Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

Tet Offensive

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Saigon was on the brink of mania. The excitement was obvious by the number of people in the streets and sidewalks, and the number of buses clogging the streets taking people home for the holidays. When trying to find a hotel after getting off the bus, the only way to move along the street was to walk down the middle. It got to a point were I had Tina stay in a safe place while I walked around checking out different hotels before settling on one.

The alleyway near our hotel.

The alleyway near our hotel.

This was the Friday before Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration, which started Sunday at midnight. I can honestly say that I have never felt this excitement for any holiday back in the Sates, with the exception of maybe my 16th birthday. And I think it’s safe to say I was the only one that excited.

A gift given to an Ex-President of South Vietnam. Yes, they are real.

A gift given to an Ex-President of South Vietnam. Yes, they are real.

Officially, the country comes to a halt for three days of celebration. And that three days was supposed to start on Sunday when the holidays officially began. But in practice, Saigon was already closing down.

Jade Emproer Pagoda.

Jade Emperor Pagoda.

We had decided to extend our visa so we could check out some islands off the southern coast. So we went to a travel company and inquired about the process. We were told that because of Tet, we could have to wait a week until the offices reopened, and then it would be three or four days from then until we got our passports back. Basically we would have to wait for nine or ten days just to stay a few days more.

The iceman cometh.

The iceman cometh.

A guy who was teaching English in Saigon and at the travel place helping a friend make travel arrangements, told us about a woman who worked at a cafe who had an inside connection with the consulate and might be able to get it processed for us the next day.

Relaxing before the New Year.

Relaxing before the New Year.

We found the cafe and was told the woman was in the shower. So we waited only to find out that she couldn’t help, but that as long as we only overstayed a few days to a week, it would be ok and we’d have to pay a small fine. I asked if there was a chance of jail time and she laughed and said no.

*     *     *

We hit up all the museums and anything else that had a chance of being closed the next week. The first site was the Reunification Palace, which was the seat of the South Vietnamese power until in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates and said the war was over, and the South lost. The tour took us through the presidential rooms and a series of bombproof tunnels in the basement where there were still maps on the walls showing the locations of different troops in the country.

Going against the crowd back to our hotel.

Going against the crowd back to our hotel.

On our way to the War Remnants Museum we ate lunch at Pho 24, a pho chain that we had seen all over Vietnam. Since we’d seen it so much, we were curious as to why it was so popular. Well, once again curiosity killed the cat. This place was terrible – way overpriced and not very good. Plus they tried to charge us for napkins. Now, in Vietnam merchants try to rip you of constantly, but charging for napkins? Really?

Napping at the Giac Lam pagoda.

Napping at the Giac Lam pagoda.

As an American, The War Remnants Museum was pretty hard to take. Not only where the pictures pretty graphic, but the curators did not try to hide their feelings. There were also things about the War I had never heard – like there were several natural resources that we wanted to keep control over.

The Giac Lam pagoda.

The Giac Lam pagoda.

Now, I believe we had no right to start/be in this war. And it’s even more disgraceful and disgusting because we did it again in Iraq. But I think the museum could have been a bit more balanced. There was nothing about the atrocities the VC and North Vietnamese committed. And there was only a tiny section about the protests and the anti-war movement back home in the States. I only feel this way because I think with history, the more you know about the entire picture, the more you really understand what happened.

Birdman.

Birdman.

That night we walked down Nguyen Hue which had been closed to traffic and filled with flower exhibits. It also seemed like the entire town was walking around, too. We started feeling the effects of Tet because most restaurants were closed. So we walked around a bit and found an Indian place that was pretty tasty.

Saigon seen from up in the Giac Lam pagoda.

Saigon seen from up in the Giac Lam pagoda.

After dinner we walked around the flower street a bit more, then had desert at a coffee shop before heading home. It was on the way home that I had yet another “incident” with an elderly lady: the street was jammed packed. The road we were walking down was a main road that intersected with the flower road, so it was backed up for at least a mile. And since it was all motorbikes and pedestrians, all the nooks were filled – there was no demarcation between street and sidewalk.

The People's Committee Building.

The People’s Committee Building.

As we worked our way down the street, crawling around motorbikes and vendors in the street, and people trying to motorbike down the sidewalk, I led us through an opening right as the woman was trying to push her bike between us. Since I had to keep Tina close to me, I put my hand on her bike and stopped it – so we both could get out of her way – this was the sidewalk after all.

Notre Dame Catherdral.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

She pushed harder so I pushed her bike back. Well, she didn’t like that much and took a swing at me. But I had already passed her so she ended up punching Tina! Tina screamed and I saw the women swinging again, so I turned around and shoved her, knocking her over onto her motorbike causing it to fall over into the crowed. Then some guy rushed over between us and put his hands up, like we should take it easy.

*     *     *

After Saigon we planned on spending almost a week in the Mekong Delta. But with Tet closing everything down, we weren’t sure what to do. Most people see the delta with a tour group, but they only go for as long as three days. And I don’t like tours because they charge you a lot and don’t pass that profit down to the locals they use.

Main post office with Ho Chi Minh portrait.

Main post office with Ho Chi Minh portrait.

The first stop on most tours was to a town we wanted to see anyway, and paying for the bus was almost as much as going on the one-day tour (most local buses weren’t running that often because of Tet), we decided on doing the one-day tour, then staying in the delta and figuring it out from there. We found one of the handful of tour companies open and booked with them.

Saigon Central Mosque.

Saigon Central Mosque.

We wanted to see the Giac Lam pagoda which was in another part of the city. Usually we just rented a motorbike and did it ourselves. But with Tet, the traffic here was nuts. Plus, I don’t mind stopping on country roads to figure out the map, but to do that in the city isn’t fun. So we decided on hiring motos to take us. “Moto” is a motorbike taxi – you ride on the back of someone’s motorbike. And you just bargain with drivers until you come up with a fair price.

Father and son making the mosque of it.

Father and son making the mosque of it.

We started bargaining with one driver who was pretty firm on his price – which was too much for me. So I tried to get him to lower it, but he kept saying it was already a good price. He then said I “bartered like a woman at the market trying to buy fishes”. Dang, dude. Let’s make this personal. My initial reaction was to tell him that he bartered like a guy who’d rather sit on his butt then make any money. But instead, I took it on the chin and went to find fishes somewhere else. Which I did.

On the way to the fireworks.

On the way to the fireworks.

After spending a good amount of time at the pagoda we found some other motos and took them back to downtown. These guys were crazy drivers – we missed getting slammed by a garbage truck by about six inches. And because of their erratic driving, we ended up getting separated. It took the next hour or so to find each other.

My driver took me to the agreed location and we sat there waiting for Tina. After she didn’t show, my driver asked me for the money. We had heard about a scam where drivers separate people then charge more money from both then leave them. But I believe this was an honest mistake. But still, he wasn’t getting money until Tina showed up. So we drove around a while searching until I had him take me to the hotel, figuring that Tina would eventually work her way there.

All lit up for the New Year.

All lit up for the New Year.

While waiting at the hotel, my driver said that because he drove me around, I had to pay him over double what we had agreed on. I tried to explain that it wasn’t my fault he lost my friend. Then a baguette vendor came over to try to mediate. She didn’t speak much English, and took his side, and kept telling me “money, money, money”. Then more people gathered around and took his side and gave me dirty looks. I realized then that when you try to save too much face, you end up loosing it all. I had felt bad for this guy at first, but now I had no sympathy.

Maybe about 20 minutes later, Tina showed up at the hotel on the back of another moto. She got off and paid and explained that her driver stopped at some random place and tried to get her to pay more than we had agreed. Tina refused and paid him the agreed price, then hunted around for someone with a LP book and asked to look at it, found the name of the street our hotel was on, then got another moto to take her there.

My view of the fireworks. Awesome.

My view of the fireworks. Awesome.

Now that she was back, I payed the guy the amount we had agreed. He refused and turned away. So, I put the money back in my wallet and we walked off. He came chasing me, so I took the money back out, put it in his shirt pocket and told him to get lost. Tina unloaded on the dude about what a waste of time this afternoon had been and told him to get lost. The funny thing was that Tina’s moto driver had let her off about a block from where my driver and I were waiting. But since we both assumed she would be on a moto, we never looked at people standing around during our search.

*     *     *

To celebrate the start of Tet, there was a fireworks celebration at midnight Sunday night. The traffic was worse then the other night and getting around was hard. So we went back to the hotel and around eleven I left and walked downtown to the heart of the celebration alone.

The crowd still enjoying the fireworks.

The crowd watching the fireworks.

Thousands of us were crammed towards the riverfront waiting for the fireworks – at the end of that street filled with flowers. There were tv crews and spotlights and people climbing on everything to get a good view. It was so packed that at one point I wasn’t even moving my feet and the crowed was taking me along anyway. When I started to walk again, one of my shoes felt funny. I realized that it was jammed between the foot and flip-flop of the guy in front of me.

The post-fireworks traffic mayhem.

The post-fireworks traffic mayhem.

At midnight, the fireworks started. Right behind the buildings lining the right side of the street. So, all of us who had crammed down to the heart of the celebration, had to watch the fireworks from behind a building. Regardless, everyone went crazy – until realizing our view would be obstructed for the entire show. We looked around at each other finding it funny that the fireworks would be way off to the side from where the focal point of the celebration was. Occasionally the trails from the explosion could be seen, but for the most part we just got to watch the smoke change colors reflecting the color of each firework.

People burned gold covered rice paper for good luck in the new year.

People burned gold covered rice paper for good luck in the new year.

I got back to the hotel room  – after making it through the insane traffic – and woke Tina up to tell her how funny it was that after all that, I didn’t get to see any of the fireworks. She said that was too bad, and then added that she had a perfect view from our hotel room window.

2 Comments

  1. Hey Stuart!

    OK, you guys have been gone long enough that things that you would have shrugged off a couple of months ago are starting to bug you. I know EXACTLY how you feel. Smile through clenched teeth as you grumble, or better yet turn to Tina and speak to her in Spanish (or some other language not understood by the locals). It won’t help, but will make you feel better because that will drive them nuts right back!

    The napkin thing – get used to it. All over SE Asia you will be charged for napkins. Singapore is the worst offender. We eventually just brought our own into restaurants.

    And the guy saying that you “bartered like a woman at the market trying to buy fishes” was paying you a huge complement.

    Enjoy, and I’m sending 5 episodes of your favorite TV show over to you with Hollie to help relieve your stress.

    Cheers,
    MRA

  2. Stuart, I wish you would have given that hag (who punched Tina) a beatdown worthy of a wrestling event. But your restraint and gallantry are commendable.

    I’m a little disappointed Tina didn’t use the self defense skills she was taught in grade school in Oakland.