The city with three names and 3 faces. Past, present and future coexist on every street in what I, along with most of the locals not in government uniform, prefer to call Saigon.
The past exists in the French colonial buildings, especially the old Hotel de Ville and the Continental and Majestic hotels on what was once Rue Catinat. The future, just a few roads over, is the Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam's tallest building complete with side-mounted helipad, and the Diamond Plaza mall. The present is these two put together, and it makes for an interesting city.
Although our primary pastime over the 4 days we were there was drinking coffee, the city had an indescribable allure from the 1st Cappuccino on the unfamiliar ride in, and by the last Flat White before the now familiar ride out I knew it was a place to which I'd probably return.
There's nothing in particular to see or do - the place is packed with temples and pagodas, but like mosques in the Middle East, I've seen enough. There are museums - we picked one, the brutally honest War Remnants Museum, and that was all. There are the generic entertainments of any other city, and we made the most of them, but none stand out.
Saigon though is a city of interest above and beyond the quantifiable; it has a friendly, energetic air about it, and it’s just the right size to feel like you know it well.
Tracing the steps of Fowler in The Quiet American added another dimension to the ordinary. Drinking coffee in the Catinat Café, opposite the Majestic Hotel and just down the road from the Continental and the Opera House, was all the more interesting having read the book and watched the film on this trip (both recommended). With a bit of effort you can imagine the city full of journalists and photographers, or G.I.s looking for some ‘entertainment’ in between missions, only 4 decades ago. Or earlier still, you can imagine it resembling an island of Paris in the surrounding Vietnam.
Then there was L'Usine. We couldn't have found a side of Vietnam further from what we were used to. Conceptual art space, coffeeteacakeheaven, super cool clothes and accessories store, Mac-tastic wifi-using ex-pat patrons. It's easy enough for a city to progress enough for a generic Gucci or Luis Vuitton store to appear and succeed, and plenty have here, but for someone to go to the effort of creating an independent, slightly more subversive place like this, and for it to be busy - that's when you know things are changing.
The Hotel de Ville is now the People's Committee Building. The old US Information Service Building is now the War Remnants Museum. Vietnam seems to have the ability to preserve its past by simply changing the role of its buildings and otherwise leaving them as they are.
We’re now a million more miles from all of this, back in the countryside and riding through the Mekong Delta towards the Cambodian border. The bridges spanning the big rivers running from the Mekong (Mother River) to the sea are pretty new – one built with the help of Australia in 2009 and another thanks to Japan the year before, so I don’t know how we’d have ridden this route last year. It's pan flat, but the bridges are surprisingly steep!
We were very lucky to miss the recent flooding that swept some of Vietnam away. As I watched the story unfold on CNN we were only a week, or 300 miles or so south of the devastation. When you see how much of the country is within inches of water - houses, roads and railway lines - you realise why coastal and delta areas are so under threat from rises in sea level or more extreme weather events.
And finally. Supermarket shopping in small-town Vietnam has turned out to be rather entertaining. We are more than used to being stared at out on the street - I haven't really blended in with the crowd since leaving Italy in March - but in the supermarket, thanks to its confined aisles and possibly slightly higher social class of patron, I can hardly concentrate on which biscuits to buy because out of the corner of my eye at every turn I can see people excitedly (but slightly more self consciously than usual) tapping their friends, parents or loved ones on the shoulder and pointing in our direction. I've not been looked up and down so much in all my life. The entertaining difference from on the street is the presence of people who have realised that it is rude to stare, and buck the trend of their fellow countrymen and women and quickly look away once they've been caught. It's hard not to laugh, and it's good not to be too self conscious. I've learned to deal with people laughing at me every day so staring is not a problem.
On to more of the same in Cambodia, no doubt...