Saigon 2010

I flew into Tan San Nhat Airport just on the outskirts of Saigon. It was my first time back since 1997 and though I had been warned, I wasn’t ready for all the changes. I lived just down the street in 1967. The Airport had been rebuilt and was fairly modern and up to date compared to before. The taxi fare was $7 and took almost an hour in heavy traffic. Most of all the bicycles and Cyclos ( bicycle with a chair or seat in front and driver on bicycle seat behind) were gone and replaced by Motor Bikes. Millions of them. I welcomed the warm weather. High rises were everywhere and weren’t any, they were under construction. It reminded me of Panama City. High rises everywhere but no infrastructure so getting back and forth took all day. None of those existed in 1997. If this is the kind of rapid change with in just 13 years…what is the next 13 years going to bring. Saigon has become a very upscale Major city with Rodeo Drive on every downtown intersection but no parking so all the Motor Bikes and cars park on the sidewalks and the pedestrians walk in the street with the traffic.I checked in to the Linh Linh, then took a Cyclo to O’Brian’s Factory to have a pint with the owner, Bernard Duval. I got to the street

and got off to walk but couldn’t find it. It was MLK holiday so maybe he had pulled down his metal shutters and closed.
I finally gave up as it got dark decided to have a beer at the famous Rex Hotel rooftop where all the correspondants covered the war from. It was one of the highest buildings in Saigon at the time. They could have happy hour and watch the battles around Saigon take place. There were a lot of
Americans and Aussies there that night. I paid too much for a Vietnamese Beer then walked back to the my hotel.

I was passing by the Central Market (same place I did all my shopping in 1967 ) I inquired with a group of Cyclo drivers if they knew Minh , my Cyclo driver from . One said Minh works in the Morning and goes home around 6-7pm and directed me to where he should be in the morning. Minh was a big help my last trip and took me to his home for dinner to meet his family. He knows the Old Saigon and can take you places that no one else can. I hope it is him and I get to see him.
I checked the address of O’Brians after returning to my room and discovered it moved up the street. I will go back in the afternoon and have lunch there. I took a quick shower and went to the local restaurant next door for Shrimp Noodle
Soup. It was great with a 333 beer for $3 total.

This morning a stopped at a popular Xpat Restaurant and Bar next door called Le Pub. I had a nice Italian Cappuccino with fresh fruit salad topped with Muesli and Yogurt. Walking up and down 69 steps everyday to the fourth floor ..two or three times is good for me. I relaxed with the newspaper then left for the Central Market. A Cyclo driver told me Minh didn’t come in today because of the rain. He lives near the airport which is a long way. I walked around the Market. It has been cleaned up since ’97 and was very nice but the same market for the last 45 years. Awesome fresh food, if I had a kitchen. I did the next best thing and had lunch there. Those are rows of live crabs in the bigger bowl and mussels, snails, manila clams ..everything including live shrimp, squid, fish…unbelievable. I might buy some coffee and a maker if I am going to send a package back to the states.
I hired a taxi and for $2.50 he dropped me at O Brians. It does have a small entrance and is hard to see from the street. It has moved since last I was there, hence some of the confusion. It moved up and across the street. Much nicer digs I might add. Bernard does a great job of paying attention to detail. Nothing is overlooked and everything is maintained with high standards. He doesn’t come in until 7pm. I gave the barmaid my photo of me with Pius, Bernard’s friend and told her to give it to Bernard to pass on to Pius. I put my name and date on the back. She said Pius had been in twice yest
erday. Pius is also one of my Facebook friends but now Facebook is off limits in Vietnam. He was named after a Pope and his Uncle is the Archbishop of Malaysia…last time I was here. Maybe he is the Pope now?
I have to return tomorrow. I have a Happy Hour meet up with the InterNations group at the Xu Bar which is right next door to O’Brians . I’m an Albatross member so get in for free and first drink is free. That only costs $100. The barmaid shared some Pompolos with me. It is a sweet Grapefruit that is 5 times the size of ours and excellent. You dip pieces of the fruit in a mix of salt and cayenne. Same with Pinneapple and other fruits. Nice healthy bar snack. She bid me good by with promises of passing on my message and I wandered home.
I stopped at an ATM in the Saigon Center…Shopping High Rise Building of the future. I was on my way back to the Central Market, after a Vietnamese Coffee at the Highlands when a little shop caught my eye. It was full of statues and collector’s items…GI Zippos. They sure looked like the real thing. Difficult to imitate a GI. When I was here before Zippos, along with lots of war memorabilia, was everywhere. US Missing in Action reps put a stop to selling Dog Tags but a lot of the other stuff still exists…like any war.
My umbrella saved the day and made it a pleasant walk in the rain. The temperature was ideal…just wet.

This neighborhood in Central District 1 Saigon is within walking distance of pretty much all of downtown Saigon and points of interest. A taxi anywhere is at the most $2.50. Tonight the “LePub” drew me in for Happy Hour. It was quite busy. I sat alone and read my Vietnamese news propaganda sheet while sucking down a couple Saigon beers before venturing out to explore more of this wonderful vibrant area. It had been raining all day and finally stopped. I went down a back alley and over to a part of the “hood” I have not been to. There are a lot of Xpats here in Guest Houses and hotels.

I passed a place called Pearl Garden with a Vietnamese fairy Queen gesturing with his hands and exclaiming in a high pitched sing song voice…oh honey you have to try this…or something on that order. He did catch my attention but I wanted to check out my options so continued around in a circle. When I got back to Pearl Garden I walked in and was surrounded buy people pulling out my chair, handing me a menu, offering to get me a drink, bringing me a glass of tea, setting up my table like I was going to be there for three days! I was overwhelmed. I asked my waiter where the toilet was and he grabbed my arm and helped me out of my chair then escorted me down the hall to the Men’s room and opened the door for me. I thought he was going to come in and shake it off after! I had a beer and some Sweet and Sour BBQ Pork Ribs then left. I thought the “Greeter” was going to kiss me goodbye! He had hugged all the guys leaving and shook the ladies hands. My waiter came out to bid me goodbye and requested I return again. All for $4 worth of business. No wonder everyone likes Vietnam.
I ventured back to a little joint I noticed in my travels for a night cap. It was called “Bread and Butter” It had 8 seats at the bar, one table of 4 and one of 2. It was full of Aussies . They were all business men, and all eating. The food looked great. Nothing over $5 and portions were gigantic. All beef was advertised as imported. Imported from where…Cambodia? I had a Nuda Vietnamese beer brewed in Hue the Danish Way…whatever that means. It was the only beer they served. The menu said …to quote Frank Zappa: “Every country needs a beer and an airline. A good football team and some nuclear weapons help to but beer is most important?” I thought the bartender/owner was Australian until my hearing aide kicked in and I heard him say something about the Mayor of Baltimore being Irish. I asked if he was from there and he was. We introduced each other and I told him I was originally from upstate NY and had living in Phoenix for 30 years. Dan told me to come back tomorrow night because his fill in Barmaid, Eliza, was from Syracuse. I will have to make last call after O’Brian’s and the Xu Bar with the InterNation group. I better get some sleep so I can meet Minh tomorrow if it isn’t raining.

Today I couldn’t find anyone that spoke English INTERNET CAFE…not hard to understand…would you like to see the menu…NO INTERNET CAFE….WiFi? Yes anywhere OK….INTERNET CAFE…COMPUTER! ….you want buy computer?….RENT AT INTERNET CAFE..you wait I get girl…INTERNET CAFE….I am sorry I no understand…ONE HOUR COMPUTER..PRINT..INTERNET…sorry. ME TOO…two hours looking and couldn’t find one…one person directed me up the street..;.the other back down the street.;… I walked a lot and two hours later I returned to the hotel to get ready for my outing this evening…I’ll leave early and maybe find an internet cafe downtown.
When I was here in ’97 I would see a sign…Internet Available…on a house in the window. You could knock on the door and the lady would invite you into her living room where her children would be watching TV. The dog would greet you wagging his tail and the lady would bring you a Coke on ice while you were checking for email. That was for 50 cents. Vietnam now has 38% of the country on the internet at anyone given time! It is the fastest growing internet user in Asia and I can’t find an Internet cafe to print out my Airline ticket.
I left the hotel early to try and find an internet cafe. I first went on line before leaving to see the different listings in Saigon. When I was in Hoi An…they were up and down the street. The Cafe’s were mostly gaming rooms for internet players but still offer access to the internet and a printer. I was surprised to find only 3 listings in all of Saigon. Two were right around the corner and the other in a different district. One was the Cafe I visited earlier that had no connection. The other , when I ventured out to locate it, no longer existed.
I passed the Bread and Butter bar and restaurant and remembered the lady who was working was from Syracuse so I popped in and said excuse me, are you from Syracuse…and she replied…Wow do I know you…who are you!!!! I explained that Dan, the other bartender from Baltimore, told me you would be here so , as a fellow New Yorker I just wanted to say hi before I left for downtown. I agreed to stop in that night or next day for lunch depending on what happened and bid goodbye.
I was traveling back to the first Internet Cafe to see if I couldn’t connect this time, when I saw another small place with four computers and one was open. I jumped on it and printed out my new InterNations Albatross membership that was supposed to entitle me to a free drink and free admission to our Happy Hour get together. I also printed out my revised Airline ticket on SWest from LA to Phoenix.
That done, I took a cab to O’Brians for a quick cup of soup and a beer before entering the Xu Bar to meet the members of InterNations that lived in Saigon. There weren’t many people there , just a few Xpats in the corner discussing late night TV Hosts. I paid and walked over to the Xu Bar …very yuppie upscale place that really didn’t offer much other than high price drinks.
When I arrived at Xu, Isabell , the hostess, greeted me and questioned the fact that I didn’t live in Saigon. I told her I used to and was visiting and as an international I felt InterNations was a group I wanted to belong to and promptly showed her my newly printed receipt for the Albatross Membership. She then gave me a name tag and with no seats at the table available I sat at the table nearby with a backpack in the other seat to converse with. Eventually, Elsa from Lyon France showed up and the backpack was removed to allow her a place to sit. She was very gracious and friendly. Elsa had lived in Saigon for 9 years and worked for an Export company called M-Power Group out of Singapore. She owned a home in Gia Dinh near the airport and traveled a lot to Du Bai , NYC and other world capitals. She maintained an apartment in Paris. She said it was the only quiet place she felt at home. Saigon is constant stress with noise and your mind has to be alert all the time. After two glasses of wine, at $10 a piece,
I left to return to OBrians in hopes of seeing Bernard. I thought there would be more Americans at the Happy Hour. I know 12 were registered members. I think Bernard’s wife was filling in for him, while he remained home. I just had a quick beer then left and negotiated a 30000 dong taxi return, or $1.50. This is getting better and better. I know that if they use the meter it is $1.
When I read the membership roster of InterNations, one of the Americans was from Syracuse and I thought was the Eliza, the barmaid at the Bread and Butter. I asked her when I returned and though she lived there for 9 months, she never heard of the group. It would not have been her cup of tea anyway. She was a working class bartender/cook and restaurant manager like me, not a corporate climb the ladder mover and shaker. I received an email the next day from Isabelle with pics of the Happy Hour…they must have waited until I left. Didn’t want to give a bad impression of their group.
When I arrived in Vietnam I commented on how vibrant and alive it was. It is , but I can now see that it will take it’s toll on anyone that stays here for any lenght of time. The Xpats meet on a roof top swimming pool every Saturday to get away and relax from their daily grind. Yes they are young and can handle it. Me…no way. I know why Shangri La in New River has such an allure for me…it is quiet and peaceful. My retreat to get renewed.
There is a job in Saigon for my friend Marjorie…teaching swimming to blind Vietnamese. No pay but she would love it.
Today I had breakfast and returned to the room after dropping off my laundry. I didn’t leave until around 1pm and walked for 5 hours. I stopped at the Cyclo area where Minh is supposed to hang out. I showed his picture again and this time one of them said he no longer has a Cyclo but is offering services as a Motor Bike driver. I knew he didn’t want to ride a bicycle all his life. He said it was too hard. I gave the man my card and asked if he would pass it to Minh. He immediatly replied…you give me money! I offered him 15000 and he demanded 100000 so I ended up giving him 50000 to invite Minh to my hotel the next morning.
I then went on to stop at the War Museum. I had been there before and there was nothing of interest then or now except it was housed in a new building. You see a lot of Americans on a tour or in groups that are Vets . You can’t help but try and see if you might recognize some 43 years later.
I walked by the Palace in my old neighborhood. I remember in ’67 a parade celebrating the “free election of President Thieu” with soldiers marching down the main street in front of the Palace and jet planes flying overhead. I took pictures then and today. It was the same street and Palace that was in every news broadcast when a North Vietnamese tank crashed the gate (on your right in the picture) at the entrance and drove right up the steps of the Palace during their Saigon arrival and take over. We had been evacuating last minute personnel from the Embassy Roof top down the street.
I walked over to the street I lived on when I first arrived in Saigon. Some of the old villas still standing but not mine. It was a plaza. I walked and walked right off the map before circling back toward the center again. I stopped by a street vender cooking a cake in a cup. She would heat it up, pour the batter around the edges of the inside and then put a lid on it and sit it on a charcoal fire until done. She would then add grated fresh coconut to it and put batter in the bottom of another cup with a lid and cook it. She would use that for a lid to go on the coconut cup. Kind of like a cup cake and excellent! I also stopped at an exclusive Vietnamese Coffee shop for an overpriced Latte. I then took a taxi home to pick up my laundry and finally eat at “Bread and Butter”…because man cannot live on bread alone! I had the Australian Cheesburger, salad and fries.
Minh never showed up this morning. I walked over to a new place, Bobby Brewers, that Leif recommended. The coffee was excellent. They have a movie theatre on the 3rd floor that shows 5 or six movies a day at scheduled times that you can watch while sipping a latte or a beer. Pretty good food too and internet access. I may siesta then plan a night out at the Apocalypse Bar.
I ventured out and stayed in the neighborhood. Had a nice seat on the corner of the GO2 Cafe.This corner attracts every sales peddler from Sunglasses, DVDs, Books, etc and shoeshine boys. Well I decided to have my sandals polished for $1.50 but this cunning boy comes back after and explains, with his nose held and a nasty look, that my shoes stink. He then pulls out these odor eaters and puts one in the sandal and asks me to try it on. Does it feel comfortable? Do you want these? These sandals have been all I’ve worn since I left, except on the airplane and 3 days in Sapa, plus all over Europe two summers. Well OK..now I’ve been shamed into buying them. I forgot to ask how much! He then glues them on to my sandals and puts them on for me and promptly asked for $8. I protested but he was firm so I gave in. I left for last call at Bread and Butter. Dan , the bartender, had the Australian Tennis Open on TV and there was a tennis pro from Melbourne watching it. He has ;played professional tennis most of his life and traveled to London to work and live for more than a year. Nice man. Also there was a lady from Austin Texas that was traveling and teaching English. Another couple , he was a musician from Long Island that had been in a band in Melbourne and she was from Portland, Oregon…great fun and then I retired.
Earlier that day I had a great lunch at Kim’s. Never, NEVER put your chopsticks in a bowl like this. It looks like incense sticks they burn at a funeral and is considered the ultimate affront.
I got a message from Pius when I got back at 7:30 to meet him at some bar downtown for a beer at 5pm too late so I countered with an offer for tomorrow but he is taking a dinner cruise on the river with his wife.
I did nothing today. I was very fatigued so stayed close to home. I watched a movie in the room and got a good nights rest.
This morning I still felt stiff and aches so decided to work it out. I wasn’t tired so took right off for the day. I had my usual Latte at Bobby Brewers then started walking. 6 hours later I arrived back home.
I walked to the Cathedral where I celebrated Mass on Christmas Day in 1967. They had a Mass for Nuns only and some weddings scheduled for the day. I went across to the Post Office to see about mailing a package tomorrow…no problem. If I had known they were open on Sunday I would have mailed it today. I then walked to the Zoo and did take the little train that could around the park. It was a bad zoo in ’97 but had improved considerably. There were no animals out except us humans as it was now afternoon and HOT. There were a lot of families and groups of children having picnics and enjoying the day. When I was there in ’97 they had a controversial Merry Go Round that had stuffed animals you would ride. Like a stuffed Bengal Tiger or Lion…it was weird but shut down then and soon after removed.
I walked around a little and saw a live, one man balancing act with music that was quite impressive and entertaining then left for the River area.
I used to ride guard on the supply trucks that would go into Saigon at night to the wharf and pick up equipment and supplies. I did it just so I could see Saigon. Shortly after I was living there and made trips to the docks myself. When a Captain or Colonel in charge of a Company or Battalion needed replacement parts or equipment that wasn’t available in Vietnam yet, they had to requisition it from the States. A year later , when it arrived, they were gone so the docks were overloaded with all kinds of tools, parts and equipment that for the most part was rusting out. Also, when there was a serious attack like Tet offensive, supply roads leading out of Saigon were closed so food arriving by boat, like apples and oranges couldn’t get delivered so they would give it away rather than waste it. I used to pick up boxes of both and take it to street corners and drop them off. Both Apples and Oranges were precious and costly on the market.
The Saigon port is a major ship building area as well as a large busy shipping in and out. You can see the derricks and cranes to load and unload the ships. The skyline has added a few high rises. Seven million people now and 3 million Motor Bikes.
I sat at a riverside restaurant and had a fruit salad and coffee before going to check out the prices at the hotel I stayed at in Saigon when I was visiting in ’97. I passed Apocalypse Now, a long time favorite Night Club and got a price list on my old hotel. It went up $10 a night. Not too bad. O’Brian’s is closed Sunday afternoon so I had some Beef Carpaccio and taxied home.
 

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