Thursday, December 17, 2009

Saigon, part 1

As soon as we arrived in Saigon, we couldn’t help comparing our new tour guide, Trung, to our beloved Huy. Just the day before, Huy had walked us to our gate in the Hanoi airport where we said our goodbyes as the music swelled. Crissy was doing a bad job of pretending not to be upset. I offered one too many extra-manly handshakes.

So it wasn’t Trung’s fault, really. He was just upstaged by the opening act.

First of all, he instantly seemed younger than Huy. Smiley and soft-spoken, he had a chronic neck tick that caused his moppy bowl cut to whip around his head like a hair hula-hoop.

Here’s another thing: generally speaking, you have to be a pretty funny guy to make someone laugh in a language other than your own. Trung wasn’t one of those guys. But it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“You like dog?”
“Oh sure! We have a dog at home named Franny!”
“Vietnamese eat dog. Heh heh.”
“Yes...........yes we know.”

Anyway, by the time we got to Saigon we started noticing something interesting. Everyone wears those masks in Vietnam. You know, those surgeon masks you see old people and tourists wearing while riding public transportation? The ones that say the air you animals breathe is beneath me? Yeah, those. Those are everywhere in Vietnam. But here’s the good news. The people who wear them aren’t all snobs. Some of them just don’t want to look like poor people.

Hm. It doesn’t sound that good when I put it in writing. The point is, we learned something. Apparently, Vietnamese women go to great lengths to keep from getting a tan, for fear that they’ll be confused for peasants. Which means they ALL wear those masks (yes, they make designer versions) and long-sleeved shirts with extra fabric stitched in to cover their fingers, to keep their hands from tanning while they ride scooters all day long.

And in the interest of full disclosure, yes, we wore the masks. But only on the airplanes, to protect ourselves from the air those animals breathe. Look, when you’re on a 2-week trip through Asia that includes 5 planes full of hot, recycled bird/swine/donkey flu breath, you start taking extreme measures. For what it’s worth, we’re not proud of it.

The first thing we noticed about Saigon is that it’s big. Way bigger than Hanoi. I mean, it’s got a KFC, for god’s sake. That’s how you know you’ve made it as a city, by the way. When you go out and get yourself a KFC.

Huy had told us that the traffic in Hanoi was nothing compared to that of Saigon. To be honest, it seemed far more manageable thanks to the breadth of the streets, and the fact that some people (not all) obeyed the traffic signals. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was still batshit crazy. Just slightly less so.

So it was in said traffic that Trung and our driver took us out to the Cu Chi Tunnels the following morning, which is a massive system of underground tunnels that the Vietcong used to whip our asses during the war.

Most of the site is meant to celebrate Vietnamese ingenuity and determination during the war, which was, admittedly, mind-boggling. First they showed us a vast array of booby traps used by the Vietcong to kill and maim US servicemen. To be honest, the nonchalance with which they were described was a little unsettling. “This chop face, this slice head, this stab stomach.” We hustled past that portion of the tour.

Then they showed us the tunnels themselves. Let me start by saying this. The Vietnamese had a system of tunnels that spanned 150 miles. One hundred and fifty freaking miles. That’s like digging your way from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin.

Of course, you can actually crawl down into the tunnels just to test your levels of claustrophobia, which, on a scale of 1-10 (1=David Blaine, 10=peeing with the door open), I’m about a 4. Crissy is about a 9. She opted out of the experience.

Trung told us that they had expanded the tunnels to accommodate Western tourists’ frames. Unless he was talking about West African Pygmies, I’m not sure how these things could’ve been any smaller. You can crawl through about 150 yards of tunnels if you like. I made it about 20 feet behind a young, Vietnamese guide before scrambling for the first exit, sweating and sputtering. The tunnel itself is dug out of a claylike soil that’s very densely packed, causing what little air there is to be incredibly thick and clammy. If I had the choice between living down there for 3 years like the Vietnamese, or surrendering to the Yanks, I’d have been whistling Dixie all the way to the firing lines.

I think I can officially say that this part of the trip was Crissy’s least favorite. It was by far the most chilling reminder of the war, not to mention a little annoyingly touristy for such a solemn subject. Particularly considering the next stop on the tour was the gift shop/coffee shop/AK-47 firing range.

This sounded like a great idea when we read it in the brochure. So great, in fact, that Crissy contemplated firing off a couple rounds herself. That is, until she got within 50 yards of the noise.

Here’s the deal with an AK-47. It's not a big gun, but it's absurdly loud. Like, unnecessarily, obnoxiously, maddeningly loud. You get the distinct feeling that they could have built these things to be quieter, but they decided against it as a scare tactic. It sounds exactly like a jackhammer pressed against your cheek. Every round makes your teeth rattle in your skull. I have no idea where my bullets went. I was just trying to keep from getting punched in the face by the gun’s considerable kick back. I shot 10 rounds. By the end, I was happy not to have shot myself.

By the end of day one, we were pretty warred out, so Trung took us shopping around Saigon. We checked out the Chinatown section of the city, which is apparently where every company on earth buys their crap in bulk. Shoes, hats, scooter helmets, purses, sunglasses. We’ve never seen so much crap packed into such a small space in our lives, nor have we ever seen such a perfect breeding ground for bird/swine/donkey flu. We staggered around for an hour or so, spent millions of dong, and headed back to hotel for some much needed r & r.

That night, we bounced around to a couple bars in town, eventually capping the night off with an aborted mission to Saigon, Saigon, our hotel’s rooftop bar (whose tagline, It’s really simply the best, is blatant false advertising), and crashed hard, ready for whatever adventures Trung had in store for us the next day.

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