Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Vietnam – March 6, 2000
“Do you like Lobo?” asked my taxi driver, as he took me from the airport into Ho Chi Minh City.
“Um, I’m not sure,” I responded. I knew that Lobo was a country singer or band or something and they were on the taxi radio. In the last ten minutes I had heard Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton and a female deejay announcing their songs in Vietnamese.
“Is country popular here?” I asked the driver.
“Yes,” he said, looking askance at me like I was an ignorant fool.
The driver pointed out the old American army base and told me that it hadn’t changed much. It was now a Vietnamese army base. He told me that he had relatives in both Orlando and in Iowa. Everyone in Vietnam has relatives in the States – more byproducts of the war.
He then asked me what I do for work.
“Comic books.” I said. He looked at me blankly. “Do you know Spider-man?” Again, no response. “X-Men? Incredible Hulk? Captain America?”
No response. I pulled out the heavy artillery.
He murmured something noncommittal at me. Then I saw a vendor selling balloons. One was a Spider-man balloon.
“There,” I said. “That’s my job. See? Spider-man.”
“Oh, I see,” said the driver. “For kids. But the balloons are not of very good quality here. You probably make better ones.”
I gave up and stared out the window. I had been up since 5:30 and had just gotten off a short domestic flight from Hoi An to Saigon a/k/a Ho Chi Minh City. My trip had been uneventful, but I had laughed at the activity my leaving the hotel had created.
At least three people had been on hand to make sure that I got into the transfer car safely and on time. Everyone in the Hai Yen Hotel – and damn near everyone in the whole town – seemed to know who I was and that I was a stray Intrepid passenger.
“Wait, you’re with Mark’s group,” the occasional waiter or tailor would say. “What are you still doing here?” They’d cluck and coo over me and sit down at my table if I was alone, oblivious to my book or postcards that I’d been occupied with before their arrival.
In Saigon, I managed to get myself checked into the hotel in spite of confusing the staff at the Embassy Hotel. It took a while to convince them that I was a part of Mark’s group as Mark’s group was not due to arrive for at least another hour.
The group showed up and we all met in the lobby for a cyclo “orientation tour” of Saigon. The traffic in Saigon was mad – sometimes as mad as the traffic in Bangkok even – and the cyclos seemed like a very dangerous way to get around. The millions of motorbikes in the streets were much faster and smaller and navigated around us at a terrifying pace.
Our trip took us to the War Remnants Museum first. On the way, a motorbike squeezed unexpectedly past a cyclo, and the driver steered right into Claire’s cyclo. The ensuing crash tipped her right out into a busy intersection, straight into oncoming traffic. Her cyclo driver yelled at the other driver and then brushed himself off and tipped his cyclo back up. Claire calmly jumped up off the asphalt and back into the cyclo.
The War Remnants Museum is a monument to the atrocities of war – and not just any atrocities, but specifically the atrocities committed by the Americans against the North Vietnamese. It was sickening and horrific but readings of the captions that accompanied the photographs discredited the images with their blatant propaganda-type wording. The captions said things like “puppet South Vietnamese soldiers fight their brothers because they are controlled by America” and “cruel US soldier laughs at the remains of a bombed VC.” The soldier in question appeared to be grimacing with disgust and this gave several of us reason to ignore the captions and just look at the photos.
Yes, war is stupid, in case you missed that. And yes, America should not have been involved in Vietnam because it was a civil war that had very debateable US interests at stake. But ultimately, it appears to have been a complex situation that may not have been so clearcut in the days of rabid anti-communism. The bottom line is that a corrupt Saigon guy named Diem should’ve let the country reunify when the Geneva Accords called for a popular vote in 1956. And the U.S. backed Diem, even though he was a maniac, because they were so paranoid at the time about Communism. Ho Chi Minh himself appears to have been a straightforward, respectable, revolutionary idealist who died before the war ended and so his dream was realized by others, in their own way.
Our cyclo trip continued on past the new American Embassy (the old one was razed to start fresh) through downtown Saigon and ended in front of the old Rex Hotel, a campy luxury hotel with neon and waiters in ridiculous Aladdin-esque outfits. There is a traffic circle in front of the Rex Hotel and apparently on Friday and Saturday nights, the young and hip of Saigon all show up on their motorbikes and ride around and around, going nowhere in their fabulous outfits.
Everyone went their separate ways and I went to Citibank to see about digging up some cash.
ATM’s in Hanoi and Saigon used to spit out US Dollars. Unfortunately for me, the Vietnamese government has forbidden this, in an attempt to curb the rampant use of dollars and support the Vietnamese dong. And it is (almost) impossible and certainly illegal to change dong into dollars. So I was able to swipe my Citibank card and gaze longingly at my account balance but wasn’t able to do a thing about it. I knew that the $160 in my pocket would be enough to get me to LA in six days but I just like to have a little more emergency cash around.
The day was topped off with our final group meal, drinks at the Rex, and finally drinks at “Apocalypse Now.” The next trip was starting in the morning and I was down to my final Intrepid group and my final Intrepid leader.