Monday, April 22, 2013

Finding a Life of Passion on a Motorcycle

The last day in Saigon. 

My flight to Jakarta was not until 9pm. So in theory, I had the whole day to roam around. 

I first intended to do a walking tour, by self not by joining any real tour cause I love trying to figure out my own ways (and getting lost at times), in the city center. But then, after walking since 6am, by 10 I was already feeling a bit weary. The result of walking too much the other days too I guess!.

A little bit after 6 I was already outside Ben Thanh market. The sky was clear after some rain the other night...and Saigon, was already alive and kicking!

The market. You can find everything in here!. I think this is the equivalent of Chatuchak in Bangkok where you can find anything from fresh produce to traditional fabrics
The handicraft section has not opened yet, but the sellers were beginning to tidy up, ready for the new day
Other stalls, however, were already opened. This stall sells so many varieties of pickles. So many jars of colourful pickles
I couldn't make out what these were at first. Then I realised that they were dried sea urchins
and LOADS of fresh sea food!
What I love about this market was that the ventilation was really good that you won't feel hot inside
The food stalls...where I stopped for a glass of iced Vietnamese coffee

You'd think that you'd smell like food being in a packed market where there were rows of food stalls. But, as I said, ventilation was really good. All the smoke just went all the way up. Nothing was spread inside at all

Outside, you'll see colourful flowers. Freshly cut flowers arranged into lovely arrangements

A little walk across the roundabout outside Ben Thanh, lies the Fine Art Museum. This was a very beautiful building owned by a very rich Chinese family. A french architecture designed this building. Cip said the interior is magnificent. But I was here at 8 and they were not opened until 9 so I could only enjoy the exterior which was already quite lovely

the back door

A little off the museum, there is a street filled with antique shops

From Ben Thanh area, I walked to the Reunification Palace. This was the President's palace in the late 70's

Beautiful, huge, meeting rooms

The have a basement. It was quite eerie to be in this area

A long corridor...I wouldn't want to be in this building alone, that's for sure!

I quite like these windows. Very 70s :)
And they provide a lot of fresh air, that although it was quite hot outside, with no air conditioner the whole building felt really cool

That work of art, was a gift from Japan

aaahhh the Vietnamese version of our Mooi Indie :)

The recreation room. This is my favourite room of all the rooms in the palace - I love the furniture. Everything up to that book shelf!

The stairs from the lobby

By the time I finished looking around the Reunification Palace, I was beginning to wonder if I'd have the energy to walk everywhere else!.
As I was contemplating on my map to decide where to go next that was easier for my feet, just outside the Reunification Palace, a motor taxi rider (or 'ojek' we'd call them in Jakarta), called me out and said he could take me to many places, with the rate of 200,000VND per hour. I thought that was quite expensive for a motorcycle ride but what the heck!. I was on my little holiday. Plus my feet were beginning to kill me. So I jumped on his offer. And not once did I regret it.

He took me everywhere!. We went to China Town area – which was about 20 minutes ride from the city centre. He also took me to what he called ‘City 2’ – a new development area across Saigon river. He took me to places in the city center too. So within that day I actually saw a lot more than I planned to!. 

He first took me to this market in China Town. The whole building was really stunning - huge just like an emperor's palace!

once inside....I thought I was in Mayestik! - a traditional market in South of Jakarta :)

Just like in Ben Thanh, I did not feel hot at all thanks to their clever ventilation system

In the middle of this market, there is a temple

I really love this watch tower

Hey hey, Kopiko! A true Indonesian brand! :) Actually there were lots of snack brands from Indonesia in this market. Really heartwarming to see them :)
On the way from the market to the Chinese Catholic church, we passed a park with a dragon statue. Yes, another park! an area that actually looked quite chaotic, just like Glodok in Jakarta
Chinese Catholic church. He said there used to be a tunnel going from this church to the Reunification Palace

Quite a spartan feel for a usually fully adorned Catholic church. But really graceful

A cultural assimilation?

Then he took me to a temple. OK on these temples - I can't figure out which temples I visited as he took me to so many!. And I can't remember their names either. But all I can say is that these Chinese temples are extraordinary with their intricate carvings and all. A true work of art

ancient, beautiful carvings. Inside those compartments were what to me looked like fragments of life. They were little porcelain statues

Inside, I found these figurines (for lack of better words), quite interesting. I am used to see only 1 figure of deity on each of the altar. But in these Chinese temples, there were always more than 1

This actually looked like a family of deities. To some extent they actually looked like a part of play

Gorgeous adornment on the roof, don't you think? and they were all tiny figures made of porcelain!. This is another temple, by the way...

It was almost a pity that they were not covered at all at some places. Under rain and heat, I'm not sure how much longer will they stand

Of course some are already ruined quite heavily. But you can still see some of these figures' expressions

I couldn't help thinking how long this temple was built with all those tiny, detail, figures all over the roof!

They were stories, I guess

This was where I first saw circular incense sticks. quite nice to see, I must say

outside all these temples, there were always someone selling little birds. So I asked my him what these are for. He said, people would buy a bird, then pray at the temple, and set the bird free. It will give you good luck

Yes, yet another temple..

Huge fishes. He said people buy fish outside the temple, pray, and you set it free in this pond

same story with these turtles...

these are free birds coming because there's always someone feeding them

Finally, a statue of Buddha. Now this is a Vietnamese temple

I find this temple interesting for big statues of deities. I mean, really big, as big as an adult

Not as intricate as the Chinese temple in terms of adornment of the roof and all

..but it has interesting statues in it 

and they have a chamber, it's called something like the Twelve Mothers or something. So the story is, if you're married for some years but haven't gotten a child, you pray in this chamber asking for one. There is a priest to guide you which deity to ask for if you want a girl, and which one to pray for if you want  a boy

This is another Vietnamese temple, with a pagoda

And finally I see a huge Buddha inside

This somehow feels more like the Buddhist temple I've seen in Bangkok

We passed a market which he said is older than Ben Thanh. The building is certainly beautiful!

In District 1, Saigon has Notredame Cathedral. He said this pink cathedral is actually a lot more beautiful than the Notredame. I had to agree with him. And this was the first time in my life that I saw a pink cathedral...outside...

....and inside! Beautiful though..really beautiful

lovely windows

Looks more like a castle in the Disney's stories than a cathedral

As he took me to what he called 'City 2', we passed a big statue of Kwan Im

Aaaahhh....Saigon's skyline from afar. He called that 'City 1'

and that, behind me, he called 'City 2'. Looks like Hongkong or Singapore!

The final place we visited, another Chinese temple
 A care taker in a temple prepared the circular incense stick

There's a name already prepared. This stick will burn for the whole month, giving luck to whoever name's written and prayed before this was lit

making space for a new stick to be hung

they actually look quite nice. They give a festival feeling to the temple

Apart from the fact that he’s taken me to places that I did not plan to visit, which was great!, the beauty of an encounter with a local as always is the story he or she would tell you. This guy, Binh he said he’s called, has an interesting story. 

Binh is a Saigonian. Born in 1972, he was raised in Saigon and it was really clear that he loves the city. He hates the name Ho Chi Minh – saying it’s a, “name that only reminds me of the war!”. Of course he did not experience the war. But everyone talked about it. His parents talked about it. So he got familiar with it too. 

I went to the War Remnants Museum, could only look at 2 rooms of exhibits, as I got very sick and sad at the same time. It must have been very painful for people to experience such a horrible time

He loves the name Saigon cause that’s, “romantic and beautiful, you know” (he said ‘you know’ a lot). He then explained to me what the name means – something of a tree that grows on the streets of Saigon. Not quite sure I got it right, but I have to admit he’s got a point. To me a hero’s name should be used to name a street or a building or a monument, not a city. Too functional if you ask me.  

He apparently was once sent to Melbourne in the 90s (where I lived for two years! What a coincidence!) by a local company to learn about IT. He worked there for a year, then returned to Saigon. He then taught computer in a high school, for 7 years, before getting bored of it. 

Realising that he can talk in 5 languages: English, French, Korean, Japanese and German, he decided it would be more fun to become a tour guide cum motorcycle rider for many tourists who come to Saigon!. And so he’s done this job for 10 years, and never regretted his decision. This job still provides him with a steady income and he’s free to do whatever he wants. 

I asked him: but isn’t life getting more difficult everyday?, and there are so many people doing what he does so he’s competition is getting fiercer, would he think he’d survive?. And he’s got a son to raise as well!.  He calmly said while everything’s become more and more expensive, but as long as he’s happy doing his job, he doesn’t mind. “I frowned everyday as a teacher, for what?. This makes me happy. I meet people, nice people. So I’m happy”. I couldn’t help tapping his shoulders with a big smile on my face and said, “My man, you’re cool!”. 

Then outside a temple we visited, just before we left, there were two westerners with two young Vietnamese ladies. He pointed at them, and asked me with loud voice too!, “See, crazy?. Oooohh I love you, baby come here. Get dollars, fun fun for 2 weeks, then bye bye”. I had to ask him to lower his voice down cause one of those guys looked at us. 

As we rode off, he continued saying that he pitied those women who were obviously just looking for money from westerners. He said if they were his daughters, he would give them a good beating so they get sober. 

I thought that was just a sentiment of a local guy seeing local girls taken by foreigners. Until, he surprised me with another story. 

His wife, apparently, went off to the USA with a guy 2 years ago. She never came back, not even for their son. So he’s been raising his son alone, with the help of his parents to take care of the boy when he’s out and about.

Now. This can or cannot be a true story. But looking at how strong he reacted at those people at the temple, my gut feel told me this was true. He went on talking about his wife who loved money more than she loved him. It was very clear it was a sore experience. Oh well, who wouldn’t be sore with an experience like that!. I couldn’t comment, just listened to him quietly and hoped he didn’t just ram the motorcycle onto a tree or something because he sounded so angry!. 

Luckily he calmed down, and he was normal again. And he began pointing his finger here and there again, showing me all the lovely old buildings. 

He said, “I love old buildings”. If I didn’t know that he was a well educated person, I would be very surprised hearing that. Who would expect to hear that from a motor taxi rider!. And I knew he’s meant it. I think he enjoyed the whole trip as much as I did!. At every place we stopped, he too stood and admired the whole thing. Also trying to show me all the ancient this and ancient that. He also pulled out his Lonely Planet and showed me where we were (cause most of the time I could not pronounce the name of the place we went to!). Everytime he did that, I could hear the pride in his voice. This was a guy who truly loved the city.

When we were at the new bridge at City 2 and enjoying the skyline of City 1 (or Saigon’s District 1) – I asked him, “Are you proud to be a Vietnamese?”. He said, “Yes I do. Vietnam will be a strong country, you know. We develop so many things here. Look at this, just like Hongkong, right?. You come back here 5 years from now, you’ll see! There will be more buildings here. We will be great”. I couldn’t help looking at him and smiled when I said that he should be praying at every temple that I will come back cause I’d love to see all that. 

So he became my tour guide for 6 hours. I had to say it was quite an experience cause I didn’t plan it at all!. And to think that I was actually scared of getting onto any motorcycles until 6 years ago I had to work in an office on Jl. Rasuna Said and finally got used to ojek!. It was so much fun to roam around parts of Saigon that way. 

But apart from that, the chance to know a real soul is always a part that I welcome in all my single travels. Cip said that when we travel alone, we make a lot more effort to open up because we have to. And that’s when we’ve become most receptive to people’s stories. And when we do listen to those stories, we not only learn about them, but more, we also learn about ourselves. I’ve experienced that again and again.

And in Saigon, through Binh’s life stories, I learned. About really finding your way into something that you love. And when you’ve found it, you’ll always feel that nothing is too difficult even when circumstances are not getting any easier. Sometimes you have to travel far and wide. Sometimes the road is long and winding. But every path is worth to take because when you realise you’ve gotten there, you know you’re gonna be paid with a lot of gratitude in your heart, and a lot of contentment.

So, here’s to Binh.  

(R I R I)


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