Saigon pagoda



My flight to Saigon had gotten messed up. Cathay Pacific had trouble with some engines, I didn't reconfirm my flight until a few hours before. When I did they informed me that my flight had been rescheduled to 8am that morning and that I had missed it. This is why you reconfirm.

I stayed an extra day in Hong Kong and took the flight the next day.

The flight came in to town late, which is always uncomfortable. But fortunately I had made reservations at the Phong Phu Hotel, which I had found in my guidebook. This would guarantee accomodations. I had had enough of plans falling through.

While reading through the guidebook, I got a clue as to what was going on in Saigon. My usual procedure in a new town is to throw myself at the mercy of whatever tourist office is in the airport or train station, and get them to find a hotel for me. Well, it turns out the tourist agencies are big tourist ripoff organizations. Complain to the government? Hey, these are RUN by the government. You are now entering a mafia zone; hang on to your wallet.

The flip side is, of course, everything is cheap, including the amounts of money they rip you off for. So the moral altitude is unclear.

After I got my luggage I went to the street to get a taxi. It was dark out. Lonely Planet said it should cost about $7. This one guy latched on to me immediately and wanted to take me to a hotel of his choice. I didn't like his looks or his methods so I wandered down the walkway. He was way too forward. I just didn't like being targeted. I tried to talk to other taxi drivers but none of them would talk to me - it was like a conspiracy. Finally one of them said "Taxi" and I said "Taxi" and he then directed me to the original driver. I was trapped - ok, I'll take this driver.

But I wasn't going to go to his hotel. "I want the Phong Phu Hotel." No problem, boss.

So it was just a little nervous being here and all - I didn't have any of the local currency so it was a bit funny. But supposedly they take US cash. Which isn't a good sign but that fact might make it easier today. The meter was ticking away - but what was the currency and where was the decimal point? It was anybody's guess. I asked the driver and he said "this is like six dollars", pointing to the meter. It read some number that was like 60 or so. OK so at least I know how much this is costing me. I didn't care too much anymore if I got ripped off, as long as I could afford it.

All I remember of the traffic that night was a sea of headlights, coming straight at us. Like fireflies. Traffic consisted of mostly motorbikes with their headlights, but there seemed to be no rules about left or right side of the street, lanes, or anything. The only rule seemed to be, just keep driving forward. If some other vehicle was coming straight at you, the solution is to jam on your horn. That's it! That's the solution. After a few minutes traveling like this, I decided that this was probably normal operating conditions.

The driver tried to make small talk as I saw the meter ticking past 240 something. Just... pay attention to the road.

Finally the driver let me off when the meter read about 600. "Six dollars" he said proudly. I was so releived that it wasn't sixty dollars that I didn't care that the hotel didn't say "Phong Phu Hotel" on the front. And, it wasn't at #105, it was at #106. Close enough. This is A Hotel, someplace where I can put my stuff without it getting ripped off too easily. It turned out they were charging $15/nite for a room with hot water and air conditioning. I decided this was good enough, at least for the first night. It was dark. I just felt kindof nervous.

I stashed my stuff in my hotel room and went out for a walk to try to figure out where I was, and maybe get a beer. The streets were sometimes not clearly marked. And all the street names were like Nguyen Cu Trinh and Tran Hung Dao. Not a single mnemonic device visible for kilometers around. It was hard asking directions from people who spoke very very little english. And I knew no vietnamese. I didn't want to ask the people in my hotel because I just didn't trust them yet.

It's kindof strange, the people I asked. They were just sortof hanging out in the street. Originally I thought they were "locals" but then they seemed a bit more like "homeless people on the street". Basically, there's a lot of people hanging out in the streets at 10pm. Some in their sleeping bags. They were very dirty but very friendly and kind. They tried to help but the language barrier was pretty steep.

I finally found where I was on the map - nowhere near the Phong Phu hotel. Surprise. I was in some run-down, depressed and depressing neighborhood. Walking a block or two in various directions yielded no sign of a festive drinking establishment filled with english-speaking people. Instead, almost everything seemed closed. At least the business establishments that were in buildings. There were lots of people on the street,. Some of them seemed to be bedding down for the night, right on the sidewalk. Some of them appeared to be running small businesses serving food; these too seemed to be closed, if such a word applied.

But then there was the Metropole. Sticking out like a sore thumb, was this big white hotel, a relic of better times. My initial reaction was that this place charges their guests way too much money. But, I thought to myself, maybe there's a bar where I could be overcharged for a beer or two. Just what I was looking for.

The place was dead. But there was staff persons there to help me. Into an elevator and up one floor. People directed me upstairs, through different rooms. The whole time I saw no guests, but every room saw a new staff person in a nice white uniform to direct me to the next room. Finally I ended up on a rooftop a few floors above the street where there was a pool and a bar - a real bar.

There was nobody in the pool. There was nobody at the bar. But there was a bartender and he did serve beers. From a bottle. Pretty much the same dumpy beers they had in Hong Kong. At the same prices.

The bartender was this guy named Tâm. That's pronounced "Tom". He was a young guy, about twenty, and he spoke good enough english that we could talk about things. He promised to take me out the next night to show me around town.

I left the Metropole that night with some of their advertising materials. I looked at the full-color flyer later on, and it was really funny. Picture of Metropole Hotel. "Your home in Ho Chi Minh City". In the picture, it looked like a serious, sophisticated western-style hotel in a modern cosmopolitan city. But what's wrong? The building was a little bit whiter in the photo, but that wasn't all. It took me a while to figure it out. The photograph depicted the hotel with cars driving by on the street in front. But if you go and look at it, there's no cars on that street. Maybe one every five minutes. It's all motorbikes, spewing fumes, driven by cocky male Vietnamese guys, barely missing each other as they zip past each other on the street. Plus a handful of cyclos and other people walking around. Then I looked at the picture more closely: the cars that are supposedly driving by on the street in front, they're actually parked there, with no drivers in them. They were put there just for the benefit of the picture.

Saigon ride


This is what it looks like getting a motorbike ride in Saigon.

The first morning, I had a chance to get used to the traffic. This is the first time in my life that I had to read my guidebook to figure out how to cross the street. If you try to do it like in the states, and wait for traffic to thin out, good luck, it never will. Instead, you start walking into traffic, and all the vehicles simply swerve to avoid you.

You see the street is filled with bicycles and motorbikes and similar things. Cars are actually disruptive. But every vehicle seems somehow welcome. But there's no stoplights, no stopsigns, stuff just moves along without collision.

Saigon bike repair

The first time I tried to do this, I decided that I didn't want to look, so I just started walking looking straight ahead. This didn't work; I almost got run over by a motorbike. You have to watch the oncoming traffic, and you have to speed up, slow down, or veer to the left or right in order to miss them, the same way they are adjusting their path in the moment to miss you. They will only adjust 60% or 75% of what's necessary to miss you; it's your responsibility to do your 60% or 75%, and then there's a good margin of safety.

It took me a while to get used to the traffic, but I came to understand it this way. Traffic on a Saigon street works just like pedestrian traffic works in America.

Saigon russian equipment

<-- Russian instrumentation used in a Saigon mechanic shop.

Think of the way people walk down the sidewalk in America or anywhere else in the world. There's some implied rules that say that people will walk on their right, so that people don't run into each other. But really things are much more random. People walk wherever they want, in whatever direction they want. As they do so, they watch other walkers so as to not collide. In the event of a potential collision, each walker will speed up, slow down, or drift to the left or right, as appropriate, to avoid the problem.

Of course in Saigon, this happens with a wide mix of vehicles including pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, chickens, pigs and trucks. So you get on the back of a motorbike, and go zipping through a sea of other motorbikes, but the whole time there's the occasional pedestrian right in the middle of everything, or maybe another motorbike going in the opposite direction, and everyone just flows around them.

Saigon gaming

Dong Ho

Vietnamese currency is in the unit of the Dong. There's about 10,000 dong to the US dollar, which makes it convenient.

Dong come in paper notes only; there's no coins. The denominations start at 100 dong and go to the 50,000 dong note. If you want to go beyond that, you have to use US dollars. No kidding - in any other country, something priced in US dollars is usually a red flag that it's targeted to tourists and it's a ripoff. In Vietnam, it's a convenience in case the price is like higher than twenty bucks or so. Plane tickets, many hotels, real estate - it's all priced in US dollars with no alternatives.

My guidebook said that out in the countryside, it may be hard getting change for the 50,000 note, so take smaller bills along. That's about five bucks US. This is not a dynamic economy.

The going rate is actually a bit more than 10,000 - 11,600 or so when I was there. This makes a built-in insecurity in the currency. If you owe someone 30,000 dong, they will gladly accept $3, because that's actually a bit more. If someone charges $3, though, it's for a reason. You tell them that all you have is dong, and they take out their calculator, do a multiplication, and show you the result. "What - you no take three dollar?" No. They point to the calculator. You end up paying 33,000 dong or so.

All of the money has pictures of Ho Chi Minh on it. Or is it? I spent some time contemplating this important and controversial issue. Ho Chi Minh and Colonel Sanders: the same person? So you go to the bank and you get back, no kidding, a million dong. They count it out for you. A huge bundle to put in your daypack.

Itching for a ride

WHen I get to a new town, I like to spend the first day just getting to know the place. Walking around is perfect for this. By studying the maps and stuff I finally realized that I was not very far from the John Lennon tourist district.

Walking is an ideal way to explore these areas, because they aren't spread out. I started walking and a guy with a bicycle offered me a ride. Not really a bicycle, on the front of it is a seat for a passenger. These are known as Cyclos (see-close). (In other places in southeast asia they are called something different; in Indonesian for instance they are called becaks.)

Well I want to walk so I told him No. AFter walking a few dozen feet I looked back and to my surprise, he was following me along the street, watching me. As soon as I looked back he asked again if I wanted a ride. I said No again. I walked a little farther and looked back and there he was again.

I ducked into a shop. When I came out again, he was there. This guy followed me around for the better part of a day. I learned some important lessons:

1) These guys are unemployed in a third world nation. They have lots and lots of time on their hands. Fares for them are few and far between. Therefore they can invest a lot in one client.

2) They don't understand English very well, so they pay attention to where you put your attention. It's like talking to a dog. If you look at them and say, with a smile, "I find you repulsive and there's no possible way I'd get a ride from you, even if you paid me", that will only encourage them because they won't understand the words, just the smile and the fact that they are talking to you.

Night Life

The second night, I told Tâm to pick me up at my cybercafe. He had a motorbike, which turned out to be his mother's. A few thousand dollars for a motorbike is a big investment for these people.

When he pulled up to the cafe, he was hysterical. "I was just in an accident. I died!"

"No, no, Tâm, if you died, you wouldn't be here right now talking to me." Slowly I got the story out of him. There had been an accident; he wasn't involved but he drove through it soon after it happened. Two motorcycles collided and one of the victims was immediately run over by a van. This last person died, or was reputed to have died.

We got on the bike and revisited the spot. They had come to take away the people to a hospital by then. Sure enough there was a crowd by the side of the road, and a puddle of what looked like blood in the middle of the intersection. All people involved were locals.

We went off across town to what I call the Henry Kissinger district. There's two main tourist areas in Saigon. The backpacker travelers congregate near Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham streets. In fact my cybercafe is on De Tham st, about a block away from that intersection. The buildings are just a few stories tall. The prices are cheap. Not as cheap as the locals can find them, but appropriate for travelers like me. I call this the John Lennon district.

The international tourists end up at the truly overpriced hotels, near Le Loi Blvd and Nguyen Hue Blvd. These streets actually have concrete medians that separate the cars and the bikes, and the traffic signals are actually obeyed. The buildings are several storeis tall in anticipation of hotel prices that are proportionately higher. I call this the Henry Kissinger district.

Tâm took me to a nice restaurant that served Western style food. The merging of cultures was really quite interesting. In the West, there would be a valet who would go and park the car for you. Here, the motorbike gets parked on the sidewalk in front. THere was a small ramp, built into the gutter, to help us get the bike up onto the sidewalk. The ramp was just wide enough for a motorcycle. There was a guy from the restaurant there watching the bikes.

The food wasn't particularly good, although it was supposed to be, so I played along. One of the waiters looked a bit out of place there - he appeared to me to be half Vietnamese and half African American. A war child. It was assumed that I would pay for Tâm; of course there's no way he could afford to eat at such a restaurant.

Tâm then took me to a disco. The cover price was what you might find in the West, as were the prices inside. But there were very few westerners inside, and nobody to talk to. I decided that it was probably the place where the newly rich Vietnamese hoodlums/bureacrats/businessmen go to.

One other nite I went to a club that Lonely Planet said had "music of the 60's, 70's and 80's". It was upstairs in a hotel in the Kissinger district.

My initial impression was that it was a nice place, although pretty sparse; there were some attractive women there, but after a while I realized what the problem was. There were no men. And again, no westerners. It was sortof a disco and there was a swarm of young women hovering on the edges of the dance floor, more than a dozen of them, but none of them was dancing. I thought, where was this place when I was single? I tried to be inconspicuous, sitting several rows back from the dance floor, but I soon realized that I was the only man in the place.

This place is the opposite of places back in the states with five men for every woman. Why aren't there more men here?

Then an older woman came up to me and asked if I had ever been there before. "You can sit with one of the girls for a half hour for six dollars. You can buy them drinks for six dollars apiece."

Well, that answered a lot of questions.

I kindof felt like leaving. But then I looked at the dance floor and I thought of all of those women and the depressing situation that they were in. Like most vietnamese, they have no money. Here they get all dressed up every night, just to try to scare up a few bucks to live off of. And there's way too many of them and not enough guys with money. And how many times do they go home at the end of a night with nothing to show for it.

Then one guy comes in to the club, figures out what's going on and then he bolts. OK, ok, maybe I should play along.

I went to the dance floor, picked out one woman, and brought her back to my booth.

We talked, or tried to. Her english was as weak as anybody else's. I bought her two drinks. She had the distinct look of being half Vietnamese, half of European blood. In fact I decided at the time that the European half of her looked distinctly British. It was very strange seeing a person like that, having so much trouble with English.

I paid my bill and went home. It was too creepy.


I finally found a watering hole that I could relate to. Very targeted to Western tourists, so there would be somebody to talk to. The place was called "Apocalypse Now" and their theme was the movie of the same name. It was on the other side of town, near the Kissinger district, but it was worth the dollar it cost to get there and back each time I went there.

The place is really funny, they have ceiling fans. On the ceiling, over each fan, they have painted the top of a helicopter, as if you are looking down, and the ceiling fan is the rotor for the helicopter. The images are really well done, and each one has a small flashing light on the back of the craft, embedded in the ceiling, just like a real helicopter. It's a great effect and really cool.

The first time I went in, the strangest thing happened. They had the TV on, the way they do in a lot of clubs. But for some reason, I was watching it,and all of a sudden, a Charlie Chaplin movie came on. And it wasn't just any Charlie Chaplin movie, it was "The Tramp", a movie that some people insist is his best. I had never seen it before. As I watched, it started, right from the beginning. The sound of course was off, but it was a silent movie, so it worked perfectly. I watched Chaplin tell the story, all in pictures. People would talk and make hand motions, and half the time you knew what they must have been saying. It was the strangest thing in the world. Nobody else was watching it; nobody else was paying attention to me or to the TV. I just sat there enjoying my beer and watching the movie.

I could see why everyone thought it was so good - I thought it was really great. It was entertaining, and it told the story, all without sound. The facial expressions worked, the actions worked, most of the time you didn't need words, and when you did, there was a frame with words on it, either narrating or quoting what someone was saying.

The Band

Toward evenings, I'd gravitate toward the John Lennon tourist district and hang out with someone who speaks English. One particular nite, I ended up hanging out with this group of americans. I got to talking to them and they were actually a rock band, touring in southeast asia. We all drank beer and traded stories into the night.

They were telling me that, as crazy as Saigon traffic is, Bangkok is worse. "Take Saigon traffic, and instead of motorbikes, replace them all with cars. The streets are perpetually clogged with cars."

Saigon countryside


I took a tourbus in Saigon, but this one took me to a particular spot: the Cu Chi tunnels.

Saigon pagoda kid

Saigon drinking again It also took me to this temple.
I found someone to sell me an alcoholic coconut in the middle of the day.

Saigon pagoda

Saigon prayer This photo was resuscitated from photoshop; the developing house refused to make a photo from the negative. It shows, from the top, a bunch of monks praying in the temple.

Cu Chi Tunnels

They were fighting the Vietnam war when I was a kid. Lots of images from TV and Life magazine. I remember they talked about how the Viet Cong dug tunnels and would fight the war from those tunnels.

What I didn't realize was that it was happening very close to Saigon the whole war. The Cu Chi district, actually a part of greater Saigon, contained extra defiant people and that's where these tunnels were.

Saigon tunnel mouth The guy took us to a clearing, and said, there's a tunnel entrance here. Where is it? We all looked around, it was a forest clearing.

When we gave up, he just reached down and picked a wooden panel off the ground. That's the entrance.

Saigon slender Only the most slender among us attempted to fit down the hole. I didn't bother.

Saigon step down They took us to a different entrance, the entrance for overweight westerners.

Saigon view out

Saigon tunnel The tunnels were doable but quite claustrophobic, and there wasn't always enough light.

Saigon tunnel

Saigon window

War Crimes Museum

Well, I had to go, being an american, growing up through it.

It was pretty much as I expected, although I was surprised by how low budget it was. They probably have the budget of a typical County Historical Society in the US. Outdoors they have plenty of hardware left over from the Vietnam war.

Saigon tank I also went and saw the old American embassy. You know, the helicopter evacuation. I felt like I'd been through something like that recently. The whole building was fenced off and the bulding closed. A chain link fence kept people like me on the sidewalk. It was pretty spooky.


> Yesterday, D, JM and I went to the beach (we did the Hw84, to 1,
> down to Santa Cruz circle). JM fell asleep on the beach at one
> point, so D and I took off our bikini tops and sunbathed topless. D
> made big breast-shaped sculptures in the sand. It was truly enchanting to
> watch her, bare-breasted making breast sculptures in the sand, with the
> waves crashing in,... the breeze blowing,... the sun sparkling. Enchanting.
> Part of me wished I had a camera, but another part was glad I didn't
> because no picture could have done the scene justice.

hmmm... well it's not like that out here.  First, move the humidity from
30% to 90%.  Next move the temperature to about 90.  Get rid of the bare
breasted babes and replace them with a few dozen asian people who speak
very bad english.  Put something in the water to make the color a bit
more greenish-gray.  Not really gross but just enough to make you pull
out that yellow card with the list of shots that you got.  Then toss a
few large pieces of styrofoam packing material and scraps of wood into
the water.  That's Vung Tao beach.  My driver couldn't understand why
I'd want to ride all the way out there and not go swimming.  

> D, JM and I are doing an 8K in San Jose this coming Saturday.
> I've been running a bit more lately, thus feelin' good about it.

I'm wearing my thongs like every day.  Tevas.  Great for sandals but
sneakers are better for challenging situations.  You look at the indians
- they wear like cheap thongs every day, all of them.  Makes sense in a
hot climate.  
From: "allan bonadio" 
Subject: Where is Cafe 333?
Date: Mon, 2 Jun 1997 15:39:41 +0800
X-MSMail-Priority: Normal
X-Priority: 3
MIME-Version: 1.0
Status: U

how long has your cybercafe been open?  I just surfed to find out about it.

My book doesn't list De Tham street.  What major street is nearby?  How can
I get there?

See you soon!
I never got a reply. This was the email account for customers. If you're a customer, you tell your friends to email you at his email account. Then you go there and pick up emails that look like they're directed to you. And you pay for the ones that are for you, honor system. He doesn't read emails that come in. Sortof unclear on the concept. Irene, June 7
> Hi Allan, he it sound like you having fun.
> Traveling all does places.
> Why didn't you ask me to carry your bag's ?

irene, my porter.  Don't laugh, in saigon, there's all these guys who
ride  you around on their bicycle things.  T%hey do all this work for
like fifty cents.  Then when you are at the place where you're going,
they try to get you to promise that you'll use them for the return
trip.  Like they'll just sit right there, waiting for you.  Because
there's no other fares to pick up anyway.  I think the're all former
South Vietnamese soldiers.  

> Just don't worry about the cheques. I wait till your back in the country again.
> Let me know when your back and I will mail the cheques back to you.

If you sent them ... now... anytime... then I'll get them when I get
back.  I just pick up all the back mail and spend an afternoon opening
mail and taking care of details and stuff.  

> In the mean time have fun and enjoy your self.

Thanks!  Talk to you soon.

my dad, June 7
George Bonadio wrote:
> Sylvia &
> Steven   I have had a 28.8 modem for most of this year.
>         Have you tried to send anything to Allan ?   Did it get through ?
> .....Dad

I get it all, it's just a matter of when I can go check my mail.
Can't do it in a forest or in a 3rd world country.

George Bonadio wrote:
> Allan,  It is Wed afternoon, and I think that my short message of two days
> ago never got out.  Your siblings were on the list with me and nobody seems
> to have received anything from that.  So, this is just another try.
> Everything here is good.   ...Dad

I got this one.  Just because someone didn't answer doesn't mean it
didn't go out.  Usually if it is a bad address or it is discontinued,
you'll get a bounce back message, you've seen that.

George Bonadio wrote:
> Allan,   I looked up the medicine which costs $ 9 each, one per week.  It
> is very slowly absorbed and used.  Quinine is faster, several per day.  

I'm lucky if I can remember anything once a day.  I don't want the
malaria to get goofed up.  I can figure it out once a week.  There's too
many things going on.  

This past week I took it but you're not supposed to do it on an empty
stomach.  I got sick tuesday nite.  Uncle Ho's revenge (ho chi minh). 
Then the next day I had to take the pill.  Supposed to never take it on
an empty stomach, take it with a large meal.  Well, at 9am my whole
digestive tract was about as empty as could be, from both ends.  It was
hard for me to get anything down but I had a big bowl of noodle soup.  

I think half of all the food I ate in saigon was "pho" noodle soup.  I
actually learned how to pronounce it correctly.  You say "fah?" like a
question, and you get the intonation  right that way.  Only 19,999 more
words of vocabulary to go.  :-)

>         When it is convenient, send a few words of E-Mail.  Evy asks me,
> almost every day, if I have received anything by e-mail.  

yeah, saigon had two cybercafes.  One of them didn't work at all and the
other one was stupid.  Cyber traveling isn't working really well yet but
it's fun to experiment with it.

To the cybercafe listing service, June 10
Subject: some updates to your asia page
Status: U

I'm touring around se asia and i've been to a few cybercafes.
You have futurenet, great, the only place on hongkong.  Fast turnaround
you guys, great.  

Vietnam: both places I went to.  Cafe Tam Tam was out of commission. 
One day they said come back tomorrow.  The next day they said they were
waiting for their license to go through.  English weak.  I gave up.  

Cafe 333 I went to and patronized.  But it's not real internet!  It's
like AOL except it's a different service.  That's how they charge for
email = by the page.  No websurfing.  Just send email from the guys'
account, and receive enail sent to his account.  You cannot get your own
email.  You tell people to send to his email address and hope nobody
else reads it.  Meanwhile the two computers are like in the back room
which is also the guys bedroom.  

So if you look at cafe tamtam, you'll notice that they charge per page
email too.  And their email domain is exactly the same so my guess is
that it's the same story.  Not sure if the problem is a gap of
understanding, or an abundance of goverment interference.  

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