Photos to accompany the post from 04/07/2012 about arriving in Saigon by boat.
We arrived at the mouth of the Saigon River early in the morning, after sailing for two nights and a day from Singapore. The trip from the South China Sea to the dock takes over a few hours. One must fight the current and sail slowly. Fortunately, I was not in a hurry and slow speed allowed me to study the passing scenery.
As they have for centuries (most likely), fisherman anchor their boats in the current and trap unwary fish in flowing nets. Not much work is involved, beyond pulling in the nets. Ocean-going trawlers must have learned the principle from such early pioneers of mining rivers or seas. The boats make an interesting motif.
For much of the trip, thick vegetation lines the banks. I’m reminded of stories from the war, when snipers harassed shipping. This was a true example of home turf advantage. Somewhere hidden from view must have been a nouc mam (fish sauce) "factory", because the familiar odor immediately brought back memories of my last vista to Vietnam. This odor pervades daily life and is unmistakable. Production always takes place far from urban areas due to its pungent odor.
At one point, sounds birds filled the air. Looking closely, I could vaguely discern small birds flying into or out or concrete multi-story structures with nothing but small holes in their walls. These buildings must house birds, but I could guess no purpose, since the birds were so small--to small to eat and too small to produce eggs worth eating. Only later did I guess that this might be production of ingredients for bird’s nest soup, but this was only I guess.
At about fifty miles, the first glimpse of Saigon’s skyline became visible. It seem so near, yet we would need a few more hours to reach the city. The river twisted and turned, offering us views in all directions. No signs of war were visible at any point, nor was there any evidence of Vietnamese military. People went about their business on both banks, with activity increasing as we got closer to the city. Shipping industries predominated.
I am certain that a second or third trip would be equally interesting, because life on this river is so varied and changing.
My strongest memory of Saigon and environs will be of traffic. Not traffic like in Bangkok, which does not move. In Vietnam, motor cycles/scooters predominate...when not being bullied by cars, trucks, or buses. The country has a population of 88 million: there are 40 million motor bikes. A significant of them fill the streets of Saigon at all hours. Later, I will provide a photo album of how these two-wheeled vehicles are used (or abused). I believe that the principle is, if it moves and does not fall over, then it is okay to drive. After spotting one Vespa with three adults and two children (one child on the handle bars and one on the back of the rear adult), I imagined a new Disney ride to thrill Americans.
Street vendors fill sidewalks, offering everything from food to shoe repair. This lowers overheads and increases profit, because there is not rent and, perhaps, a chance to avoid taxes. From the number of stands selling inner tubes, flat tires must be rampant.
The guide explained that diabetes is an increasing problem, because the Vietnamese people love sweets and do not exercise. One spots many recumbent bodies, on sidewalks or in hammocks. Tables at roadside restaurants feature tables with chairs and hammocks. One tour visited a lacquer workshop, where we learned the various works stages. The workmanship is exquisite and the end=product remarkable. But, at one work station all I spotted was the workers feet, because he was asleep on the floor under his table and oblivious to the foreign tour group. Foreigners probably label Vietnamese as lazy, but I see them as saving energy for something important. After all, it is very hot and humid.
I wanted to avoid references to the war and view daily life as it is at present. The tour guide explained that Vietnamese respect Americans; children want to learn English; and people want to work in the United Sates. The dollar is more welcome than local currency.
They are proud of driving the military from their land, but do not hold a grudge against the American people. There are displays about the war at the Reunification building, which was the presidential palace, but there was no polemic. I found the explanation of history to be rather balanced, where a more hateful approach would have been understandable. The only negative tone was the when the guide mentioned the millions of Vietnamese deaths vs. 55,000 American deaths, and the millions killed or deformed by Agent Orange. It is impossible not to sympathize with the guy and be embarrassed about suffering imposed by one’s government on innocent people.
Although some might not agree, I find Vietnam more interesting because of foreign domination. The Chinese controlled the country for 1000 years, which left an impact. The French ruled the land for roughly 100 years, which left architecture, Christianity, and the baguette. The Japanese were here for 5 years and are not remembered fondly, but their money is now welcomed. Americans messed around for 21 years, leaving a love of consumerism and the dollar. All tourists and investments are welcome. Importing most of the bad features of the United States, the rich are getting richer and the poor are becoming poorer. That said, it’s easier to be poor in Vietnam...
I arose early to watch the trip up the Saigon River. The sun was already up by the time I got to the top deck. After the vast expanse of the South China Sea, the mouth of the river appeared small. My first thought, as I watched the river banks pass by was the ease of concealment for anyone wishing to shoot at a boat, something quite common a few decades ago. Next, life on the river is so different from life in the West. The river provides a home for many and the sustenance they need to survive.
On the South China Sea, I imagined the aggravation of tacking against the wind on an easterly voyage with a westerly wind. In addition to that, there was no air-conditioning for passengers. I do no know how sailing boats made it up the river to Saigon. Our ship had to buck the current for about 50 miles to reach Saigon. It is not a coastal city, rather surrounded by rice fields, jungle, and Mekong tributaries. As one nears the metropolitan area, buildings of all shapes and sizes increase. Shipping industries predominate, but also strange structures in which birds are farmed. Life on and beside the river is varied and bustling.
The river winds back and forth in a typical oxbow fashion, so one is offered views in all compass directions. The city appears on the right side of the ship (starboard for you pedants), and then the left (port). The banks present a changing melange of Vietnamese life.
Even from a distance, it’s obvious that Saigon is a city that has evolved and is growing. A skyline has grown from a fairly low-rise city of my last visit. Building cranes dot the horizon. But, from the ship one still spots only limited views of life on the ground. The ship arrives at a dock in the middle of the city, not far from the center. A banner has been hung with the words “Welcome to Vietnam”. They are surely happy to have more tourists bring money to boost the local economy. Girls wearing an ao dai (the traditional dress) wave and release balloons. It is a better welcome than I received last time, when no Vietnamese was there to greet me.
Next to our ship on the river, a Russian missile cruiser is docked. There is not welcome sign and I spotted no young girls. But, I'm sure that the souvenir shops and restaurants are happy to accept money from the visiting sailors. Of course, I find it interesting to be parked next to the former enemy in a land that
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.