ugly American and I chatted for awhile at the park and drank a couple of beers to cool off from the heat and humidity while the wife took pictures of their kids with the Opera House and the Continental Hotel in the background.
After lunch I continued my walking tour along Dong Khoi going North by Northwest. Dong Khoi ends at the Notre Dame Cathedral. I grew up a Catholic and I’ve seen way too many churches in my life, and I wasn’t about to waste time looking at another one, so I turned left on Nguyen Du Street and headed for the Reunification Palace on a street called Nam Ky Khoi Ngia. Good luck trying to pronounce that one. It is a nice Sunday afternoon with clear skies and temperatures way up the wazzu, the humidity squeezing beads of sweat out of the pores of my skin. There are plenty of visitors to the Reunification Palace. It used to be the Presidential Palace of the government of South Vietnam. Nowadays it is a Museum displaying South Vietnamese Army paraphernalia, guns, ammunitions, maps, radars, radios, a War Room, and the Presidential Helicopter. Along the way while walking the dusty streets of Saigon a tout of some sort approached me offering services of every kind at all levels of illegality. From fruit juice to cyclo rides, a massage, a young girl; he had it all. I ignored everything he said. Tourists are everywhere on this hot and humid day and many of them don't seem to be bothered by the extreme climate. Most of the tourists I ran into are from Europe. I also see a few Americans and some Vietnamese who were once refugees to the United States but have come back to visit the Motherland. I met a family from San Jose, near my neck of the woods, so naturally I felt something in common with them, albeit remotely. They were refugees in the late 70s but their kids, who are with them on this trip, were too young to remember anything of significance; they were just four and five years old at the time. The parents felt nostalgic about the place but I don’t think their kids were all that enthusiastic judging from my observation of their ambivalence. One of them felt disgusted at the dirtiness that they saw all around the place. The other non-Vietnam Veteran Americans were here to visit because of the guilt they felt for putting these people through all the hell they went through, and for what? Absolutely nothing! This was the sentiment that I noticed from these tourists who had no prior experience in Vietnam. The Vietnamese populace didn’t want to be colonized. They had nothing against the Americans, never did, and now that all is fine and dandy, they welcome the foreigners with open arms as tourists, not as colonizers. We love your money. Please leave your money and leave us alone.
From the Reunification Palace on Nam KY Khoi Ngia Street I kept going North by Northwest, turned left on Vo Van Street and a couple of blocks later, after dodging and avoiding the many touts, hawkers, and cyclo rip off artists who loiter the street corners, I end up at the War Remnants Museum where I shelled out more Dongs that I care to acknowledge; 15,000 dongs for the entrance fee. The War Museum has more displays of artillery, like the American made UH-1 Helicopter, or Huey for short. There is also a US fighter jet, muzzles, tanks, and more guns and ammunition than you care to imagine. More tourists of every type as well; Europeans, some Americans, and the occasional outliers of Ethiopians and other Asians who are not of Vietnamese descent. By this time I am absolutely exhausted and tired visiting Museums. I am not a Museum visiting type. I am not even a sightseeing type. What I like to do though is walk around and to try to get a good feel for the place, and Saigon is as good a place as any in Southeast Asia. This is a place where mastering the art of jaywalking amidst a throng of oncoming traffic is an absolute must. So after thirty minutes of looking at another maimed and burned body from the Napalms dropped by American bombers I decided that I needed to master the art of jaywalking, so I left and headed out in the reverse direction towards the Ben Thanh Market. Sunday evening is when the sidewalk stalls and other vendors fold up their tents for the weekend near the Ben Thanh Market, so I needed to get there before four or five in the afternoon if I wanted to get some Pho Shizzle from one of the stalls. On the way I practiced crossing the street with tons of motorbikes swarming the boulevard like bees. I learned that if you want to cross, just cross; don’t look over your shoulders, don’t mind the cars and motorbikes. It is their duty to avoid you and if they honk you just stop walking and let them through because that means they don’t have enough room to maneuver in order to avoid you. That’s part of the skills that you have to trust if you are going to survive crossing a streets in Vietnam. At the Ben Thanh Market I picked a stall at random and ordered a beef noodle soup (Pho) and a “33” Export beer. I watched the throng of shoppers and tourists passing by under the shade of the stall while sipping my beer with ice. I’ve always find it kind of funny that they serve beer with ice in your glass in Southeast Asia. Well, I braved the ice even though I suspected that it was probably made from tap water. I finished my Pho and ordered another “33” Export, this time without the ice. I drank it straight from the can. While watching the people traffic pass me by I contemplated about Vietnam in general. Saigon has got me feeling ambivalent. I can’t decide if I like it or not. It’s too dusty and there's too much horrendous traffic for my taste. But it’s Southeast Asia as I expected it to be. I like walking around the streets of Saigon because everything is so out in the open. You can see people cooking on the sidewalk or washing their clothes on the sidewalk. There are tons of sidewalk vendors everywhere with little plastic chairs and tables for their customers, soups bubbling, meats sizzling, fresh vegetables everywhere, and animals slaughtered just a few steps from where you eat. Goats’ heads are bleeding on the table, a bucketful of pigs’ intestines everywhere, and pigs’ blood in plastic containers are all displayed out in the open for the shoppers and the lookers on to see. I stayed at the stall drinking “33” Export until the proprietors finally folded up their tent for the weekend, as all vendors do in this part of the town, or maybe all over town. Quite frankly I don’t really know the answer to that nor do I care. I was too tired and exhausted to care, so I dragged myself back to the Continental Hotel, took a shower to clean my sweaty self off, poured myself a whiskey after the refreshing shower, and watched mindless television while sipping my whiskey until it was dinner time.