Saigon is a city with an identity crisis. On the one hand it’s the largest, most modern city in Vietnam, a poster boy for the modern communist state and the face of the country to the world, whilst on the other it’s the historical capital, stuffed with grand French architecture and a rich, varied and fairly chequered history.
And it’s difficult to know how seriously that’s all taken. Rampant commercialism abounds: a walk down the street makes you a moving sales opportunity, in the “motorbike, motorbike?” and “you buy from me? Maybe tomorrow?” sense. On one street you can find a Dairy Queen and a Carl’s Jr.
Yet Single-party Marxism/Leninism is baked into the constitution, and land ownership laws are mental.
The party headquarters is slap-bang in the middle of the upmarket opera district, fronted by a large bronze statue of Uncle Ho himself. It’s suspiciously grand; seriously four-legs-good. But then it was built by the French – I mean, it was already there, what were they going to do?
On the first day I hit the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, then jumped on the back of a scooter and hit up chinatown.
You know you’ve hit chinatown when you see old people hitting themselves in parks. Enough of that.
Back at the hostel I learned about the pub crawl. I’m not really a pub crawl guy – but there was no common room so I made the best of it.
I quickly realise I’m too old for it all. I forced a conversation with some of the guys. Some girls arrive, we all do shots. I hate shots. It’s happy hour – 2 for 1 on vodka drinks. Okay, now I’m holding two drinks – great. We neck the drinks and grab some more. We move to the next bar, and dance a bit. I mean, I like to dance, so it’s not so bad. And the guys are pretty cool, we talk and laugh. We high-five. I make a new best friend – a young chap with a crew-cut. We make a promise to travel Cambodia next year. The girls are actually quite pretty. I’m on a man’s shoulders in a bar. This is great!
Back at the hotel I climb into the wrong bunk and surprise my new friend. We promise to discuss the issue in the morning. I climb across the room, making new friends along the way. At some point I fall asleep and spend the next two days recovering in the Mekong Delta.
I’m totally a karaoke guy, and the American contingent of the Mekong gang could tell. They’d yelled at me across the bus, asking if I want to join them. Bianka, Maggie and Christian are fucking cool and we rocked the joint until we got kicked out.
I finally had a chance to check out the city. I’d plans to meet Cécile and Nathalie – my lovely friends from Sapa, who’d travelled separately back South and got here before me – for drinks at 7, which left plenty of time.
I mean, it would have left plenty of time if I hadn’t been drinking after Karaoke until 5am. Feel bad for me; feel worse for Maggie and Bianka who had a flight at 9am.
Saigon’s Opera house is a bit like Zoolander’s school. It’s… diminutive. It might be the smallest in the world. You could sneeze from the stage and upset someone in the back row. You spot it from the end of the street and sigh, worrying how far you have to walk in the baking sun. And then *bam* – there it is. So in that sense it’s very good.
Around the corner is Notre Dame Cathedral, which is nice enough from the outside but deadly boring on the inside – like life in a village, or prince William.
The real highlight is the post office! It’s right there, with its vory Fronch architecture – it was part designed by Gustav Eiffel, who of course is responsible for the Budapest railway station as well as some other smaller bits and pieces. Inside, are some very handsome telephone boxes and, as the Wikipædia tells us, paintings of the telegraph lines across Vietnam and South Cambodia, a map of Saigon and – get this – no, wait.
It’s a huge painting of Ho Chi Minh looking down over a gift shop.
So irony is alive and well, good to hear.
Anyway, I ended the day by telling Cécile and Nathalie about the time in the homestay when the French medical students didn’t know that Champagne was a kind of wine. And it turns out that all French people don’t know that Champagne is a kind of wine! So that’s that.