Nineteen Hours from Home (and about twenty hours more of just hanging around) – Saigon, Vietnam

Nineteen Hours from Home (and about twenty hours more of just hanging around)
Saigon, Vietnam

One o’clock in the morning is not a good time to be stumbling off an airplane preparing to drive yourself home. It was the end of the longest Fourth of July of my life. I had endured a thirty-six hour day with absolutely no fireworks, just airports and airplanes. Finally I was on a shuttle bus leaving O’Hare for the commercial lot where I had parked my car. As I fought exhaustion, the driver of the shuttle asked me where I’d been. Vietnam.

He didn’t speak for a few minutes and then he told me he had spent fourteen months in Vietnam. I assured him that I probably had a much better time there than he must have experienced. He agreed that ducking bullets wasn’t always a good time. There were no other passengers so he began telling me some of his story. He and some buddies had a house. They had hired Vietnamese to clean and cook. A young orphan worked as their house boy. My driver tried to adopt the boy and bring him back to the U.S. He completed lots of paperwork but he still couldn’t get permission. He thought his address in one of Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods was the deal breaker. The two kept in touch for several years. Now, of course, the boy is a grown man. My driver suddenly expressed a desire to return to Viet Nam. He figured if he retired in two years he could save up the money by then. He also was still in touch with buddies from the war, and he thought he could encourage some of them to join him. We both got pretty excited about his plan. He seemed to be really happy at just the thought of returning. I was wide awake when I got to my car and drove home.

The whole trip to Vietnam began with a terrific error on my part. I booked my hotel, flight and airport pickups from a company in Pennsylvania. My flight to Vietnam began in LA so I arranged my own flights from Chicago. It saved money because I had enough miles to fly to Los Angeles for nothing. There was a choice of two flights on Sunday. I took the earlier one. We’d been having so many weather problems in Chicago since spring I didn’t want to end up missing my connecting flight to Hong Kong.

A favorite in-law who works for my friendly neighborhood airline told me it’s better to take one of the first flights of the day. It was one of those choices that you make quickly while on the telephone with a reservationist. Only days later did I realize that I had given myself a ten hour layover in LA. l arrived in Los Angeles at four in the afternoon. My international flight left at two in the morning. Oh dear.

At LAX I was stuck with my luggage for a while because Cathay Pacific didn’t open their desk until eight in the evening. I wandered around dragging my suitcase behind me. I sat in a crummy restaurant, eating an overpriced dinner with my suitcase on the seat across from me. Then I almost walked out without it. I started to hate the Los Angeles airport.

Finally I got my bag x-rayed and checked in. I was installed in a large hall for more hours observing other passengers and reading my book. It was a real anti-climax when I finally boarded the flight. Yea!

I was surprised to see the middle and window seats next to my aisle seat already occupied. I realized that my seat mates for the fourteen hour flight were two deaf lesbians. Hmm, not much chatter on this leg of the trip.

The flight was forever even though I tried to doze as much as possible. We had two meals on the flight and access to snacks and drinks whenever we wanted. Near the end of the ordeal my seat mates began exchanging information with me through hastily scribbled notes. They were from Connecticut. They couldn’t believe that I was going to Vietnam alone. I couldn’t believe they were going around Thailand for eighteen days unable to hear or speak. Well, at least they had each other. I would highly recommend deaf seat mates except when they want to get out of their seats. Then they give you a sharp poke to get your attention. That’s ugly when you are sleeping.

The Hong Kong airport was new and very user-friendly. If only this had been the airport where I had to spend ten hours. There was just enough time to wander around and check out everything before my flight to Ho Chi Minh City was called. Ho Chi Minh City is now the official name but everyone still refers to it as Saigon. I never even saw a tee shirt that did not say Saigon.

After just two hours and a second breakfast we landed in Saigon on a beautiful day. There were hundreds of people standing outside the airport. Why does this happen in some countries? Are all those people meeting someone or are they looking to sell their services to the new arrivals? When I saw my name printed on a sign held up by a young woman, I was very relieved. I hurried over to her and she took me to a van. Tren introduced herself (pronounced Chen) and she in turn introduced me to the driver, Hii. We drove through Saigon. At first it was rather depressing. The buildings looked old and shabby. It resembled the older, poorer sections of many cities. But the traffic was what really held my attention. It consisted of some cars and hundreds of motor bikes. There was no order to the traffic. The idea was to just keep moving. After about ten minutes we got into a more commercial part of town. There were many high end stores and restaurants. Tren pointed out some lovely buildings left by the French. There were attractive apartment buildings built on canals. Tren told me that many of the canals are disappearing now because land has become so precious in Saigon. It is one of the largest cities in Asia. We arrived at the Rex Hotel. Tren and I agreed to meet the next day for a half day city tour.

The Rex was an older hotel from colonial times. During the war it was headquarters for our CIA. It has obviously been completely refurbished since then. My room faced a hallway that opened up to a railing that looked down on a courtyard. The room was only $70.00 a day and just as good as any I have ever stayed in anywhere else. The hotel itself was interesting architecturally. The hallways went from indoors to outdoors while still inside of the building. I’d be in air conditioning and then I’d be in the humid heat of the outdoors. There were large courtyards that just appeared. A few stairs and I was on the roof where there was a restaurant and a pool. My room had a remote to control the air conditioning unit which was super. No getting out of bed in the middle of the night to adjust the temperature. Just grab the remote and the atmosphere improved immediately. There was also a fax machine all ready for the many business customers they probably catered to most of the time.

After unpacking I immediately went shopping. I had packed my film in my luggage which had been x-rayed a zillion times. That needed to be replaced and I also had left a few necessities behind. There was a department store right across the street.

It looked so easy. I could just walk over to a well stocked department store conveniently located across from the hotel. That simple jaunt almost left me whimpering and cowering in my hotel room for the rest of my stay. I stood at the curb and waited to cross. I waited and I waited. There was a traffic circle and thus there were no traffic lights. Traffic never stopped. I knew I just had to be patient for one break I could cross this street eventually. There were never, ever any breaks in traffic. This wasn’t even rush hour.

However, I noticed that others crossed the street with no trepidation at all. Here I was at an age often defined as elderly and I couldn’t make a move. Where was a Boy Scout to help me? Actually I felt like a five-year-old desperately trying to cross on my own. Finally I worked out a plan. I positioned my body exactly to the left of a Vietnamese couple. Then I kept exact pace with them. Half way across the street I quickly moved to the right side of them. This way they protected me from any bikes or cars. Brilliant! When I reached the other side of the street the pair looked at me and giggled. They knew exactly what I had been doing. I didn’t care. I was on the other side!

The department store was well stocked. Everything was amazingly inexpensive. I grabbed anything I could possibly need in the next few days. The difficult part was paying, Vietnamese money is 15,000 dong to one American dollar. That means that when I exchanged $100 I received more than one and a half million dong. I became a millionaire in Vietnam! But I went nuts trying to find the right bills in my wallet. I was constantly counting the zeroes on a bill to see if I was pulling out 2000 or 20,000 dong. Also I was trying to reconcile what they charged to what the value would be in my own money. Believe it or not, that took about one day and then I was good at it. Sometimes though I had to run the math through my head a couple of times because I could not believe how low the prices were.

The trip back across the street was equally as harrowing. I also felt very stupid just standing there until someone else could unknowingly walk me across. It was a mixture of feeling completely senile or completely childish. The Vietnamese are very small people so it was rather obvious that I was looking for human shields. I didn’t care. I have never seen such relentless traffic.

The next day Tren came with a driver and we were off to explore Saigon. First we visited the Reunification Palace. It was built in the sixties to replace a damaged palace originally built in 1870. The design of the palace or its footprint reflects Chinese characters symbolizing different things such as peace and democracy. It had been occupied during the war by the President.

Although there was no air conditioning in the building it was very open and situated so that a gentle breeze flowed through it. No one lives there now and it is only used for meetings and receptions. Tren and I wandered all over as there weren’t many other visitors. Most people just come to look at outside of the building and the grounds. When we were in the presidential office Tren pointed out one of the books in the extensive library of serious looking tomes. It was in English and was about improving your tennis game. So it wasn’t all work back in those days.

We went to the Chinese Market next. There are a lot of Chinese in Saigon and the market is huge. It was typical of markets in many countries where they have anything that you could possibly want. Because I was with Tren, people didn’t try to sell me things. Later I would wish for her presence in another market.

We made a very important stop at the Post Office where I bought stamps and post cards. Walking to and from the Post Office, Tren taught me how to cross a street. Never run or hurry too much. Just calmly proceed slowly and steadily. The bikers are working to avoid pedestrians. That made sense because if a bike ran into me I would probably not be the only one injured. I immediately had a lot more confidence in my pedestrian pursuits.

We visited a temple and an art gallery. I fell in love with lacquer paintings and some other landscapes made from duck egg shells. That sounds gross but they were beautiful scenes of the countryside. I made purchases. The owner was so upset by the cost of shipping that he really tried to encourage me to carry them home. At my age I didn’t need that extra burden. I insisted he ship them even though the shipping was almost as much as the original cost of the paintings. My decision seemed to make him sad. I had the sense from many of the Vietnamese that they were trying very hard to be very fair. I rationalized that if I purchased the art in the U.S. the prices would be much higher. Yeah, right.

Finally we went to the War Remnants Museum. Tren apologized to me beforehand because I guess some tourists have complained about how the war was presented at the museum. I figured her country had the right to present things any way that they wanted. I found nothing offensive. There were tanks and helicopters outside the buildings that housed the artifacts. I was really touched by a display of the many U.S. photo-journalists who had lost their lives in that tragic war. I remembered many of those black and white photos from Life magazine. I looked at it as a magnificent tribute to these brave men.

There were some photos in other buildings that showed how many Vietnamese were killed or tortured. There was also a replica of a miserable cell for prisoners. Maybe that was what bothered other tourists. Just as bad things have taken place in Iraq, bad things happened in Vietnam. Bad things happen in the US. Not all Americans are perfect.

There was no Communist propaganda. In fact, I got little sense of the Communist government at all. I saw no beggars and no one was trying to sell me things on the streets. It may have been the wrong time of year or they just didn’t need it in their economy.

Tren told me how to find other places of interest. She advised that I go out in the mornings when it is cooler. I really worried about the heat and humidity before I got to Saigon. I was going at the warmest time of the year when many tours stopped visiting. It turned out to be no worse than Chicago on a hot summer day. I also expected more rain. The few times it did rain I had my handy umbrella and the rain never lasted very long. Everyone stared at my umbrella. I never saw anyone else with one. If it was raining hard enough they pulled out ponchos. Their culture was so involved with transportation by motor bike it was more practical to have a poncho handy than an umbrella.

About that traffic. I sat in the hotel restaurant one afternoon eating ice cream and drinking coffee. Looking through the big plate glass windows was better than watching TV in my room. The most people I saw on one motorbike was five. There was a father with a child in front of him. Behind him were two more children held on by his wife. Think of our required child safety seats in this country! Often there were huge boxes tied on the back of a bike. Sometimes there was an animal. People were dressed very well or very casually. They just wove in and out and made left and right turns without any hesitation. Once in a while a big bus would come rolling along. The buses were hugely subsidized by the government. The fares were very low because they wanted to replace all the motor bikes with mass transportation. I guess when a family gets too big to all fit on one motor bike some of them board a bus. The ingenuity of transporting objects by motor bike made a fascinating parade.

As I stopped in restaurants for a meal or refreshment during a long walk I discovered one thing. You can sit at a table as long as you want. No one ever brings the check unless you ask for it. Another odd thing was that after I had a cup of coffee I was always given a cup of hot water. Was this to refresh my palate? Or was I too somehow wash my fingers in it? I never knew so I just drank the hot water. It didn’t hurt me, and I pretended it was just a cup of very weak tea.

On my own I managed to find the Art Museum by just walking. Since Saigon is built along the Saigon River the streets do not run parallel to each other. They curve around and about. I would look at a map and then follow my instincts. Sometimes it got a little scary but I always ended up somewhere.

I also handled the traffic crossings by walking very, very slowly. Sometimes I would pause in the middle of the street and watch everything go around me. It was a bit of a thrill. I was also very proud that I could finally handle it. I was a grown up!

The Art Museum was quite small but, of course, it managed to be on three levels anyway so there was a lot of stair climbing. There were formal paintings from ages past and more modern works that depicted the war. The museum was surrounded by galleries with all kinds of art. The Vietnamese do beautiful stitchery designs that look like oil paintings. I bought one in a gallery. For some reason we had to leave the gallery and walk down the street to a bank so that I could use my credit card. The young lady and I chatted as much as we could. Although the Vietnamese use our alphabet, their phonetics are quite different. They pronounce many of our words strangely. I had a card with phrases on it but every time I tried to say “thank you” in Vietnamese I would be looked at with uncertainty. We struggled to communicate and I found that her family owned galleries in California and Texas. Her sister ran the one in California. I asked her if she wanted to go to the U.S. some day. She told me she loved Vietnam and would never leave. That seemed so refreshing. She gave me her card and wrote her home telephone number on it so that I could call her if I needed any help. She was typical of everyone I met. They were all kind and eager to help me in any way. Had we really been at war with these people? Of course, I was in the south where the people were on our side. The north might be quite different.

Near the Art Museum was the large Saigon Market. There was no way to see all of it. I just rushed up and down the aisles trying to spot something I couldn’t live without. I didn’t dare stop and look more closely at anything. I would immediately be besieged from all sides. Since they were such experts at selling and I am such a sucker for buying, I knew I would end up with all kinds of bargains I didn’t know that I wanted. I just kept moving and waving in a friendly manner to everyone. I made it through without a purchase but who knows what great buy I missed.

One morning I needed a cab to go to the History Museum. As advised, I had the doorman get me one of the taxis parked in front of the hotel. It was another adventurous ride through the teeming streets of the city. I tried to keep track of where we were going in the hopes of getting some exercise by walking back. There was no such luck because I lost my bearings very quickly. When we arrived at the museum I reached in my bag to get my wallet. Surprise! No wallet.

Then I remembered spreading my Vietnamese money out on the bed and arranging it numerically in my wallet so that I wouldn’t be counting zeroes all the time. I was certain I had left the wallet on the bed. I communicated to the driver that I forgot my money and that we should go back to the hotel. He looked puzzled at first and then he understood. He asked how long I planned to be in the museum. I told him one hour. He pulled out his own wallet and gave me 400,000 dong for admission to the museum. I was shocked. Can you imagine any other cab driver doing that? I bought my admission ticket and hurried to give him the change because he had given me way too much money.

This museum was much larger than the art museum because it has 500,000 years of history in it. It was difficult to really appreciate it because I was still distracted by what the driver had done for me. The museum included natural history, culture and national history. It was an older building which had many rooms opening onto courtyards so that even though there was no air conditioning there was always a breeze coming from somewhere. I don’t know if Vietnamese architects know a lot about how to locate a building for maximum advantages in hot weather, or if I was just lucky to be wandering around on good days.

When I left the museum the driver was waiting for me. I could have left that building by other exits and avoided him completely. But he trusted me. He drove me back to the hotel and received the best tip I have ever given. I don’t know in what country in the world that would have happened other than Viet Nam.

Every day I would find a bowl of two kinds of fruit in my room. I didn’t recognize any of the fruit but I tried to dutifully eat as much as possible. I felt like the hotel was being maternal and trying to keep me healthy. Breakfast was included in the price of my room. They had a huge buffet each morning. There were different kinds of meats, including bacon, lots of noodles and lovely pastries. I usually didn’t need any lunch after grazing through breakfast. This was a good excuse to stop for coffee and a small dish of ice cream in the afternoon. There were plenty of restaurants around my hotel. When I ordered meals I seemed to end up with shrimp a lot. If the Vietnamese could import their shrimp to the U.S. the prices here would fall drastically.

There weren’t any American tourists when I was there. Most of the people I saw who weren’t obviously Vietnamese came from other Asian countries or Australia. I guess the Aussies aren’t afraid of a little heat. Those that I talked to thought Viet Nam was a great vacation. Of course, they are located much closer and they were escaping winter at home.

Finally the day came to go home. I was surprised to see Tren had accompanied the driver who was taking me to the airport. She just wanted to come along and say goodbye. I was really happy to see her because I think we did communicate on some deeper levels despite the difficulty of understanding every word. Although I offered her a tip at the airport she refused it. I was impressed by that. I managed to spend the money in the duty free shop instead. The flight home was boring. I hope I never have to go through LAX again. It’s the only airport I’ve ever been to that dumps the luggage from two separate international flights onto the same carousel. No fun if you are trying to get to a connecting flight. It’s a tough trip to Vietnam, but I think it was worth it.

About a week ago I came into O’Hare late one night and I was on the shuttle bus to the parking lot once again. I’d finally visited my fiftieth state. It was Idaho and the journey was long and difficult. I looked at the driver and asked him if he was the Vietnam vet. We both were delighted to re-connect. He was still planning that return journey. I was happy to hear that. Everything had come full circle for me.

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