Day 1.5, Saigon. Communism: Now with Ads!
We hit Saigon bleary, emerging from that temporal non-space that is 24 hours of airplanes and airports into a night of celebration. It’s Vietnam’s Independence Day, and the streets are choked to the curbs with cruising scooters and cycles — some holding three or even four people — and taxi cabs flying little red flags.
I’ve been trying to figure out from the moment I stepped off the plane what, exactly, is socialist about this country, what the menace was that made my grandfather’s generation willing to risk their sons on invading this place. Sure, Saigon ain’t the rest of the country, not by a long shot, but this isn’t a country in the grips of Stalinism, either. Our guide was pretty frank in discussing his views on politics, with nary a cautious glance over his shoulder.
The first impression of Saigon is one of constant, roiling activity, yet all of it at a relaxed place. Everyone is constantly doing something, but they’re not in a hurry about it. Too damned hot for that. The sea of motorbikes and scooters at every intersection and traffic circle is a ballet, not a roller derby.
Some random impressions:
- The architecture reminded me of Amsterdam in its use of space. Many buildings occupy narrow lots, so they’ve built upward. Buildings not much more than ten feet wide, but three or four stories tall are common, as are riotous, terraced rooftop gardens on the same.
- Storefronts with their interiors completely open to the street are common. Some streets give the impression of niche after niche of commerce overhung by ledges of apartments.
- The smell of burnt fuel hangs in the air strongly in some places. Little surprise many of the scooter riders wear filter masks, although this is less common by night when the people tend to be dressed up and women doff their sun-defeating flap hats and gloves for heels and mini-skirts.
- Buildings sometimes seem to exist in only two states: rusted and peeling, or sparklingly new.
- Our mini-bus driver’s skill in not killing the scooter riders who constantly cut him off and made sudden left turns in front of him was impressive, if scary. Our guide got a kick out of my assessment that scooter riding is Vietnam’s martial art.