Saturday, October 24, 2009

[Travelogue] Hidden treasures in Saigon

There's something about Viet Nam that seems to bring out the crazy driver in people. The action at an intersection is so chaotic it's almost comical: the light changes, everyone leans on their horns and charges out into the intersection. There is a moment of chaos as bicycles, scooters (many with multiple passengers -- we saw as many as four on one scooter), cars, trucks and the odd adventurous (or maybe foolhardy) pedestrian jostles for position. And then, somehow, it all sorts itself out, and what seemed destined to become a hopeless snarl at best and a massacre at worst somehow unravels itself, and everyone eventually manages to get through the intersection. For a brief moment, traffic actually flows. Then the light changes and the whole dance begins anew. And yet, amazingly, in three days of being driven through this hair-raising bedlam we did not see a single accident. It is astonishing. There should be casualties lining the streets. But there aren't.

The craziness even seemed to extend to our ship. I was awakened at 6AM yesterday with the ship heeled over at a crazy angle, and the foghorn blaring non-stop. We were careening up the serpentine Saigon river at 20 knots, with our 50,000 ton cruise ship taking the turns like a Ferrari (that is, if Ferrari made trucks). If the ship had tires they would have been squealing. As I write this we are zipping back down the river and it's every bit as crazy as it was on the way up.

We docked in Saigon at about 8:30 and went on an excursion to the Mekong river delta. (One thing they have plenty of in Viet Nam is rivers.) It was a 2-1/2 hour drive each way, but it was worth the trip. If Halong Bay is Venice meets Yosemite, the Meekong Delta is Venice meets ... well, that's the thing, there's really nowhere I've been that I can compare it to, and that's saying something. I was going to say "Venice meets Mumbai" but that's not quite right. The Mekong Delta is poor, but it isn't (or at least doesn't seem to be) desperately poor the way Mumbai is. You can't walk ten paces in Mumbai without being accosted by beggars. We didn't meet any in the Mekong, nor in Saigon. There were plenty of poor people, but not one beggar.

These people live in conditions that in the U.S. would be considered apalling. They have no plumbing. Water for drinking and washing comes from rainwater collected in large galvanized steel tanks. The river is their bathroom. There is some electricity for light, but no heat or air conditioning. Most of the houses barely have walls. The riverbank is crammed wall-to-wall (as it were) with houses, many of which are built out over the water on pilings. Many live on boats with varying degrees of seaworthiness.

And yet there seems to be a thriving economy here. There's a bustling floating market with boats chock full of cocoanuts, pineapples, and various unidentifiable veggies. There is a thriving trade repairing the engines that these people use to power their boats. That anything made of metal survives in this climate is miraculous.

The boats on the Meekong are quite interesting in their own right. They range from small paddle-driven canoes to good-sized (50 foot or so) barges, but they all have distinctive eyes painted on to their bows. The motor-driven ones all use an ingenious outboard motor mechanism that consists of an engine -- any engine -- bolted on to a frame and connected via a chain or gear drive to a long (20-foot or so) shaft, at the end of which is a propeller. The entire assembly is mounted on a gimbal at the stern of the boat. It's very simple mechanically, and allows for easy repairs and interchange of parts, including whole engines. It also allows the propeller to be easily taken out of the water, which is important because the water is shallow and often clogged with water lilies.

We visited a factory that makes cocoanut candy. Actually, calling it a factory is being charitable. It's a shack with some picnic tables, and a few odds and ends. The most high-tech piece of machinery is a large stand mixer, which beats the candy mixture in batches of about a gallon at a time. The candy is processed and wrapped by hand one piece at a time. Actually, each piece is wrapped twice, once in edible rice paper, and then again in regular wrapping paper. This is because the candy is so sticky that you could not remove the wrapper if it were applied directly. A package of 40 pieces goes for $1.50, which is probably two or three times the actual going rate. And it is delicious. It's called Thang Phong coconut candy, and if you ever get a chance to try some I highly recommend it.

Today we went into Saigon proper, and to make a long story short, we ended up at the zoo. We didn't really plan on going there, it just kind of happened. It's a bit of a sad place, especially since we've been to Africa and seen a lot of these animals in their natural habitat. The elephants in particular were not happy campers. But on the other side of the coin, the herbivores actually looked happier and more content than they do in the wild, probably because they know they aren't on the buffet table.

The oddest thing we saw was in the reptile house. There was an exhibit that housed two enormous pythons and one rabbit. Yes, I know what you're thinking, the rabbit is lunch. But the rabbit didn't seem to think so. It was snuggled up against one of the snakes happily munching on a leaf. If this rabbit was in any danger it was utterly oblivious.

We left the zoo with just enough time to catch a taxi back to the ship. Fortunately, there were a bunch of cabs waiting at the main entrance. We got in one whose drive seemed particularly eager to have us aboard, and as soon as we got underway it became clear why this guy was hustling so hard for fares. His engine was shot. We trundled down the street for several blocks, being passed by all the other traffic (including the bicycles) before his engine finally died in the middle of the street. It took us several tense minutes to hail another cab, and happily we had better luck the second time around. I don't know what we would have done if we'd been in a less-travelled part of town.

More to tell but it will have to wait. The dinner gong is sounding.

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