Jungles and Rivers, Motorbikes of rusty metals and Sloops made of wood. Bamboo creeks and croaks under smooth breezes, terraced rice fields and rice farmers wear conical hats. Under a red flag in South East Asia is the emerging economy of Communist Vietnam. A country torn in two, torched under napalm rains, fields burnt to ashes atop black soils, she returns in fields of rich green golds, reunited, and flourishing. Vietnam is back.
Having many many names in history, Ho Chi Minh City in the seventeenth century was called Prey Nokor, a sea port, which was annexed to the Vietnamese and renamed Sai Gon. In 1862 after the French colonization, Sai Gon “the pearl of the far east” became one word spelled SaiGon. There are many versions of the correct etymology behind this beautiful modern city. Folklore tells that the city Prey Nokor was part of a dowry in the marriage between a beautiful Vietnamese princess and a Khmer prince to stop the pillaging of villages under the Khmer rule. Even though today its people commonly call it Saigon but in 1975 after “the fall of Saigon”(called by the south) or the “Liberation of Saigon”(called by the Communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam) the city was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City. Today, a lot has changed in Vietnam and Saigon but a lot has stayed the same. The gorgoeus landscapes of terraced rice fields and tall palms in the jungles and under the shadows of grand French architecture and modern high-rises are lush green city parks. Grand boulevards are adorned with posters of children smiling under the deceased iconic image of the north-vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
The weather was hot and muggy when I landed in Ho Chi Minh/
Saigon in the early afternoon in mid-December. I had only packed a book bag so I didn’t need to check any luggage or wait by the baggage claim. I headed straight through customs and out the front doors. Two large red flags flew from their staffs across the sky. In the middle of each piece of fabric is the bright communist yellow star. You could hear them blowing in the wind, cracking like leather belts under the winds’ changing direction. It was my first time in South East Asia and Vietnam. Many touts waited for unsuspecting tourists ,smoking cigarettes as they sat on the hoods of their cars. “tac-shee, tac-shee”, they said as they jumped in my face. I knew where I needed to go; the backpacker district, so I wasn’t completely over whelmed.
I grabbed a small tout in the parking lot. He seemed trustworthy in the fact that he did not jump in my face, no smile either. He grabbed my large blue travel pack off my back and slung it over his scrawny shoulders and began to march away. I followed behind him towards his tiny automobile.
I jumped in the back seat and prepared my cameras for the drive towards the backpackers district. The car hummed through the thoroughfares and down miniature streets, threading its way round roundabouts spewing smoke from its exhaust. The sound of the street sounded like a droning hive of wasps. Swarms of motorbikes careened through the streets like waves of bees on the wind. Intersections became chaos as all directions of roadway spilled into the intersections. Three to four people sat on top of the motorbikes and mopeds like circus freaks performing daredevil acts. Vietnamese Evil Knievals rode their motorcycles on long intersecting tightropes. The crowd gasps in anticipation. So fragile- one wrong move from anyone and the show would have come to an abrupt end! It was like a fuss burning at both ends. Vectors of bees and birds dropped seeds and fruit all over the city. The Roman candle burned down to it’s last ends and there was an explosion. Like dominoes bodies fell off their vehicles and spread outwards from the city towards the jungle. It was as the jungle and city were two great forces struggling for a breathe ,claustrophobic from such close proximity. Pushing against each other the dominoes came to rest only to be picked up and placed in lines again to be knocked over in organized chaos, nature and life at its most vulgar. .
As we drove I snapped away with my camera leaning out the window with curiosity. Dust from the street was whipped and spit into the air from exhaust and tire treads. The air was full of smoke and dust but my heart was full of excitement. My driver looked into his rearview mirror and in shock turned his head back towards me, “NO, NO SIR... Hands in Hands in”! He screamed startling me so much I pulled myself back into the cabin of the back seat as quickly as I could, I felt like i was a little kid being punished. Beginning to laugh, I had memories of long car rides with my parents, fighting in the back seat with my little sister. “I’ll turn this car around so fast your head will spin”, my father would say. “Do you want me to stop this car”. “No”, I would pathetically say. The driver was just warning me of street bandits that would grab my camera as they quickly sped by on motorbikes. And boy did they speed by.
The car jumped over potholes and careened around the street corners. My body shifted with each turn as I held on tight to the handle on the ceiling of the car. I kept looking into his rearview mirror to see my driver’s eyes at work, they twisted and jumped from side to side scanning the roads. He was busy working so I kept my mouth shut and began looking up towards the tops of buildings as we drove into the city and approached my destination.
The streets became more crowded and the power lines more overwhelming. Electrical wire hung like old defunct christmas lights from poles. Twisted in balls- they dangled loosely over the streets crackling from surges entering the transistors. I pictured large crowds walking in a monsoon under conical hats as they pushed their bicycles with baskets topped with fruits. Signs for cafes and bars attached to balconies above began sparking from the torrential rains. Large puddles formed on the streets and grew inch by inch. As hours passed the puddles transformed and morphed as part of the Saigon River. The fruit from the baskets and store fronts began to float freely across the streets. Crocodiles began to lazily slip through the flooded alleyways whipping their long reptilian tails in slow fluid movements. There was a thunderclap from the thick heavy clouds above. Lightning rode its way towards the Earth and struck electric poles snapping the jumbled wires from their perches. The wires in balls sparked and smoked into the air before hitting the water below. All the street lights went out among screams and gasps. Silence rained down on Saigon. As time slowly slipped by small lanterns were dropped onto the streams drifting past the illuminated bodies of the deceased. Seeds dropped by vectors across the city began to pierce the ground taking hold of soil. These seedlings began to grow at accelerated speeds as their branches and vines swiftly reached the edges of the jungle. The jungle was angry and became vicious as it took back the land that had been stolen from her many centuries ago. As days and years passed the tides subsided and civilization was gone, forever. As crude and obnoxious my daydreams were I began to like where I was. I had never been to such a wild and strange place. I liked the smell of the place, vietnamese Pho, noodles, and rice. I began to like the feel of it, I loved all the motorbikes-the absolute chaos in each intersection. I felt alive, giddy, and even a bit relaxed that I had grown some balls and finally made it to Saigon, a place I heard so much about when I was young but was too ignorant and stupid to listen. I should have known at that moment that such a wild and amusing place must have an evil side as well. No television special or history lesson could have prepared me for this. All I knew of Vietnam was the war, napalm, Charlie, protests, Apocalypse Now, Forrest Gump, and quotes like “me love you long time” from a prostitute in the Kubrick classic A Full Metal Jacket. I relished the fact that I was going to go home with something other than these preconceived ideas about a place. I truly knew nothing about Vietnam. I was on a great ride with wind in my hair and excitement in my belly, so I buckled up and went along for the adventure. The driver took me to this alleyway lined with hotels and plants down wet concrete walks. A man laid sleeping on the ground. Using a burlap bag as a pillow, he snored in drunkenness wrapped in torn dirty clothing. A couple meters further I entered the hotel doors and left my driver. He scampered away like a cat back to his car that was double parked a street over. There was a young women at the counter that spoke perfect english. I paid for a one night stay and she walked me upstairs towards my room. It was beautiful with a kingsized bed, crimson walls, a private bath, and balcony over the same street I had walked in on. I dropped my bags and leapt down the steps towards the street. It was my first night in Saigon and I had to see this place’s madness with my own eyes.
As I reached the white marble lobby there stood a young man with a heavy bag strapped to his back. Sweat ran down his face as he spoke to the woman at the counter. He looked towards me and said,”hello, first night here too?” “yes, i replied”. He put down his bag gestured to the women and looked in my direction again. “You have plans tonight”? “No, i said, just going to walk around, find a cafe and have a couple drinks”. “May I join you”, he said. “Sure thing”. I then lit a cig and waited for him to finish booking his room. He dropped his bags into his place and we then hit the streets with ferocity.
As we approached the district next to the hotel I started taking notice of the shops and vendors. Awnings with faded store signage hung pendulously over the cave openings that were fruit stands. I couldn’t see inside but under the coverings were large mesh bags full of coconuts and watermelon. Piles of nuts poured from the tops of wooden baskets onto the ground. I could smell lettuce, cabbage, and onions over the smell of exhaust. The owners sat on small blue plastic stools outside pleading with there eyes for a sale. Young girls peddled around selling cigarettes, toothpicks, q-tips, and cotton swabs on large rusty iron bicycles as they fought to keep balance of the machine. Older women walked around the streets asking for money as babies clung to their shoulders and breasts. There were shops full of artisans copying famous paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, and Cezanne and selling them for small prices. They were exacts- perfect copies but we call these forgeries where I come from. Small cafes lined the walks, their tables full of people covered the sidewalks and balconies above. Tourists from Germany, Britain, France, and Sweden sat smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and talking.
As day grew older the sun began to set on Saigon. I was hot and sweaty and needed a drink so we stopped walking and sat at a bar a couple streets down from the hotel. We sat outside at a table and perused the menu. There was a young vietnamese waitress that stood at the side of our table surveying the street as mopeds sped by. She crossed her arms over her long black silk dress. Standing at controposto, she twisted her head quickly sweeping her long straight black hair across her shoulder to her back. She tapped her right heel on the concrete. “What would you boys like”? she said with an Australian accent. “Two Saigon beers please”, I said dropping the menu onto the wooden table. I looked up at her and smiled. She smirked back at me, looked at my new friend, Norm with suspicion and swung her hair to the other side of her back and walked towards the kitchen.
“She must get a lot of perverts through here, huh”? Norm said. “old men who like little girls, man, crazy shit”. Our waitress came with our drinks and Norm stopped talking as he sat back in his chair. She put the icy cold bottles on the table and walked to another table to check on the other group of men who looked to be devising strange plans. Norm then began to tell me the problem with Southeast Asia and child prostitution. I knew pieces of this and about human trafficking but not to that level. “Some old western men come here on vacation to fuck little boys and girls, man. Sick stuff, messed up”. “WHAT????”, I replied, “I came here for a stop over before I went Cambodia. I’m heading there next. Making it all the way up to Siem Reap to Angkor. I never thought I would be around that type of stuff”. After that it seemed I had grown a weird suspicion about all that roamed the streets of Saigon. I began giving the evil eye to all older white men, asking myself the question, “why are they here?” Why were they here? Maybe to see the natural beauty of this place and experience a different raw culture. That’s why I came, so why can’t these people be that way too. I tried to remove my thoughts from such awful places and relax because I was on vacation.
Norm and I sat smoking our cigarettes and drinking beers in quiet for a bit longer as we watched the streets of Saigon. I felt like this place was fake, artificial and made of wax. I felt like I wasn’t even in my own body. I was part of a ridiculous fiasco of a reality T.V. show. What was real and what was show? Is Saigon kind and sincere or devious and sinful? There was this massive dichotomy of good and evil juxtaposed and comfortably united as one. Truth lingered in the air, but many questions had to be asked to find it. I didn’t have time to find the real Saigon. Strange that in one day you can fall in love with the way a place looks and then fall out of love because of something just below the surface. I sat back and finished up another beer and observed the show I had bought a ticket to see. Our waitress came back over to us and said, “you boys need anything else”? “no”, I said, but.... “excuse me, miss” “yes,sir”, she said”. “I’m sorry but I’m curious to find out,... how much money do you make working here”? She drew a small smile and rolled her eyes towards the ceiling to think. “60 dolla a month”. Shocked I asked another question, “Well, how much do you work?” “Everyday, sir”. “How many hours a day do you work”? I said. “12 hours a day, sir”. I was blown out of my chair. This poor girl works all those hours for that little money. How wrong, I thought. What is wrong with this world. “I’m saving up to go to Australia, I can’t wait”, she said, then scuffled towards her boss who was calling for her. Norm leaned over to me and said, “at least its honest money and she wasn’t sold off to become a whore”. “Jesus, man”, I responded, shocked. I tried to get that shit out of my mind but Norm felt like it was his job to bring it up again and throw it in my face. Human trafficking was big in the area, so I heard. It was due to the immense poverty. One women told me later on that she sat at an outside cafe on that same street during that same week. A women holding a toddler approached her trying to sell cigarettes or something. The lady handed her the baby to hold and then took off down the street. I can’t believe everything I hear but after only a day in Saigon I could believe that. The night was growing more mature so I looked towards Norm and decided it was time for me to turn in. I said my goodbye, paid my bill to the young Vietnamese waitress, and under buzzing electrical wires I headed back to the hotel. Lights out in Saigon 10:30. I woke early in the morning to a clamor outside of men repairing a building as they balanced on bamboo shoot scaffolding several stories above the alley. After packing my bag up I showered, dressed, and left the hotel to walk towards the outskirts of the district and catch my coach to Cambodia. It was a five hour trek to the border and a six to seven hour haul over potholed roads and a short bus on ferry ride over the Tonle Sap into the capitol city of Phnom Penh. I was giddy with excitement as I popped along the street with my heavy bag flung over my shoulder. When I arrived at the bus their was a small crowd of ragged vietnamese and cambodians waiting to board the bus. They as a group were well mannered but hygiene lacked as their clothes dangled from their torso like they had been mauled by a small bear. These people were all happy though, giddy as well, maybe as they smiled under clear skies and a hot morning sun. Time to go and we all boarded.