We’ve now been in Saigon for almost 24 hours, and the word “ordeal” springs to mind. As Sim said, when you take your life in your hands walking down the street, it’s hard to be relaxed. On the other hand, $4 Maitais go some way to easing the tension (though we later learned we could have got them for about half that at our hotel). We felt pretty good about the pho we had for 40,000 dong (about $2), but I suspect we could get it cheaper once we get our arm in.
We thought we’d start our first day here by taking a stroll down to the famous Ben Thanh markets, which in retrospect was the cultural equivalent of jumping into a tank of sharks at your first scuba lesson. It was pretty intimidating. I bought some beautiful tea that I’m hoping to be able to get back through customs – a quick check online reveals that I spent about 1/9th of what T2 charges for it. There were also lovely fabrics, fruit and vegetables, and jade, as well as the usual junk you seem to find in all markets, everywhere.
The motorbikes are everywhere and the noise and heat are unbelievable. We’ve got the hang of stepping off the curb and trusting to the traffic to move around us – it helps if you can follow a local, especially if they have a child with them. There are a surprising number of parks in the centre of the city and the locals have massive aerobics classes in them; dance under open huts; and we saw a group of young men playing what appeared to be a cross between hackeysack and badminton. It’s much cooler under the trees and whenever possible when walking around today, we walked through the parks.
After our abortive trip to the markets, we figured we needed more focus, so we walked up to the Reunification Palace, a glorious example of 1960s public service architecture. It was much cooler under the high marble ceilings, and the interior was an odd mixture of classical Vietnamese fabrics and art and chunky Western practicality. My favourite room was a real 60s treat with a circular couch and a leather-upholstered bar. Most impressive, if not as beautiful as the official reception rooms, was the basement level, a labyrinth of bunkers from which the Southern end of the war was planned, with map rooms, massive radios and even a bed for the President to kip on during a break in the action. From the upper levels of the palace you could see down the avenue, where the tanks rolled up to “liberate” (as the tour guide said) the palace in April 1975.
We’re not used to the time difference yet – it’s not 7pm yet but I’m ready for bed. We’ve come back to our hotel room with what Justin Cahill would call some healthy pastry treats and have crashed out watching Australian TV on one of the cable channels (Poh’s Kitchen, since you asked). More tomorrow.