Saturday, March 20, 2010

An adventure and what we've been reading

We arrived in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 but most people still seem to call it Saigon) yesterday night after an 11 hour train ride from Quy Nhon. We immediately noticed that Saigon is very different from anywhere else in Vietnam we've been so far. It's much more modern and fast paced with taller buildings and a lot more neon signs. And, although there are still hundreds of motorcycles, the city the streets (and sidewalks) are wider so it doesn't seem as crowded as Hanoi.

However, there are still loads of people trying to sell stuff on the street which leads to our latest adventure. As many of our readers know, we use a Spot Satellite GPS to update our position to a Google map in real-time (an embedded map used be on the side of the blog, but is now permanently located on this page instead). We attempt to "check-in" with the Spot device every time we change locations, but since it requires Satellite reception to work, it can sometimes be tricky to get a Satellite lock in the city because of tall buildings. Usually we scope out a flat area away from tall buildings to do a check-in.

So, this morning we found a park with a wide view of the sky, and set the Spot down while we rested in the shade a few feet away. Of course, as we already knew, once you stop moving you become a mark for people selling stuff. "Don't squint," I told Jaimee. "Why?" she said, but then looked up and saw not one, but two people approaching with sandwich boards made of sunglasses. The funny thing is, Jaimee actually wants new sunglasses so it wasn't completely annoying, although having two people at the same time was a bit much. Jaimee begins trying on sunglasses, and suddenly a shoe shine guy comes up and starts trying to shine my shoes. This is silly because they are trail running shoes, but he thinks they need cleaning so he takes a toothbrush to them. "No, no," I say getting up and trying to get him away. Meanwhile Jaimee is haggling over the price of a pair of sunglasses she likes. Eventually the shoe shine guy goes away but when he leaves we notice our Spot is gone!

Darnit! I think I'm more embarrassed by the irony of losing a device that displays its exact location to a map on the Internet, but Jaimee and I jump into action. The sunglass lady claims the shoe cleaner stole it and we can see him moving down the street and he seems to be moving a little fast to be an innocent shoe shiner. Jaimee is still haggling over the sunglasses so when she screams, "This is too much" referring to the entire situation and not the price, the lady immediately comes down in price to Jaimee's first counter-offer. Money is exchanged and we were off chasing the shoe shiner.

We bolt across two lanes of traffic and down several blocks never losing sight of the guy. We run past some tourist police and while I blow past them in pursuit, Jaimiee stops to talk to them. "I lost my GPS," she says, "and I think that guy up there stole it." The tourist policeman, clearly not understanding what a GPS is says, "Your my GPS is gone?" I reach the shoe shiner and inspect his box of shoe shine stuff. Nothing. Ditto for his pockets (although he did try and sell me some orthotics that were in there). We call off the police (who at this point were running down the street to meet me).

We run back to the park hoping that maybe we just mistook where the Spot was supposed to be, or that it was maybe thrown away as it was kind of close to a garbage can. As we're rifling through the garbage (not recommended in Vietnam, by the way) Jaimee notices some guy across the park pulling the Spot out of his pocket. Relieved, we approach him and tell him the Spot is ours. He hands it over and I immediately notice that he'd pressed the Help function which is supposed to put a Help icon on the Google map. Fortunately I could see that there was no satellite reception so I'm pretty sure the Help request didn't work. Luckily he didn't try the 911 function.

Anyway, he indicated he wanted some money for "returning" the device. We were happy to have the Spot back and even if he'd first stolen it, it seemed worth it to us to have it back so we decided giving him some money was okay. The only problem was that I only had 100,000 dong or 10,000 dong bills, worth $5 and 50 cents respectively (and there was no way we were giving him $5 for stealing our Spot). We saw that he was selling 5,000 dong lottery tickets so we thought as a compromise we'd buy two tickets for 10,000 dong. He thought this was a terrible idea and refused. He wanted more. Forget it, we thought and walked away. But he followed us, so we walked faster and he walked faster and began to pout. He was really upset. I offered to buy the two tickets again, but he said "no, more money" instead. No way, we thought and really began walking away fast from him. He followed us, screaming and yelling behind us for a good four or five blocks. Where are the tourist police when you really need them? Eventually, we lost him through some traffic. We went around a few corners, found a cafe and relaxed over some iced coffees. The only good to come of this is Jaimee's new sunglasses:

We spent the rest of the day going to two museums, The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City and The War Remnants Museum. Both were very interesting and contained your standard assortment of tanks, planes and exhibits. (See our photos for details.) The War Remnants museum is particularly good as it contains lots of great photographs from both American, Vietnamese and foreign photographers. It's highly recommended.

We also made our plans for the next two days. Tomorrow we're taking a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels (see book below), an area about 30 miles from Saigon that saw lots of fighting during the Vietnam War. And on Monday we hired a car with a guide for the day to take us out to the two different bases that my dad was stationed at during the war. Neither base sight is on a standard tour so we had to hire a private guide.

Lastly, I thought we'd mention three excellent books about Vietnam that we read recently:

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham. This is half-memoir, half-travelogue. It follows Andrews on a solo bicycle trip throughout Vietnam. He was born in Vietnam, moved to Louisiana (and later California) when he was nine years old and took this bike trip in Vietnam when he was in his 20s. Reading the book makes Vietnam sound a little intimidating as he encounters no end of problems and issues during his time here (and he even speaks fluent Vietnamese). But the book offers some good insight into the mindset of a Vietnamese-American family and the nature of home.

The Tunnels of Cu Chi, by Tom Mangold and John Penycate. While possibly not appealing to everyone (it doesn't shirk from graphic descriptions of war) this book provided a lot of background about the tunnels that we'll see tomorrow. Essentially, the tunnels were a huge underground labyrinth right underneath some of the largest US military bases. The book describes the fighting that took place in the tunnels from both the US (including a few Australian tunnel "rats" as the fighters were called) and the Vietnamese side. Like many war stories, the waste of human life is very tragic.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram, translated by Andrew X. Pham (same author as above). Dang Thuy Tram was a North Vietnamese doctor from Hanoi, who traveled to the South of Vietnam to work in a medical clinic supporting the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. She was killed by Americans who found her trying to escape from her clinic that was being bombed. Her journal was discovered and saved from destruction and eventually even returned to her family in 1995 by the American soldier who saved the diary. It's a chilling view of how despised American were and how indoctrinated and idealistic many communists were at the time.

These are just three of the books we've read since we last talked about books on here. Here's a little widget that contains some of the other books we've read:

Most of the above books we read on our Kindle, although since we only have one Kindle we still scrounge around for paperbacks so that one of us can read that while the other uses the Kindle. If you're really interested in how a Kindle works for travelers, take a look at this detailed post from some other world-travelers (notice that they have two Kindles for the two of them). Overall, like us, they think the Kindle is pretty great, although there is definitely room for improvement (i.e., the wireless isn't very good internationally, graphics are horrible, and the web browser is atrociously bad) but as an e-reader it performs great.


  1. Oh boy, another vintage museum! That car with 403 on the front might be a Peugeot, that was one of their model numbers. I like that shiny black Citroen next to the cannon. It must be quite bizarre for you trying to imagine Fox during the war being right where you are now. I'm glad you got Spot back where he belongs.

  2. I hope you treated the shoe shine man with respect when you rifled through his pockets.


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