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03/25/2012

Saigon Scuttle

More Plastic Chairs

The train ride to Saigon was a long one. We left Da Nang around midday and arrived just after dawn. Unlike our previous trip from Hanoi, this time we rode in a packed train. The air conditioning was thankfully working, although this did little for the smell, a mix of sweaty feet, stale food oil, and vomit from the washroom at the end of the car.

The last train had had traditional style toilets, the simple hole in the floor that I have come to know so well. This train, however, had been equipped with Western toilets, which for all of their comforts are prone to blockage. I opened the door at the end of our car to see an evil concoction undulating dangerously close to the brim of the bowl. I had been standing in line too long to back out now, so I took aim out of range of the occasional splash of filth pitched up from the rocking of the train, then skulked off, a poster child for civic negligence.

Shortly after noon, a parade of carts trundled down the aisle from the direction of the dining car. Two dollars bought me a styrofoam tray of rice, chicken with ginger, and fried cabbage. I feel like VIA rail could stand to learn a thing or two from the Vietnamese, as spring rolls and grilled drumsticks are infinitely superior to bagged defrosted sandwiches.

The rickety LCD screens swaying from the ceiling of the car played weird Vietnamese music spectacles and dreadful overdubbed Hollywood movies late into the night. Things quieted down around one o'clock in the morning, as most of the passengers found a way to sleep in the battered sagging seats.

One seldom sees tourists riding in the soft seat cars. Apparently the sleeper cars are maintained largley for their benefit, while the locals ride coach. Much like riding the train at home, I saw a great many of people for whom travel was a precious indulgence. One couple, a few rows ahead of me, stood out in particular. They were dressed like farmers, looked like so many we had seen bent in rice paddies or leading cows across ditches as we crossed the country.

They must have been well into their seventies and had that sort of upright bearing reserved for people of an older generation. Their movement was slow and measured; they passed much of the trip in silence, watching the antics of the many children who scurried up and down the aisle, clambering over seats and shouting at strangers through the windows at station stops.

As night fell, the old man procured two blankets and used one to make himself a bed at the foot of their seats, tucking his wife in with the other. His bare feet poked out into the aisle, vulnerable, his leathery toes curling and retracting like some kind of anenome when brushed by a passerby.

I slept very little.

After finding ourselves a hotel, and taking a much needed nap, we set out to explore the city.

The humidity was worse here and the sun beat down with an intensity that was difficult to ignore. I drank a litre of water after just half a kilometre of walking. As it was later in the day and we were still a bit exhausted, we decided to leave the major sights for the following day and headed for the botanic gardens and its promise of shade.

Our out of date guidebook told us that the botanic gardens was also the zoo, but that most of its inmates were soon going to be moved to a better facility, some kind of safari park further out of town. In the four years since our book was written, this had never come to pass, perhaps a result of the economic crisis or perhaps because it was never an earnest enterprise. Instead, we found ourselves confronted by the bleak spectacle of a Victorian era zoo. Languishing animals in tiny pens, panting in the heat. A dozen otters chased eachother frantically in a puddle of sewage the size of a kiddie pool. A lame fish eagle, its wing limp at its side, sat by the glass as an endless procession of children hammered their knuckles next to its face. A teenager, irritated by the sun bear's lethargy in the heat, pegged a half empty water bottle at the rocks on which it lay gasping. The bear was unmoved, while the bottle tumbled down to join a large collection of garbage in the concrete moat below. The boy stormed off, a look of petulant rage on his face, the look of someone who has been denied something very dear to their sense of importance.

One sees a great deal of this kind of thing at a zoo. In a way, the visitors are far more interesting specimens than the sacks of depressed fur and hide. Over and over I saw manifestations of the same bizarre human yearning to interact with animals, to "connect," or be recognized by them through some kind of anthropomorphized reaction. Grown men growl at the lions in an attempt to have them growl back. In this way the lion has "talked," to them, making them feel in someway worthy of this killing machine's attention. They do this almost without thinking, as if it is the spontaneous reaction of one who has all the power and is thus quite bored with it. Perhaps this is only a behaviour reserved for those who have no other dealings with nature, perhaps it is inculcated by media, or perhaps it speaks to some darker potentiality of the spirit: the desire for recognition unhinged.

Walking back from the zoo, the size of the city really started to sink in. Saigon reminded me a lot of parts of Manhattan. Unexceptional motley architecture, busy streets and crowded sidewalks lined with endless forgettable shops, fairly clean given the traffic it sees. We crossed what seemed to be a turning circle with ten lanes; the rush of scooters made Hanoi look like a sleepy country town. Finally, we hit our home turf, and hunted down some delicious southern pho served piping hot at a chrome bar on the corner of a boulevard.

I didn't manage to see much more of the city, the next day was our only full day in town and I ended up camping out in the hotel to do some urgent work for a client. It was dinner time again by the time I was finished, and my companions had returned from visiting a museum of war atrocities.

We hit the pavement with a twofold mission: eat some of the fresh shellfish we had seen on offer by the street vendors and mitigate any possible toxicity with some cheap drinks at one of the many impromptu street bars set up on the main drag in this district.

Step one was easy and delicious. We plowed through a plate of razor clams and two types of snail, dipping them in a mixture of salt, black pepper, and lime. I could feel my gut protesting after the fact, but a few cheap cocktails set it straight. We sat on tiny plastic chairs with a stool as a table, on the sloping sidewalk in front of a mini-mart/hotel. An older woman barked out orders to the servers and kept a sharp eye on the flow of customers and the positioning of seats, adding and taking away rows of chairs closer to the gutter as needed. I think our tab eventually came to ten dollars.

It was strange to sit in this row of sidewalk bars, established solely for the purpose of catering to tourists, and look out across the street at rows of people in identical chairs staring back between the traffic. It felt like everyone was waiting for something that wasn't going to happen.