En Route to the Sông Cửu Long

Mekong: The best-known river in Southeast Asia.  In tiếng Việt, it is called the Sông Cửu Long, the Nine Dragon River.

After we come back from Củ Chi, the tour goes on an extended trip to the Delta.  We leave our hotel, the Sàigòn Palace (Hữu Nghị in tiếng Việt, or Friendship Hotel), checking out but storing excess luggage with the concierge.  I make an ass of myself by insisting on “hai receipts, HAI!” for my two bags, until he loses patience and takes me back to the storage room and shows me the tag on my big suitcase with the notation “2 bags.”  They’re hooked together.  I apologize; he refrains from smacking me.  I suspect he knows I would feel better if he did.

Entrance to The Palace

We leave fairly early in the morning, but the street beggars and postcard sellers are right there as soon as we walk out of the entrance toward the bus.  I’ve already learned that the best way to avoid being besieged by every postcard seller for blocks around is to look straight ahead and say “No” firmly.  I learned that by watching Mary Kathleen.  Bill, on the other hand, engages the vendors, and ends up laughing and clambering onto the bus being clutched at by ten or fifteen shouting youngsters.  He buys more than Mary and me—everyone learns very quickly that Bill’s a soft touch—but I think he has more fun.

I haven’t been able to use the same treatment on the beggars, though.  I pass out small bills here and there—1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 đồng—and at that rate, figure I can last a long time.  This morning, though, the fellow with no legs turns up.  He’s older than the others, so I think it’s probable he lost his legs in war—if not the American War, then in the Cambodian or possibly Chinese war.  I drop a 5,000 đồng note into his outstretched baseball hat, get on the bus and sit.  I look out the window at the hotel front, and he sees me, smiles and waves a thank you.

I try to ignore him; I gave at the office, right?  But I can’t.  I remember what I’ve read—the average wage incountry is less than a dollar a day.  What that means is that the price I paid for my trip and this tour package represents twelve years’ salary.  By Vietnamese standards, I am rich; so are we all.  I dig in my money belt and come up with a US five.  I look out again; he’s still there.  I catch his eye and point to the front of the bus.  He grins and moves in that direction.  I get off the bus and he parks the flip-flops he uses on his hands by his side, places his baseball hat on top of them, and, bowing slightly, holds out both hands, cupped.  This man has been very well brought up; holding your hands in such a manner means that you are accepting a very valuable gift, one that means a great deal to the giver.  I place the bill in his hands and he says, “Cám ơn, cám ơn.”  Thank you, thank you.  “Không có chi,” I say.  It’s nothing.  I get back on the bus before I tear up.  I wish I’d given more, but he’s already gone.  The driver starts up and we’re on our way to a Chinese Temple.

Halfway to our first stop, a young boy riding on the back of a motorcycle pulls up even with us; he holds up T-shirts for sale and grins hugely.  Sandy cracks up and calls our attention to the kid.  “How the heck are we going to buy from him?” she asks.  But he’s persistent.  He follows the bus for blocks through the maze of Sàigòn streets.

This photo © 2002 by Mark Byrnes.  I’m grateful to him for allowing me to use this picture, which he took from the moving bus.
“Junior” holding up T-shirts for sale

We ask Song to stop the bus so we can give the little guy some business.  “We will be stopping at the Chinese temple,” he says, and we all know he means not to change our itinerary one bit.  The youngster and his older henchman, the bike driver, pursue us but disappear somewhere around Chồ Bến Thành, Bến Thành Market.

Chồ Bến Thành, City Station Market

Across the street is a statue.

Statue in traffic circle

I had expected it to be of Trần Hưng Đạo, the early Việt emperor whose likeness is everywhere; there’s even a giant amusement park in his name on the way to Vũng Tàu.

Trần Hưng Đạo park
Trần Hưng Đạo park

But that wasn’t the case; digitally magnifying the name got me “Trần Nguyễn Hãn,” and I don’t know who that is.  I think I might be wrong about the last word.  But during the fruitless blowup I noticed that there was a bust in front of the statue, a bust I had completely missed when I took the photo in Sàigòn.  I knew who she was, too, because I had a picture from 1970.

Quách Thị Trang park, 2002
Quách Thị Trang park, 1970

This is Quách Thị Trang, a 15-year-old student killed on 25 August 1963 in a Buddhist demonstration against President Ngô Đình Diệm.

Close-up of Quách Thị Trang

Diệm was a Catholic, and his regime had an overwhelming Catholic agenda, despite the fact that Buddhism accounted for something like 80% of all Vietnamese religion.  The discounting and dismissal of the Buddhist majority is one reason why Buddhist monks felt compelled to immolate themselves early in the war, and why students and demonstrators were willing to, and sometimes did, die.  This circle is called Công Viên Quách Thị Trang (Quách Thị Trang Park), and my original photographs can be found here.   There used to be a bridge over the street to the right of the bust, but it is no longer there.  I wonder if the original overpass had been constructed for the Americans during the war who hadn’t bothered to learn about Sàigòn traffic.
View of traffic circle, 1970 View of traffic circle, 1970

It’s easy to cross streets in Việt Nam:  step off the curb into traffic, don’t run and don’t stop.  The vehicles flow around you like a river, as long as you are predictable and pay attention.  It’s actually rare that you find traffic moving in the same direction at the same speed in the same way you do in the US.  Trucks and cars cross the streets the same way people do, by simply pulling out slowly and carefully.  No one signals, no one ever really stops; there are precious few stoplights, and everyone honks all the time.  The stoplights might be few and far between, but they are religiously obeyed, except by mopeds and motorbikes, which seem to violate anything resembling a traffic law with impunity.

It turns out later that our young friend on the motorbike had met Bill Ridley, the combat veteran, the night before, but had been unable to persuade him to buy any T-shirts.  After he disappears near the market, everyone figures that is the last we’ll see of him.

We pull up and park in front of the closest entrance to the Chinese temple in Chồ Lớn's District 5, Phuc Thien Hau Pagoda at 710 Nguyễn Trãi Street.

Phuc Thien Hau Pagoda front door

Guess who is waiting for us?  Bill promptly christens him “Junior,” and he sells us all T-shirts (I buy four; Bill at least ten); by the time the trip is over he has become the stuff of legend, much like Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, and his business enterprises stretch from Vũng Tàu to Hà Nội.

Demons and critters and incense

Inside the Chinese temple, we discover it’s laid out in the typical Chinese fashion, plain front entrance leading to a central courtyard open to the sky, with wings surrounding the courtyard.  Every square inch seems alive with demons and critters.

Close-up of critters

It’s different in the covered wings.  Yes, there is decoration everywhere, but that’s not what you notice right away; instead, you feel the weight of thousands of years of tradition.

Pagoda interior Pagoda interior
Pagoda interior Pagoda interior

The pagoda is an important Buddhist center in Sàigòn's Chinatown.

Goddess of the Sea tapestry

The temple is also dedicated to the Chinese deity Thien Hau Thanh Mau, the goddess of the sea and patron of sailors.

Big spiral coils of incense hanging from the ceiling

The air is full of incense; those big spiral coils are the incense, and the papers at the tops have the names of loved ones written on them.  The coils take around two weeks to burn, and at the end the papers are also consumed.  The coils may be purchased for 15,000 đồng; I write my parents’ names on a piece of red paper, and, with assistance from an ancient Chinese gentleman, light the coil without breaking off too much of it.  He hangs it up with a long pole and I watch the incense burn for a few minutes.

My parents’ coils

I wonder at the persistence of culture.  I ask myself if my family would have kept their traditions this much alive in such a strange land after a couple of hundred years, and I have to admit that I don’t think they would have lasted a single generation.  When we climb back on the bus, we all smell like sandalwood.

Crossing the Mekong

A long time later, we catch our first glimpse of waters that can rightfully be described as the Mekong.


Trần Nguyễn Hãn:  A famous general under Lê Lồi, leader of the Lam Son Insurrection and self-proclaimed King of Pacification, who threw the Chinese out of Việt Nam.

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