Dawn by the Sông Sàigòn

“... If you wish to understand the Vietnamese people, there is no better way than to learn to cross the streets ... If in 1962 John F. Kennedy had sent McNamara and asked him to learn to cross the streets and make a recommendation, the general would have reported two inescapable conclusions.  First, we could never win that war.  Second, we did not need to win that war, for when the failures of the system were clear to the Vietnamese, they would simply veer around them ...”
Robert Olen Butler, in “Saigon,” Oct. 1995.

On the way to Restaurant 19 last night, Ed and Steven demonstrated how to cross streets.  It is dawn, the river is less than two blocks away (one Salt Lake City block), and I need pictures of the waterfront.  The street I must cross, Tôn Đức Thắng, is busy, even at 0600, full of trucks and mopeds.  I step off into traffic, watching to my left, and everyone honks.  But everyone honks anyway, so I keep going.  It’s unnerving, watching a large truck bearing down on you, and it’s hard not to break and run when the truck misses by only a few inches.  I soon find that watching both ways is a necessity; staying on the right side of the street seems to be something that most drivers give “a lick and a promise” to, as my grandmother would’ve put it.  The only time I actually see this traffic “law” being obeyed is later, on the road to Vũng Tàu, but that’s because Highway 51 is divided, with three lanes in each direction (and no one stays inside those lanes).  Today, in Sàigòn, I learn to cross the streets.  It has taken me thirty-two years to learn this simple thing.

In 1970, Tôn Đức Thắng was called Bến Bạch Đằng.  Once I am on the other side of the street, I think to myself, “That was easy.”  I find wide sidewalks and a narrow strip of park between me and the river.

Down by the Sông Sàigòn

I’m at the end of Nguyễn Huệ, so I head over to Tự Do Street, where I lean over the railing.  I expect mud or grass, but find the slope down into the water paved with stone.

The paved slope into the river

Across the river, I see billboards; they weren’t there in 1970, especially not the Mercedes-Benz one.

Billboards across the river

The smell isn’t bad; it was fairly strong in 1970.  I could have smelled it from the hotel, then, but now it smells no worse than any other river anywhere.  Over to my right, there’s a permanent pier, made of concrete.

Permanent concrete pier

I’m accosted by my first street peddler on my way there.  I need postcards anyway, so when she offers me some, I ask, “Cái này giá bao nhiêu?”

She smiles and says, “Two dollar.”

At dinner last night, someone said I was expected to bargain.  “One dollar,” I offer.

She smiles more broadly.  “Two dollar,” she states firmly.

I cave and hand her the two dollars.  She shows me postcards of old French Colonial Sàigòn.  “Cheap!” she announces.  “For you, only two dollar.”

“One dollar,” I offer, perfectly aware that I shouldn’t be paying even one dollar for these things.  I should get both sets for a single dollar.

“Two dollar,” she says, grinning.  She already knows she’s made the sale.  I hand her two dollars; it’s easier to use up some of my dollar bills than to do the conversion in my head.  Later that morning, I realize that it’s easy, like crossing the streets.  A 5,000 đồng bill, I think, is a third of a dollar.  After that, I start paying for things in Vietnamese money.
5,000 đồng bill face 5,000 đồng bill obverse

I tell the street vendor I don’t need anything else; she tries to sell me a few items, but after she realizes that I’m serious about not wanting to make any more purchases, she starts asking where I’m from, how old am I, am I married, do I have any kids, who’s going to take care of me when I’m old.  I don’t mind answering the questions, but I’d like to take a few pictures in peace, so I’m probably crankier than I ought to be.  After a few minutes, she spots another tourist and takes off in hopes of making another sale.  She’s careful to say a polite goodbye, however.


I try to follow her example; I ought to have been better, however.

Dragon building, ship, hydrofoil, big stone balls, weird alien flying saucer water tower

I think the pink building over there on my side of the river is attractive.  It goes well with the ship, the hydrofoil, the big stone balls and the weird alien flying saucer water tower.  Someplace over on the other side of the big warehouse and past the cargo boat is a giant Love Boat-style cruise ship that dwarfs the others; I saw it on the way in.  It’s not something I had expected to see here.

The pink building is called the “Dragon Building,” or “Nhà Rồng, after the twin dragon heads on the roof.”.  The area is called Bến Nhà Rồng, or Nhà Rồng Wharf.  The building dates from 1863, and was an office of a French maritime transport company, Messageries Impériales.  It was from there that Hồ Chí Minh (under the name of Nguyễn Tất Thành—his birth name—at the time) boarded a French ship “Latouche Treville Admiral” in 1911 to set out on a long journey overseas.  In 1979, it became Bảo Tàng Hồ Chí Minh (Hồ Chí Minh museum).

Hydrofoil and old pontoon boat

Contrasts like these are what I expect to see; modern hydrofoil technology

Modern hydrofoil

next to patched-together rust-buckets.

Rusty boats

I think the patched-together appearance makes people think most of these boats are “primitive.”  That’s the same kind of thinking that got us into the war in the first place, the same kind of thinking that led us to label the Vietnamese as “gooks” (some of us made a distinction between “good gooks” and “bad gooks”), the same kind of thinking that led us to Mỹ Lai and its cover-up.  It would have been a lot better for us if, in the early 60s, we had been sophisticated enough to realize that appropriate technology is not primitive technology.  Most of the writing and research on appropriate technology, however,  is from the 70s and later, not the 60s; it was a product of the counter-cultural movement that grew out of anti-war protests, and as such was too late to do mainstream policy-makers much good.  Besides, it is well to remember that politicians have never let facts stand in the way of a good war.

Steering motor

The motor on the boat above (I took the picture in Vĩnh Long province at the Hotel on Stilts) is a perfect example of technology appropriate to culture.  It’s deceptively low-tech, but in reality it’s pragmatic highly refined engineering.  Simplicity is a virtue in rough environments; the more complicated the mechanism, the more there is to go wrong.  This stick with a single-speed motor on one end and a propeller on the other is the product of some pretty advanced thinking.  There are few moving parts; that’s a two-cycle1 engine, so there are no valves.  You mix the oil with the fuel, which is probably kerosene and thus much cheaper than gasoline/petrol.  Four-cycle engines generally need to stay in one orientation to ensure oil flow, i.e., from top to bottom, but two-cycles have no such limitation, and are therefore popular as small engines on boats.  There’s no transmission; you vary the speed of the whole boat by varying the angle of the shaft relative to the water.  Perpendicular is very slow, and dead stop is completely out of the water.  The whole thing acts like a rudder, so you don’t need separate parts—which can break down separately—just to steer.  The mounting is probably just as simple as the rest of the setup—with a minimum of parts, the possibility of breakdown is minimized.  The only way this thing could be simpler, in theory, would be to use a Wankel rotary engine instead of a lawnmower engine, but you’d lose the funded experience of several generations of garage mechanics.  Besides, Wankels have notoriously bad breath, so the environment’s better off with the rock-bottom two-cycle.

Bare-bones truck

In the North and in Central Việt Nam, trucks like the one above are common.  Again, the simplest possible technology that gets the job done is preferred over sophisticated but high-maintenance technology, at least where such technology has moving parts.  Computers and CD players, PDAs and cell phones and calculators are all common, but those are gizmos that it makes sense to toss and replace when broken.  Not so trucks and engines.  I suspect these simple trucks of having very little in the way of seats; it’s possible that they’re just boards.  I don’t know if it’s still true, but the three-wheeled Morgan roadster (also here), made in England, used to ship with a wooden board—complete with splinters—instead of a seat.  It was assumed that if you knew enough to buy a Morgan2, you knew enough to want to design your own interior.  The later four-wheeled versions had engines that would propel the car to 200 MPH and over, but still shipped with uncushioned board seats.

Big 300th Anniversary Sign

Across the river and down, I spot this sign/emblem.  I can’t tell if they’re putting it up or tearing it down, but it’s got something to do with progress, and I’m pretty sure it’s also got something to do with Sàigòn’s 300th anniversary four years ago in 1998.

Hotel Majestic

I look back across Tôn Đức Thắng at the Hotel Majestic.  For some years, it had the name “Khách Sạn Cửu Long,” or “Mekong Hotel”; this was when every hotel had its name changed to be more in line with the Central Committee’s idea of good Communist Hotel names.  The Majestic not named Majestic?  It’s a wonder anyone stayed there at all before đổi mới, when most names reverted, either to what they had been all along, like the Majestic or the Rex, or to combination names like “Palace”/“Hữu Nghị”, where we’re staying.

Hotel Majestic

This picture shows the intersection of Tự Do and Tôn Đức Thắng, seen from across the street in the park by the Sông Sàigòn.

Hotel Majestic

The sign by the front door of the Majestic proclaims that the week of 14-21 July 2002 is an “Eating and Drinking Festival,” by law.  Most hotels and businesses park potted plants of some sort outside their entrances.  I wonder if that, too, is by law.

Hotel Majestic

I take a picture of the Majestic’s rooftop garden.  I think about going inside and up to the roof, but I think it will take more time than I want to spend, so I head back to the hotel, where we’re to meet at the bus at 0900 for a trip to the Reunification palace.

I walk back up Tự Do street, now called Đồng Khởi, past different businesses like this Yamaha store.  I hardly ever see auto dealerships here, but there are plenty of scooter and motorbike places like this one.

Yamaha dealer

I start back to the hotel, but there’s a bookstore that I can’t resist going in, even if I find nothing.  It’s dark and is redolent with the smell of aged paper and library paste; the books are lined up in bins like vinyl LPs in an old-time record store, or like stereopticon slides at an antique show.  Some might maintain that LPs are just as antique as the slides, but I grew up with LPs, which were the mainstay of the recording industry for 40 years, only displaced in the 90s by CDs.

While stereoscope slides weren’t a regular part of my childhood, Aunt Mag had hundreds of them.

Aunt Mag, Margaret Chisholm

Aunt Mag, Margaret Chisholm, was a great-great-aunt; my grandfather was her nephew.  She had stereoscopes, a huge wooden crank phone on the wall, and an entire wall of glass-fronted cabinets filled with Depression glassware in her dining room.  There were few windows in her house; there was light in the dining room only because that side of the house faced South, letting the green glass glow warmly in the afternoon sun.  She would make mince-meat pies in Fire-King glass pie plates, and they remain the best I’ve ever eaten.  She lived to be 99 or 100, which is a testament to how far pure meanness will take you.  She would make faces at me and my cousins, Nancy and Beverly, when were were visiting with our parents; she was careful never to let the grownups see, just as she would be careful not to let them see the dollar bills she would offer us and snatch away at the last second.  She knew I loved to read, and would offer me thick didactic novels, full of moral lessons and cautionary tales, left over from her girlhood—things like the Elsie Dinsmore series, or Rollo Goes to Switzerland and is educated by his uncle, whom I always suspected of being a pedophile, in chapter-long lectures.

I would take them, because I never could resist a book, no matter how awful it looked, and I would try my damnedest to read them.  Mostly I would fail, and feel deeply resentful.  Only once did she ever give me a book I loved, a 1924 first edition of Blanche Elizabeth Wade’s Ant Ventures, illustrated—profusely—by Harrison Cady, the illustrator of the Old Mother West Wind books by Thornton W. Burgess.  It had pretty much the same message as The Wizard of Oz—there’s no place like home—only not so entertainingly put; it’s still an engaging book.

She died in the early 60s, which means she would have been a toddler during the Civil War.

Aunt Mag filled her front porch with rocking chairs; guests rocked and chatted and looked out across her large front lawn to view Dodge Grove cemetary across North 22nd Street.  My cousins and I caught fireflies on her lawn.  Her living room was small, and crowded, and had the only horsehair sofa I’ve ever sat on.  “Sat on” is a euphemism, of course, standing for, “placed my bottom upon and slid instantly off onto the floor.”  Aunt Mag’s whole house smelled like old books, the kind of old books that you got from book clubs during WWII, printed on cheap flimsy paper full of acid.  That’s the way the bookstore a block over from Đồng Khởi smells.

Like Aunt Mag’s house, the store’s dark; I paw through the bins, squinting.  I find a Vietnamese dictionary, the blue one in the pictures below.  It’s Vietnamese-English only, unlike my bilingual one, also shown below, which has 1600 yellowing pages, printed in the 60s on what looks like WWII paper-shortage paper.  I figure it’s good for another 30 years or so before it flakes into oblivion.
Dictionaries Dictionaries

I find a history of Sàigòn covering its entire three hundred year history.  The cover has a picture of the pink building I just saw a few minutes ago, down by the Sông Sàigòn.  It must be an important place, I think.

History of Sàigòn

Finally, I find a map of the Gia Định area.
Map of Gia Định
Map of Gia Định

What is modernly called Sàigòn is the merging of four smaller cities, of which Gia Định and Sàigòn are two.  Chợ Lớn and Biên Hòa are the other two.  On the 1975 map below, you can see that Gia Định, Sàigòn and Chợ Lớn are close enough together to merge, and even in 1975 there was no noticeable line of demarcation between them.  Biên Hòa, on the other hand, is almost as far from downtown Sàigòn as Củ Chi.

Sàigòn map

In 1970, when we travelled regularly by jeep between Củ Chi and Long Bình3—located on the map at about the end of the A in the name “Biên Hòa”—there was a great deal of open and less-populated space between the towns; in the last 32 years the population has doubled and the open areas have disappeared.

Rubber plantation
Rubber plantation near Sàigòn, 1970

Monsoon season
Monsoon season, 1970, outside Long Bình, on the way to Biên Hòa; and from there, home to Củ Chi

I love maps, although I’m not learned about them.  One of my treasures is a large-scale map of Sàigòn from 1975, pre-Fall.
1975 Sàigòn map
Downtown Sàigòn, 1975
2001 Sàigòn map
Downtown Sàigòn, 2001

The equivalent area on a 2001 map is shown at the right, above, where you can see some of the name changes for the streets.  “Bến Bạch Đằng” (meaning something like “white waterfront way”) changing to “Tôn Đức Thắng” (“honor, virtue, victory”) is an example.  Bến is usually translated as “quay,” but that’s a wharf, which this street is not.  Some names were never changed; for example, Đại Lộ Nguyễn Huệ (Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard), where our hotel is located, has always remained the same, as has Đường Lê Lợi (Lê Lợi Street).

Thùy Ngo says,

Bạch Đằng is the name of a river that runs through Yên Hưng district (Quảng Ninh) and Thủy Nguyên (Hải Phòng), about 40km from Hạ Long Bay.  This is where the well-known battles of Ngô Quyền against the Nanhan took place in 938 A.D., and Commander Trần Hưng Đạo against the Mongolians in 1288.  Tôn Đức Thắng was the second and final president of North Vietnam and the first president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  He served as President, initially of North Vietnam from September 2, 1969, and later of the united Vietnam until his death.

I take my finds to the counter.  The woman who sits behind the cash register wears a business suit and addresses me in precise, perfect English.  “Your total is 525,000 đồng.”

“Do you take credit cards?” I ask.

“I would prefer not to,” she says, echoing Bartleby.

“How much is that in dollars?” I ask.

She calculates.  “Thirty-five.”

I nod; it’s not as much as I feared.  I still haven’t learned how to do conversion in my head.  She places my books carefully in a plastic bag; I walk out into the sunlight, and blink.  It’s only a couple of blocks back to the hotel, and it’s early, but the sidewalks are crowded—with people waiting for business.

Everywhere, the streets of Việt Nam are full of life.  Scooters and motorcycles are parked on the sidewalks; street vendors sit and cook, watch their children.  The little plastic stools proliferate; tiny and nearly useless by Western standards, they provide seating for those who need it, and low tables for those who don’t.  Much business is conducted in the open air, just like it was in 1970, and for a thousand years before that.
Kinh Bac restaurant
“Kinh Bac” restaurant; as written, the name is nonsense.  With the addition of diacritics, it might be “Respectful Uncle” restaurant, not very close to “Vietnamese Cuisine Cool Saigon,” which is what the English text says.
Street scene
Street scene Street scene

“Giữ Xe” means “guarded transport,” or secure courier.  The blue kiosk in the middle of the bottom left picture is a phone booth.  The handmade clothing store below, “Konnichiwa” or “Good Afternoon,” has signs in three languages, Japanese, Vietnamese and English.  A great many businesses have English signs, but not nearly as many have Japanese ones.  This one’s written only in hiragana, the most widely used Japanese syllabary; katakana is used mostly for writing foreign names.  In my church, all the chants are written in kanji and glossed in both English and hiragana.
Street scene こんにちは
Hand made
Street scene

There’s a substantial amount of litter on the streets, but there’s a substantial amount of cleanliness, too.  Early in the morning, when many people are doing Tai Chi or playing badminton in the empty streets (in Hà Nội, music is played from loudspeakers fixed in trees and on lampposts), store owners and street vendors come out with buckets of water and sluice off the sidewalks, brushing the litter into the gutters with rice-straw brooms, which haven’t changed at all since the American war—and most likely not for generations before that.

Rice-straw broom and kitten
Rice-straw broom photograph courtesy
Nancy “Q” Lilja, ANC, copyright © 1970

Later in the day, people pushing carts come by and scoop up most of the garbage.  I never see street cleaning machines like those we’re used to in the States.  I think it’s amazing that the streets are as clean as they are, but by the time I’m back at the hotel I’m wondering why it’s so important to the West to have such clean streets and so many fewer jobs.

Outside the hotel are several beggars.  I pass out a few dollars and go inside to put together my day pack and think about what I’ve learned so far.  How to cross streets; bargaining doesn’t really work, and who cares if you pay double for something when it’s dirt cheap anyway?  And always take water.  I’ve only been gone an hour and a half, it’s still cool, but I’m already sweaty and thirsty.  Before I leave for our bus, I grab two bottles of water from the room refrigerator, after checking the price.  They are 15,000 đồng apiece, according to the printed schedule; I suppose a dollar is an expensive price since, of course, room refrigerators are always horrendous ripoffs.  Later, I learn that the street price for the small half-liter bottles is 6 to 8,000 đồng.  I decide I’m not going to worry about a dollar.

Next stop, the Reunification Palace (Dinh Thống Nhất).  Presidential Palace, or even Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập), for those of us stuck in a time warp.


1.  A two-cycle engine:  If you remember the internal combustion cycle from your school days, you know that the standard auto engine has four cycles.  These are Intake, Compression, Combustion (a.k.a. Ignition) and Exhaust (or, in Alfred Bester’s famous recasting, “Suck, Squeeze, Pop, Phooey”).  For a two-cycle engine, pairs of cycles are combined; Intake with Compression, Ignition with Exhaust.  You can find out more at http://science.howstuffworks.com/two-stroke1.htm.  You can find out how four-cycle engines work, too, along with a great many other bits of technology trivia.

2.  More on Morgans:  http://morgan3w.de/index.htm.

3.  Long Binh:  http://www.dennismansker.com and

4.  Thanks to Ngo Thiên Thùy for many corrections.

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