My Last Month in Ho Chi Minh City

OK… truth is I’m home again. It’s been almost a month now since I left Vietnam. Transition time from Vietnam’s heat and humidity to home in the cooling colourful Fall.

There were a few highlights during my last month in Ho Chi Minh City…

My fascination with the narrow lanes led me down a few more.

narrow lane in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Entrance to Lane

Miss Loi’s guesthouse is on a narrow, but well lit, lane between Co Bac and Co Giang streets. Just a few blocks away I discovered another series of narrow lanes, connecting the two streets, and intersecting lanes running parallel to Co Bac/Co Giang. At first I was intimidated by the dark lanes and feeling slightly intrusive. It wasn’t long before I felt welcome though.

men in Saigon lane, Vietnam
Local Men Relaxing

I stopped and asked this group of afternoon loungers if I could take their photo. They were cool with that. I later went back with a print for them but after a couple of visits hadn’t recognized anybody. So I showed the print to two other men one day and pointed to the smiling man in the photo and said the photo was for him. One of them laughed, nodded and ran off to deliver the photo.

It was another world in the lanes: dark even in the middle of the day, cool, somewhat mysterious and intriguing. Bamboo cages of chickens line the lanes alongside small rooms with people, watching TV, cleaning dishes, cooking, selling cigarettes and drinks, playing pool, having coffee, tea, beers… Awnings and tarps jutted out, stopping much of the light from reaching ground level. On a corner one home, it’s sides open to the world, lit the lane with fluorescent lighting, a greenish glow seeping into the dim street level. At the corners I could see the lanes continuing on to further intersections and a plethora of rooms piled into the narrow spaces.

Saigon lane
Intersecting Lane

I felt the lanes represented an older Saigon; a place now receding as buildings are torn down and replaced by modern bank towers.

Once I wandered into an unexplored lane and a group of women having tea laughingly said “See you soon” as I passed by. I thought they were practicing their English greetings. After a few twists ,turns and deadends I returned the way I’d come and as I passed them again realized they’d meant exactly what they’d said.

I continued candidly photographing vendors and markets, simply because they were a such a prevalent part of the street life.

street vendor, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Buying Lunchtime Snacks

The mob scene below took place in a nearby market. I don’t know what the vendor’s pitch was but he had a crowd and was doing a brisk business selling plastic kitchenware.

street market, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Marketing Plastic Wares

People sat in interesting small spaces, here relaxing during a sales lull.

meat stall at street market, Saigon, Vietnam
Sitting in the Meat Stall

Sundays seemed to bring out more vendors selling watches, leather goods, sunglasses, helmets, mobile phones etc. on the sidewalks. I saw a huge variety of knock-offs.

watch sales on the street, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Checking Out the Watches

As I left Miss Loi’s and stepped out of the lane onto Co Bac I frequently exchanged greetings with a local barber who worked in a small space by the corner. I admired his bright tropical print shirts. He ask if I wanted a haircut. Or a shave. Maybe an ear cleaning?

street barber, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Local Barber

It was a good thing that I had to leave my room twice a day to get meals, otherwise I might have stayed in, avoiding the noise and humid heat. Because of my ongoing cold I often needed an afternoon nap and didn’t have the energy to get out and about as much as I would have liked to.

However, one evening there was an opening at the nearby contemporary art gallery so on my way back from dinner I stopped by to view the first fine art exhibition by young photo journalist Phan Quang.

Exhibition of photos by Phan Quang at Gallery Quynh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phan Quang Photo Exhibition

The exhibition, entitled A Farmer’s Diary, featured staged images taken in rural locations and a series of images of a giant umbrella in a rice field, slowly disintegrating over time, juxtaposed with a series of pages from the farmer’s diary. There was a good sized crowd in the small gallery, a mix of Vietnamese and Westerners. I would have liked to have stayed longer and socialized but my cold sent me on my way. I enjoyed my visits to Gallery Quynh and saw some quality contemporary art there (by both Vietnamese and Western artists) that transcended the copycat art of so many Vietnamese galleries.

Before I left HCMC I wanted to visit Cholon, the Chinatown district. I had mapped out a route so that I could visit several pagodas and the local market. My xe om driver overshot my first stop and scouted around for a bit before getting sorted out. I was glad I’d printed a map from mapsgoogle as I don’t think he was very familiar with the neighbourhood. We were actually going the wrong way down a one-way street for a while (memories of Hanoi!). But he eventually he dropped me near my first pagoda.

sunbeam in pagoda, Saigon, Vietnam
Sunbeam in Pagoda

The pagoda was very peaceful with only  a few Vietnamese visitors. Beams of sunlight sliced the incense smoked air. I took my time wandering around, admiring the many statues and altars. Leaving the pagoda and walking back out onto the noisy street was disconcerting but I did manage to visit four of my eight selected pagodas. At one there were so many tourists I didn’t stay very long at all. Interesting how a camera wielding tour group can destroy any ambience. Even I, one lone tourist, must have disrupted the peace for the locals.

pagoda roof decoration, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Roof Dragons

Cholon was not quite what I expected. I thought the architecture might be different from the rest of the city but what I saw looked typical and the traffic was certainly typical. I walked past a block of herb shops mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook but the promised herbal odours were almost masked by the exhaust of bikes and buses. I did find one lane that seemed to specialize in aquariums though.

fish in aquarium, Saigon, Vietnam
Tropical Fish in Aquarium

I spent some time in one shop admiring the brightly coloured tropical fish. Miss Loi’s had an aquarium and I’d noticed many aquariums in guesthouses, restaurants and other businesses. I found I liked to sit near them and observe the habits of the different species.

Lastly I strolled down to the large Cho Binh Tay market, passing the usual hordes of xe om drivers asking “Where are you going, Where are you from?”.

Cho Binh Tay market in Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Cho Binh Tay Market

By this time I was getting tired and had no desire to navigate the huge market, especially as I wasn’t shopping. So I walked around the edges, looking at the exterior stalls and watching people load/unload bikes and move goods about.

moving goods outside Cho Binh Tay market, Saigon, Vietnam
Moving the Goods

I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be amazed how much can be packed onto a motorbike in SE Asia.

Having seen enough of Cholon I walked over to the Nine Dragon’s Park where I found a xe om driver to take me back to the backpackers’ area for lunch. Then I returned to my packing.

Nine Dragons Park, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Nine Dragons Park

My bags were stuffed, which was odd because I was leaving quite a bit of expendable stuff behind (the cleaning girls must have had a good time claiming the various items), including heavy books. But my luggage scales showed my big bag maxed out at 50lbs. and all my electronic gear was packed into my camera/laptop bag and carry-on bag. At the airport I was informed I couldn’t take my carry-on bag on with me as I was over a weight limit. Funny, as I had more when I flew there and it wasn’t a problem. Sue also had been nabbed when we left Hanoi for too much weight in her carry-on. Each country’s airports seem to have their own issues and Vietnam’s seems to be weight restrictions.

My return flight was a repeat of our Spring route with the eight hour layover in Tokyo. It was the best and the worst of flights: turbulent over most of Asia, my usual lack of sleep and fizzy tummy plus the long layover. But the plane from HCMC to Tokyo was not very full so I had a bit of extra room and the on the flight from Narita to SeaTac I had an Exit Door seat, so had lots of legroom. And I managed enough sleep that I wasn’t totally exhausted when we arrived in Seattle. However, when I looked at the Departure board in SeaTac my flight to Victoria was cancelled!  As it was some sort of mechanical failure I was happy to not be on that plane, but it delayed my arrival in Victoria enough that we missed the afternoon ferry to Pender. Another seat home had been arranged and although it doglegged to Vancouver I was only 2.5 hours late. Finally I saw Sue, smelt the fresh West coast air and stretched my legs back in Canada.

Although my journey didn’t go quite as planned it provided me with an opportunity to focus on a few things I’d been meaning to get around to, eg. making some art I’d been thinking about for years and developing some good habits.

Now... that I’ve finally posted something about my final weeks in Vietnam I’d like to assure you the journey continues…

view from Pender Island towards Salt Spring Island, Gulf Islands, BC
Looking Over and Out

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