Past the usual monotony of roadside houses, shops and restaurants, with little multicoloured plastic chairs and tables outside, on our journey from Da Lat. Saigon is big. It’s hot. Shiny financial towers to the sky. In between, bruised French Colonials.
We disembark our bus and begin to navigate the dense alleyways of District 1 in search of a hotel. We find hundreds.
We decide on the Nam Long Hotel that has just been renovated. They want US$9 a night for a triple room that’s got it all; cable TV, en-suite bathroom, air-conditioning. That new design smell. We get it for $6.
District one is girlie bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Electrical wires overhead.
There are always people about. The rhythm changes. Maybe the beat crowds together, faster, or it spreads out, slower, but it doesn’t stop.
Staying out all night and watching the city come to life. What I remember is a mosaic of images. Sitting in a bar amid a gush of prostitutes, some of them women. A tourist slug a cop, get dragged away by his cop pals. In the street, tourists dancing with prosties.
She’s looking at me blank, the barmaid. My smooth dialogue, she’s not getting it. Drunks with their eyes going out, heads nodding up and down like a mechanical toy, they won’t leave me alone with her. I’m explaining myself now. Looking at her eyes; puzzled and confused. Before I know it, the sun swelling against the city, together with my realisation that I’m not getting any.
There is a large Highlands Coffee on the corner of Ham Nghi Street in District 1. The Starbucks clone represents the New Vietnam. Often appearing more capitalist than communist, Vietnam is booming. Inside its air-conditioned walls, you can forgo a meal elsewhere for the price of a small latte.
In the yard outside the War Remnants Museum, American tanks and aircraft. A Huey helicopter, a Chinook, a Skyraider – one of the planes used to drop napalm canisters. The museum is one big photography exhibit. Pictures that show the long-term effects of Agent Orange. These poor souls born swollen and bug-eyed and deformed forty years after.
Go for the Requiem exhibit, made up of pictures taken by journalists killed in the war.
Take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
From the hotel balcony, I’m looking at the big towers and alleyways, and I’m thinking, I don’t want to leave this place.