Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Saigon: "They're friendly harassers"

Note to self: change file names photos Saigon.

Sign on the wall at internet cafe: "Please do not enter to the restricted websites which containg sex stuffs"

Flight Hue to Saigon easy. Walked out of terminal Saigon airport and were (what else) besieged by taxi drivers, all wanting $10 for ride into town. We sat down on bags and waited until all the customers had been driven away and then started bargaining. Finally got a ride for $6, which was only a few dong less than what the meter read, so fine. Headed to Happy Tours in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area, but they had moved, so parked Leslie in a coffee shop with our bags, and walked to the "backpacker alleys" to find a place. We ended up at the Kim Hotel - $18 for aircon room with hot water, icebox, lift and computer downstairs (all the places include computer now as they all have to have internet so they can keep the government up to date on where everyone is). Photo: homework on the lane

Had a good dinner, walked around some, got a mango shake, and to bed. Up early for com tam thit nuong (rice with pork chop and egg on top + a few veggies) and several glasses of cafe sua da (ice coffee with sweetened condensed milk) - I'm a cardiovascular adventurer, that's for sure - atherosclerosis, I sneer at your threats. Walked to Ben Thanh Market where I got a The North Face copy pack for $13.

Kind of in the center of Ben Thanh there is a food court area, where all sorts of wonderful food is sold cheap. When you walk by or into the food court area, women pull at your arms, "Here, sir. Here. Good food. You want menu - you sit down here."and so on. You have to just keep walking (unless something looks/sounds good), "No thank you. No thank you." VN is not a place for people with body space issues, that's for sure. We ended up with more pork, more coffee and some jackfruit (78000 dong for all - less than $5USD). Photo: Bui Vien Street - the main street through the Saigon backpacker area

Saigon is a kind of resting place for us and here is our scene there: enjoying seeing the everyday life that goes on everywhere, sidewalks and streets and many homes opening on to the sidewalks. Today the cops came to the flower sellers section just as we also arrived. People running every which way, frantically throwing flowers and cuttings and arrangements into their shops. "Clearing the flowers off the sidewalks so more motos can park," says the sarcastic Ms. Leslie. Anyway, our joy is seeing parents caring for babies, children getting out of school, boyfriends/girlfriends, old people and just everyday stuff - people making deals, pedicure ladies doing their thing on stools on the sidewalk, sidewalk teashops & coffee shops, sidewalk cafes in carts, each one selling 1 or 2 specialties - (Just another cafe on a mist-swept alley & we were all in love with Hoang's 2 sad daughters - derived Robert Earl Keen)

Breakfast in an alley off Bui Vien - where we ate several times our last time through - com tam thit nuong (charcoal pork on rice, etc.). I shared a table (perched on a small plastic stool) with a father and 3-4 year old daughter. He had a big bowl of assorteds, like big rectangles of clabbered blood (as Miriam called it), something really gooshy, several bones and who knows what all. The little girl had a smaller bowl with the blood (cut into small pieces) and gooshy stuff. I could hardly look at their food. Coffee was excellent, so I had another glass. Earlier I got a glass of coffee earlier at a place next door to our hotel. I paid, took the glass back to the hotel and brought it back 20 minutes later and walked away. The woman came running after me with the change I'd forgotten earlier.

Walking through a crowded market I felt Leslie reach forward to take my hand. I took hold of her hand, but instantly knew it wasn't her - it was a woman letting me know she wanted past. Another time a lady patted me on the bottom to get past. Well, okay. Photo: do NOT eat fresh vegetables or ice that's what most of the books say, anyway, but no problemo

Saigon (and Hanoi) are famous among travelers for crossing the insanely busy streets. It goes like this: see an opening (and we're talking very small here) in the first lane and start across at a steady pace, angling slightly against the grain, never hesitating, never reacting and let the motos, cyclos, bikes, cars, trucks, etc. find their way around you. Better to not look at what's coming - it's just too much for the faint-hearted. Once in the approximate center (you didn't think the center dividing line was anymore than a suggestion, did you?), do the same for the opposite lane. It all works pretty well and after a day or so you begin to feel confident, like yeah, I've got this sussed and never mind that traffic/pedestrain morbidity/mortality is a huge public health problem in VN. Photo: Kim Hotel - $18 double

(I just went to the toilet in this Phnom Penh internet cafe. Walked through the back, down a hall, into a bedroom where two young women lounged, languid on a sleeping platform and to the toilet in the corner of the room - an all-time 5-star clean rating with 7 or 8 toothbrushes in a cup above the sink.)

Today, like the market rats we are, we went to the Ben Thanh Market for Leslie to have a look at the gold stores on the facing street. Waiting for her outside meant look being a magnet for the beggars outside the market - a parade of the afflicted - walking, stumping, crawling; on crutches, on carts, on nothing; blind, weeping sores, babies limp. So I went into the market. There, after looking briefly at some trousers and telling the woman that I wanted to talk with my wife before deciding as she went lower and lower on her price, she pronounced, "You a bad man!" Photo: Welcome Travel on Pham Ngu Lao Street (http://www.welcometravelvietnam.com/) - An on the phone, Leslie looking at wedding pics

Leslie writing about same times in Saigon in an email to David: After I started this, we talked online so I'll just begin with later. We found Uncle Ned but alas, he no longer serves his rice and pork chop "a pla" (with egg) so your Dad had to have it plain. We got coffee across the street and returned the glasses after breakfast as everyone seems to be in business together so this is the custom. You just put together the meal you want from assorted places and then either you or the place you actually sit redistributes the dishes, etc. Seems to work great for everyone especially the customer who gets exactly what he wants. We did the same thing at the huge market for lunch - pork on rice with a pla from #1, bun thit nuong from #3, and cafe with milk from #3. We sat at #1 and they returned everything for us. Only one person collected payment, the total bill so I have no idea how that works. Maybe it's all just one giant company!

One challenge is getting any coffee or tea without sugar or condensed milk. Black coffee as listed on the menu (and distinct from coffee with condensed milk) is so sweet it hurts my teeth. I have given your Dad 3 cups of coffee so far today as I have not been able to order successfully. He's happy and has a great caffein rush while I've had none! So a girl who works at our hotel just wrote for me "Coffee, no milk, no sugar, no nothing (her words)" and the same for tea. Now I'm armed and ready for tomorrow so we'll see. Photo: food court at Ben Thanh Market

After breakfast we headed for the Bin Thanh Market (sp?) which is a great one. We looked around and then went out on the side where the florists and backpack shops are. Your Dad found a North Face copy that he really likes for $13 USD so it was a successful trip. I got mired in the middle of a conversation between a sunglasses salesman and a young couple who had just discovered that they paid $54 USD for a pair of RayBan copies and were not happy campers. But certainly here, the slogan "Buyer Beware" is not just a motto but a creed here so too bad for them. But then I wound up getting my copy sunglasses for $1 USD - I told the guy from the get go that I paid $1 in America and wouln't pay another dong more here. He came down to $30, the $10, then $5 with me saying "Read my lips - $1, no more!" As I turned to walk away he said "OK Madame, $1, OK?" Sold to the lowest bidder. When you go the the Russian Market I'll do your bargaining if you want - I discovered when I bought the Highlander that the trick is to not care if you get it or not. Just decide what you're willing to pay and hang tough. If you don't get the one you're looking at, the next vendor/salesman isn't far behind. Photo: market

We also saw some stunning floral arrangements that the florists put together as the customer orders exactly what she wants - the wedding bouquets are amazing. I wonder how many kinds of orchids they grow here? Then the Police came and made the florists move the displays off the sidewalk, surely so more motos could park there- but as soon as he turned the corner, the flowers came back out. Victory for the people! We are getting ready to nap now and maybe then your Dad will go to an internet cafe to upload pictures. Let's try to talk again tomorrow my morning as we did today. You haven't mentioned the IPod so I want to see what's up with that and also the interviews. I love you son. See you soon. Mom Photo: Santa's Little Helper

CK here: walking along Pham Ngu Lao street, I saw one of the young women (An) who used to work in Happy Tours. She was pretty shocked that I remembered her. We talked for a bit. The next day I brought Leslie by her tour company (Welcome Travel - http://www.welcometravelvietnam.com/). Had a look at her wedding photos - good times. Took off through a narrow alley cutting through the block, narrow, people doing what they do. Vietnam, good times.

Bus leaving for Phnom Penh tomorrow morning at 8. Here we go again.

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