Friends and Phở: A Week in Saigon
They say you can never go home again. A tricky saying when your home has spanned three countries in six months. Don’t get me wrong, I in no way feel sorry for myself, in fact this popular phrase has freed me up to the fun and challenging task of taking the concept of “home” with me in my backpack. I felt at home in Korea, not that I ever got used to often being the tallest in a room, or that I grew accustom to kimchi for breakfast, but it was my friends who made my home there. Naturally our last day on the way to the Seoul airport is heart wrenching even now to remember, until I realized the advantage of having seriously nomadic friends. Oh the places you’ll go! With six of these bosom buddies having relocated to Saigon and this city being among the 75 cities I want to visit this year (life is short OK!) it was a no brainer that Matt and my first break from the desert would be to re-live our Korea glory days in Vietnam!
Matt and I had just over a week in Vietnam so we chose a very small radius of area to cover, reflective of the pace in which I prefer to travel: leisurely, with enough time to sample traditional cuisine, get tricked into drinking too much with locals, and picking up some truly unique souvenirs along the way. Our base was Saigon where our gracious hosts offered us a bed, a scooter and a place to rest our hookah. I was made aware of the government presence shortly after arriving when the owner of our host’s apartment asked for copies of our passports during our stay. I stepped outside to a stream of scooters decorated with the star of the communist flag and although I spent a year five hours from the North Korean border, this was my first face-to-face with a truly socialist regime. With that said, I think it is impossible to fit Saigon under any one umbrella term. This city beats to a whole new genre from its scooters that outnumber drivers, twenty-four hour pho, expat scene and surrounding green hills laced with the history of a not so distant war.
These nearby, lush hills of Củ Chi set the stage for our first day in Vietnam. It had been six months since we said good-bye to our retro, Korean scooter with its red and orange flames, so the moment we feasted our eyes on a city wall-to-wall in two-wheeled madness, we wanted on! The trip to the tunnels should take under two hours from the city, but characteristic of my preferred pace of travel, I like to stop for drinks, food cart fare, photo opportunities and the occasional flat tire.
The city faded behind us after a quick tire repair and was replaced by the green rice fields so reminiscent of the Vietnam we see in postcards. An occasional ox drawn cart, communist propaganda poster and spring roll stand completed my visual sketch of the countryside. The tunnels presented a chance however to explore a less picturesque history. Our guide, a retired soldier who served in the Vietnam War, led us underground, neglecting to mention the meter tall, dark crawl space we were sharing with the bats that spend their days roaming from one passageway to the next. The network of tunnels and underground meeting rooms were used by the Viet Cong leading up the 1968 Tet offensive and eventually the seizure of Saigon in 1975.
After making it out if the tunnels without turning into the newest member of the Twilight gang, my curiosity for the history of Saigon led me to the War Remnants museum. The museum was a must for me in understanding the city’s transition from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh. Additionally I make a point of taking in at least one natural history museum, or fine art collection on any city stop, as these places tend to provide a few hours of quiet reflection on the bustle I encounter in trying to experience a city on foot.
The entrance is difficult to miss, with left over US tanks and shell casings lining the driveway. I was tapped on the shoulder by the stub of an arm, attached to a man who wanted only to know my citizenship. I hesitated wondering if I could pass as Dutch and then swallowed my pride and whispered “American.” The man looked at me as if he had already known and picked me out of the crowd as someone who carried so much embarrassment and guilt upon seeing the propaganda in the War museum that I would gladly hand over the contents of my wallet. He was right. This living image of the continued suffering brought about by war rang loud inside the museum walls, and for the remainder of my time in the city.
Although the museum left my head in a rebellious cloud of propaganda and uncertainty about my country as well as the one I was traveling, I stepped back out into Saigon for a night out with my Korean comrades. We hit up Pham Ngu Lao, district 1 where I overheard a group of expats talking about Bob Dylan giving a concert after nearly forty years of singing anti-war anthems heavily inspired by the Vietnam war. I wondered if Bob Dylan too felt the same full circle sensation I had as I attempted to come home again, seeing my friends here in this new setting. We found a Korean restaurant and the Hangeul seemed to flow faster than soju as we reminisced on our year together. This group has found a new home in Saigon, a city that has initiated them amidst communist stars, crispy rolls and spider webs of traffic. Just in case our old nomad neighbors had any thoughts of forgetting about us as they acclimate to their new city I made sure to leave a little token of my affection in the form of a stray kitten, once white, and in need of some love from fellow nomads.