Saigon kick

I think Kevin and I expected to spend most of our time in Vietnam sitting at folding tables on the sidewalk, eating assorted street food. (And, as our pictures will testify, that expectation was close to correct.) I didn’t realize until we got to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon that I didn’t have an advance mental picture of it at all, other than this one, which is obviously not too current.

Even with what felt like zero expectation, Saigon still surprised me somehow. I think partly it was the juxtaposition: The city felt slick and rich after Phnom Penh. It’s pretty leafy and green and full of parks. It’s also boutique land — not just in the main tourist areas (though the emphasis on luxury goods is definitely greater in the tourist areas, and one of the first things I saw upon arriving in the city was a Gucci store), but in the mixed-use, real-life neighborhoods too.

We’d read that locals don’t like to mix with tourists in Saigon, and whether or not that’s true, it occasionally felt accurate to us. One night we went to a restaurant popular with locals; the menu was only in Vietnamese, but we figured we’d point to things that looked good. But the staff were not down with that approach, and instead gestured impatiently for us to choose among several warmed-over, suspicious-looking fish dishes in a buffet, from which none of the locals was eating. Kevin tried, in a friendly way, to make himself understood, but the staff were implacable and indifferent, and we ended up giving up and trying somewhere else. One small failure for our spirit of adventure, but one large victory over e coli, we figured.

Speaking of bacteria: Saigon is the place where traveling really caught up with us, and each of us will probably permanently associate the city with intestinal discomfort. Unfortunately, this was also the city in which we had asked ourselves: Is it really all that important to have a window in your hotel room? So a number of hours were lost in our depressing little bunker, waiting for the storm to pass. (Nothing against windowless hotel rooms, but I think my first windowless hotel room will also be my last. Live and learn.)

But we had some good moments. Like! Wonderful wonderful coffee. The appropriately disturbing War Remnants Museum. A lot of exceptionally delicious food. And the puzzle of the communist-capitalist thing: the palpable commercial bustle juxtaposed with news stories like 'VN Congratulates Cuban Communists’ (Sample snippet: “'The Communist Party and fraternal people of Cuba have made great efforts and gained encouraging results in updating their economic model in order to raise labour efficiency and productivity, promoting fast and sustainable economic development, while firmly defending the revolution’s achievements,’ wrote the Central Committee. 'We strongly believe that the 6th Congress of your Party will create a strong motivation for fast, firm economic development. The Cuban people, under the clear-sighted leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba headed by leader Fidel Castro and President Raul Castro, will overcome all difficulties and challenges and will continue to develop their nation, while successfully building socialism in the free, beautiful and heroic country of Cuba.’” You said it, guys!)

I kept having to shake my head and remind myself: “Right, yes. Communism. With media control.” At the wonderfully weird Reunification Palace, there’s a video about the Vietnam War, which understandably tells the story from the (north) Vietnamese perspective. We ducked in and sat down, appreciating the air conditioning. I spent several minutes nodding along mostly, and then the video voiceover said, in big retro-announcer voice: “Citizens of countries all over the world expressed solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and many American citizens self-immolated in protest of the war.”

Media control is something I find really scary, but it’s sort of awesome that they put that assertion in the English-language version of this video. They could have left it out, but no! We say Americans self-immolated, and we don’t care who hears it.

The basic (non-) structure of our trip has been that we get to a new place and then decide where to go next, so in Saigon we twiddled our thumbs a lot, debating. Down to the Mekong delta area? Up to gorgeous Halong Bay, even though it’s supposed to be a bit of a tourist trap? Eventually we decided on Hue (kind of rhymes with whey), the country’s former imperial capital. There are plenty of reasons to go — architecture, history, temples — but in truth our primary motivators were that Kevin loves the city’s signature noodle soup dish, bún bò Huế, and we found a great last-minute deal on a room in a fancy hotel. With a window. Vietnam Airlines, here we come!

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