Arriving in Saigon was relatively simple yet sweltering. We flew into 90+ degree weather after leaving 60ish and lower weather for the first week and a half of the trip. We never got a really good feel for Saigon, which is now officially called Ho Chi Minh City (also referred to as HCMC) ever since the North officially took over control of the country and won the war, but the people still refer to it as Saigon as well. It'ss a huge city and we've noticed that the bigger the city, the more bland and Western the city appears to be. Given that Saigon is so huge, it would've taken a week or two to see the whole thing and that would just be to get to know it. To really appreciate it, one would probably have to live there. Most people who live in Saigon have moved there from the countryside and, therefore, many older Vietnamese remain in the countryside and the Saigon inhabitants go celebrate the holidays with family outside of the city. Though a bit empty, Saigon was still lush with Tet decorations as the holiday was concluding, yet it felt a little colorless when compared to Hue, Hoi An, and now even-appreciated Ha Noi. The 8 million people of HCMC dwarfs the 2.5mil of Ha Noi. There were still Pagodas, one of which we visited and it was actually a Taoist Temple. It was so crowded and bustling there! People were coming to pray, and they gave a small donation to the gods to ask for luck, which is a very important concept in their religion/culture. They rolled up the money and put it in a piece of paper which they folded a specific way and then put in a big, old box that looked like an election box for counting votes and we saw another cup looking thing to hold the papers as well. Other than that, my memories of Saigon mostly include our rampant DVD purchasing, of which I do believe we got some great deals. :)
We were in the Saigon area for about 4 days, but the best two days we spent at the delta of the Mekong River. It was a couple of hours from the city, but we arrived with plenty of the day to go, so we hopped on a boat and cruised down the waters of the Mekong Delta and we saw people's apartments that opened onto the river. They had front porches, but if they took a long walk off a short porch, they'd be drenched in Mekong juice in a second. Plainly put, the water was kinda gross. It's a big river with many mouths out into the Pacific ocean, but it's notoriously brown and kinda grungy. They say the brown is from the silt, but that doesn't change that the people use it to bathe in, go to the bathroom in, brush their teeth with, and cook with. And as a result, it gets pretty dirty. I'm sure the silt exacerbates the dirtiness and makes it look worse than it is, but I still found it pretty amazing that people used the river as a garbage when they got everything they had from the river. It was beautiful to see how the river gave so much life to so many people even still. It just can't be healthy, but I don't know how long it's been going on and if it's been a long time, I guess they know what they're doing.
The market that sprang from the river was an amazing sight. There were many many boats all with items for sale or boats looking to make purchases. It was full of commerce and the merchants with items for sale put one piece of whatever they sell on top of a pole on their boats. This is, in effect, advertising for their product. The folks looking to buy need to know to which boat to head over too. Many of the boats had watermelon, pineapple, tomatoes, corn, lettuce, a lot of vegetables we didn't recognize, live chickens (but they didn't get put on the pole), some home items like cups, and there were even some motorized bars that were catering to the shoppers, merchants and tourists alike.
One of the bars pulled up to us and my stomach was grumbling because we wanted to get up and see the market at sunrise. So we left without any breakfast and we had been on the water for an hour or so by now and some guy pulled up to our boat in his smaller motor boat and asked if I, or we, wanted any coffee, tea, or soda, and without thinking, I said, yeah, green tea. So he gives me a little plastic dixie cup and a small tea pot. I pour myself some tea and I offered to give him back the pot but he motions for me to keep it. I was a bit confused, but our guide said he would come back later to pick it up. That was different. But okay, then he asked if anyone else wanted anything and Dad and Phoebe said they'd take some coffee. About 45 minutes later after drinking nearly the whole pot of tea and the “bartender” coming back for his tea pot, my stomach started really grumbling and then I realized that the tea was probably made with Jus de Mekong. I kept telling myself that the water was steaming when he gave it to me, so it's gotta be okay. I was a bit nervous but in the end, there was no issue. I remarked to Dad and Phoebe about the likely origins of our morning beverages; their eyebrows pricked in a momentary show of “Uh-oh!” and we all consoled ourselves with, “Well the water was steaming on all our drinks....” And then we never mentioned it again until later in the afternoon when we were all sure that nothing was wrong.
Not only was the market bustling at this hour of the day, but we also saw how people started their day and how even brushing one's teeth is a different experience when one lives on the river like this. There's no sink; I saw one guy brushing and then reach into the Mekong for some water to rinse with but he didn't think he drank it, just used it and then spat it all out back into the river. Seeing people live on the river like this, and up in the bay in Ha Long, was so interesting. It was so varied from what we're used to seeing, just expanding what we thought life could be like.
Eventually, we had to head back to HCMC and it was supposed to have great food in the city but we didn't really see it, except for the last meal we had at a fairly regular noodle spot. We all had great last meals in Vietnam. We wanted to get to a museum but we would've had to rush the next morning before our plane to Siem Reap. So we almost went to the war museum but when we read the description of the museum (a baby in formaldehyde was one kind of exhibit), we shied away from it, and just got ready for our flight to see Angkor Wat and all the other cool temples we could see.