*official entry to the Cheesiest Blog Title Award
It was a hastily-planned vacation. Rachel, my blockmate from law school, had some in-between time after resigning from her job at the Supreme Court and starting her new job at the Senate. I managed to free myself for a few days too, just to take a quick break before starting work at an agrarian reform NGO. Jordan, my high school friend, had been bugging me for months on end to visit her in Saigon. So it wasn’t all that difficult a decision. We booked a flight, packed our bags, bought Jordan her Lucky Me Pancit Canton and Yes! magazine, and hied off to Vietnam.
Jordan and I at her condo
My first impression of Vietnam was… chaotic. Motorcycles whizzed passed seemingly faster than the speed of light, with nary a care for personal safety or road rules. And there were a lot of them! The guy we sat beside in the plane, a Filipino OFW working in Cambodia, told us that the best way to tour the city would be to rent one of those bikes and zigzag through the alleys and thoroughfares of Saigon and the city’s outskirts. One look at those road monsters told us that this was not a suggestion for the faint of heart.
The first day in Vietnam was spent shopping. Jordan took us to Saigon Square, where the cheap North Face and Samsonite overruns could be had. Not being a fan of bulky shapeless backpacks that do not come in the color pink, I just bought a few pieces for my brother and sister and father. Warning: them Vietnamese tinderas — NOT FRIENDLY! They scowl at you if you make halukay but won’t buy, and they’re not above shouting at you for an imagined transgression. I found myself hankering for our Greenhills or 168 tyanggeras who call everyone “darling” and who flirt with the gwapo bagets customers. However, the deals are really good (North Face/Samsonite for P600-800, Mango and Zara overruns for as low as P100) so you just have to put up with it. I also bought silk Vietnamese gowns (ao dai) for me and my Mom.
If in Vietnam for only a few days, the best way is to book cheap tours at a local travel agency. In Saigon, such travel agencies may be found in Pham Ngu Lao, a backpackers’ alley with a host of services and shops for the tourist on a shoestring budget. We booked three tours in all: the Cuchi Tunnel Tour, the City Tour and the Mekong Delta Tour.
The Cuchi Tunnel Tour is a half-day trip to the outskirts of Saigon, where one gets to view and enter an elaborate network of tunnels constructed during the Vietnam War by the VietCongs. We had to watch a video documentary for the first fifteen minutes, where in a scary booming voice, someone thunders on about how “the atrocities of the cruel American imperialist killers could not defeat spirit and tenacity of the Cuchi people”.
In the afternoon, we took the city tour, where the only interesting part was the War Remnants Museum. I suggest that you skip the city tour and just go directly to the Museum. It stands as a heartbreaking reminder of the atrocities of war. One sees deformed fetuses in bottles, grotesquely shaped as a result of Agent Orange. Replicas of the tiger cages and the guillotine may also be seen. Painful pictures of torture and death line the walls. All of these eloquently tell us that the capacity for human cruelty is infinite, even in a post-Geneva Convention age.
The next day, despite Jordan’s noisy protestations, we went to take the Mekong Delta tour. It’s a pretty good bargain, because the whole day trip costs only $8 and includes the bus ride to the pier, the boat ride with various stopovers, a free lunch and a light snack of tropical fruits.
The Mekong is one of the world’s major rivers, and runs through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China. It is a source of livelihood for millions who live by the banks and who rely on the water for irrigation for their crops.
The stopovers include a visit to a coconut-making factory, a honey bee farm and a quaint house where performers do traditional Vietnamese song and dance numbers while you enjoy a serving of fresh fruit. Of course, at every stop, they attempt to sell you stuff (honey at the bee farm, coconut candy at the factory, kitschy souvenirs at the performance house) but being young and shameless and kuripot, we didn’t buy anything and just enjoyed what came with the package tour.
We also met a snake-charmer (?) who broought with him a real live python. And because I am brave in the areas of my life that DO NOT matter, I volunteered to be the first person to touch the snake and put it on my shoulders. It was cold and slimy and heavy, but the bragging rights were worth every second of it.
After the Mekong tour, Jordan brought us to this bar where Filipino entertainers performed. Bars in Vietnam close at exactly twelve midnight, except for this one bar “Lush” catering to foreigners and spoiled young things who get into violent fights (we actually witnessed one – Borgy Manotoc is apparently a universal archetype). It’s cool, I suppose, this bar we went to. That is, if you don’t mind having fruits and vegetables as pulutan with beer. Or listening as the bar crowd goes crazy-frenetic-wild over the very-hip, very-now Vietnam playlist favorite “Hotel California”. Or having a group of drunk Vietnamese males from the next table offer you a drink because “You are wonderful.” Yes, that’s exactly what he said. In heavily-accented English. “You are wonderful.” Could that be the moment when I swore, ‘I’m going back to Saigon’? Haha.
So yes, Saigon, I am going back. Not because *I am wonderful*, but because YOU are wonderful. You with your crazy motorcycle drivers zooming past tree-lined avenues with beautiful art-deco buildings. You where the lychees are sweetest, rambutans the plumpest, the longkans the most abundant. You with the steaming hot noodles, the conical hats, the pretty women with ao dais flying in the wind. You whose children have suffered so much from the ravages of war, but are still filled with hope as rich, as life-giving and as flowing as the mighty Mekong. I am coming back to visit again soon. And perhaps the next time around, I’d have mustered enough courage to get on one of your road monsters.