Saigon was a turning point in our trip in a couple different ways. We had been on the road for six months, so we were half-way through our year-long trip. We were also over half-way around the globe from our starting point in California. So in a physical sense we were “making the turn” and starting to head home, rather than away from home as we had done for the first 6 months. We also experienced a turning-point in our physical and emotional energy while we were in Saigon, I think of it in terms of “getting over the hump” – which had less to do with Vietnam and more to do with our frame of mind.
The primary reason we chose to visit Saigon instead of other South East Asia destinations, was that Suzanne’s research revealed that Saigon was one of the better places in South East Asia to celebrate Christmas.
The research was spot-on, Saigon celebrates Christmas in a big way; which really seems sort of odd since the country is hard-core communist and only 8% of the population is Christian. Anyway, there were Christmas trees, gingerbread houses, stockings, wreaths, Christmas carols, fake snow, and Santa Claus was everywhere. Saigon has certainly picked up the commercial part of Christmas. Our apartment was very nice for Saigon. Including modern appliances that worked, daily maid service, daily restocks of bottled water, outdoor pool, steam sauna, and pool table.
A few days before Christmas we found a shop that sold Christmas decorations located behind a Christian church, and picked up an artificial tree and enough Christmas schwag to decorate our apartment.
Alex hung home-made snowflakes and paper chains, and Patrick went on the internet and learned how to make a paper tree table decoration.
Christmas gift shopping was difficult because we always ventured out of our apartment together.
Walking around in Saigon was a hair-raising activity because motorcycles regularly use sidewalks, causing us to scatter to avoid being knocked down. It took us a long time to get comfortable walking around in Saigon, and we were much more comfortable with four sets of eyes watching in all directions to avoid getting whacked – so we tended to stick together when we left the apartment.
Alex and I, holding hands, usually take the front during our walks, and after a close call with traffic she uses her most dramatic voice and says “We Could Have DIED!”.
We started saying this while we were in England – and she has continued to use it in virtually every place we have visited.
The togetherness put a crimp in gift buying, but we did our best to give each other time and space to make purchases and stuff them in a day pack and carry it back home. All gifts must fit in our (already full) backpacks, so the stack of presents under our tree was smaller than the usual mountain of boxes that usually spills out from under our tree at home.
We also discovered that the malls in the center of town are home to the worlds best brands – and prices that one would expect in Switzerland. We found much less expensive places near-by where we bought watches, belts, hats, shirts, etc at reasonable prices, but with questionable quality.
The streets in the city-center were lit with large light displays, and on Christmas Eve the streets were packed with pedestrians, motorcycles, and cars.
There were bands playing and fireworks. We could only handle the spectacle for an hour before the kids begged to go home to the quiet and safety of our apartment. We carried on as many traditions as we could, including the traditional reading of The Night Before Christmas, milk and cookies for Santa, and NORAD’s Santa tracking web site.
Our major indulgence on Christmas day was the holiday buffet at the Sheraton Hotel. We showed up when the doors opened at 6PM and began the feast. They had carolers sing for a while and a Vietnamese Santa hand out chocolate to the children. We loitered, ate, drank and drank in the luxury until they started to close down the food counters at 10PM. The food and service were wonderful, and although we were not sure it would be worth what we paid, we all loved our special treat.
We wanted to leave Saigon and move to Phu Quoc island after Christmas, but we couldn’t find any accommodations on the island until January 2nd due to the New Year holiday. We considered going to Cambodia, but the travel times within Cambodia and the visa we would need to re-enter Vietnam for our flight to Japan took Cambodia off the itinerary.
We were in our usual post-Christmas funk that arises after weeks of preparation and a day of celebration. This is a normal occurrence at our house, but it was magnified ten-fold by all the strangeness around us during such a traditional holiday. Thank goodness for Alex who did her best to keep the Christmas spirit, and for Suzanne who managed the logistics and kept us all motivated. Normally we love to explore and find novelty in the places we visit, but for the week after Christmas we became lethargic and risk averse. After a couple of days of lethargy, Suzanne snapped out of it and called on us to cut-it-out; we were only in Saigon for a while and we needed to see something other than our apartment. We needed to muster the energy and courage to do more than walk down the street for lunch and dinner. So we booked a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels and Mekong delta; then forced ourselves out on the streets to explore a little more of Saigon around our apartment.
We found a restaurant across the street that served very good dishes, and when we walked in the owner came over and made sure we were comfortable. After we were seated at a table, he and his wait staff of four hovered around us for the entire meal. I’m not sure why we rated such rapt attention, and it made us all a little uncomfortable. A matronly Vietnamese woman came over and touched Alex’s hair, forehead, and nose… Alex received lots of attention from random people since Africa. The food at the restaurant was good enough that even with the “excessive service” we returned a few days later. On the second visit we found 5 or 6 people in the restaurant chatting with the owner and his wife. We were the instant center of attention, and a well dressed young woman (probably in her early 20’s) came over and took a picture of herself with Alex on her iPhone. We have no idea why, but she thanked us and left.
We ventured down the street to another restaurant and tried a hot-pot meal. The hot-pot is a communal pot of boiling soup stock where fish, crab, squid, and some other bits of unidentified meat (maybe snails?) were cooked along with various aromatic greens such as lemon grass, kale, and basil.
We had fun trying to get the taste of the soup right with the different greens, while managing the heat from the burning wax under the pot, and cook the meat, and not make a total mess with our chop sticks on the small wobbly table. Patrick dropped about 8 sets of chop sticks before we were done with the meal.
The Reunification Palace was about a 30 minute walk from our hotel, so we sauntered over to check it out. The building is in a time-warp from the 70’s. The architecture is glass and concrete and has the look of a high-end hotel built in 1968 and never updated. The tour of the palace concluded with a movie that told the story of the liberation of the Saigon from the imperial Americans and the reunification of the Vietnamese people into one nation. It was not easy for us to watch, but we felt it was important to listen and try to gain perspectives other than the one we were taught growing up.
Our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels was interesting and disturbing. The tunnels were dug by the VC as a place to hide from the US during the war. The ground in the area is a hard clay that allowed them to dig tunnels without much reinforcement. The tunnels were amazingly small. Our tour included an optional trip through a tunnel that had been enlarged to accommodate tourists. Suzanne opted out – which turned out to be a great idea. I went down with the kids, and they shot out in front of me down the tunnel until I lost sight of them. Crud! The walls of the tunnel were so narrow that both of my shoulders scraped on the walls, and the passage way was only tall enough for me to move forward in a squat position. After about 50 meters I was sweating like a pig, I had clay dirt all over me, and my quads had a nice hot burn.
The kids were no where in sight, the tunnel was dark, and the air smelled like sweat. Crud! I began to get an idea of what it must have been like to crawl around in these god-forsaken tunnels with no light and bombs going off on the surface. After another 50 meters I saw sun-light ahead and I urged my wobbly legs onward. Suzanne met me at the end of the tunnel and asked in a bright voice “How was it?”. The sweat rolled down my face and my legs began to cramp a little as I replied “I don’t think you would have enjoyed it.”
Our tour guide Nguyen asked if I would like to tour another tunnel, I passed on the offer but the kids both cheered and headed down another hole in the ground. Along with the tunnels there were also exhibits of the antipersonnel booby-traps the VC set up in the jungle and how the VC cut open unexploded American bombs with hack saws so they could recycle the explosives – a very dangerous job!
Our visit to the Mekong Delta was much less politically charged than the palace and tunnels. We got a chance to take a canoe along a jungle river, buy some royal jelly from local bee keepers, and sip fresh coconut water.
After 13 days in Saigon, we were ready to spend some time on the beach in Phu Quoc.