Saturday, 8 October 2011

On the Streets of Saigon

One of the most sensible things I've done on this trip is book a Street Walking Tour of Saigon with Travel IndoChina - before I left home. A sightseeing bus tour would be a useless experience, you've got to learn about the streets. Its also a great way of getting your bearings without being bothered by touts, because you're with a local.

No matter how old you are, on the frantic streets of Siagon all overseas visitors start out as children & need to learn afresh how to cross the roads safely - all the rules are different. Forget everything your mother ever taught you about road safety and learn from a Siagon resident & you should be OK.

There are around 6 million motorbikes in Saigon for a population of 7 million & they go where they like when they like - they often jump red lights, ride along pavements, the opposite way up traffic lanes & even the wrong way around roundabouts. There are no giveway lines on junctions or roundabouts, so vehicles just barrel on through & the only rule seems to be to give way to anything bigger & faster than you.

The flow of traffic never ceases so there's no option except to walk into oncoming traffic, make sure they can see you & trust they ride around you - which they usually do.
Locals walk into fast moving traffic without looking - delibrately - trusting that it will flow around them, & it does seem to work, but that'll take more than a few days to grow the balls to try that.

Except on a few major throughfares the pavements are cluttered with food stalls or parked bikes & are so broken & uneven its often like tramping across a ploughed field, so good walking shoes or strong ankles are essential.

Saigon is twice the size of Hanoi but its not the capital even though it acts the part. Its the major centre for international commerce with lots of highrise buildings, a port, major luxury hotels, huge shopping malls & at night its a bright & glitzy party town with many more overseas visitors & residents than Hanoi.

There are a host of iconic building - the Continential hotel where Grahame Green was a long term resident & drafted ideas for his Vietnam novel The Quiet American. Some of the film was shot locally as well as many scenes back in the more atmospheric Hoi An.

The grand Central Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel at the height of French colonial rule, which is opposite the rather unimpressive Notre Dame Cathedral. French colonial rule ended in 1955 but the Americans immediately moved in to replace them, bringing military advisors with their alternative brand of cultural & commercial imperialism. What started with a few hundred advisors eventually grew to half a million personel by 1968.

But for anyone alive during the Vietnam war - there are many images that still seem sharp today. The Rex hotel is still thriving, where the Americans gave their daily press briefings to the rest of the world - many of them far from accurate about their success - 'just send a few more troops & we'll have the job done'.

The rooftop place where the last helicopers evacuated people after Saigon fell, its still there - exactly the same. I had always thought that photograph was of the American Embassy building but its just a local apartment block around the corner from the Post Office. The American Embassy is long gone & has been relocated further out of town.

I stopped at the crossroad site where Thich Quang Duc, the monk who burned himself to death (cf Hue blog), is comemorated - fresh fruit & flowers are still left every day.

Thank you Ngoc Vu for being a good companion, teaching me how to cross the road & giving me a great introduction to your city.

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