The three words that I think of when I think of Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as the locals refer to it) are traffic, heat and humidity. For a city with a population of close to 7 million, that adds up to many, many motor scooters….the most popular mode of transportation. It is very intimidating to cross the street. Once you have made the commitment to cross and have actually stepped out into the street, you do not stop!!! For the most part, I would wait for the slightest break in traffic and then put my head down, step into the street and chant “do not look, do not stop”. The drivers would judge how fast you are walking and would go around you or slow down until you were out of their path. Another safe way to cross the street was with a local! Many times, I would just grab onto someone who was crossing an stick with them. Often at the other side, we would have a good laugh and I would thank them!
While on motor scooters, people would wear face mask. This was for two reasons. One was the smog from all the exhaust fumes….don’t for one minute think that Americans are the only ones contributing to global warming!!! The other reason you would see women with hats, face mask and gloves was because they didn’t want their skin to tan. They wanted to keep it as light and fair as possible. It would seem odd to see someone with short sleeves or a sleeve outfit wearing long gloves that reached up above their elbows.
I learned five phrases in Vietnamese….Please, thank you, good morning, good bye and how much does it cost??? Things were so inexpensive there. The market in HCM city was amazing! It was under one large structure. Everything was for sale there. In the center of the market, were lunch counters. Mark, Adam and I ate there one day. We had shrimp paste on a sugar cane stick and spring rolls….very tasty! Adam had his formula! There were fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, meats, clothing, spices, coffee, souvenirs and shoes, just about anything you could possibly want to buy. We had a great time buying souvenirs and bartering for the best price!
At night, when the market closed down, an impromptu market sprouted up outside. There were vendors selling clothing, shoes, etc as well as several eateries. It must have taken quite a bit of work to move all the equipment back and forth each night.
We had plenty of time to explore the city. One day, we spent in the Botanical Garden. It was a Sunday and many Vietnamese were there as well. They had a zoo, which we tried to avoid. However, we did come upon the elephant exhibit. People had purchased sugar cane to feed the elephants with and it was quite fun to see the large animals gently reach, with their trunks, to get the offered goody!
At one point, Adam gave his “I am hungry” cough. Mark sat down to mix the formula, I went off to take some pictures. Well, Mark didn’t get the formula mixed in time for Adam. Adam started to cry loudly. I headed back down the path toward them, to see if I could help in any way. Standing over Mark and Adam, was a Vietnamese lady glaring at me and pointing to Adam….it was as if she was saying “Your baby is crying, you should be taking care of him instead of taking pictures”!!! It was good for a laugh. Mark and I decided that more than one time, I gave “American motherhood” a bad name because of various instances like that one!
The gardens at the Botanical Garden left much to be desired. They had some bonsai but very few other plants. It was mostly a large park for people to spend the day. There was also a lovely pagoda there.
We visited a couple of other pagodas. Each were unique in their own way, but for the most part, they were like European cathedrals…once you saw one, you had seen them all! Throughout the pagodas, there were various alters with Buddha statues. People would buy a bunch of incense and pray before a particular alter – it could represent health, wealth, fertility, etc. Then, they would bow three times and place the incense in a pot in front of the alter. For the heck of it, I bought some incense and went around to the various alters. At one point, a man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to an alter with the “thumbs up” sign. So, I went and did the bowing thing in front of it…I just hope it wasn’t for fertility!!!!
Many Vietnamese have alters in their homes or business establishments to honor their deceased ancestors. Many of these alters are decorated with flowers, fruit, tea and often, a statue of Buddha.
The Vietnamese appeared to be very social people. It is very common to see them sitting on little stools on the sidewalk sharing a drink of tea or beer. Often, at lunch time, there would be a lady with a burner or two selling bowls of rice or soup. Often, women and men would carry supplies on shoulder yokes. One lady we saw, had a little burner in one of the baskets and the makings for waffles and fried rice paper in the other bucket. I must say, the waffles were very tasty as well as the rice paper which was seasoned with pepper and pieces of shrimp.
Life in the Vietnamese cities is very chaotic. It amazed me that in the mist of the hustle and bustle, someone would have a bird cage or two hanging from an electrical pole or a row of bird cages in front of their homes. I often wondered if they could even hear the singing of the birds???
One afternoon, while Mark and Adam were on one of their meetings, I struck out to explore the city on my own. A cyclo driver approached me and offered to tour me around the city for an hour for 100,000 dong (approximately $6.25). I bartered with him and said I would give him $5.00 US for one hour. With that agreed on, we headed out.
I wanted to go to China Town and visit a market that I had read about in my guide book. Well, he took me in a very round about way…dropping me off at the War Museum, which I wanted to visit, but not on my hour time. Eventually, we made it to the China Town area. He took me to a market. It was close to an hour being up, so I decided to have him show me where I was on the map, drop me off and I would walk back.
When I told him that he could drop me off at that market, he said “OK, that will be $20!”….What???? We agreed on $5.00. Then, he proceeded to tell me that he would have to peddle all the way back to Saigon…we were still in Saigon!, that it was hot, etc. Needless to say, our arguing drew a crowd of curious onlookers. Finally, I just wanted to be done with it all and gave him $10 US and told him to take it or leave it. His parting words were “cheap American”!!!
As I walked off, I realized that I had no clue where I was! No one spoke English and couldn’t understand when I pointed to the map and then the street what I was asking. It took me quite awhile to get my bearings, but eventually, I did and found my way back to the hotel. Needless to say, I was a little leery of cyclo drivers from then on.
Another day, I had a 3 hour spa visit. I had a foot massage for an hour, a Thai body massage for an hour and finally a facial for an hour, all for the grand total of $32. The Thai body massage was unlike any massage I have ever had. The girl walked on my back. Then, she sat on my butt to massage my back. After, she grabbed my arms to pull me back into an arch position. Each new thing, she would say “OK?”. Well, I just kept saying OK, because early on, I determined that was all the English she knew…OK!! The best part of the massage, though, was the hot stone rub. Oh my gosh, that was heaven!
Oh, I had a dress and jacket tailored made for me, while in Saigon. They took my measurements on a Wednesday afternoon and the next day, the dress was ready. It is a beautiful embossed, black silk dress with red piping. The jacket matches the dress and is lined with bright red material. It is stunning and cost $46!! Imagine!
We attended the Water Puppet Theater one night. It is an ancient art form dating back to the 11th century. It developed in the north, when the monsoon season would flood the rice fields. For entertainment, the farmers developed the water puppets and told stories of the history and folklore of Vietnam.
The puppeteers stand in water, chest deep, behind screens. They manipulate the puppets by attaching them to bamboo poles. A traditional Vietnamese band sits on the side of the “stage” playing music and narrating the scenes. It was a very entertaining evening.
It was great visiting Ho Chi Minh City, but after a week, both Mark and I were ready to move onto Hanoi!