Super-Sonic Saigon

25 Jan
A tiny portion of traffic in Sai Gon

A tiny portion of traffic in Sai Gon

Remember the structured traffic chaos I described in Cambodia? Multiply this by ten, and you get an idea about the traffic in Sai Gon. Or should I say Ho Chi Minh city? Many of the places in Vietnam have several names: dating back from the ‘old days’, from the French colonial period or from the communist (current) era – just to make understanding & traveling easier ;-) Add to that a few accents (meaning, completely different pronunciation and meaning) to every vowel, and you’re completely lost. But Sai Gon definitely had its charm, all done up in the New Year looks, and holding onto a hunk shooting through traffic on the back of a motorbike…

Are there enough accents ?

Are there enough accents ?

Traffic… I thought I’d seen it all in Phnom Penh, but Saigon beats it by large. The large bulk of traffic are not cars, not buses, but motorbikes and mopeds. It’s like dropping a handful of marbles in your bathtub, they all jump frenetically into different directions, bumping into each other, but still arriving where they should be. Similarly mopeds zig zag around on the Saigon streets, and if the streets are full, they just spill over on the sidewalk. There are special traffic lights for mopeds (which not many obey) and every restaurant, shop or Ca Phe (as they write it here – adding some accents that I don’t have on my computer) has their moto parking valet, neatly stacking a multitude of mopeds together on a small stretch of side-walk, and extorting your money.

2009 is the invasion of the Oxes...

2009 is the invasion of the Oxes...

The city was superbly lit and decorated for the Vietnamese (lunar) new year (Tet): pictures and statues of oxes everywhere (as we have arrived in the year of he ox). For the Tet holidays, people (are obliged to) put up their Vietnamese flag, and many shops and offices put Happy New Year banners, decorated with yellow flowers. The yellow blossoms (of the peach tree, if I’m not mistaking) are present everywhere, and are sort of the christmas trees of Tet. In the north of Vietnam, they use pink blossoms, I’ve heard – but would have loved to see…

Yellow flowers everywhere (in the south of Vietnam at least)

Yellow flowers everywhere (in the south of Vietnam at least)

Even bridges, schools, churches and official buildings are decorated with colourful flags. There are huge makeshift shops and market stalls selling entire fields of yellow flowers, tons of juicy watermelons (red inside, the colour of happiness needed for the new year), and shops with all kind of happy red new year decorations and the Li Xi (red money envelopes).

Coca Cola and Pepsi also threw in a few extra dong (a few million Vietnamese dong, to be precise) competing for the most incredible street decorations. Coca Cola developed yellow birds to go with the yellow flower theme of South Vietnam, printed them on their coke cans and covered one of the main streets with lights in that yellow bird logo. Pepsi bet on the lotus and hung yellow lotus lanterns above one of the main boulevards.

Beautiful new year decorations

Beautiful new year decorations

One of the central avenues of Sai Gon was pedestrianised for the occasion and beautifully landscaped in the theme of the new year: with lots of oxes, bamboo, exotic plants, extra-terrestrial decorations and lighting. And the top: peaceful bird whistling blaring from loudspeakers at regular intervals amidst the crowds… It gave a feel of the bi-annual flower carpet on the Grand Place in Brussels. It is Wow all right, but the masses of people pushing and shoving take away a bit of the charm. This whole display of Tet animation was organized by the Communist People’s Committee (but paid by capitalist companies – interesting combination…).

What's nicer than holding on to your love...

What's nicer than holding on to your love...

The best of it all is to be wizzing around the city through the new year bliss (which switches off at 11pm, cuz every decent Vietnamese person is in bed by then) on the back of a moped – holding onto the driver – tight (that’s of course a whole different story). I admit it was a bit scary at the beginning, but after a while I surrendered to the adrenaline of constantly approaching and near-missing other fast-moving vehicles on the road or fearless people crossing the street without watching. Call it ‘anticipative driving’, call it ‘live and let live’…

Actually, as soon as I got back together with my ex, I stopped being a tourist. Anyway, after roaming around for a month already, I got sick and tired of stepping in the footsteps of lonely planet (even though I had hardly been in any of the recommended museums, temples or palaces). Instead I went local, ‘relocating’ to one of the popular areas in the North of Sai Gon, living the family life, and going for coffee in the many many (really) many cafés in the city with my boyfriend and his friends.

It is TRUE - they do eat fries with butter and SUGAR !!

It is TRUE - they do eat fries with butter and SUGAR !!

One of the highlights was ‘fries with butter and sugar’. I had heard about it before, but did not want to believe it till I saw it, or better, tasted it. So that culinary experiment also came true in one of the café-restaurants. It tasted better than I would have expected – the effect being a bit like the first time I at a Japanese omelet, in which they put sugar besides the ‘usual’ salt (usual for me, at least ;-). In Vietnam, anyway, forget about salt, but say hello to soy sauce, fish sauce, chilli sauce, hoishin sauce, etc…

You probably know this picture - there were many similar and worse...

You probably know this picture - there were many similar and worse...

The exception to ‘not being a tourist’ was a visit to the War Remnants museum, about the Vietnam war, as a colleague recommended it. I went with mixed feelings, because I’m not sure if I wanted to spend my free time getting depressed about the monstrosities that human kind is capable of. It was like the Killing Fields or Genocide Museum in Cambodia – something you need to see, but that is not going to get me more convinced than I am already that people do stupid things, whether it is in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Irak, Vietnam or Cambodia.

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