Sai Gon….. hoo boy…..Sai Gon…..
Okay, here goes……
We flew in from Da Nang about midday to a warm but breezy Sai Gon. The idea….the intent….was to go to a particular travel agency where we’d pick up our bus tickets to Cambodia. We decided to walk because we wanted to save money and who knew how expensive taxis were in Sai Gon ~ especially for foreigners during Tet? (Things had already been quite a bit more expensive than either of us could’ve imagined).
It was quite a hike, but we made it in time and picked up our ‘bus pass.’ Then…..and this is where one odd thing, one suspicion, one weird feeling, started piling up on top of the other….. the woman at the agency had to take us, one at a time, on her motorbike to a place where some people would then take us to our bus. I was the first to go and upon arrival, I thought something wasn’t quite right. This woman had never spoken to these people before. I’m certainly no expert in Vietnamese, but I can read people’s faces….she had never even met them. But, you know, when you’re in the situation, you’re hoping for the best. You sort of take it that they’ve done this before and know what they’re doing…..but then again, maybe not…. She went back to get Mike and then we were both taken on two motorbikes to a bus that was going to Cambodia. This is where Mike had that feeling that something was very wrong. He’d done this before…..gone to Cambodia by bus.
For clarification: for foreigners to live in Viet Nam, they must leave the country every 3 or 6 months (depending on which visa they get) and re-enter. It’s what ex-pats call a ‘visa run.’ Who knows why it’s this way ~ it just is. I have not had to do this because I was fortunate enough to get what is called a ‘temporary residency card’ when I worked in Thai Binh. It allowed me to stay a year. So, while this was certainly to be a vacation for both of us, it was vitally important ~ in fact, imperative ~ that Mike get his visa renewed while in Cambodia.
So, as I was saying, Mike had done this before. He’d told me the bus he’d taken was really nice, really big, clean and roomy ~ in fact, a ‘sleeper’ bus where the seats go way back. It was late afternoon by the time we were to leave, it was a 6 hour ride and would be well into the night when we were to arrive in Phnom Penh so a sleeper bus is just what we would need…..and had already paid for. But the bus they put us on was small, cramped and pretty dirty. You know, I have no problem taking a small, dirty bus ~ I’d taken them between Thai Binh and Ha Noi any number of times. But for a long trip like this….along with the disquieting feeling that this couldn’t possibly be right…..maybe not. So, while sitting there, looking at each other, wondering whether or not we should go ahead with this, a man came up to us and asked for the money for the visa to enter Cambodia. Well, that was it. We’d paid for the visa already. Much of our vacation had been paid for already….the flights, the bus to Cambodia, the visas. That was the way we understood it. So, here’s this guy asking for money to enter Cambodia and we’re thinking, ‘No, this is just way wrong.” We decided then and there to get off the bus, just stay the night in Sai Gon until we could get this cleared up with our travel agent (who was also on vacation in Bali….but said she’d be available via email if needed……she was needed……). We figure it would be better to be stuck in Sai Gon (at least with wi-fi to try to get in touch with her) rather than at the Cambodian border with….what?
We got an inexpensive room near the travel agency and stayed the night. We found out that this was a very touristy section of Sai Gon….though we couldn’t fathom why. Other than some museums in the area (which actually were quite nice….pics to follow….), it looked like any other city in the world. It could have been Los Angeles, for crying out loud. There really wasn’t anything terribly distinctive about it at all. Sai Gon is very ‘Westernized’ (in more ways than just architecturally)…..pity. Anyway, the next morning we went to the travel agency, told them what had happened and they said, more or less, “Well, tough….that’s the bus we put you on ~ if you want another bus you’re going to have to pay the price” ……which was at least doubled due to Tet.
We sat down and talked about it and, realizing this had all got incredibly more expensive than we could possibly have imagined, we knew Cambodia was not going to be in the picture. The key thing at this point was getting Mike’s visa renewed and that could be done in Sai Gon……for twice the price …..we found out. Information is so sketchy about visas and seems to change daily anyway. So, being that this story is long enough already, let’s just say it became a cluster, we had to borrow money (thank you again, Frank) and stayed in Sai Gon for the rest of our vacation. It wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be, but I’ve got to say, if I had to be stuck in Sai Gon with anyone, I’m glad it was Mike. We’ve known each other so long and get along so well…..it just made things a lot easier and we still had fun….like I said, it’s what we do. You wouldn’t think being stuck in Sai Gon would be such a bad thing, would you? It’s not, really, I suppose…..if you don’t mind being stuck in Los Angeles. But we were broke! We set the money aside for Mike’s visa, our room for the duration (10 days) and ate as cheaply as possible every day. We stayed in our (thankfully) air-conditioned room and watched movies, read and studied our languages (more on that in a future post) most days. Went for walks in the evenings when it cooled down. Fortunately the museums were cheap.
So, backing up a little bit, here are a few pictures taken during our walk from the airport:
Sai Gon does have some interesting outdoor art….. and some nice sidewalks (probably better than they’ve got in L.A., I’ll wager). Also, some cool and crazy motorcycles……
I like these old ones….
…..but Sai Gon has NO Bia Hoi places…..NONE! You can find one on just about every corner in Ha Noi……beer made fresh daily. Super cheap, very good, very relaxing on a hot day like that day….one more tick against Los Ang……er……Sai Gon. Okay, I’ll stop pushing the point. Suffice it to say, I’ll take Ha Noi over Sai Gon any day. Anyway, I didn’t take all that many pictures on that walk…..or pretty much anywhere else in Sai Gon except at the museums. But, here are a couple more before I get into the museum pictures.
Something I saw on a wall. I don’t know what it’s about, but I thought it looked ←cool.
Part of the staircase at our hotel→
Now, the museums. I wanted to go to the Reunification Palace because I’d read it is like a time-warp to the 1960’s/70’s. About.com says, “The Reunification Palace was the site of a dramatic finish to the Vietnam War as tanks crashed through the main gate on the morning of April 30, 1975. Today, the Reunification Palace is a time capsule unchanged since the 1970s – a must-see in Ho Chi Minh City.” Indeed. I really enjoyed it. Mike wasn’t too interested in this one so I went by myself. Very glad I did ~ it’s full of what most people today call ‘retro’ and what I call ‘my childhood.’ So, if you like 60’s/70’s style, come along and architecturally and artistically geek out with me……
Above is a room where heads of state would discuss whatever it is that heads of state discuss…….
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here ~ this is the War Room!”
←Another meeting room for the hifalutin’.
The tour guide kept calling this ‘the most beautiful room.’↓ I guess it’s a matter of opinion……
↓ This was by far my favorite room. It’s right out of House Beautiful, circa 1971….
….complete with barrel bar! ….
…..and a nice place to ‘lounge’.
↓Love the shelves.
From this point on, the tour guide rushed through the building. Maybe she had a time limit before starting her next tour, I don’t know. But I barely had time to take pictures of anything without losing sight of her…..
….see what I mean?! Dig that mustard yellow and avocado green!
Love the old kitchen equipment, too.
← The random Mercedes..
….and random firing range→
How’s that for a time warp?!
The next day we went to the War Remnants Museum. Mike really wanted to go to this one. I was hesitant. I knew it would be difficult. And it was. Very.
War Remnants Museum
War remnants…..Viet Nam has plenty. It’s been an unlikely and unfortunate battle ground for generations. The Chinese for…..ever. The French….the Americans….
I wonder if it’s big enough…..
Ho Chi Minh is beloved by the Vietnamese. Absolutely beloved (they call him Uncle Ho)….and I can understand why. He was, for them, what Winston Churchill was for the U.K. and FDR was for the U.S. during WWII. It’s deceptively simple to look back on history and expound on what was, what might have been…. The Vietnamese had been virtually under siege for centuries by the Chinese. They’d finally got rid of the French and along come the Americans. For us it was more or less a battlefield in the “Cold War” against China/USSR/Communism…..the war wasn’t ‘cold’ at all for the Vietnamese. They saw it as yet another attempt at colonialism by the U.S., followed on the heels of the French. But for them, this was a Civil War….and no one else’s affair….. Uncle Ho was the calming, encouraging voice. Say what you will about the man. History shows he made mistakes (for some of which, he later apologized ~ a rarity for a political leader, wouldn’t you say?)…..can you name one political or military leader who’s ever got everything right?
I didn’t want to get overly political here. We all have our opinions about the war. But how can it be helped? This was a particularly difficult place to be. Especially having lived here for a year and gotten to know these wonderful, beautiful people. There are two sides to this coin. And after all, it is but one coin.
←Recognition that Americans, too, wanted the war to end.
Political posters from around the world showing solidarity with Viet Nam against the war.
Not a whole lotta love lost for Nixon here……
I didn’t take many pictures after this. Upstairs there were fragments of bombs and pictures of fragmented bodies. To photograph these seemed somehow sacrilegious…..irreverent. ….besides I was too busy holding back tears.
One picture I did take though, showed the before and after of an Agent Orange bombing…
…I guess maybe this was why they wanted us out.
War, truly, is hell.
Well…..now for something a bit more pleasant…..some flower gardens in a park outside the museum…….
Quite a ride, Sai Gon………..in some very strange ways. It was so nice to get back to Ha Noi…..home. I admit it, I’m a Ha Noi snob! It’s dirty, it’s polluted, it’s noisy…….it’s friendly, it’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s more traditional, it’s pretty (in a polluted sort of way), it’s interesting……I’ll take it over Sai Gon any day of the week. Buh bye, Sai Gon…..