March 21-22, 2008


Friday morning I did not go to the University, but I was busy in the hotel room preparing for the third of three seminars I was asked to provide.  As the Rector explained, they are a new university and they are learning as they grow.  So my advice to colleagues who are to come in May and June is ask in advance which seminars to prepare; it is so much easier to do this work before leaving home. 


Having finished the work, I took Friday afternoon off to explore the city.  I am staying just on the edge of District 1 which many still refer to as Saigon.  This is the central part of the city and it is the place I knew best when I lived here.  I headed down Pasteur toward the Saigon River, stopping first on the corner of Le Loi at the multi-storied Saigon Center.  I wandered around the three lower stories where shops are located, observing many signs stating “fix price” and many outrageous prices at that.  A scarf at one was priced at $45 USD—genuine silk was the reason provided but I can pay the same price at home without having to carry it.   But Saigon Center does have an excellent book store carrying interesting titles, including many children’s books.  My daughter Katherine had asked me to look for books in English and Vietnamese that she can use with her kindergarten class, but in previous bookstores the English was incorrect.  This bookstore carries a delightful series featuring somewhat naughty children which I know will be a hit with Kat’s little ones. A sample title: Sometimes I Share (Doi khi toi chia se).  Yeah, sometimes I do too.


Le Loi also leads to main Ben Thanh market which is chock-a-block full of souvenir places, all of which cater nicely to Westerners. Surrounding blocks are the same.  That is, at least one person on site speaks business English. Also along Le Loi as one heads toward the Rex Hotel and the Opera House is a duty free store selling liquor, cosmetics, watches and the like.  A bottle of Geyser Peak California white wine was priced at $21.  As they say: duty free does not mean profit free.


My friend Roy McDonald is organizing a reunion here in Saigon for 2009 to bring together many high schoolers and others from Saigon long ago.  Including will be the priest who coached the boy’s baseball team.  So I volunteered to take a look at hotels and restaurants.  Most of the ones we remember are still there and in good shape:  The Rex, the Majestic, the Caravelle, the Continental, and now there are many more including the Renaissance Riverside down at the corner of Cong Truan Me Linh and Ton Kuc Thang (near where the Trung Sisters monument used to be).  Unification evidently didn’t appreciate the sisters, because they’ve been replaced by a similar monument to Tran Hung Dao. As I approached the Renaissance, a tour bus of Westerners was loading up; they were happy with the hotel.  But I also noticed that the street in front of the hotel was packed with stalled trucks and motorbikes doing the usual: beeping, blapping, tooting, tweeting and so on.  One day this city will limit horn use and its citizens will be very glad.  The river remains a busy working river.  In the space once occupied by the hospital ship Hope was a Russian freighter.


I walked Dong Khoi from the Cathedral down and back to see what’s new.  Mostly it is upscale stores and hotels that also advertise residential apartments.  Per month prices for rentals in these probably runs $2,000 a month for a not big place.  As in past years, the sidewalk fronting retail establishments is populated with independent entrepreneurs offering various small toys, magazines, t-shirts, sodas, fruit, etc.  A new twist is ao gai clad young women handing out brochures advertising various spas and beauty treatments.  I must have looked particularly frazzled because I received six such brochures in my wanderings.


Back in the day the stores displayed mostly Vietnamese silk dresses, but today I saw only Western gowns—haute couture for the most part--save one lone ao gai store.  Also on offer: Firla, Omega, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Nike, Motorola, Lacoste, Esprit, Burberry, Doc Martens and more.  Givral’s—the French café we all enjoyed—is there and it was packed with prosperous and very hot Westerners who no doubt sought respite from the sun while tucking into standard fare from the past (Croque Monsieurs).  Also on the menu: pho and cheeseburgers.  The Dong Khoi area is the most popular tourist destination (except for budget travelers) and it shows.  There were more Westerners there than I’ve seen at any one time during my stay, many in an unattractive array of tank tops.  One rather chubby, hairy guy—surely a European?—was shirtless. I hope he was returning from a swim somewhere.  Interestingly, streets around Dong Khoi now are patrolled by uniformed men whose bright green uniforms (a shade brighter and loess military looking than those the police wear) advertise “Tourist Security.”  One tried to help a group of us cross a busy street, but he had a hard time getting traffic to cooperate.   


Earlier I wrote that Brodard’s—scene of so many teen snacks for me—was still there.  But only the bakery remains; the café itself displays Brodard’s on the awning but the franchise is Gloria Jean’s Coffee.  Dong Khoi also has some number of air conditioned malls such as the Eden Mall, but the prices and products are close to Western.  There is a Russian Market Mall that purportedly has cheaper prices; they sell purses, clothes, souvenirs and all manner of things.  The many jewelry stores remain, but most are upscale.


As it was Good Friday, I crossed the busy circle to step into the Basilica where my aunt attended mass so many years ago.  I almost didn’t make it when a parked car reversed into we who were watching traffic from the other direction.  No harm was done except for pedestrian road rage.  I remember the church as being quite grand when Tante took us there, but now the entrance posts a sad little solicitation for restorations.  Closing hours were the same on the holy day as on any other: 4 pm sharp.  Well, probably not sharp because time is a very fluid concept here.  Behind the Cathedral is a really upscale department store--Diamond from Korea.  Really, I would not pay their prices in the US! But the place was full, and I am told it is a favorite for overseas Vietnamese.


I made a left turn through multiple lanes of traffic to walk down to the Reunification Palace.  I remember when concertina wire and guards blocked those streets, allowing access for resident cars but forcing we teens to walk from our taxis or after drop off from friends’ drivers.  Remember the Johnson’s Mustang?  That changed in the years we lived here, because I have earlier memories of hailing taxis right outside the alley to our house off Cong Ly.  The taxi fare to the Cerc Sportif Club where we swam was about 6 piastres, a small sum even to resource-poor teens.   Cong Ly is now tongue twisting Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, and it is populated not only by taxis but by the usual steady stream of other traffic as well. 


I stopped at the restaurant in front of our former house, ordering an ice cream.  It reminded me of the many times we kids disobeyed our parents by eating forbidden local ice cream.  I think they feared the cows had TB or the milk wasn’t pasteurized, but obviously it was not a big concern to us kids.  Today’s ice cream came with whipped cream (bless that French influence) with a faux  cherry (a grape) on top.  Then and now an ice cream goes down easy on a +80 degree day.


As usual, I enjoyed watching other people.  I was touched by a party of eight that included an aged father and mother, their three rapidly-aging daughters and assorted grandchildren.  Sound familiar, sisters?  The dad reminded me of our own dad who is certainly game but who has some difficulty walking.  At the church I asked for grace for our Dad who has been ill throughout my stay here.  And I gave special thanks for decisions he and mother made to bring us here so many years ago.  How different my life would have otherwise been, and I think how much less rich.


My friend and colleague Quan Le from SU is in Hanoi during SU’s spring break.  He says he traveled there by air with the Operation Smile folks who are on a mission to Hanoi.  He is so supportive of the organization and he was glad to meet folks on the plane.  For my part, I was so glad to have Quan’s telephone call; it was good to hear a voice from home. I am not prone to homesickness, but I like my life at home and the comforts it provides—like understanding most of what is going on around me.  Here I am in a constant sea of people speaking in a language I do not understand and have been unable to learn except to say a few simple words.  I have learned the alphabet and so now I can read signs and practice pronouncing the words I see.  


Early on Saturday morning I walked down the street from my hotel along Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (what used to be Hong Thap Tu).  This took me alongside the former Presidential palace on one side of the street and what used to be Jean Jacques Rousseau School on the other.  Now the latter is titled Le Quy Don, but I think it is still a school.  The street is otherwise very different, populated now with high rises. Indochine Park Tower and Itaxa House (home of AB Bank) rise many floors, flanking a new Investco Building going up.  Across from the former Cerc Sportif are many sports equipment stores selling shoes, rackets, and large scale exercise machines.  Entry to the former Cerc is as it was: a wide driveway to the main building where we once attended tea dances on Sunday evenings.  This morning the music was “Mama loves Mambo,” and I joined the small crowd watching dozens of Vietnamese couples learn the mambo and tango in early Saturday morning class.  Upstairs there is a glassed in room that is air conditioned; stacks of chairs in it leads me to believe they rent the place to groups. I want to check.


The gate leading to tennis courts and the swimming pool admits only pedestrians, but I had no trouble entering (it is now a municipal park).  To my left were two groups of uniformed school students learning martial arts or doing group calisthenics.  I understand that university students must take two physical education classes to graduate and this may be how they fulfill that requirement.  On my right about half way down toward the swimming pool were a gaggle of young and not-so-young men pumping iron.  They were very muscular—a stark contrast from the 1960s when belts on many men encircled wispy waists more than once.  


The swimming pool is much as it was in the 1960s and in 1995.  The café remains, but I forgot to check the menu to learn if steak/frites is still on offer.   I remember teaching expatriate children how to swim in the pool’s shallow end and how afraid I was to jump off the tower diving platform.  I also remember the day I did jump off in my French style purple bikini.  When I pulled myself up on the side of the pool, the bikini top slipped down to bare my breasts and a French man sitting there had a good laugh.  I was mortified and I don’t think I wore that swimming suit again.  Now the swim lanes are marked (in English as well as Vietnamese) to control the directional flow of swimmers.  As I watched people doing their laps, I was reminded of many swimming meets there when I was matched against my arch rival Marie Louise Vu Van Thai.  Sometimes she won, and sometimes I won, and sometimes they ran the match again if I won so she could win.  National pride, no doubt.  I wonder where Marie Louise is today, but I imagine it is in France from where her mother came.  I wonder if she ever thinks of me?


After leaving the Park I wandered around nearby streets, at one point following a group of Western tourists both so I could safely cross the street but also to learn where they were going.  They landed at the War Remnants Museum where many tourists were already gathered. The grounds had a fair number of planes and tanks from the war, but since I am a war remnant myself I did not feel compelled to visit the museum.


My students in the US will want to know (or at least I will want them to know) which businesses operate here.  Air conditioning attracts many competitors: Carrier, Mitsubishi, and Panasonic are a few.  And as was 1960 business practice, competitors in the same industry tend to cluster in the same stretch of a street.  Also there was an Avon, Tahiti Noni (for the skin) and many stores laying claim to Italian styles as well as knock off names such as Joe Box and MTV and MGM cafes. Unlike my US students who have a fair knowledge of business names and brands, my VN students are inattentive to sources of even the products they buy.  On more than one occasion they’ve asked me to explain products that I’ve later seen advertising or sold locally—like Lifebuoy soap.  I landed at the Co-OpMart where I ran into a group of my current students who made a beeline to greet me.  Their shopping cart was overflowing.  But they hastened to explain the five of them were shopping for 21 who will travel north on the train to the Dalat area.  They are attending a camp, but the provisions are to fortify them on the train.


My final stop before returning to the hotel was at a street vendor to purchase a face mask.  I purposely chose a little old lady to give her the business and because I thought she’d be fair on the price.  She was: the high price for the fancy model was about 35 cents.  On other occasions, my VN speaking friends have overheard vendors tell one another to triple the price because I am foreign. I’ve bargained on several occasions, finding that the real price is about 1/3 to ½ of the vendor’s opening offer in a market.  An example was when buying t-shirts in Nha Trang.  I’d already seen them advertised for 30,000 dong (a couple dollars) in the government store, but the market vendor started at 90,000 for the same exact shirts.  I paid 30,000, but not before walking away once or twice. I never liked bargaining and don’t like it now either.  But sometimes it is hard to judge a “fair” price.  At the Co-OpMart I saw a HCMC mug priced the same as at an upscale ceramics store in the Saigon Center.