Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Fall of Saigon('s Trees)

Below is a somewhat forced blog that I wrote on a recent trip to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).......

I have been reduced to sitting in the hallway of my Saigon hotel writing a note on my phone.

After a painful waiting experience at airport immigration, I managed to have a hassle free taxi ride to the main part of town last night. I found a very reasonably priced hotel with air con, a fridge, cable and hot water with little effort. A light rain mixed with a bad hangover and the reluctance to wander down dark alleys in a strange town at night managed to keep me in close proximity to my hotel on my first evening in town.

Despite it being Saturday night, these factors made for an early night and an early rise. The next morning, I found a lovely bakery that had amazing croissants and coffee, a rare treat for a seasoned Jakartan. The morning featured the same light rain experienced the night before.

I decided to wait the rain out in my room. After hours of forgettable television, I chose to go explore my surroundings. Leaving the hotel, I was faced with a slightly more intense rain. It was nowhere near the downpours I have experienced in Indonesia but still heavy enough to get wet quickly. I had another coffee at the shop across from my hotel and, once again, waited for the rain to cease. There was to be no such luck.

Dejected, I once again returned to my hotel and watched even more pointless television. Ironically, I was thankful to have cable in my room, a luxury for a cheap room in southeast Asia. After a few hours of sloth, cabin fever began to set in. I decided that it was time to explore.
Outside the hotel, I found the rain to be steadily increasing. The guy at the front desk gave me quite a large umbrella and I figured there was no stopping me. I decided to try to find the backpacker area that is supposedly close to where I am staying.

On my walk, I stumbled upon a road side sandwich stall, it was amazing. I was in a state of bliss with my baguette pork sandwich in one hand and my umbrella in the other. Then, the wind decided to rain on my parade, literally.

Once I hit a large intersection, the wind and the intensity of the rain increased. Since I had already made it this far, I decided to soldier on. During my walk, I was met by countless tourists donning giant rain ponchos and/or umbrellas. After 15 minutes of walking in unrelenting rain, I began to wonder if this was such a good idea.

A right turn on a street intersecting the one I was walking down was met with wind so intense that it blew my umbrella inside out. Getting out of this rain and having a drink suddenly seemed to be a priority. After going a block or 2 and not seeing anything, I spotted a corner cafe with a fridge full of beer. It turned out to be an ice cream shop that happened to sell beer.

The weather didn't really seem to jive with ice cream so I settled on a Tiger beer. Being right on the corner of a major intersection, I sat entertained by the constant blatant disregard for red lights, the right of way and basic common sense. It speaks volumes that these words come from the mouth (thumbs) of one who has spent years driving in Jakarta.
The highlight was a guy on a motorbike who managed to dump 8 or so cans of beer literally in the middle of the intersection. He tried to stop and pick them up but the other hundred or so cans stored in plastic crates between his legs made this impossible. To my astonishment, he soon returned on foot to the middle of the intersection to collect said cans. The fact that no passing vehicles had crushed a single can was even more astonishing. He struggled to pick up all 8 or 9 cans despite my mental encouragement for him to use his poncho as a bib, which would have easily cradled all of them. After managing to only be able to grab six with two hands, a bystander ran into the intersection and helped him pick up the remaining cans. I couldn't help but wondering if the unattended cans were being plundered.

After observing this debacle and downing a couple more tiger beers, I conceded that the rain was not going to stop. Once again, I donned my umbrella and went in search of the elusive backpacker area. After asking a few people on the street for directions to no avail, I decided to make a random left turn and try my luck. Further down the road, I saw signs of what looked like my destination to the right.

Upon turning down this road, I was met with a gust of wind that once again turned my umbrella inside out. Only this time, it nearly knocked me over. I gave up and decided to make my way back to the friendly confines of my hotel. The whole time, the wind was becoming more intense. This equated to sideways rain. After a few more umbrella mishaps, I arrived at my hotel with soaked jeans and a relatively wet fleece jacket.

Feeling that I had no choice but to hibernate, I removed my clothes and decided to have a beer from my fridge and watch even more television. 3 beers and a regrettable screening of "Eat, Pray, Love" later, I once again became stir crazy. A lack of beer in my fridge combined with my hunger made me decide to once again venture outside.

I knew there was a circle K convenience store and a few restaurants only a few doors down so the risk seemed minimal. The scene on the street was eerily quiet yet apocalyptic. I wondered if this eeriness is what it was like after this same city fell almost 40 years ago and ceased to be known as Saigon. The sound of strong wind and debris flying about heard from my room earlier probably added to this feeling.

There was a noticeable lack of traffic and pedestrians. Fallen branches were about, one even spanning an entire road. I managed to find what turned out to be an excellent noodle house only 100 meters away. After a lovely meal, I left and decided to go left down the alley to find a sim card for my phone, having saw a place the night before. I managed to stumble 5 steps to the left before once again being impeded by the wind.

I made my way to the circle K, stocked up on alcohol and decided to call it a night. Upon returning to my hotel, I realized that the power was out. After a brief yet awkward attempt at drinking in the foyer with 3 Vietnamese guys who spoke no English yet kept speaking to me in Vietnamese, the generator kicked in. I climbed the stairs back up to my 3rd floor room only to find that I had limited electricity, meaning that I had lights but no cable or air conditioning.
The heat, lack of television and the desire to smoke cigarettes forced me into the hallway.

That is where I sit at the moment, reduced to typing on my phone and smoking in a stairwell. As I write this, I can hear chainsaws cutting the fallen branches outside. I wonder if this is to be my fate in Vietnam, reduced to getting drunk in stairwells, getting soaked, knocked around and not venturing more than a few blocks from my hotel.

On the bright side, my fridge is still running which means the beer is cold. If the air conditioning does not come back on, I am going to have to drink until I pass out in order to sleep in this 3rd floor heat.

As fate would have it, the electricity came back on as I was typing the previous paragraph. However, I have become accustomed to my inebriated perch and am reluctant to return to my room. Here's to hoping that tomorrow has more to offer than Vietnamese cable and unrelenting weather.

The next day, there were downed trees and people with chainsaws everywhere. The weather for the rest of my holiday was hot and sunny. I found Saigon to be a lovely place that only added to my suspicions that I am living in a city that will one day be uninhabitable. Still, I find myself living in Jakarta and loving it on some sadistic level.

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