Monday, October 29, 2007

Saigon: Traffic, Hookers, War Propaganda

Traffic Like You've Never Seen

First thing any visitor notices about Saigon is the traffic. It takes a little getting used to. To put it in perspective:

Imagine New York City.
- During rush hour.
- With no subways and everyone on motorbikes/scooters.
- With no stop lights and no stop signs.
- Traffic is 6 motorbikes across in each direction.
- People ride on any side of the street they want; like mixing drivers from Great Britain with drivers from the US on the same road.
- People ride on the sidewalks, inside outdoor cafes.
- A few cars and buses thrown to make it interesting.
- The traffic goes 24-hours.


Now try walking across the street.
A tourist map I have includes instructions for crossing the street. I used them and they worked. Basically, you just walk. Slowly, steadily. But you don't runor change direction suddenly. People will avoid you. I've been here three days and walked all over and have yet to see an accident. And I have yet to be hit or even have a close call.

One time, I stood on the curb, looking at the traffic, paralyzed with fear. A stranger walked up behind me, took my hand like I was a 5 year old and walked me across the street. Seventy-year-old women just walk across the street without a care.

Oh, and no one wears a helmet, including babies that are sitting in the laps of their parents who are zipping along in traffic.

How Much For That Hooker On The Moped?

The motorbikes are also used by mobile madames who will pull up with a girl on the back of her bike. (This has happened to me three times. Either the fact that I'm afraid to cross the street means I'm an easy mark or these professionals can just tell who's getting action and who, like me, isn't.)

Madame on motorbike pulls up in front of me while I'm standing on the curb.
"You like boom-boom with young Vietnamese girl? 20 U.S. dollars for one hour." (Madame points to cute 20-something girl on the back of her motorbike.)
"I'm 48-years-old, I'll never last an hour."
"Ok, Ok. $10 for one hour."
"That's really very generous, but I have to run."

Another Madame pulls up. She looks about 60 years old and is wearing lots of make-up, like she's ready for her close-up.
"You like boom-boom with young girl?" (She points to cute girl on the back of her bike.)
"Actually, I like older women. What about you?"
"Me? Same price."
"Thanks, but there's a break in the traffic, I've got to go. Let's talk again soon."

My Digs

Once again I've chosen the "backpacker," or budget part of town. My hotel costs $12 with breakfast and Internet access. The room includes a European shower with no shower stall, no shower curtain, just a spray handle and a drain on the floor. I've finally figured these out, so this isn't a problem.

My only concern about the room are these small flying insects. There are few on the floor and a few on the pillow. They're either fleas or fruit flies, but I guess I'll find out tomorrow morning. I've already had the manager up and he assures me they don't bite.

On the wall of the hotel was a note with the hotels regulations. It included the usual nonsense, but at the very end had this ditty:

"VN Police Regulation
Foreigner and Vietnamese woman must not stay in room without marriage certificate. You can rent another room for her. (If she has ID card or driving license)"

Next Morning, no sleep. Not happy. I don't know if it was my imagination or not, but I felt things crawling on me. I tried wrapping my head turban style with a bandana I have that allegedly has permanent bug repellent. Didn't work. Plus, I had to get up 7:00 to catch the bus for a tour of tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the war. I'm going to a decent hotel -- even if I have to go bust the bank and spend $50 a night! (Actually, I feel bad because the staff at the cheap place has been so nice.)

The Tunnel Tour

Around Saigon, in an area called Cu Chi, the Vietnamese built tunnels that were used to fight, first the French and later the Americans. During the war with the U.S., the tunnels held 16,000 Viet Cong. By the end of the war, only 6,000 were still alive. The U.S. bombed the area and used defoliating chemicals to rid the area of leaves and trees to make it easier to move in tanks and artilery.

The tour was decent but kind of disturbing. I was the only American. Here were the key components:

1) Tour of Folk Art Facility with Art Created by People with Deformities Resulting from Agent Orange, a defoliant reportedly used by US in the War.
- The art was beautiful. I checked, most of the people had visible and real deformities. Whether these were from US actions, I couldn't tell.

2) Vietnames propaganda film about the war.
A narrator talks about how the peaceful villagers were attacked and bombed by aggressive Americans whose home was thousands of miles away. The brave villagers went into the tunnels and used a variety of techniques to kill Americans. There was a Rosie the Riveter type woman who received recognition for killing large numbers of US soldiers.

3) Tour of Booby Traps Used Against US Soldiers
Our tourguide described with glee each of these Medieval-looking devices, including
- trap door with poison laced bamboo pungee sticks on the bottom. You step on the camouflaged door and land on sharped sticks poisoned with cobra venom.
- assorted other traps with metal spikes that impale you in the head, chest, internal organs, legs, and, of course, the genitals.

4) Bombed Out US Tank
On our tour through the woods, there was the shell of an M-41 tank that supposedly had been destroyed by a an anti-tank mine. The mine was made from an unexploded bomb from a B-52 by the peaceful Cu Chi villagers.

5) Lady Making Wrappers for Spring Rolls
Our guide's best quip of the day. "A peasant can make up to 1,500 rice papers a day. This lady here only makes 200 to 300. Know why? Because she works for the government."

6) The Firing Range
For about $10 for a clip of 10 bullets, visitors were allowed to shoot several US weapons from the war, including an M30 or M16, or an AK47. I passed

7) Cobra Wine
Instead of buying a bottle of Tequila with a worm on the bottom, the gift shop had wine that included a cobra with a scorpion in its mouth. These would have made great stocking stuffers, but I don't know how I'd get them across the various borders I need to cross.

8) 90-Foot Tunnel Tour
You go underground and walk/crawl. It's worth doing.

A Trip To The Gym

I found a decent gym that was a 40-minute walk from my hotel. Getting to the gym involved navigating three traffic circles. I am still here to write about it. The gym was like any gym in Boston, except for a few differences:
- Many people work out in designer flip flops instead of sneakers
- I was one of 3 white people
- The people were friendly (actually, locals have been friendly throughout Asia) I spoke to more people there than I have in 5 years at my current gym in Boston.
- The few overweight people I've seen belonged in Vietnam belonged to the gym.