Saigon, in a word, is hectic. Traffic never ceases, and for those uninitiated to the loud and erratic driving that can occur in SEA, the simple act of crossing the road can be a daunting prospect. So daunting in fact, that many suggest to close your eyes and just walk across. Yet, within all of the busyness and excitement of the city one can find peaceful refuge in the parks where grandmothers practice Tai Chi and Saigon’s dating youth cuddle on the back of parked motorbikes. It was here (and the Mekong Delta) that I spent my first 5 days in Vietnam.
Flying from my beloved Philippines at 1.00am into Saigon I joined up with a Canadian who was on the same flight and decided to share a cab and accommodation to the main westerner area – District 1. It took merely minutes to get a first taste of what many tourists complain about in Vietnam (constantly being ripped off) as none of the taxi drivers at the airport would use the meter and insisted on charging a ridiculous price for the trip. The area we stayed in wasn’t quite as I expected either, in a good way. In essence, I was expecting the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road, but instead there was a much smaller selection of bars, no markets, and a lot of shops selling counterfeit “The North Face” gear.
I had two days to fill before Mum and Dad flew in to celebrate Mum’s birthday and spend 10 days traveling through Vietnam, and on the agenda for the first day was the War Remnants Museum. The museum provides an excellent, albeit confronting glimpse into the horrors of the Vietnam war. The courtyard is filled with a collection of tanks, planes, helicopters and bombs whilst the buildings three floors are themed to exhibit different aspects of the war. Most confronting, and mostly unknown to me was the horrific tales of the destruction (human and environmental) left behind by Agent Orange that is still seen today in the birth defects of offspring from those affected.
Not wanting to see too much and repeat it with my parents, I spent the second day wandering through nearby parks and the Ben Thanh market. The market isn’t a place to be if you want to be left to your own devices and wander. Give more than a two second glimpse at an item of clothing, watch or silk table runner and you’ll be yelled out to, or grabbed by the stall workers who all seem to sell the exact same thing. It seems, instead of differentiation, Vietnamese businesses are known for their ability to cluster and copy. It is not uncommon to see streets lined with different business all selling the exact same thing, whether it be T-shirts, shoes, coffee, dog meat restaurants or even mechanics. One benefit is that if one stall doesn’t have your size, they’ll certainly know which one of the cluster does and go and get it for you. Without having looked extensively into this, I believe it is something that has been going on for many years as old streets were named after the product that could be found there.
Finally, there is the parks which offer as much value in entertainment as they do a refuge from the traffic and hassling that is everywhere else. In the heat of the day, the parks are almost deserted. However, come late afternoon when work finishes and the temperature drops the parks spring to life. Badminton is played by young and old, as is another game involving what I can best describe as an awesome Vietnamese version of a hacky sack. On the lawns, the elderly perform their Tai Chi, whilst others lap the park in an overdressed speed-walk. After dinner the families arrive, as do the balloon, popcorn and children’s games vendors to keep them entertained. Slightly distanced from the family area are the youth on dates who line the park outskirt, sitting and cuddling on their parked motorbikes. It all appears quite romantic.
From what I’ve seen in Asia during the last 5 months I can’t help but feel as if the parks back in Australia (or at least Cairns) are being underutilized. In Asia they are used, en masse, by people of all ages to socialize, play sport, eat and just be together with friends and family. It seems to be less of a special organized activity, like a Sunday picnic, than it is a way of life. There doesn’t seem to be fear of conflict from dunks and homeless that steer people away from the parks after dark. Seeing as our country is full of great parks, spending more time in them is something I’d like to try and do more of when I return home.
That night, after a fun and at times scary motorbike ride to the airport in peak hour I picked up my parents from the airport. Together we had two days of catching up and re-visiting the War Remnants Museum before taking a two day tour of the Mekong Delta – the topic of my next post.