Saigon 1: Mekong and markets

Tues Jul 9, 2013, 2013th

Our Hotel breakfast offers all that we need to stock up with energy for the day and by 0830 we are off to see the sights of the Mekong River.  We drive in our conditioned minibus the thirty minutes or so to this wide, muddy brown, fast flowing river which is navigable all the way to China (for Vietnam is fairly flat and there are no waterfalls).  As we travel we enjoy trying to decode the street signs and advertising hoardings.  When the French controlled Vietnam they introduced the Roman alphabet to it so, uniquely in South East Asian countries, we can read the words, though not understand them.  All words appear to be monosyllables except for multiple vowels adorned with a range of diacritic marks all as alien to us as the words.

Such squiggles probably indicate all sort of curious pronunciations.  We try to get our guide, Mr Hoa, to explain them to us but we don’t get very far.  What we do discover is a mild affinity to speaking odd phrases of French.  I hear the occasional “comment allez-vous?” spoken by the young men accompanied by a mischievous smile. I note also slight emphasis on the last syllable. There is a then a coy giggle from the young lady to whom it is addressed.  Well I wonder if you might recall the words of an old Flanders and Swan number:  “Now that Mum’s out, let’s talk dirty / Pee, Poo, Belly, Bum Bra”.  Well I discover from Mr. Hoa who can barely stop laughing, that the “vous” sound in Vietnamese means tits.   Furthermore utterances of “merci beaucoup” uttered by the girls with a similar emphasis on the last syllable offer a child-like delight in saying “coup,” meaning penis.  It is bowdlerised by the men to “merci beauchim” (meaningless) when addressed to the girls.  I leave you to guess what the ”chim” word means.

This linguistic research occupies us until after a brief coffee stop we reach the Mekong’s banks.

We board a little boat and are transported to one of a group of four islands nestling in this wide muddy fast flowing river.  They are named for the saintly family of Vietnamese animals – the Dragon who symbolises power, the Phoenix which symbolises prosperity, the Tortoise who represents strength and longevity and the Unicorn who stands for happiness and wealth.  Note to self, must catch a unicorn or two.

Dragon island is low–lying heap of reclaimed Mekong ooze being now stabilised and covered in lush tropical jungle populated by a few thousand folk who harvest its lush tropical produce (Jack fruit, Limes, Bananas, Okra, Dragon fruits (of course), Papaya and Cashew nuts and lots of rubber trees).  In between this fairly low key activity the said island folk find time to offer tourist demos of bee keeping, sell honey tea, crystallised fruits and other produce or its derivatives plus the inevitable collections of woven things (bags, shirts, hammocks, table-ware) which might raise a few dollars.  The whole island is criss-crossed with shallow waterways linking its households’ lands to the few paths and the preferred means of transport is the sampan, a shallow flat bottomed boat which holds about four people (us) or a pile of farm produce and is propelled by skinny little rice maidens dressed in pyjamas and wearing the  Vietnamese female worker’s standard head dress of a conical straw hat. A bare-footed pair of them perch front and back. These beings are so slight that they can be folded up in any number of human configurations.  For us they sit cross legged, slightly off centre, like tiny gondoliers and paddle their craft at incredible speed. They also smile permanently. I guess that is de-riguer when you are fleecing tourists. Collisions between sampans going in opposite directions are an accepted risk in this means of travel and we are warned to keep our hands inside the boat.

After spending our way through the bazaars we are eventually allowed back to the bank (I wonder if, had we not spent enough, we would still now be there?)  We lunch rather splendidly at a pit stop that (of course) sells hand produced artefacts, statues, pictures.  As we wander through the ranks of seated girls hand sewing pictures of  Tigers, Rice fields etc. our guide points out that many of them are deformed – thalidomide like – with missing hand or foot parts or whole limbs.  These are the victims of Dioxin poisoning in consequence of its use in “Agent Orange” defoliant  by the Americans during the Vietnam War of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  The genetic damage inflicted on those Vietnamese who inhaled or ingested it was probably not understood at the time but is now wished upon these poor creatures of the next generation or two.  This emporium is part of a Government programme to find them meaningful sedentary or semi-skilled work in this land of zero social security.  Much of their produce is beautifully crafted – and quite expensive.  We don’t buy and we feel guilty. Why?

Our late lunch is a gentle delight.  We are not able to grab a quick bite. Each occasion is a set piece Vietnamese style banquet with table napkins, bowls and chopsticks, iced drinks and at least five speciality dishes served in style that we would loosely style “Chinese”.  It is very delicious and we are treated to exquisite table service by a sequence of elegantly clad, willowy serving ladies who smile so sweetly.

Pigged out (again) we board our personal minibus and are taken on a short tour of Saigon. We visit a Buddhist temple where Andy makes his obeisance to a lady Buddhist deity who presides over personal success.  As we wander the ornate interior we are reminded that the rising smoke from the burning of one’s stick of incense carries the prayers of the supplicant mortal upwards, presumably towards heaven.  For those who want a longer commune, but who can’t spare the time to stand there, slow burning spiral coils of incense can be purchased and left to smoulder for up to several days, presumably providing an extended session.  For those in even more of a hurry, a few bank notes will purchase a loud bong on a huge bell from a man who does these things.  This is guaranteed to prod any somnolent deity into instant attention to one’s prayer – a kind of ecclesiastical equivalent to the Fast Track immigration service you get with a business class air ticket.  I am reminded of  the Catholic church’s shameless scam of selling indulgences or a few days off Purgatory for an agreed sum. Martin Luther remains one of my heros. It is all very bizarre but, I suppose, harmless fun.

Every city – even European ones – seems to have its Chinatown, the ultimate point of distribution for the endless variety of manufactured consumer goods (and brand knock-offs) of China.  We discover that Saigon seems to be the wholesale headquarters of the whole industry.  We are taken to what appears to be the usual market format building. A dreary concrete, open plan, three storey place where one might expect to find open stalls selling a variety of wares. Oh no! In this building every stall (and there are hundreds) is piled high with goods, but in quantities of 50 or 100, bound up with raffia or rip-stop plastic tape and stuffed (yes stuffed) into little caves, arranged in rows separated by alleys about one (thin) person wide. In each cave, atop their bundles of wares, sits a tiny Chinese girl who hefts bundles out to a waiting fellow as he literally screams his requirements at her. A female of more (very) advanced years assembles them into huge sacks, about 50cm square and 2m deep, closes the sacks and ties them securely with tape (ibid) and writes, in felt pen, several Chinese characters on the exterior.  Burly younger men manhandle the bundles to the ground floor entrance where an endless supply of motor scooters, or jerry-built motor rickshaws are summoned individually and whose riders load the bundles perhaps three high, rope them on and wobble precariously off into the Saigon traffic. They are destined for who know where.  Perhaps elsewhere in Vietnam, perhaps to the docks in a container and thence to Europe. The whole business is recorded by market scrutinisers in Chinese in simple exercise books.  There are no printed dockets, no apparent audit trails and money changes hands at the point of exchange in huge wads of notes which are counted by hand at incredible speed. The noise level is deafening and it becomes apparent that tourists with cameras are definitely in the way.  If ever one was about to get a knife in the ribs, it would be here, among the bundles of rucksacks. One’s corpse would be swiftly bundled sealed and removed and no-one would ever see, know or tell.  We watch the process amazed. This is trade at its most raw.  Anyone who has ever bought a pair of “designer” jeans should visit this place to see how they are traded.   It is by now dusk and we retire to our hotel for a wash and a brush up for we are out to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner to tonight.

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