This city reminds me of Bangkok – it’s hot, it’s humid, and it seems to be filled with people who are always in a rush to get somewhere. Pay for dinner and the waiter barely has time to glance at you. Probably not a place I’d like to spend a lot of time personally, but then again this is only my first impression and I don’t speak the language or really understand the culture. It’s highly developed and fashionable although it doesn’t exude the same effortless style and finesse of Hanoi. Filled with markets and vendors of all kind, apparently everything is for sale here and you better bring your bargaining skills. Vietnamese people are savvy salesman and expert bargainers – no joke, shopping in Vietnam is tough if you don’t know the language. In one shop on a busy street I’m struggling to get a fake pair of North Face shorts for less than twice what I know they actually cost. The tags on the shorts are in Chinese and surely came from Guangzhou. This is what happens when you’re caucasian and you don’t speak Vietnamese, but start at 30-40% of the ticketed price on something in a market or small shop, especially if it’s anywhere near a tourist site.
While I was in Saigon I stopped at the American War memorial site. It’s a condensed museum which recalls all the tragedy of the American occupation and its engagement with the North Vietnamese. If you go, prepare to leave with a heavy heart as you’re emotionally bombarded with photographs of dismembered children, tortured Vietnamese prisoners, napalmed villages, and gruesome casualties and collateral damage. Seeing it from the Vietnamese perspective is fascinating and something I recommend though as this is a war which has been heavily propagandized by the United States. As many American casualties as there were (a virtual mountain of bodies), it is nothing compared to the losses that the Vietnamese saw – 40% of which were innocent men, women, and children who died unimaginable deaths. The memorial was a painful but rewarding experience.
I found an incredible massage school at the intersection of Phan Ngu Lao and Cong Quynh in District 1. Walking on the street I saw a courtyard that looked like a kung fu training school which turned out to be a well known blind massage location. The building was two stories high, concrete, freshly painted white, and had “enfance espoir” written on the front wall. Inside there are two massage areas, one for men and one for women, and a 60 minute massage runs you just under $3. Even for me this is really cheap – typically massages in this region will never get cheaper than that. As it turns out the massage was great as well, but awkward at first when the blind guy tugged at my shorts, trying to communicate that I’m supposed to take off my shorts and lie on the table covered by a towel. The guy had a slightly ghostly appearance (go figure, blind people) but was as friendly as could be and gave a good massage. Vietnamese massage is slightly noisier than Thai or Laotian varieties, a lot of chop-like hand movements on the back which in rapid succession result in a clapping sound. After the massage I discreetly handed him a big tip for being such a nice guy, trying not to let the cashier with functioning eyes see me. There was a bit of fumbling involved in that gesture. This massage place isn’t just an office for these people, they live there and are cared for by people who run the business.