This Is Nam
I am writing my first traveling blog post from our airbnb in Saigon, on the third morning of our trip. Jet lag hasn’t been too bad but I still wake up early. This seemed like a good time to write about what stood out from the first several days.
Getting here went smoothly, but even so, tested my endurance. My brother Glenn drove me from Santa Barbara to LAX which was very sweet of him. It was a lovely start to travel, singing Beatles songs from the Help soundtrack together on the 101. My first flight was from LAX to Taipei and took 13.5 hours. I didn’t sleep or eat much – just dreamless snatches of sleep, and there weren’t vegetarian meal options. Breakfast was pork noodles so I just had yogurt. My stopover was in Taipei. Standing in line for the gate, I realized I was the only Caucasian person there. I tried to think of the last time I had that experience and couldn’t. The flight was intense; lightning and the worst turbulence I’ve experienced. A lot of the plane got sick but fortunately I didn’t although I was quite nauseated. It was easy getting through customs in Saigon. I purchased the visa and filled out the form in advance, and it only took about 20 minutes.
After about 30 hours of travel and 6 weeks apart, I was thrilled to see Daniel waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. This reunion was the moment I had been anticipating and it did not disappoint. He even shaved his travel beard for me. I feel fortunate to be traveling with someone who is so good at traveling. He figures out how to get everywhere we are going and orients me to everything from how to use my phone to how to recognize which ice is safe (no bubbles).
We got an Uber using the Wifi at the airport and it only cost $1.50. The airbnb and the host, Thong, are really nice. I was exhausted but it was only 11am and I wanted to get on Saigon time. We walked to The Lunch Lady, street food featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. Without needing to order, they brought us out a plethora of tasty dishes including spring rolls, fried prawns and soup. We have since learned how to say the important words “Vegetarian, seafood only” in Vietnamese.
We walked around the neighborhood and went into the zoo. Normally we wouldn’t go to a zoo, but also wanted to see the Botanical Gardens. The gardens were pretty but the sight of wild animals in small cages, including elephants with shackles around their feet, was depressing. I felt dehydrated and overwhelmed by the heat. My fatigue definitely worsened what I was feeling. On that first day, as excited as I was to be here, I also felt worried about my ability to meet the challenges of traveling and enjoy myself and keep up with Daniel. I felt most concerned about my reaction to the heat and whether I’d feel sick whenever we did day activities.
Fortunately, on our second day, I felt much better and realized I love it here. It’s a fantastic departure to wake up each day without anything we need to do, and to be spontaneous in our exploration of the city. I love the energy and people watching. It was overcast and rained intermittently throughout the day. Except for the driving rainstorms, I enjoy the rain washing off my sweat and cooling me.
We went to the War Remembrance Museum, which I recommend to anyone who visits Saigon. It’s an incredible museum: 3 stories, with an outdoor exhibition on the war camps with tiger cages, and American tanks and helicopters. Visiting the museum is only a small gesture but as an American visitor to Saigon, it felt important to bear witness to the war atrocities our country inflicted upon Vietnam. There were exhibits on international protests in support of Vietnam, honoring the work of combat photographers, many of whom died in the field, and multi-generational victims of Agent Orange. There was also an exhibit on how well American POW’s were treated. I found the photos of them playing games and celebrating Christmas creepy. Although I don’t know what was real and what was not, it reminded me of the staged photos of social and cultural events at Theresienstadt concentration camp, where my great aunts were imprisoned. The exhibit on Agent Orange was very disturbing and sickening. It made me think how little I have heard about the victims of Agent Orange, even in the U.S. There has been some restitution paid to American veterans, but not to their afflicted children and grandchildren, and not to the Vietnamese. The war is still claiming many victims here, of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance. It is incredible to me that despite our recent history, Vietnam is so warm and welcoming to Americans.
We spent the rest of yesterday walking around the city, stopping for meals and at a rooftop bar. We had a large pot of crawfish, clams and prawns, and later, noodles with vegetables we chose from a display in the wall. We got wonderful massages that only cost as much as the tip would in CA. We got drinks in the backpacker district and enjoyed the people watching. On scooters, people drive with dogs perched upfront, and holding small children with one arm. We saw police stop to confiscate signs in front of a bar, after much protest, and laughed when a bar employee drove back with the signs about half an hour later.
Today we are planning to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an underground village with 200 km of tunnels used in the war. This will be our last night in Saigon. We had initially planned to go to Danang next, but per the advice of our host, may instead go to Dai Kong delta followed by a speedboat to Cambodia next and return to Vietnam at the end of our trip.
Thank you to all of our friends and family wishing us well on this trip and following our blog!
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