A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

That is “Happy New Year!” in Vietnamese. Once again, we’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a major national observance. It is the Chinese New Year on February 14th this year that marks the beginning of what is called Tet. Where families reunite all over the country and then go on vacation. It has stopped us dead in our tracks in Ho Chi Minh City for the near future. For several days all businesses shut down and for the next week travel and hotels are triple the cost. Just our luck. So we have decided to stay put in the capital city, still known to the locals as Saigon.

Since we had only one day to sight-see before Tet began, we did a walking tour that included the Reunification Palace, where a tank crashed the gates in 1975 portending the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army. The entire palace is preserved as it was in that era of history and walking the hallways is like going back in time. The cool sixties style offices and meeting rooms are overshadowed by the basement, turned war room, where retro phones sit atop metal desks and ancient electronics are stacked. Ron was in a photo candy store.

On the way back from browsing at the famous Ben Thanh Market we saw a beggar in the street. So often, we ignore all the panhandlers, quicken our pace, pretending to be engrossed in conversation like we can’t be bothered. But this man was filthy, limbless, his face severely burnt almost melted away. In our effort to not look we both did, and then stopped 15 feet afterwards. Ron said, “If there is ever a person that could use a little help…”. I asked him if he wanted to go back, but he said he couldn’t. It was that disturbing. When you are faced with someone dealing with total physical wreckage you are humbled in your gratefulness for your fortune, yet frozen by dread and utter repulsion. Like you can’t get far enough away fast enough.

If this trip has taught me anything it is to not hesitate. Don’t delay on your life. Do the things you always wanted to, and do the things that you think you should do, if not for anything but your own sense of peace for never living in a world full of “what ifs“. I decided to go back. I gave him 100,000 dong, what is equivalent to about 5 bucks, and I looked him straight in the eye and smiled. He smiled back and we connected for a split second in what I can only describe as a pure exchange between two human beings. I wished him a happy new year, and was gone, but it’s one of those moments that I won’t soon forget.

We were lucky to meet up with our pals Jay & Corina again before they headed off to Japan. We celebrated the new year (again) and struggled through the massive crowds to see the fireworks display over the river.

My favorite are the sparkling gold ones that twinkle into a million pieces of glitter The blasts were so close overhead that ash floated from above, singeing off your eyelashes. We walked back to our hotel, the un-notable Red Sun, in a sea of people, moving like a leisurely lava flow through the wide boulevards.

To escape the heat and pass the days in the virtual ghost town of Saigon, we went to Dam Sen Waterpark for some fun in the sun. The waterslides were wildly steep and fast, and nothing short of dangerous. It was the first time I actually felt afraid at a waterpark. There were slides I just wouldn’t do. One, we nicknamed “The Vomitron” involved a precipitous descent in a tube, ending in a conical sphere where you would spin around inside from centrifugal force before being ejected out the bottom into a pool below. It was almost obscene. Being squeezed out the underside into the water, like a giraffe giving birth. But funny, was watching all the Vietnamese (there were only a handful of foreigners at the park) get up disoriented and dizzy, stumbling drunkenly towards the ladder out of the pool. And thankfully off the The Vomitron. Jay was the bravest, taking on slides that made the rest of us shrink away. More my speed, was lazing in the lazy river, although crowded and boisterous with all the locals on holiday, it was an experience to be at a theme park overseas. Overall, it was a thoroughly splendid day.

Although we sampled a lot of interesting Vietnamese food wrapped in lettuce leaves and topped with questionable sauces, we really craved a really good hamburger. I googled the area, and lo and behold, there was a joint called Black Cat that claimed the “best burger in the world”. An hour later, and we were salivating over the menu. Expectedly, Ron wanted to try and eat the The Big Cheese burger, a whopping 500 grams of beef served on a bun the size of a dinner plate. Instead of the usual, free meal if you finish it, the only reward for ingesting this artery clogger was a picture on the wall. At $13.95, the upside did not outweigh the heartburn. I ordered the Zurich burger and it actually was the best burger in the world. I’m not kidding! I mmm’ed after each delectable bite of beef patty, cheddar cheese, carmelized onions, and barbeque sauce enveloped harmoniously by an onion roll. Needless to say, we went back a couple days later for a repeat. Unfortunately the rapture was not replicated.

Crossing the street here is an exercise in blind faith and narrow escape by motorbike collision. There are over 3 million scooters in Saigon, one for every man, woman and child over 15. Imagine a city with hundreds of scooters whizzing by in both directions (and random vectors) between you and the other side of the street. Our natural inclination was to head to the nearest traffic light and crosswalk. Although rare in their occurrence, they do exist, but to laughable effect. Green does not mean go. There is no such thing as right of way. And you, a mere pedestrian, will get run over if you haven’t your wits about you at all times. In these parts, the size of your ride determines who rules the road. First come buses and trucks, then cars, scooters, cyclos, bicycles and lastly poor Ron and Alison, haplessly stranded on the wrong side of the road.

The first time we crossed, we latched on to two locals, shadowing their every movement. I crushed Ron’s hand as we inched forward into the chaotic flow of traffic. Every step or so, we’d stop for a rushing blur of bikes to pass, before our next tentative footfall. The dizzying lights and proximity of metal, made you feel like you were inadvertently trapped in one of those circus attraction cages of death. What seemed like an hour in only a matter of minutes, we were out of the pandemonium and in to a pleasant looking park bedecked by acres of glorious flowers for the new year. A bushel of which Ron bought me for Valentine’s Day. The hotel gave us a plastic bucket to put them in, not exactly a silver vase from the W, but it was the sweetest surprise.

This is the year of the Tiger, which influences major changes and social upheaval. I can’t imagine this next year bringing any more change then we have been experiencing but we’ll see. There’s always tomorrow and another near miss with the deadly SCOOTER.


corina March 19, 2010 at 6:52 PM  

we look much too normal in this nye photo!

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