Life in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, 2013

Breakfast was early–we had a long day ahead of us! The Sheraton’s buffet was everyone’s dream except ours. There was a dearth of vegetarian options, mostly limited to fruit and salad. It was also packed at 7am. In Chinese we say it’s like a 菜市場 [cai shi chang], or street market: Chinese grandmas and grandpas shoving their way through a pulsing crowd, with handfuls of leek and bok choy in hand yelling at everyone and everything. So if you want breakfast without a line, get to the door before breakfast opens up.

sheraton breakfast

I managed to snag 2 slices of passionfruit, some jackfruit, star fruit, some pomelo, and red guava! Fruits I wish we could find as easily (and cheaply) in the US. I can only eat apples, bananas, and oranges so many times every day. When I was growing up, my mom made me eat a banana literally every day; when I hit high school, I felt like I was old enough to tell her no. And I didn’t have a banana for all 4 years of high school, until I got to college and had no other options.

We couldn’t have the pho, the rice, or any of the other (mostly seafood) dishes. But the banh mi station was our saving grace. French baguette, a crispy fried egg, and some pickled veggies. Slather sweet, sour, and spicy sauce on top. It wasn’t the best banh mi I’ve had, but it was good enough to tide me over for the morning.

Saigon on a hazy morning

Saigon on a hazy morning

Most Vietnamese eat a much simpler breakfast: coffee and pho. Street vendors can make $100/day just from selling coffee alone. This was evidenced by the tiny woman with a coffee cart right across from the hotel–it was early rush hour, and she already had a queue of at least 10 people. (I wanted a picture, but she kept glaring my way…).

Rent in Ho Chi Minh can get really expensive; it’s no better than what we see in NYC or SF, topping out at $3,000/month. Utilities average $100/month. The average Vietnamese takes home only around $500-700/month.

morning traffic

Morning traffic

Currently, the written Vietnamese language uses the roman alphabet, totaling 24 letters with the exception of W and Z. Its earliest form used Chinese characters, but evolved to using the alphabet after French occupation. Traditional Chinese was taught using Taiwanese textbooks before that, because Vietnam had (or has?) a peaceful relationship with Taiwan.

catching up

Catching up with friends

Spoken Vietnamese is a mix of Cantonese and French. And like China, they follow the Lunar calendar and hand out red envelopes on New Year’s. Students get 2 weeks of break for New Year’s, and workers get 9 days!

Vietnamese history totals 4,000 years. When the Chinese Communist party took over in 1975 and united southern and northern Vietnam, they also stripped everyone of their money. Businessmen, scientists, and chefs all fled. Refugees had to pay upwards of 20-30,000 VND to escape, an extraordinary amount at the time.

Businessmen melted all their gold, molded it into chains, and painted it black to disguise their wealth so that they could escape safely.

trash and phones

Trash collection next to a mobile phone store

Our tour guide, Wang, told us that he actually came from a very wealthy family that owned a prep school before the takeover. His brother escaped by rickshaw to Hong Kong, spending 40 nights on the sea before he reached land. He luckily had no encounters with the widely-feared Thai pirates that would smuggle and rape refugees.

A short side story on my family history

When my grandma was escaping from the Communists, she and my grandpa fled from Zhejiang Province [浙江省] in China to Guangzhou, where all the ferries to Taiwan would depart from the mainland. By the time they arrived, there was only one ferry left and it had already started to move away from the dock. My grandma was a few months pregnant with my aunt (the oldest and only) at the time. My grandpa jumped first as the ferry chugged further away; my grandma leapt and her feet scraped the edges of the ferry, but my grandpa caught her in time. And that’s how my mom’s family first settled their roots in Taiwan.

Anyone could be a spy for the government in those days; it was impossible to successfully get out. Wang’s mother paid a smuggler to take him to Thailand, but the guy took the money and left Wang stranded in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s reign. He was a teen at the time, and it took him 6 months to find a way out of Cambodia. A soap trader took him under his wing and made him tan on the deck of the ship every day so that he would look less Vietnamese.

roadside shack

A shack off the side of the road

Even more incredible was that Wang’s mother sewed gold and money into his underwear: enough to buy 3, three-storied houses. A lot of cash. It was very heavy, and Southeast Asia’s steamy climate is unforgiving. But Wang said he couldn’t risk taking the underwear off–and so he wore the same piece of underwear. For weeks. Until he reached Thailand.

He then used the money to get into the trading business, and eventually make his way back to Vietnam to raise a family. Many Vietnamese soldiers, on the other hand, bought their way back by marrying rich Cambodians and abandoning their marriages after taking the money.

early morning fishing

The daily catch

It is no wonder that with so many wars, that it has taken Vietnam so long to recover. There aren’t even highways in Vietnam yet, just local (and typically one-way or one-lane) roads. (Fun fact: the first time toilets came to Vietnam (before 1975), people actually used it as a fish tank or to wash vegetables!)

Amazing what you can learn on a bus trip. Our primary and secondary education in the US simply glosses over the ramifications of wars we forcefully waged on other countries. I was looking out the window as Wang was telling his story: each frame of passing scenery unfolding generations of struggle unknown and forgotten by us, but in which others continue to live.


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