(Saigon photos can be found here)
May 4, 5, 7-9, 2006
After some fun donating blood (still waiting for Anna to write about that) at the childrenâ€™s hospital, we were running a bit late. Han the Man got us to the airport in record tuk-tuk time and we had twenty minutes to spare.
Flying over Saigon, I couldnâ€™t really get any sense of how large it was. Iâ€™m pretty sure we just flew over the least populated areas. Saigon is huge, and packed full of people. They claim there are two and a half million registered scooters in the city, but 3-4 million commute into the city each day. I wonder how many are unregistered.
To get an idea of how busy this city feels, throw all six million scooters into a busy city core with no freeways. Add a dash of work truck, a pinch of bicycles, and an increasing number of cars. Bake at 90 F under a tropical sun for 12 hours. These days the bandit riders sport masks that help with breathing, more than their skin tone.
If it sounds busy, loud, and a bit oppressive, it is. But Saigon is also fast, exciting, and energizing. One gets the feeling that if you stood still for a moment, you could almost see the city change before your eyes. The speed of change, both economically and culturally, gives the city a bipolar feel. One moment you are wandering through a historic building, the next you are walking by brand new sky scrapers. A woman in conservative traditional dress walks next to a woman in revealing western clothes.
Saigon is a great place to be a tourist. Other than in backpacker area, we found we were much more of a curiosity than a dollar sign. People were very friendly, and we had no shortage of help. If you ever want to talk for a few hours with a young Vietnamese person, just stay still for a few minutes in a park. Everyone here seems to be learning english, and a whole lot of them want to practice their language skills with you: Anna and I talked to two girls in a Saigon park for a few hours.
The next night I was out for some long exposure photography (or as long as I could go in a light filled city anyway). I was at the traffic circle near Ben Thanh Market. It started to rain, so I headed for shelter under a statue of Tran Nguyen Hai. Joining me for shelter were three policemen, though their uniforms always make me think army. The two older ones pretended to be uninterested in me, while looking me over on the sly. The younger one didnâ€™t hesitate. â€œWhat country are you from?â€ Two hours later, I had to excuse myself to walk back to the hotel, as it was after midnight. I love unplanned exchanges.