As the sun rose through the pollution haze I knew there was something I was supposed to do in Saigon, but I didn’t know what it was. We had nothing really planned for the day except to take the hour and a half bus ride into Saigon at 8 AM and get a 3 PM bus back. I knew I didn’t want to go to any of the war museums, or any museum at all, but there was something I had to do. So we got a map, more so we could find the bus again, and set off with no plans.
The bus had a guide who gave us a bit of a rap going in, including telling us that Viet Nam was a Communist state, but “Not a hard Communist, like Cuba, We love America and things American like Movies, TV, Starbucks and McDonalds.” He also told us that although the official name of the city was Ho Chi Minh nobody called it that, it was Saigon. Even the official city seal says “Saigon, Ho Chi Minh.”
On the ride in we saw all sorts of street life mixed with propaganda billboards, advertising billboards, and billboards wishing us a happy new year. There were lots of little private shops, almost all of them flying the red Vietnamese flag with a gold star, or a red banner with a gold hammer and sickle. (Spell check wants to change it to hammer and cycle, given all the motor bikes that might be appropriate.) We drove past Chinese temples, Catholic churches and at least one evangelical Protestant church.
Barbara, the ship’s “Location guide” warned us that there would be a high “Hassle Factor” in Saigon, with touts, souvenir peddlers, and freelance tour guides all approaching us. She said the traffic was horrible and that crossing the street was a danger because motorbikes completely ignored traffic signals. She told us we would encounter poverty and begging. But she also said that the people were kind and friendly and with the right attitude we would enjoy Saigon.
We found Saigon had much less hassle than many other cities, including cities where we had lived, like Cairo or Tirana. It was certainly less than Bali or Manila and possibly less than New York. (In New York just point your camera in the general direction of someone dressed as Donald Duck and they chase after you demanding money.) Saigon is so different from what I imagined. There are 70 story skyscrapers, mixed French Colonial government buildings like the city hall and the post office which looks like a 19th century railway station.
Street sales people were polite and after one or two attempts took “no thanks” for an answer and did not pursue and harangue us. It was very hot day and salespeople would approach us with a fan flicked with rapid wrist movements, cooling us during the negotiations. Sometimes it made us want to continue haggling. Some people stopped us on the street to talk, or to ask if we needed help. They were not selling tours or other services. At one point I was having a little trouble getting up a steep curb and a gentle hand touched my elbow to give me a boost followed by a gracious smile.
The streets were not so packed that interesting street life was curtailed by crowds. There was room for kids to skip rope on the sidewalk. Someone brought out a plastic bin and a jug of water to give the pigeons something to drink on a hot day, to the delight of the little kids watching. People sold their wares, brides and grads in caps and gowns posed for photos in front of a statue of Ho Chi Minh. Someone offered me a bench to sit on and the post office had robust free wi-fi. It was a delightful day, but I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do in Saigon.