Thoughts from Saigon

saigon-opera-house (2)

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been back to Vietnam, and this time Peung joins me, so it’s my first time not traveling here alone. I’m back in Ho Chi Minh City (see some of my previous blog posts about Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam) and the changes are conspicuous.

Bitexco-Financial-Tower

Back in 2010 the city’s first real skyscraper, Bitexco Financial Towers, was still under cranes, and they were gutting the historic café /patisserie Givral. Now that area – the Opera House, Continental Hotel, the Rex Hotel – is freshly painted white and cream colors, spiffy and glowing, and this week, bedecked in lights and flowers for the approaching Tet holiday (Vietnamese New Year). I can’t imagine the sort of city this will become in 5 or 10 years.

givral-saigon

As usual I am staying in Bui Vien. During the war this was an area where people from both sides moved in and out of shadows, disappearing when necessary, I’m told. In recent years it’s become a backpacker haven of hotels, bars, and English menus, and even since the last time I was here its popularity has multiplied significantly, perhaps making it a rival to Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Where there was once a few chairs in front of each café facing the street for a beer with a traffic-view show, there are now as many as 5 rows of plastic chairs – all filled with foreigners, sweaty, sipping Saigon from a bottle, hunkered down as if waiting in crowded bleachers to see a match of some sort. It’s actually kind of weird.

As much as I have appreciated the service, low price, and comforts of Saigon Mini Hotel 5 right here in the heart of Bui Vien, I think I need to move elsewhere next time. Pity that; I’ve stayed here four times before and don’t like to give up reliable lodging.

We had a chance to catch up with fellow travel junkies James of Nomadic Notes and Jodi of Legal Nomads who have each been making base camp here recently. So much of what we are doing in Saigon is eating. (Peung will post photos of that soon enough.)

Just before we left Madison our friend Michele loaned us a Henry Rollins DVD which I had been hoping to see ever since I read World Hum’s fantastic interview with the punk icon/spoken word artist/hardcore traveler. The DVD was fantastic, highly entertaining and partly filled with tales from his travels.

When you learn a new word in a foreign language (or even your own) it suddenly appears everywhere you go only because you are now aware of it. I had never heard or read Rollins’ stuff. Circulating today on Facebook was a copy of something Rollins wrote about travel. (Check it out on The Mad Traveler Facebook page) In it he praises the importance of travel, how it changes you, how the “light bulb comes on” and you see your own life, your own country, in a whole different way. That about says it all.

His short list of examples of places that might blow your mind included Bangkok, Saigon, Kenya, and Delhi. We just arrived here in Saigon from Bangkok, and two years back we visited Kenya, but as one follower on Facebook pointed out, I have yet to reach Delhi. So while I might think I have a couple merit badges for pushing my limits, Rollins’ words remind me I still have some challenges to rise to. Flight to India, now departing from Comfort Zone.

Tonight we will join a friend for a motorbike ride through the tunnel under the Saigon River to his home in District 2, what used to be mostly just a soggy purgatory between land and water, but is now an area of rapid development.

saigon-givral

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