We have heard a lot about Ho Chi Minh City – and its traffic. Any traveller consulting any other traveller about Vietnam, and in particular, Ho Chi Minh City, will hear it: “When crossing the street, just pray and step off the curb, regardless of how many vehicles are streaming your way.” So naturally, and given that we are 6 (mostly small) people, we approached this with caution. And we found it to be true. Roundabouts are an insanity – everyone is going a different direction, crisscrossing and weaving between people and carts and trucks, speeding up and slowing down, and most of all: honking. It’s a secret language. People don’t honk here to express their anger or frustration; they honk to either say “I’m going to speed up and swerve around you” or “Right behind you” or “I’m here!” This can be expressed and understood depending on how long the honk was, how many, and the time between them. We, on the other hand, have not caught up yet, and so we have no idea what they are saying to each other. But back to the real problem at hand – crossing the street. As you step off the curb you’re suddenly in a swarm of dangerous fish, all coming at you, narrowly missing you, almost hitting you, blinding you with their lights, and of course, honking. It’s all about the timing and when you decide to take those 2 steps that will bring you further to the curb. And don’t ever, ever stop. After crossing successfully we celebrated…
As I have said in previous posts, the history of a country is important to learn and understand, so we had to visit the Reunification Palace. This palace was built in the era of the French colonialisation, and during the Vietnam War the “President” (who didn’t act very democratic) Ngo Die Diem lived here. A pilot was ordered to drop bombs on the North, but as he was secretly on the Northern side, he decided to turn around and drop a bomb on the palace. It did not kill Diem, and afterwards Diem decided to flatten the palace and build a new one, this time with a bomb shelter. The pilot is a hero among Vietnamese people (given that the Northern side won) and he still lives in Ho Chi Minh City today. At the fall of Saigon 2 tanks ran over the fence, the poor President (the 3rd in the line of resignments that month and who had only been President for 2 days) immediately surrendered. And, as the video stated, the entire city was jubilant that it was liberated.
So we viewed the Palace and its 50s style rooms, each decorated with prevalent Asian influence. Banquet halls and receptions and strategic war rooms… and its extensive bomb shelter. Explaining the entire war in a nutshell is difficult in itself, but then you add the fact that the person you are explaining to is 8, and it gets… repetitive. But, not unexpectedly, after having it explained in different ways about 9 times, Emilia understood.
Ho Chi Minh City itself is just crazy. First, it’s massive. Second, it’s loud (we were glad to be on the 7th floor). Third, it’s an always-going, never-ending, constant stream of traffic. We wandered around (the exact definition is wandered since it isn’t ever structured with a goal in mind) and bumped into the cloth section of town. If you are by chance a fashion designer, or a DIY crazy parent, or in charge of a large garment company, this is the place for you. I am not joking when I say that there is every single different type of cloth, print, color, or other fabric that exists under the sun. The bolts sit upright, with women sitting on top of the mountains, shouting and cutting and pulling out bolts and climbing around. People are spreading out the cloth in the middle of the street, cutting, measuring, bargaining, packaging… Then you visit (in our case, accidentally walk into) the accessories, and you get every ribbon, glitter, sequin, button, zipper, thread, the list goes on… The herb section of town smells heavenly, and we saw many different types of herbs or plants, like smashed daffodil or birds nest.
As Emilia has said, “How come all the women work and the men sit around?” And I do not mean to be mean to men, but we have observed that an unproportionate amount of young men sit around on the street, content with eating, playing majong, and smoking. And when we visit the market, who is chopping the fish up? Well, first of all the old people, who have been doing this since they were 6, and the women. Most sales are done by women, and it is the women who carry the extroardinarily heavy baskets on their shoulders. But the men sit in their business wear (white button-down and trousers) and do nothing! I am sure that many work and that we just didn’t see them, as they were working, but an unproportionate amount do not. Friends, also ex-pats, of ours have said Vietnam is breeding a lazy generation without ambition and it’s not good for the economy.
It’s so fascinating how the way of life works. After being in SE Asia for 3 months now, we are so used to bargaining, eating street food, being asked a million times “Where you from? You like __ miss??”, roosters running around in the middle of a metropolitan area, and the entirely different level of hygiene expectation. To us it is almost normal, and so I often forget to convey the simplicity and beauty of the normal life here. It’s just so… simple. The question more people should ask themselves in the western countries is, “Why not?”. Why not fix your boat motor in the middle of the sidewalk? Why shouldn’t you transport your pigs on your motorbike? (I realize this one is not entirely fair, as no one really keeps pigs at home in America, at least not in the city.) Why not keep chickens for eggs and why not let them run around? It’s not like anybody cares if they do.
I don’t think I will remember how to walk on a sidewalk that isn’t being obstructed by a tree, telephone booth, parked motorbike, or random pole.