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Chaos, beauty, glory (Saigon)

Fine Arts Museum

We knew within 2-3 hours that we loved Saigon.  Like any big city in Asia, there is a certain degree of chaos that comes from the intensity of concentrated humanity.  Saigon is a very modern city, and it’s buzzing with activity.  The traffic, particularly, seems crazy.  Drivers in Cambodia were fairly sedate, but in Saigon they drive much faster and seem less courteous.  A few major intersections have traffic lights, but most don’t.  To get through, you must employ a mixture of pushing in (because you’d never get anywhere if you didn’t) and giving way.  Crossing the road has been a bit hairy – pedestrian crossings painted on the roads don’t register with motorists at all!  On our first day we were too scared to cross busy roads by ourselves, so we had to wait until a local came along so we could stick to them like glue.  But we’ve adapted surprisingly quickly.  It takes a bit of guts – basically you have to do your best to cut through the gaps, and the rest of the time, trust that the oncoming traffic will swerve to avoid hitting you.  Apparently, Hanoi is even worse (Mum, try not to worry!).

Interestingly, despite the obvious greater wealth of Vietnam, we’ve found it significantly cheaper to travel here than in Cambodia.  We can eat a full dinner for around 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $5 US), and take air-conditioned taxi’s all around the city for around $1-2 US.  Our entry fee to the Fine Arts Museum was 10,000 Dong each (that’s US 50c).  There’s been no trouble sticking to our budget here.

The state of the power lines in Asia continue to fascinate me (on D Bui Vien)

Saigon is often very beautiful.  It has lovely green parks, sculptures, and amazing buildings (old and new).  We loved visiting the Fine Arts Museum – I took more photos of the building itself than of the artworks though.  The Vietnamese presentation of recent history in artworks produced since the 1970s seemed quite propagandist in tone, depicting the ‘glories’ of the US-Vietnam war – benevolent Uncle Ho, brave soldiers, and the triumphant reunification of North and South Vietnam on April 29th, 1975.  The displays at the War Remnants Museum produced similarly mixed feelings for me.  Photographs of brutalities against civilians and deformed children (due to the generational effects of exposure to Agent Orange) were truly awful.  But there was no hint of what the Khmer Rouge did to their own people, and having just come from Cambodia, I think it’s important to emphasise that 1975, the year of Vietnamese reunification, was also the year that Khmer Rouge supported Pol Pot to power in Cambodia.

But what would a ‘balanced’ point of view look like, if it was indeed possible?  History is always from some particular point of view.  The best attempt was a display of photographs from over 100 photo-journalists killed during the war. These photos were hugely compelling, depicting dirt and blood, the pain, terror and exhaustion of soldiers, a devastating war of attrition set against beautiful landscapes.  One photo in particular has stuck in my mind – a US soldier with his head down, weeping, following a day of severe losses to their side.  I don’t know why we do such things to ourselves and each other.

At the Fine Arts Museum – a very old, beautiful building

At the Fine Arts Museum, posing nonchalantly as per Colin’s direction.  This painting is by a contemporary Vietnamese artist who is a recognised master in lacquer-on-wood painting.  Up close, you can see that the lacquer technique results in a real sense of depth on the wooden surface – quite lovely.

Escaping the heat at a lovely inner city park. Saigon isn’t as hot as Cambodia, but it’s still very warm. We can manage about an hour walking around in the heat before we have to seek out an iced tea or icecream

Notre Dame cathedral – Buddhism is the predominant religion by far, but 7% of the population is Catholic

The beautiful Central Post Office is a tourist attraction in its own right

Apartment block on D Bui Vien, the vibrant backpacker area where we have spent most of our time

In general, we’ve found that people here aren’t quite as friendly as in Cambodia.  But this doesn’t mean that we haven’t met some lovely people, such as this guy who helped us catch the right bus to Cholon Markets. Colin’s tattoos continue to get heaps of attention wherever we go, opening up opportunities to talk – even if sign language is all that both sides can manage!

And the food is sooooo good – this is Pho – the ubiquitous beef noodle soup


  1. ALAN

    Hi Chez and and Col, Show us some modern stuff, Not all history, HaHa

  2. Kerry

    Always the sociologist (war and history, cultural contrast and the everyday life of crossing the street) – well almost, there’s quite a bit of a tourist in there as well.
    But the emphasis on food and food photos appears to have lightened – what’s the problem? We’re largely reading this for the food commentary, you know. And you’re doing it for the food memories surely?

    • chezmaree

      Hmmm Kerry, what’s with this collective “we”? I do have many non-foodie readers you know! I never intended for the blog to focus on food, which is why the subtitle is what it is. I only mention food or include a food photo in the blog when we’ve eaten something really amazing. We’ve had plenty of mediocre food, as well as lots of times when food is simply about convenience and functionality. I’ve also had several bouts of nausea when I can only stomach fruit or stir-fried veges. Having said this though, the food (and my appetite) just gets better and better in Vietnam. In fact, there is a special post brewing that focuses exclusively on food…if you can wait that long 🙂
      Chez (proud to be a sociologist!)

  3. Warwick Tie

    Just loving the blog: beautiful commentary to match the photos. You might be interested to hear that a big tornado dropped down into Albany today, ripping roofs off the mall and shopping centre, throwing cars about and into PnSave, killing two and injuring a couple of dozen others. It didn’t cross the road to the campus, stopping instead at the traffic lights. The twister kills then respects the road rules??? 😐

    • chezmaree

      Thanks Warwick! We were very interested to hear about the tornado – what a freak event. Poor NZ, it’s not having a good run at the moment. Thanks for filling us in – we’re not exactly keeping up with current events (almost missed Bin Laden, and Kate Middleton’s dress).

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