Oh, how I missed those golden stars on red badges fastened to army-green uniforms! It’s been quite a few months since my adventures in socialist China, the single country of the dozens I’ve visited that I never ever intend to visit again, at least not on my own dime. So here I am, in another notoriously rude, ruthlessly money-grubbing socialist Asian country with an infamously high rate of theft (not violent theft – mugging and so on – but simple stuff like purse-snatching, stealing your wallet and camera while you’re asleep on the bus, and so on).
Hello Saigon! Or…Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s now called. (An aside: I understand the need to name stuff after national heroes. In fact, on the flight here I just thinking about the absurd number of American airports named for recent American presidents: Reagan International and JFK and (for god’s sake!) Bush International. But no Jefferson, no Lincoln, no Roosevelt (Teddy or Frankie). It’s like the sports stadium-naming virus has spread.)
As I was saying, I get it. But name a soccer (erm) football stadium after him. The airport. A highway. But to name a city after him – especially with a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, like Washington, combined with needed clarity lent by the word “City” at the end…it’s a mess. Ho Chi Minh City. Jeezis. No wonder people write HCMC, and still call it Saigon. This city clearly needs a brand manager.
Speaking of airports, the HCMC airport (code: SGN) is shiny and new and covered with advertising billboards that all say “Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City. For advertising, please call…” Like any sensible airport, there are duty-free shops in the international arrivals hall…but they were all closed at 6 pm when I landed. They’re trying with this whole capitalism thing, but they don’t quite have it right.
I grabbed my bag and went in search of the bus into the city, but evidently the buses stop running at 6 pm as well. Not wanting to shell out the cash for a taxi into the city, I walked up to the first white person I saw, a late-30s-ish guy, and asked if he wanted to share. His name is Martin, a native Londoner now working as an investment banker in (you guessed it) Hong Kong. He was on his way to meet his British-born Chinese wife, who was in HCMC for business, at the Sofitel (“we’ve got slightly different budgets,” I laughed).
As it turned out, he wasn’t as boring as a Hong Kong investment banker should be. He’s a former TV journalist, he’s got the first book of a series of teenage detective novels at various agents in New York and elsewhere, and he’s funny as hell. It was the most fun I’ve had in a cab since Pat Guiney, with whom I was in a drunken and oddly vicious argument on the way home from the Stoned Crow, called me a c**t. (He apologized the next day, after PC reminded him of the incident.)
After I dropped Martin in the flush part of town, I instructed our oddly belligerent taxi driver to take me to Bui Vien, the Khao San Road of Saigon. (Saigon, dammit!) It took about 5 minutes to find a $6 dorm bed in the Remember Inn, a friendly place in a side alley, attached to a BBQ joint. The dorm is situated on the first floor, which is like the 13th floor from the film “Being John Malkovich,” or maybe a scene from Alice in Wonderland, in that I have to stoop through the door and carry on stooping as I walk through half the 20ftx20ft room to my bed. By the door the ceiling is about 5.5 feet from the floor, then rises to about 6 feet off the floor – which means I can stand on the side of my room where the bed is, but I can’t have sunglasses on my head because they scrape the ceiling. There are 5 beds in the room, each about 8-12 inches from each other. Thank god there’s only one other tenant – a Korean college student who sleeps all day and picks at his nails a lot.
On my first full day in the city, I was charmed into agreeing to a tour of the city aboard a cyclo – basically a seat on wheels in front of a bike, in this case pedaled by a 50ish Vietnamese man named Nzhia (“Nia”). He had been driving a cyclo for 18 years, he said, since job prospects for those who are not communist party members are scarce. Not that he’s a physicist or engineer or something: he’s a rice farmer who learned English from American GIs during the war, and continues to study at his home, a village about 12 km from Saigon. He tells horrible war stories of violence, including how he got nicked above the right eye by a stray bullet, with an incongruous twinkle in his eye and smile on his face.
He also told me more modern horror stories – of how the top 7 generals just received 7 brand-new Rolls Royces, in a sign of communist corruption; how those who want to go to church can’t, for fear of the ubiquitous midnight knock on the door; of how the communists are stealing valuable forests from the poor and selling the timber off to the Chinese; etc.
But a lot of this is spiel that he clearly has been refining for 18 years. His tour is a series of epigrams that he repeats throughout the day. Describing corruption: “Small officer, small money. Big officer, big money.” Pointing out what the different goods sold on the street we just turned onto: “Different street, different thing.” On free speech in modern Vietnam: “People have mouths for eating, not mouths for speaking.” He showed me the hotel where Bill Clinton stayed when he visited after leaving office (the New World Hotel). He showed me the three different hotels where the officers, journalists and GIs stayed during the war (“then at night the lieutenant would go to a bar and shoot the soldier in the foot. ‘That girl mine. This girl yours!’ Ha ha.”
The tour was nice and all – actually, I recommend it – but the best part was crossing the street. In Saigon, as Nzhia said, “there are 8 million people and 8 million motorbikes.” And as we would make a turn or cross an intersection, at least 4 million of those bikes would be tearing down the road at us, full speed, as we gently pedaled across. I couldn’t look – for the first 30 minutes or so I was certain we would die, but then I figured, he’s been doing this for 18 years and isn’t dead. So go with it.
So yes, I like Saigon. It’s not terribly cosmopolitan, the only good food I can find (luckily!) is the cheap food-stall stuff, Saigon brand beer gives me an instant hangover headache – before I’ve even finished the bottle, and all westerners are constantly harassed to buy trinkets (“you buy something!” demand the pre-adolescent girls who wave cheap hand fans in your face as you try to drink your morning coffee). But I like it.