Travel Log: Vietnam – The South‏

Striving towards becoming borderless involves traveling the world. How else can one really experience a culture without visiting?

We arrived in Saigon on Saturday with a net gain of 5 Aussies; we are now 15 people and this group is very well-organized accomplishing much more than I could have hoped to do alone. The economy is booming; there is new construction everywhere and clearly capitalism rules!
Over 60% of the population of 90 million was born after the end of the war and there is more curiosity than animosity towards the U.S. 9 million people live in Saigon making it equal to NYC and it has over 5 million scooters and motorcycles registered. Unlike Cambodia the drivers must be 18 and wear a helmet but passengers are not so required and one often sees small children riding without helmets with their parents. School is “compulsory” and free through college though there are no penalties if one does not send one’s child but 99%+ comply. Otherwise, like most Asian societies, it is male dominated; here it appears that women have no social rights outside the family structure and it is unusual if fewer than 3 generations do not occupy the same home. Everyone I’ve talked with concedes that democracy is at least 20 years away.

English is all over the place, having supplanted French as the second language with the main vestiges of colonialism being the architecture and the cuisine. Frankly, the food is fantastic; I attended a buffet 1 night in Saigon which cost $65 without alcohol where I ate the following:

  • 2 each: shrimp, oysters, clams, slices of ham, and prosciutto di parma
  • 1 each: seafood chowder, osso bucco, roast beef au jus, a salad baked chicken w/zucchini, cheese plate.

Also offered but not sampled:

  • Sea bass, bouillabaisse, octopus, octopus salad, raw, boiled, fried and shish kebab crabs, sushi, onion soup, scallops,
  • salads and breads too numerous to mention individually, and
  • a choice of 12 desserts.

Perhaps a top 10 lifetime meal. The sous chef moved to Saigon with his Vietnamese girlfriend and a 1-year contract after meeting her via Craigslist housing (so he said) and living together in Williamsburg subsequent to 2 prior years living alone in the South Slope! And, yes, he wants to open his own restaurant in either Park Slope or Williamsburg (Brooklyn, NY) in the near future. You cannot make this stuff up!

The war legacy is reflected in the National War Museum with displays of captured American military equipment and of course “the truth” told from the victor’s perspective. The two tanks that stormed the Presidential Palace on April 30, 1975 are replicated and prominently displayed in its courtyard and the interior has been refurbished to reflect its use under the French and South Vietnamese governments. We also visited the chui-chui tunnels 3 underground levels; the deepest was 15 meters/50 feet, just outside Saigon where the Viet Cong operated. Only the most shallow level, 10 feet below ground, is open to the public and the experience is sobering in that it glorified the guerillas who fought on a shoestring. The width allowed me to crawl about 15 meters and we were told that they had been widened about 20% and electricity had been added to accommodate visitors.

Downtown Saigon resembles Paris’ Champs Elysee or New York’s 5th and Madison Avenues replete with upscale hotels and designer shops. The small entrepreneurs are busy copying DVDs which sell 10 for $5. The local currency is crazy; twenty thousand dong equals one U.S. dollar, and the largest bill is 500,000 dong or 25 dollars. All the currency has Ho Chi Minh’s picture — and no one else — regardless of denomination. Ho is revered like the Pope, George Washington and Charles de Gaulle rolled into one person.

Lunches have been Vietnamese; Pho, a noodle based soup with meat or, fish and vegetables added is the national dish. It is delicious and costs under $3 with a soft drink in a restaurant.

In Danang, former home of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, 30 resort hotels are being constructed to open within the next 10 years. This is the location of the famous China Beach used by the U.S. for rest and relaxation during the war years and, according to the travel magazines, should replicate South Beach in Miami by that time. One wonders if that is a good thing. We are staying nearby in Hoi An, a seaside town and shopping paradise, where I bought the following custom-made items for myself:

  • 1 hand tailored wool and cashmere suit with a silk lining $255
  • 1 pair 100% leather wingtip shoes $60
  • 1 pair titanium frame glasses with identical progressive lenses $150
  • 1 100% Egyptian cotton shirt $35
  • 1 baseball cap $1 (mass-produced)

The women on the tour also indulged with the most expensive 100% cotton custom-made dress coming in at $60 with shoes depending on style between $30 and $50. Remarkably, this shop is the most costly in Hoi An because it does not use any child labor to make these items all of which are completed from start to finish in 24 hours!

Tomorrow it’s off to the North where we are told things are more circumspect and traditional.

I will close with a Vietnamese riddle:

What is better than G-d?

worse than the devil?

possessed by the poor?
never worked for by the rich?
And, when eaten, promises death?
The answer is NOTHING.
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Peter Jacob is a globe-hopper extraordinaire. He is an exemplary single father of a 23-year-old daughter and a failed real estate professional in Park Slope, Brooklyn who nonetheless remains employed at the same firm for 26+ years and lives in the same non price controlled Park Slope apartment for 23 years. His psychiatrist has been treating his dysfunctions for 16+ years and has concluded he is resistant to change.