The plane from Bangkok took us over the Mekong Delta as the sun was setting. There were low clouds hanging over the countryside, but the sun shone through and reflected off the water. When we landed we saw big concrete bunkers on the runway, remnants of what people in Vietnam called The American War.
We got through customs and immigration very easily. I was reading a book with a somewhat racy title and cover image, and was very worried that the customs officials might try to take it away from me, but nothing happened. They made us put all our bags through an x-ray machine, but didn't even look at the screen.
A driver sent by Phan Lan House, where we were staying, met us at the airport and took us in a tiny air-conditioned van to Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacking district. On the drive in I noticed many more motorcycles and bikes on the road than cars. A lot of the riders and drivers wear masks over their face to try to cut down on the pollution they breathe. Also, during the day many of the women cover their faces to keep the sun off. There weren't nearly as many tall buildings as in Bangkok, and the storefronts looked like parts of Queens rather than Manhattan: single story, with metal shutters and 70s-style mannequins with faces in the windows (more on those faces later.)
The power lines in Saigon run in tangles and snarls twelve feet off the road, crisscrossing overhead like they do in pictures of Chicago from the thirties. One night we saw the power go out to an apartment building, and the power company come in to fix it. A man shimmied up the pole, sat on top of a transformer and a nest of wire, and started reconnecting and disconnecting things. Seth and I watched, wondering if he'd set himself on fire, or get electrocuted. We did see a few sparks, but then he just climbed back down, and the problem was fixed.
Phan Lan House is down a little alley from the main drag. The addresses in Saigon were very interesting: our house was at 283/6 Pham Ngu Lao, which meant that there was an alley where 283 would be and then it was number six on the alley. But the alleys go more than one deep, and some addresses were 238/4/16, or even another level further.
We met Sam and her husband John and a couple of their friends from France who were all staying at Phan Lan House. Sam is a friend of mine teaching English in Saigon, and her husband works in a restaurant there. They helped us find a place to stay, and showed us around while we were there. While we were seeing the sights, they were going through the torturous process of finding permanent housing in Saigon. What foreigners may legally do in Vietnam is quite curtailed: they can't own or drive a car, buy property, or marry a Vietnamese citizen without going through all kinds of hoops. Similarly, renting an apartment is difficult—they can only live in some buildings that have the proper permits.
The night we arrived we went for dinner at Saigon House, a restaurant that serves both Vietnamese and Western food and where Sam and John seemed to know all the waiters. The food was very good and the conversation was in a mix of French and English, as Seth and I tried to communicate where we had been (Palau, a country that most people have never heard of) and where we were going.
The area where we were staying was full of tourists, so catered more to English speakers than other parts of the city, but there were lots of street vendors after tourist dollars, and they would wander into the restaurants and try to get us to buy bootlegged copies of The Da Vinci Code (the book, not the movie) or gum, or little toys.
We fell asleep early that night. The rooming house we were staying in was one of the more expensive in the backpacking district at $10-$12 per night, so our room had air conditioning and was very clean. The desk manager had breaker switches for all the rooms so she could turn off the air conditioning when people left and save power. It had a "wet bathroom," something we'd encountered before in India. It consists of a sink, a toilet and a shower head, but no shower stall, and a drain in the floor. You just turn on the shower and stand right in the bathroom.
The next day Sam had to teach in the morning so we met John for breakfast, and he took us to the tailor to buy some more clothes. We had breakfast at a French place, where I got a delicious goat cheese, chive and tomato crepe. Sam and John told us we didn't have to worry about ice or fresh vegetables in Saigon, but we might in other parts of Vietnam, and that turned out to be true for me. I didn't get sick until 60 miles north of Nha Trang, later in the trip. Sam and John got sick after we left. I hope we didn't jinx them.
Vietnamese coffee is some of the best stuff on earth. It is thick like mud, but tastes unbelievable—rich and dark, like chocolate, but it's coffee instead. In order to cut this magical sludge, they put sweetened condensed milk—sterile and delicious—in the coffee, and the result is, well, Starbucks wishes that it's most frou-frou coffee drinks tasted half this good, hot or cold.
Following a fantastic couple of weeks in Palau and Bangkok, we made our way over to HCMC.
A view of the countryside during our initial descent over the Mekong Delta region.
Headed in to town from the airport.
We spent three days bumming around town, watching the people and eating great food.
Though not KFC.
We did a few hours in one of the pedo-cabs. And Linnea found herself a new hat.
At one of the Pagados (Pagodot??) we came upon this guy, carving new prayer engravings to mount on the walls.