Jeff's Mid-Life Crisis goes Round the World (RTW)
About Me (1)
HONG KONG (2)
* ST. ANDREWS
* FROM TRAVELER TO TOURIST?
* HONG KONG
* BANGKOK TO HONG KONG
* BANGKOK TO PHUKET
* PHNOM PENH
* ANGKOR AND SIEM REAP #2
* ANGKOR AND SIEM REAP #1
* CHANGES IN LATITUDE CHANGES IN ATTITUDE
* VANG VIENE
* LUANG PRABANG #2
* LUANG PRABANG #1
February 08, 2005
CHANGES IN LATITUDE CHANGES IN ATTITUDE
Many of you will know that the title of this blog entry "Changes in Latitude Changes in Attitude" is the name of a song by the great Jimmy Buffett. Jimmy Buffett sings many songs about a fantasy life of sun, the sea, margaritas and relaxation and I love his music. I mentioned in my Hanoi entry that I really didn't enjoy that city partially do to a not-so-great attitude when I was there.
I flew to Saigon (a 2 hour flight on a Boeing 777!) and immediately felt great when I landed there. It was at night but I immediately felt good about this city. It was warm, the streets were wide and there were palm trees. It just felt good and my attitude immediately changed and I thought of Jimmy Buffett.
Today is Tuesday, February 9th and I am back in Bangkok to figure out my next stop. I didn't go to the beach in Cambodia as I planned rather I stayed in Phnom Penh instead and had some great experiences interacting with some of the Cambodian people.
Saigon (or officially Ho Chi Mihn City but no one calls it that) is the home to over 7 million people (compared to 8 million people in New York City). This place is huge! I also read that Saigon has over 2 million motorcycles. There are motos everywhere on the road and they out number cars by about 4 to 1. I was talking to a taxi driver and he explained to me that a very small car costs over $30,000 because of the high import duties charged by the government (another example of a silly economic policy of the Vietnam government - high taxes stifling progress). The price of a car is way outside the reach of 99% of Vietnamese people.
Motorcycles cost anywhere between $400 and $7,000 depending on quality, size and where they were manufactured. Most are made in Japan or China, the Chinese ones being the least expensive. Big motorcycles don't seem to be allowed as all the ones I saw were between 90 and 125 CC's. Even the least expensive moto is out of reach for many to pay cash but there are lots of "moneylenders" that will help finance the purchases at high interest rates but that's the only way most of them can get motorized transportation.
Anyway, back to why I liked Saigon so much. The traffic was just as heavy and crazy as Hanoi and based on the relative sizes of the two cities (Hanoi has about 3.5 million people) there is more traffic in Saigon. However, the streets are wider here and seem much cleaner. The buildings are colorful and set back off the street and much of the city just seems cleaner. Best of all Saigon is in the tropics and it is always warm here. In it's recorded history the coldest Saigon has EVER gotten is 55 degrees! That the coldest and most of the time it is in the 80's or higher. Once again, I think my friend Kacey would love it here!!!
I spent one afternoon on the Saigon river taking a cruise in a junky wooden boat. It was neat to see the life of these people so close to the skyline of Saigon. There were parts of this boat cruise that reminded me of scenes from the movie "Apocalypse Now" with the river banks and jungles closing in on the river, it was cool. This very rural life is indicative of how 90%+ Vietnamese live.
As you can see Saigon has some very impoverished areas. What really struck me about this place was the vast contrast between poverty and relative affluence. The city center of Saigon rivals any that I've seen in Asia and many I've seen in the U.S. There are large skyscrapers, 5-Star hotels, nice restaurants, just a solid business district. I've visited many markets since I've been in Asia and the market I saw near downtown has one of the best selections of fresh meat, fruits and vegetable that I've seen anywhere, including in the U.S.
First World meets Third World is how I thought about this and gives me hope that Vietnam has a real chance to fight out of its vast poverty in the next generation or two if the policies and regulations that brought Saigon this affluent area could somehow work through the government and the economy down to the level of ordinary people.
I had lunch one day at a street side stall and was the only westerner there. Since I've had some, ah, stomach problems a few times lately I was being careful of what, and particularly where, I ate and the street stalls are a hit or miss proposition. But there were very busy and the food looked fresh so what the heck. I sat down and in a few minutes I was joined by a Vietnamese family.
The kids were cute and their Mom was very nice. They didn't speak English but they ordered for me and I made faces at them and they laughed at me and showed me the proper way to eat. They seemed to enjoy having lunch with me and I really enjoyed their company.
As most of you know from reading my blog I love to walk around the places I'm visiting rather than taking buses, motos or other transport. Walking gives me a feel for the area, the people and the buildings plus it's great to be outside and get the exercise. Walking around Saigon you see so much and I want to comment on the toilet habits of many of the people here. Every so often I would get a smell as I walked from block to block (this is similar to most Asian cities) and it would assault my nose. I guess there are few places for ordinary Vietnamese to go to the bathroom so they just go on the sidewalk. I also think that many of the people in the city grew up in country where you just went in the fields when you needed to "go". I saw countless men and women peeing on the sidewalks or on buildings (and many doing #2), mostly on less busy streets but very much in the open. I know this isn't healthy and it isn't a sight I wanted to see but it happens everywhere and is just part of the experience.
I also visited the Saigon Zoo. It was a great respite from the urban environment of Saigon and great to get away from the constant barrage of the moto taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers and other vendors (another constant in all Asian cities).
The third picture above is of a regular kitty that was hanging around the deer. The last picture is a baby monkey that got out of his cage. The bars weren't close enough to keep the babies in so they wandered about outside until their Mom's yelled at them to come back in.
I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels one day. The Cu Chi tunnels are about 50 miles from Saigon and represent a huge network of underground tunnels built by the Viet Cong during the American War. These tunnels were brilliantly designed for the VC to live in and hide from the American and South Vietnamese Armies in a place very close to the capital. They were designed to withstand conventional bombings, napalm and other methods of destruction. Toward the end of the war the Americans began using 500 ton bombs on these areas and that was most effective in collapsing the tunnels.
One of the worst duties for an American soldier was having to go into the tunnels in pursuit of the enemy (called a tunnel rat). The tunnels were very narrow and small and the Americans were often too big to fit and move in them effectively while the Vietnamese are much smaller and agile and able to maneuver down there. The tunnels and their effectiveness in war are very much a part of the history of this period and were quite effective in helping the North achieve their victories.
Part of the tour was the option of going through the tunnels. It was about 100 meters long with 2 bailout point along the way. I made it to the second bailout point before I had to get out. It was dark and dank and crawling and crouching was very hard work.
Part of the network at Cu Chi (and many other places throughout Vietnam) were booby traps places by the VC and North Vietnamese to maim or kill anyone who fell in the traps or hit a string or wire on a trail or in the jungle. These booby traps were insidious but effective in slowing down the enemy and creating fear. Most were some sort of camoflauged hole with sharpened sticks. It was eeerie and weird to see this displayed so dispassionately.
I was asked if I felt any anti-American sentiment while in Vietnam and I really hadn't except during this trip out to Cu Chi. The guide was born in Vietnam and actually served for a time in the U.S. military in the mid 1960's. He was very anti-American in his tour and in his opinions and I was the only American on the tour (out of about 25 people). He clearly did not like America or its people and was quite derisive. It was very interesting to hear his opinions and although I didn't appreciate or like his opinions I respect his right to have those opinions (that's the key difference between our countries).
It's tough to take pictures here that are meaningful but here are a few:
Here is the anti-American guide:
At the end of the tunnel tour they had a firing range where do $1.00 per bullet you could fire an M-16, and AK-47 or a variety of machine guns or handguns. Not my scene but it is a great way for this place to make some money, it was loud and many of the visitors were out there firing the guns.
One of my favorite museum experiences was a visit to "The War Remants Museum". This place was just recently renamed from "The Museum of Chinese and American Atrocities". It was changed so as not to put off the growing number of Chinese and American tourists. As the former name attests the museum had thousand of displays and photographs graphically showing the effect of the American War from bombs, napalm, torture and weaponary. Most of the photographs and many of the exhibits were American or donated by Americans.
This place seemed to tell a true story without the blatant propaganda and revisionist history so apparent in other Vietnamese museums. The museum told a story about the horrors of war and the atrocities commited in the name of war. The pictures and exhibits were meant to show how bad the Americans and Chinese were to the Vietnamese as they attempted to conquer their country and did not show any Vietnamese atrocities that occurred all too frequently. But overall, the place was very effective in getting the message across that war has many victims and that we should not forget the actions of the past.
Here is some Snake Wine. These are actual Cobras inside a bottle of wine and is sold in the more out-of-the-way places. I tried a glass and it was kind of nasty but the bottles are cool. I wanted to buy one but didn't want to carry it around and have it break in my backpack. Just thinking about one of those snakes in my backpack.... Plus, I think there would be some problems with U.S. Customs bring that back!
One of the many lazy dogs hanging around!
Here's a picture of me with a Cambodian woman taken on a boat trip out of Phnom Penh.
Word to the wise: If someone says "Let's drink some Mekong Whiskey", say NO! This stuff will mess you up :-)
That's it for now! I'm off to explore more of Bangkok.
Thank you for reading this. I hope to make this blog both interesting and entertaining. Please post a comment and let me know your thoughts, observations or counsel. Hearing from readers and knowing I have an audience is a great motivator and will be a great morale booster during down times on the road. Don’t forget to bookmark this site and tell a friend! Please feel free to e-mail me at “JeffMichie at Yahoo Dot Com”
Posted by Jeff on February 8, 2005 10:13 PM
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