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Saigon, Vietnam

Jan 12 – 14

I boarded the plane with Kim to Saigon. She didn’t even have her passport with her (she forgot it at her mom’s house), but they let her on the plane anyway because she’s a nun! Luckily she’s a benevolent one with no plans to terrorize the airport. Traveling with her always feels like VIP status.

We arrived in Saigon late at night, so by the time we took the taxi to her grandma’s house, we were all ready for bed. I couldn’t really communicate with Kim’s grandma, but she was sweet and made me feel right at home.

The maid was really sweet as well. She gave me her room to sleep in and she shared a room with her kids while I was there. The table next to the bed in my room was stacked high with oranges, candies, and bottled water. And every now and then she’d come into the room and sit next to me to try to talk, pulling out old family photo albums and describing them by acting things out. Again, I wish I had planned ahead and brought some photos of my own.

Kim’s grandma lives in a blue 3-story house sandwiched in between a bunch of other colorful houses. It’s on a quiet alley off a busy street.

She shares the house with the maid, her 2 sweet kids, and another woman who was born crippled (due to her mother’s exposure to Agent Orange). The woman can’t walk, so they took her in and have been taking care of her for many years.

The next morning, Kim borrowed her brother’s motorbike and we toured the town.

In 1976, the unified communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established and “Saigon” was officially renamed “Ho Chi Minh City.” The city has a sort of dual identity: While it is always referred to as “Ho Chi Minh City” by officials and airplane tickets, residents still refer to it as “Saigon.” The word “Saigon” is often still used on store signs and if you’re talking to a South Vietnamese person, it’s best to refer to their city as “Saigon.”

Saigon’s traffic is like Hanoi, but much more chaotic and crammed full of motorbikes zooming in every direction….so it takes forever to get anywhere. And if you’re in a car, you can just forget it. Once we took a taxi somewhere and it seemed like it would have been much quicker (and cheaper) to have walked. But…when it’s super hot outside, sitting in the AC and going nowhere is kinda nice actually. Usually we traveled by motorbike though. These are pictures when the traffic was tame. When it wasn’t, I was holding on tight!

Saigon has quite a lot of beggars (many disfigured in some way or with missing limbs). I hardly saw any beggars in Hanoi. This isn’t to say that people in Hanoi are any less poor – they just seemed to be selling something, anything so as not be begging (often single cards, matchsticks, toothpicks, or cigarettes).

Kim and I went to a lot of markets – mainly so she could buy presents for the monks or buy a lot of fruits and candies and decorations not available in Hue.

Some markets were indoor.

Some were outdoor.

It was only a few weeks before Tet (Vietnam’s New Year and the most important holiday for Vietnamese people), so a lot of families were raiding the markets in preparation for it. I still had terrible cramps, so I was kinda sick of markets and getting a little irritable. When Kim decided to help one of the workers bag candy for her line of customers, I took off to buy some flowers for her grandma and the other ladies at the house. Then I found a chair and sat in the corner until Kim was ready to go.

By the end of our shopping days, we were exhausted.

When we weren’t shopping, we were hanging out with her family. And when we weren’t hanging out with her family, we were eating!

Kim took me to a veggie pho place that she used to frequent when she was in school. Pho is Vietnam’s traditional noodle soup. It’s usually served with beef broth, but at this place they use mushroom powder. We were really hungry and each tried two different kinds of soup. Delicious! The word “chay” means vegetarian. So “Pho chay” means “vegetarian pho”, “com chay” means vegetarian food, and “Toi an chay” means “I’m a vegetarian.”

One day her brother took us out to a vegetarian restaurant for dinner.

Kim’s family served us breakfast every morning (usually noodle soup, fruit, and some glutinous rice thingies filled with mung bean paste or some sort of fake meat).

And one day in particular, we had a massive feast for lunch.

At the end of the meal, they gave me a coconut to drink. I was so full, but I took it because it seemed to be the polite thing to do. I thought everyone was going to have a coconut, but it turned out that noone else wanted one. So, I was the only one with one and they all watched me drink it.

Notes:

  • Chewing betel nut is very popular in Vietnam (and all of Asia). It has a mild stimulant effect similar to that of tobacco. Kim’s grandma really loved her betel nut. Here is an article about How to Chew Betel Nut.

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1 Comment

  1. Craig Wilkins

     /  April 10, 2009

    this blog is CRACK. seriously. it’s the only one I read.

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