I am sitting late in the afternoon at a wrought-iron table outside our hotel, eating the great treasure I obtained at the local market — one piece of perfectly ripe durian. I can’t bring it into the hotel due to its strong distinctive odor and everyone who passes by knows what I am eating. In front of me, scores of motorcycles zoo toward their destination every second, each with a rider or two, most with helmets and the occasional child tucked between two parents.
This treat was at the end of a busy day, starting with a many hour walk around the old central heart of colonial Saigon: from City Hall to the Opera House, two examples of French era architecture, and then up to the city cathedral of Notre Dame which is across the street from the French built post office. This still functioning post office appears to be a microcosm of the current economic thinking: government control and private business interests working closely together. There are standard postal services, including places for phone calls, wires, stamps and mailing options — but in every free square feet of space there is a small merchant selling souvenirs, fancy postcards or textiles. And outside on the ground leading to the building, there are many women selling their various wares geared toward the many tourists.
The Vietnamese Communist Party, which we are told restricts any negative comments about the government including on Facebook, and greatly lowers the speed of the internet in the weeks leading up to a major election, appears to support the entrepreneurial spirit which has created the healthy economy we find in Vietnam today. Religion is discouraged and consequently shoes must stay on when entering this temple dedicated to the Great Emperor.
While our group spends an hour in the War Remnants Museum, providing a painful look into the atrocities of the past, I walked around the neighborhood, once an area of large family homes. Small and large restaurants are packed together next to prosperous looking businesses and very small stalls selling basic services. There is no effort at urban planning, with structures of different sizes and shapes packed net to each other, and in front of each a piece of broken up sidewalk, often with parked motorcycles blocking any pedestrian walkway and sometimes even doorway entrances.
The whole group sits at a small counter in Ben Thanh market, a traditional covered market with many cooking crowded stalls selling everything imaginable from fresh fish to fine jewelry. We choose our lunch, from various form of noodle dishes to bahn mi sandwiches. I have a vegetarian banh xeo, a rice crepe with tofu inside, wrapped with lettuce and various mint and basil leaves.
The group has an afternoon off and some people relax, read, have massages, continue shopping. Jeanne E. and I take a taxi to the Southern Women’s Museum, an interesting government project, with free admission, displaying the history of the Vietnamese traditional women’s dress, the Ao Day, the various kinds of textile weaving done by local indigenous groups in this country, and an homage to the women who took on responsible positions during the great revolution in the last half of the 20th century. We walk home, dodging cars as we cross crowded streets, through a park preparing for a Tet celebration, and are grateful to return to an air conditioning hotel.
Bill, Jeanne and I walk to a very fine high-end vegetarian restaurant where we sit in a beautiful serene environment and eat fabulous food. It was a strange contrast — the chaos outside on the streets, with motorbikes racing on sidewalks and cars speeding shoulder to shoulder, the din of engines and smells from small food stalls that permeate the air – and the serenity of our restaurant with world-class vegetarian food.