Return to Saigon
VIETNAM | Monday, 14 April 2008 | Views 
We dozed in the back of the shagged out 1940's bus for sleep definitely wasn't possible. Rumble, bump, rattle, and thump, all night long. As the first rays of dawn glimmered outside, I mentally forced myself out of the slumber, as stretching definitely wasn't possible, and said "Where are we?"
"About 12Km outside Saigon." came the reply.
Ha ha. That was funny. It then dawned on me that they weren't joking. We had been rattling around all night and were just 12Km outside Saigon. I could have walked faster.
That was the Saigon we visited seventeen years ago this month we arrived in Saigon as two young fit and healthy independent travellers and left six weeks later half starved and in rags.
By the end, in Hanoi, it really wasn't much fun. The U.S economic embargo was still in place, the country was desperate, and the people were the boniest, leanest, whippet like people we had ever seen.
Now, people here are getting fat, plain and simple. On a Sunday evening, when the entire city comes out to parade to itself, all you can see are plump baby boys struggling to support their own weight on their two chubby legs and lots of women jogging or power-walking around and around and around the park because they are obviously worried about how they are going to lose all this extra weight.
The communists only abandoned collective farming in 1976, with the country on the brink of starvation, and these days the Mekong Delta alone produces enough rice to feed the entire country. Back then it felt like a Communist country on the verge of collapse; these days ... well, the word Communist doesn't exactly spring to mind. It is just like any other dynamic, booming, creative, chaotic rapidly developing nation. So what does that term mean anymore I wonder?
In the Saigon of before, a great proportion of the people were simply living on the street literally. Not just a lot but a definite percentage. Hundreds of thousands. Morning Pho sellers, Cyclo drivers, women hawking their baskets of food. Now they have all gone, literally, all gone. The commercial world has now moved indoors which means the street sidewalks are less full of the detriuse of such living which means you can now actually walk along the boulevards without tripping over geese, people peeing, families cooking and all the other wonderful memories from that time.
While this actually makes it more possible with children than Hanoi, which was a surprise, it just isn't quite so ... pungent as it used to be.
There are far fewer beggars, just a few (mainly male amputees) now. Even Riu said "That man has no legs". Two years ago you could see him thinking it, now it is much more explicit. We generally have a policy of not giving to beggars, especially children, as I've always believed it perpetuates the system.
But sometimes ...
A boy of about six, shoeless and grimy in ragged clothes begging for some spare cash with his hat as we with our two boys of a very similar age sit in luxury eating iced cream ... how can you not feel, when faced with that?
No closer to the truth.
(We did give to some, usually the amputees and old people, but preferred to do so through our own children, hopefully instilling some sense of humility and humanity in so doing.)
Crossing the roads here has become a real skill, although in some ways it looks more daunting than it actually is since the sheer volume requires that everything move slooooowly, so any collision is going to be low-impact. You sort of shuffle across and let the riders avoid you rather than try anything the other way around. Another trick I discovered is not actually LOOK at anything, but just try to use your peripheral vision to look everywhere at the same time. (trust me, it works).
The Government has just passed a law requiring people to wear helmets when on their daily suicide missions to cross the city by motorbike and brain trauma has apparently declined by 85% since it's introduction.
Cholon bus station is still there, despite reports to the contrary, but now is is sealed tarmac instead of a dusty potholed yard and all the busses are new, instead of the range of Mad Max like machinery that passed for transport 17 years ago: 1940's Renault vans, vast 1950's Cadillacs with rusted chrome tailfins and carrying half a village plus geese.
Before, High school girls in Ao Dai's gliding elegantly past on their bicycles with gleaming smiles and easy laughs like bright white elegant swans, which, for what must have been a sweaty activity on such dusty pot-holed roads, was a huge feat. All gone it seems as these days their smiles are well hidden behind the face masks needed to avoid suffocation on the exhaust fumes.
No doubt a country that is better off and more efficient, but ... well, it just isn't quite so breath-taking.
Tags: beggars, ho chi minh, memories, saigon, traffic, travel with children