Just up ahead
It doesn't matter what
Everyone is looking for
They'll never find it 'cause
It's not even there
- Hayden, Dynamite Walls
I always liked those lines because I think they pretty much sum it up. Some might think they are sort of depressing - leaving you with a feeling that there's really no purpose in life, but I think the message is more that it is the journey that is important, and not any of the destinations.
This is what I was thinking as we landed in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon or HCMC) on one of our last flights for a while. The other thing in my head was the theme from M.A.S.H. Yeah, I realise that the setting for that great show was Korea, but every time Hawkeye wanted a "three day pass", it was always to go to Saigon. So there you go. Saigon on the brain.
At first glance, the place is just sheer chaos. After all this is the world capital of motorbikes, and all you hear is the incessant drone of a billion tiny little engines going all day and all night, everywhere. It's amazing really how many of the things are on the streets, and even more amazing is that they don't run into each other! Crossing the street is another matter entirely, and here more than anywhere, the "keep your pace and direction" rule applies in spades. They all just move around you. However, you really feel like you're jumping off a bridge as you step out into traffic. The other trouble is that some of the boulevards are really wide and there are these gigantic traffic circles where the entire road is packed from side to side with the things. When the stop light is red, it looks like the start of some giant motocross race - you know, the ones you see in stadiums where they bring in piles of dirt.
Many people told us about Ho Chi Minh before we came here, and most said they liked the north of the country more than the south. That's the direction we are headed, but I have to say, Saigon is pretty cool. It has a really neat backpacker vibe sort of like Khao San Road in Bangkok, but things here seem just a little quirkier, with just a little more real life. We set out today on a walking tour of the city to check out some of the local markets and the war history that is so pervasive in this country. We quickly learned that the Vietnamese are hard bargainers, and you really have to just walk away for the price to move. When you don't buy, they give you a look as though you are the antichrist or something (some of them really are Christian) which is all part of the guilt game to try and make you come back. Eventually though, after you test the market here and there, you will generally find a better price for things. So, I bought myself a red T-shirt with a big yellow star in the middle - the Vietnamese flag - for just over a dollar. Sure it's a rag, and it'll probably only last for a few months, but it's a really cool shirt! We were also looking for a new skirt or two for Kristine because she left a couple at Cathy's, but the prices for those would not come down - about 10 bucks! If you see the construction, you'd realize they are way over priced and we got them for less than 5 bucks in Indonesia, so Kristine was a little peeved. The search goes on... She'll have to spend her Dong elsewhere I suppose. Incidentally, what an unfortunate name these people have for their currency - at least in English!
In addition to walking the markets, we visited a couple of museums. Mostly, they contain relics from the Vietnam War. One museum in particular gave an impression about the war that is not often seen in the west; that is the position of the Vietnamese as victors, and the utterly inhumane acts committed by the Americans in this country. Admittedly, there is a bit of a communist slant to the presentations at the War Museum; however the photographs and exhibits do not lie. Some of the things that were done here are just unforgivable, and a visit to this simple museum is very moving.
Once you get past the tanks, choppers, artillery guns, and airplanes on the grounds of the museum, and enter into the gallery where all the photos are kept, the mood turns from the appreciation of old technology to complete silence. People are walking around in a daze as they look at the photos. Mostly there are shots of what the bombs, Agent Orange, and napalm did to innocent people. More disturbing are the shots of the Americans torturing and executing people - some of which are women and children. The most disturbing exhibit is a couple of 10 litre jars containing deformed still born human babies - the legacy of chemical warfare brought here by the US. Heavy.
Accompanying these exhibits was a collection of kids art work done by children who come from families who are affected by the war still today. The legacy of cancer and birth defects (as well as amputees from the many mines still in the ground) will not be gone any time soon. We bought a set of postcards made by the children to help support the medical efforts.
On a lighter note, we have a great little hotel in backpacker land, as we affectionately call it, which comes complete with free baguettes and jam for breakfast and noodle soup and spring rolls for dinner - all for about 14 bucks! Can you imagine - Kristine and free spring rolls. I think she believes she has finally found her personal Nirvana. They're the good ones too- the ones made with rice paper and stuffed with pork just the way she likes them. It's sure going to be hard when we get to Europe after being accustomed to the kinds of prices and inclusions in Asia!
Thinking ahead a bit has been a theme of late as we enter our last country in South East Asia. It seems like we've been here forever, and Vietnam being our last stop before China, Mongolia, and beyond lends itself well to a bit of a contemplative mood. Although, I've found that I'm not thinking about anything important in particular - which I suppose is good for a trip like this! For example, one of my musings yesterday was to go through in my head all the various airlines we'd flown up to this point. It went something like this:
"I wonder how many airlines we've flown since the start of the trip"?
Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Virgin Pacific, Jetstar, Qantas, Air Asia, Air India, Bangkok Airways, Thai Orient Airways, Thai Airlines, Royal Nepal Airlines, Air China, Yangon Airways, Air Mandalay, Philippine Airlines, and Vietnam Airlines. That's a pretty good little list! I didn't realize how many were there until I typed it just now. Cool.
The other contemplative moment I was having was a lot more serious. Just yesterday, there was yet another earthquake in Indonesia, and this time, we could really relate as the tiny Javanese coastal town of Pagandaran was hit really hard. So far, the body count is up to 500 for this Tsunami. Indonesia has so many problems, and it seems so wrong that they also have to contend with one natural disaster after another - it never seems to end. Anyway, looking at the photos on the web, we could see places we had stood only months before completely wiped out. There is a surreal feeling to this as you wonder about chance, probability, luck, and meaning around such disastrous events. There was really no reason why it could not have happened when we were standing on that beach. It's all just chance really.
Tomorrow we start heading north on our way eventually to Hanoi. We have a bus ticket that takes us all the way there, stopping in various towns, for just $25 USD - a great deal! We'll get some beach time and a lot of French colonial history along the way, in addition to the inevitable war paraphernalia. So far, Vietnam gets a thumbs up, in spite of what we heard about the south - and it's only going to get better!