Sunday, November 12, 2006

Saigon Stories

Oct 10-11

I'm finally back home and can access my main blog site. I can also access that post I started writing in the first week, so here's back to the beginning of the trip. I've still got quite a few stories so you'll see more and more throughout the next few weeks.

Making Friends

There I was, second day in Saigon, trying to figure out what to do. I woke up in the morning and saw the rain pouring out of the gray sky and reminded myself that this IS the rainy season. I walked out of the hotel with an umbrella, though it seems only tourists (and a small number at that) use umbrellas. Considering the everyone-has-a-motorcycle culture, umbrellas are not really relevant. Everyone has a rain parka made out of plastic. There are single-use ones to buy for very cheap. These are made of the same material as a convenience store plastic bag. Others have more permanent ones. The only exceptions to the rule were some women that were walking around with the canonical hats so specific to Vietnam.

Once I started walking it took me exactly 60 seconds to understand I'd much rather wait out the rain. This was two store fronts away from the hotel, right next to a tourist restaurant that had both European and Vietnamese food. The waitress flagged me and I decided the rain has had enough of me for now.

I sat there and read the menu while the waitresses discussed me in detail and took my picture on their camera phone. Then one of the older ones asked if I was married and told the others in Vietnamese that they should take care of me. Then I was invited to go out on the town with one of the younger girls (Toui - see picture) once she's off work at 3p.

The Rickshaw Driver

While sitting in that restaurant, a rickshaw driver had me in his sights. A driver is a misnomer since these rickshaws are like extended bicycles with a seat in the front. The driver sits in the back and drives you by pedaling.
I kept insisting that I'm too heavy, but he was determined. He got me into the rickshaw (an experience in itself) and we valiantly set out to site-see Saigon. Check out the driver and rickshaw in this picture:

To his credit, he even smoked from time to time while pedaling me across the city.
We saw a number of pagodas, a lot of traffic and the electronics market (since I needed earphones). Most striking though was the Notre Dame cathedral in Saigon.

Pay close attention to the close-up of the statue and what the woman is holding in her hands.

Yes! It's the Holly Hand Grenade of Antioch from Monthy Python's Quest for the Holy Grail!

The trip was about 2 hours, though we made stops every 15 minutes or so for me to see something or walk around some site. At the end, I asked him to drop me in the fine arts museum. They had some really nice photos though some atrocious paintings. Apparently state-controled...

Glimpsing Vietnam through A Karaoke Machine

In the afternoon I went on my date with the waitress. After a brief lunch and some walking around town, we decided to go for Karaoke. We got into a cab where she proceeded to have a long ("unrelated topic") conversation with the driver, then told him we're looking for a karaoke bar. He said he'll take us to a cheap one and my suggestion of going to a good one instead was lost in translation.

He dropped us off in some neighborhood away from the center, where only locals go and so the prices are lower. The building we entered was a kind of community center for the local youth. The corridor started off with a kiosk on the right hand side, then on our left was a gym were boys and young men were pumping iron. The windows of the gym were open into the corridor to allow for some air circulation and the smell of sweat permeated everything. Then on our right was a small bar with a single waitress and no clients and an internet cafe were some boys were killing each other over the network and some girls were chatting.

I was back in Saigon. Toui and I went to that same Karaoke once more and I got the entrance pointlessly videoed for you.

Toui asked the waitress to open the Karaoke room for us. It turned out to be a room at the end of the corridor, about 2x5 meters (6x15 feet). On one side was a rounded couch with a place for 6 people and a broken table at the center. On the other side of the room was a television with a karaoke machine. We were the only ones there. They got the microphones out for us and asked what we wanted to drink.

We proceeded to butcher songs left and right, me in English, she in Vietnamese. For those of you who haven't used this style karaoke machine before, this is a machine where if you sneeze next to the microphone the sound goes through filtration to remove noise, then echo and reverb effects are added and tone corrections are applied to add volume and presence to your sneeze. What comes out is a very professional Achoo, worthy of the best performers out there. While I don't know how well Toui was singing, the machine tried to rate us after every song. Her numbers started low and climbed while I started high with beginner's luck and never managed to replicate it.

The machine would also tell us how well we did in words, from "wonderful singing!" and "Great!" to the somewhat ambiguous "You are a singer". Aren't we all?

While we were singing, the TV would show scenes from all over vietnam. For me it was a great way to see the islands of Halong Bay and the sampans of the Mekong Delta while singing "New York New York". Once in a while, an ad for the local phone company would fly by near the stalactites of a famous cave.

While I left the next day to go to Dalat (motorcycle blogs), I kept receiving SMS messages from Toui. Mostly: Are you eating? What did you do today? Wake up! and so on.

Buying Threads

Back in Saigon after a few weeks, I re-enacted (search for "thread") a scene I’ve done in other countries – buying embroidery threads for my mother (Hi mom!). Armed with an interpreter, since I can say thread in Hebrew, English and Spanish but for the life of me wouldn’t be able to explain what it is to a Vietnamese vendor at the market, I went shopping.

It took a bit to explain to Toui what it was I was looking for but once she understood, she took charge. We went to the more-touristy market but could only find a few threads – they only had blue, red, green, and yellow. I was looking for many more colors than that.

We found it at our next stop – the central market in China Town. You can find anything you need here and indeed we found threads. It took a while to explain that I want all the colors they have and three from each color, but at least they weren’t as unbelieving as their Guatemalan counterparts (you’d have to read that story in my old blog here). There was also no issue doing the math for how much it costs.

Here’s the seller with all the 81 colors she was able to find:

That’s it for now. Next time, stories of what happened after the motorcycle blog.

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