I had breakfast in Hanoi – sticky rice with dried squid from the old lady who sets up shop outside my former apartment – and lunch in Saigon. (Fried noodles with shrimp and veggies.) Sometimes plane travel is wonderful. I could have taken a train or a bus down the coast of the country, jumping on and off at my heart’s desire, but I’m tight on time. So I boarded a plane at 10:30am and two hours later I was hoofing it out of the Tan Son Nhat Airport.
It only took three hours of loafing on the main backpacker stretch for me to rent a motorbike, despite the goal I’d set for myself to spend most of this trip walking or cycling. Sure, I had no idea how to get around this new city, but armed with some basic Vietnamese, a familiarity with motorbikes, and two beers’ worth of bravado, I felt confident enough. I picked up a map of the city and set on my way. I didn’t get lost between the centre of town and my couchsurfing host’s neighbourhood even once, but the apartment complex itself proved baffling and Rebekka had to collect my sorry ass from the side of the road. To my credit, there were at least fifteen towers in the ‘Skygarden Village’.
Saigon’s much different from Hanoi, but it would take ages to detail them all: language, food, general demeanour, architecture, etc. Suffice to say Hanoi has weaseled its way into my being enough that I found Saigon uncannily quiet despite its size (they don’t honk!) and I fully gawked at women with cigarettes between their fingers and beers held to their lips.
The highlight of my 42 hours in Saigon were the people I met: one an old friend, and a handful new.
Mark and I reunited, almost three years to the day since we first met in Hue over pints at a place called Thu’s cafe. There are people with whom friendships persist no matter the time spent apart. This is what it’s like with Mark and catching up helped soften the pain of saying goodbye to Nick just hours before.
We spent a fair amount of time just chatting and drinking beer. Mark’s tenure in Saigon was coming to an end, so he had a farewell gathering that reflected his generosity of spirit and carefree attitude; there were no less than a couple dozen people who stopped by to see him off. We spilled out into the streets of the guesthouse/bar he had called home and the sweet couple who run it were slinging beer with ferocious speed. The family’s grandmother may have escaped in all the commotion; Mark tells me that she’s senile and likes to wander down the street, thinking she’s still running a restaurant wherever she ends up. They have to go collect her on occasion.
Mark also introduced me to Duane, an Australian who has lived in Nha Trang for a while now but was spending some time in Saigon. He was a pleasure to chat with since I quickly realized he was well read and we share a similar set of politics. Dairy farming, ecology, Palestine, a prospective English teacher’s union, citrus farms, anti-labour sentiment in the West: we covered all of these topics with an enthusiasm I don’t often muster.
I also spent an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. The Agent Orange exhibition was enraging, as any reminder of Monsanto’s cruelty is (not to mention the American military). And the French prison replica on the museum grounds seemed eerie at the time, but it pales in comparison to Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge prison I visited in Phnom Penh. More on that later.