Friday, December 12, 2014

Saigon, A Study In Contrasts

13 December 2014

Wow.  We've been so busy and have seen so much, I almost don't know where to begin!

So - our hotel isn't far from a small river (don't know the name) which leads into the Saigon River.  We walked along the small river which has a lovely park and walkway.  With incongruous penguin garbage cans.  Blue penguins along the little river.  Then black penguins along the Saigon River.  Okay then!

The city doesn't seem to have any interesting manhole covers.  But, like Malaysia, the street lights are gorgeous, and some definitely show the French influence in this part of the world.

I'm guessing most of our readers have some idea of the history of Vietnam, but here's a very brief overview.  This is a small country that had its own society and culture, but having such a long coastline and so many rivers, they were constantly invaded by various other countries: the Khmer, the Mongols, the Chinese.  By the 17th century or so, the country was divided in half by opposing warlords and their armies.  Later considered part of what the colonial powers called "Indo-China" even though it's located in Southeast Asia.  Became a French colony in 1847, when the French retaliated for the suppression of Catholic missionaries.  Ho Chi Minh started a variety of organizations that led to the development of the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1941, and worked for not only independence but also reunification of the country.  During WWII, the French didn't oppose the Japanese presence in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh founded the National Liberation Committee, and, well, things deteriorated from there.  The Japanese left after WWII, but the fight for independence from the French began in earnest.  The Franco-Vietnam war was underway by the 1950s, accords were signed mandating the separation of Vietnam in north and south, but the North Vietnamese continued fighting for independence and reunification.  Enter the USA as part of its world-wide fight against Communism, and, well, this is the part that Richard and I lived through.  The anti-war and peace movement growing in the USA, the draft, thousands of people dying on both sides, protests against US involvement as well as some of its allies joining in.  A mess.  To the point that the name "Vietnam" came to mean fighting without end.  Eventually, South Vietnam surrendered or collapsed, depending on your viewpoint, and the USA and allies retreated.  Hard to say which came first, the withdrawal or the surrender/collapse, but they happened at the same time.  Anyway, the formal reunification of Vietnam took place in 1976.  And, as might be expected, it has been a struggle to reunify a country that was split for so long, that has somewhat opposing political views.  And I'm sure there is still much resentment against foreigners who may or may not be from some of those countries who tried to keep South Vietnam separate.  Vietnam chose to remain more closely allied to Russia and China than the western countries, and so diplomatic relations have been tenuous.
But now, in 2014, Vietnam is reunified, thriving, though still a predominantly poor country.  It's a developing country, even with it's long long history.

And while people are friendly and helpful, always trying to help us find whatever we're looking for (even though often we're just walking around and looking, not trying to get anywhere in particular), well, there's also the more agressive side of people who rely on visitors and tourists.  There are the vendors who constantly try to sell their wares.  Roving shoe- shine and shoe repair people who insist our sandals need shining or new soles.  Hotels recommend that all valuables be locked in the safe; and yes, I was too trusting and left my purse in our room and had $10 stolen.  After everywhere we've been, when we had no problem leaving money in the room, it was disappointing to find that the friendly, giggling housekeeping staff would take money out of my wallet.  (On the other hand, they only took part of the money, not everything, so I guess things could have been worse.)

I don't mean to paint a bleak picture here, just that it's important for visitors to be aware, and to be careful.

At the same time, there are the people selling things who offer to pose for a photo, and only want to sell their coconuts or doughnuts or whatever, even through a café window.  (Doughnut Man was very funny, first posing for me, then playing with the tourists at the outdoor tables, wobbling his tray on his head, never dropping a single doughnut!)

Old and new, French and Vietnamese, it all blends into a fascinating country and culture.  The traffic is insane, with motorscooter and motorcycle traffic ignoring just about every rule of the road, including traffic lights and the direction of traffic.  Mix in people with carts of food, or bicycles, or the traditional people walking around selling their wares from buckets balanced across their shoulders on a pole.  And most of the more traditional people wear the traditional conical hats seen in rice paddies and Hokusai prints, so emblematic of Asian culture.

Fashion - I love fashion.  We see traditional Vietnamese fashion all over.  The more country look for women is similar to what the fruit stand woman is wearing, casual slacks and shirt in the same fabric, almost a pajama look.  Sometimes a man is in something similar but with long sleeves high necked and button front top, and usually a solid color.  For more fancy wear, a woman would wear a long, ankle-length dress over slacks, the dress having side slits to the waist.  Most of the women we've seen wearing the ao dai, the long dress, are wearing it as a work uniform (hotel reception, flight attendant, etc.) or for special occasions, such as the couple in yellow.  I've also seen women in a short hip-length version of the ao dai, for regular wear.  

However, most women and men wear modern traditional clothing.  The population is probably more Buddhist than anything else, with occasional temples or things like the incense holder on a tree.

At the same time, Christmas decorations are EVERYWHERE.  Lights and flowers over the streets - the yellow flowers seem to be in the center of the city, with lights over the streets a bit further away from the center.  I happened upon the stash of flowers that some workers were putting up, and wow what an exciting photo op!

Stores have Christmas decorations, as do restaurants and hotels.  I also found a young woman dressed as, well, I guess an elf.  Maybe.  She happily let me take her photo, though.  I think she looks more like a Chanukah elf in her blue and white.

We asked someone in a store about the Christmas music, and if she celebrates Christmas.  No, she doesn't celebrate it.  No, the music doesn't bother her.  It's just music.  We aren't sure if all the Christmas stuff is for the tourists, or if Vietnamese people decorate for everything the way Malaysians do, or if there are enough Catholics left from the French period who still celebrate the holiday.  But most of the decorations are pretty, colorful, aesthetically pleasing, and thus far very non-religious.  So, who knows.  Maybe people just like decorating.  I absolutely understand that.  (I really liked the window display of colorful leaves.  I don't even remember what store it was, I just liked the mass of leaves.)

And architecture - old buildings, like the Opera House and City Hall, are gorgeous, French, ornate, and kept up beautifully, part of the heritage of the colonial period.  There's a huge plaza in front of City Hall with a statue of Ho Chi Minh and a child, symbolizing independence, reunification, heritage, national pride, and the future.  Seems about right, to place that statue in front of the super-French city hall.  The whole thing is dug up at the moment, though, as new metro lines are put in underground.  For that child of the future.

Food is probably the easiest place to see the mix of Asian and French.  Breakfast at the hotel is pho, stir fried vegs, omelettes, baguettes.  We discovered bahn mi, the Vietnamese sandwich of salad, meat, and soy sauce on a fresh baguette.  Meat and veg dishes tend to be Vietnamese.  Bread, pastries, desserts tend to be French.  And drinks are more likely to be coffee-based than tea, although green tea frappuccino things are served everywhere.  Multi-cultural at it's best!

Last note - the Ben Thanh Market, where we went our first morning, is outlined in neon lights and looks amazing at night!  I finally was able to get a few photos, both from the upstairs of a café (with some helpful young men offering to take my photo with that in the background, which I politely declined but thanked them) as well as on street level.  As the drizzle from Tropical Depression Hagupit began.

We're enjoying Saigon (and keeping our things locked up).  Our hotel is booked for next week, the pre-holiday travellers arriving.  But we found another nice place a few blocks closer to the Opera House, and will be moving next week.  And we'll continue to explore Saigon, and let you know what we find.


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