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Saigon and Rural Vietnam

Monday, November 16, 2009

Before you read my post on Saigon, please remember that it's based upon an experience and my impressions. It is not meant to be offensive or demeaning to the Vietnamese people. There are many good people there and I, as the American, was gratefully exploring their country. Even though my post will seem negative, please keep in mind that I am very glad that I've had the experience. I think over time, tourist relations may improve.

Saigon Vietnam Local on Boat

I've been to five cities and the countryside of Vietnam from one part of the country to the other. I have some strong opinions and hope that you realize that they are simply just that. Many people LOVE Vietnam.

Saigon Vietnam Street Corner with Motor Bike Traffic

"Saigon" is now officially called "Ho Chi Minh City" and has been for quite some time. However, Saigon rolls off the tongue better and many people still use that name. I won't go into the history of why it was changed, but a good Google search can help you there.

Saigon Vietnam Neighborhood

Saigon was about a two and a half hour drive from Phu My. To make a long story short, after spending time in Nha Tran, we journeyed down the coast of Vietnam and made our way into the river and then up to Phu My. The river was quite beautiful and peaceful and jungle lined the sides. I have a number of pictures of the area in my album and a shot here.

Mekon Delta Local on Fishing Boat (three hours from Saigon)

I decided on my land journey to Saigon, that I would take as many shots as I could of the rural areas along the road. I wanted to share with people what I was seeing as each building or house passed by. I have spent some time in these types of towns and I don't know if what I am seeing is plain poverty or simply a way of life that I am not comfortable with as an American. 

Saigon Vietnam

Many Vietnamese people wear nice, clean clothes, seem to have plenty of food and yet live in shacks of tin roofs and concrete. I don't' understand what I'm seeing. Poverty is uncomfortable to witness in small amounts, but observing this in town after town and home after home becomes saddening and makes you feel over privileged.

Rural Vietnam, On The Way To Saigon (Shop and Bike)

Vietnamese people have an image of Americans (westerners) as being rich. Compared to the small amount of money and material things that the average vietnamese person lives on, we are very wealthy. Immediately, this creates an awkwardness for westerners traveling in Vietnam and draws a dividing line between "Us' and "Them" that begins to blur reality.


Generally, our desire as travelers is to witness, experience and enjoy the exotic differences of food, culture and possibly material things that Vietnam may have to offer. While the Vietnamese person sees us as invaders, cash cows, arrogant, gullible, and simply in their way.

SaigonVietnam Coconut Vendor Having a Bite to Eat

Obviously, not everyone is like this on either side, but it is clear that most Vietnamese people do not like westerners running through their towns. The echos of the war are still in their minds and what we represent as Americans is something that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Saigon Vietnam

When I travel, I am kind and respectful to the culture that I am going into. I smile, and also say "Please" and "Thank you" in the proper language. I am not an arrogant American when I step onto foreign soil and make it a point never to "expect" or to feel "entitled" as many American travelers do.

Saigon Vietnam Shopping Center

Unfortunately, the division of cultures between "Us" and "Them" is one that you can rarely get past in this country, it is impossible to ignore.. Even if you are trying to be quiet and respectful, you will constantly be bombarded with requests for your money. That puts you in the position of always having to say "No" and it doesn't feel good after a while, no matter how kindly you say it. Sometimes there is a polite street vender offering illegal sunglasses or an aggressive salesman who will grab your arms or clothes and try to force you to their merchandise. I've even witnessed them snatching money out of the hands of senior tourists who stand there in shock that their $50 bill is gone until someone comes to the rescue. But again, who's to blame for any of this?

SaigonVietnam Street Traffic

Vietnam, mainly, is uncomfortable and awkward. Saigon exhausted me. Going in, I had such a romantic vision of what Saigon would be like, but I was sorely disappointed. Saigon is overrun with hundreds of thousands of motorcycles, no exaggeration. Pollution is bad and the sound of hundreds of horns honking every second gives you a headache. 

Saigon Vietnam

It is never safe to cross a street and even cross walks are ignored. You simply walk at your own risk. In a way, it's comical. I have mastered the art of moving in and out of motorcycles to get to the other side, but try doing this day after day…not fun.

Saigon Vietnam Street Vendor

In a particular shopping area of Saigon, there are a few awkwardly placed "Versace" and similar stores which seem to have no one shopping in them. I noticed the sales people pacing back and forth as they stared out the window. It seems that there is a desire to create an upscale culture of shoppers which warrants these types of businesses, but considering that even most westerns can't afford such things, it is really out of place. There are a couple of blocks here and there which house nice hotels and clean buildings, but as you move even a block away, it all begins to fall apart.

SaigonVietnam Street Vendor

Saigon is a city that is worn down by moisture, mold and streets that have been torn up for years. Pot holes seem to plague every street you cross and even manicured parks seem gloomy and uninviting. I tried sitting for a slight moment on a park bench and was immediately approached by salespeople and not allowed to rest until I got up and left.  At one point I tried to take a photo of the Ho Chi Minh statue, but was stopped by a policeman. Apparently this is considered disrespectful and is against the law (even though I still got the shot). However, within a block of walking there were peddlers pushingSaigon books that had the same picture on the front cover. Go figure. Don't get me wrong, there are friendly and well-meaning people that you run across the country, of course, but the overriding experience is not one of friendliness.

SaigonVietnam Street Vendor

In general, Vietnam is very cheap. The food cost us next to nothing. An entire meal of noodles, chicken, spring rolls, salad, bread and a soda was only $4 each…and that was in a somewhat upscale restaurant. Noodles and all the add-ons can easily be had for $1 in most places.

SaigonVietnam Street Vendor

One of the things that was enjoyable was buying a peeled coconut from a vendor who would cut the top off and you drink the water inside. It's an interesting taste and when it's cooled it's quite refreshing and healthy. Once you are done with it, there are a number of other street vendors who will take the coconut from you…and then they unfortunately cut it open and sell the meat inside to locals. I guess it's best not to waste, but it just seems unsanitary. However, I would be the first to admit that as Americans, we have gone way over the top with fears of germs. Kids who grow up out in the country in the dirt and mud seem to develop better immune systems than those who are constantly being monitored for cleanliness. So, even though much of the way food is prepared and sold in Vietnam seems crazy to us, it is probably harmless, as the locals have been doing is forever and seem to survive. I was often enticed and tempted to buy food off of roaming carts or from older women sitting on the sidewalk with a bag of baked goods.

SaigonVietnam Ho Chi Minh Statue

I have traveled down some long roads in Vietnam, and frequently I would take snapshots of places and things as I zipped by. I found this technique fun and although it gave me a few blurry shots here and there, it also created some fascinating "Slice of Life" shots that have some interesting gems if you enlarge them (with the "All Sizes" magnifying glass in Flickr) and look closely.

Rural Vietnam Shop and man in Hammock (on the way to Saigon)

So far on my journey through this country, I am tired and uneasy. Although I have never felt afraid or in danger here, there is certainly a feeling of hesitance to reach the next destination and explore. I will post more soon. You may see some of my "Road" pictures and photos of Saigon, and the river HERE.

Update Note: I have received a few emails from people who defend Vietnam to the extreme and disagree with my observations. However, I feel that it's important to point out that in these cases, people have been on a very tightly scheduled tours with a tour guide who was with them every step of the way. They spent most of their time in museums, upscale restaurants and places that don't allow for the same type of encounter that I experienced, being on my own. I've also received emails from others who had much, much worse times and problems than I had, so it's all over the board. The bottom line is that you should experience Vietnam on your own and make a personal decision as to how you feel. I am here only to offer my viewpoint, but I appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my views.


Judy said...

Luther, we plan to be on a cruise 11/10 with stops in Vietnam and Thailand. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your honest appraisal and the photography of your trip. I will now travel prepared and with open eyes throughout our journey. If I end our visit with different feelings than what you encountered, it will be a gift. If not, I can say I had been told of what to expect, but either way it will be an adventure and I thank you!!

Luther Bailey said...

Hi Judy!

Thank you for your note and kind words. I always hope that people have good experiences when they travel to the places that I write about. Knowing what to expect should make the trip better for you, and an excursion might be the best avenue in some of the stops. Having a guide can make all the difference in the world in places that are not as easy to navigate. Have a wonderful time, and again, thanks for the comments.

Luther Bailey :-)

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