14 February 2007

Chinatown, Saigon

Not being able to go to Malaysia for my vacation wasn’t really all that traumatic. I can go there in a few months. But then I remembered that I would miss one of the spots I had planned to visit in Kuala Lumpur: Chinatown. It is especially wonderful leading up to Chinese New Year.

Chinatown in KL is simple to get to and the business section is small enough to easily get around. I especially love all the shops that sell new years decorations. There are lots of gold plastic ornaments trimmed with red tassels, in popular symbols like pineapples and pots and, of course, the current year’s animal. The stalls are also stacked with greeting cards, lucky money envelopes, and every shape and size of red lanterns. Besides the shops, there are all the small and large temples filled with burning incense and beautiful alters. I was saddened that I wouldn’t see it this year.

But wait! Ho Chi Minh City has a huge Chinatown. I had gone there not long after arriving in Vietnam. It is so large, and so confusing, and so crowded, that I hadn’t been back since. If I wanted to get in on all the fun part of Chinese New Year, I needed to go back. I looked at it as a mini-vacation.

Being the most inept individual in the world when it comes to directions, (I need to look at both hands in front of me to remember which is left and which is right), last night I got out every map I owned. I had two tourist maps, a hand drawn one from my Vietnamese teacher, one cut out from Lonely Planet, and one from a tourist magazine. I then got out all the literature I had on Chinatown and plotted out my route. I knew it would be crowded, but the weather isn’t deplorably hot right now, so I reasoned that if I left home at 9:00 am, I would be ok.

Taxi drivers in HCMC are generally amazing. They seem to know where everything is. Knowing this, and practicing what I would say in Vietnamese to the driver, I foresaw no problems. My first stop was to be one of the many famous pagodas in Chinatown.

This morning, I jumped into one of the taxis that are always waiting in front of my building. I said, in what I believed to be pretty darn good Vietnamese, where I wanted to go. The driver, who had already driven half a block before I finished speaking, nodded in complete understanding. At the corner he stopped to ask a fellow driver where, exactly, was this pagoda I wanted to go to. Uh oh….. I pulled out my various maps and pointed to them. He recognized a main street and assured me he knew.

All was going well until we got into the heart of Chinatown. It is an old place. Those narrow streets were built for a donkey or two, not five million motorbikes. Even on the wide boulevards, it was pandemonium. What the hell was I thinking going down there three days before Tet? But I started to recognize a few streets I had been on before, and just tried to relax in air-conditioned comfort as we edged our way thorough streets made even narrower by parked motorbikes and customers visiting all the shops along the way.

I did start to get a bit antsy when I realized the driver really had no clue. It seems that unless you grew up in Chinatown, you do not know your way around. He stopped and asked directions several times. I found out later that the name of a temple or pagoda on a tourist map is not necessarily what the Chinese speakers call it. We finally arrived at a temple that was not the one I was aiming for, but it would do. I needed the tranquility that awaited me through its arches.

Walking out of the chaos and into total silence was wonderful. I adore the smell of the incense they use, another reason for going to the temples. For over a year, I have been trying to get that Chinese Temple Incense, but always buy the wrong one. Today I was told it is sandalwood, and I made sure I bought a lot of it.

I saw a couple of tourists inside, but mostly just a few locals, buying candles and incense, which they lit and prayed over then placed in giant urns, before getting down on their knees to pray. When I felt sufficiently serene, I sat on a side bench, pulled out the maps, and tried to plot my next move on the trip I had formulated the night before. Now, in what temple was I? I hadn’t a clue.

I looked out to the street and remembered places we passed in the taxi that I could easily find. I also knew that trying to use a map in all that commotion would be impossible. In fact, it would probably have been impossible had the streets been empty. So I tossed it all in my bag, took a deep breath, and wandered on out.

Squishing through crowded sidewalks, often having to walk in the street and dodge traffic, I felt the tension rising. I stopped by an elderly gentleman’s makeshift stand where he was painting Chinese calligraphy, New Year’s banners. I bought a pair to place on either side of my front door. I walked further and saw several more calligraphers. One man was exceptional. I watched as he whipped out gold characters on red paper. It was absolutely beautiful. I asked the price, but it was too high.

As with the last time I was in this area, I just didn’t feel comfortable. People weren’t rude or unkind, but they seemed rather dismissive. I would have liked to take pictures as I walked, but did not feel that pulling out my camera was a wise thing to do.

Finally giving up on that section of Chinatown, I decided to head over to the fabric markets that were close by. As I passed a group of shops selling New Year’s decoration, I heard my name called out. I turned to see my realtor friends, busy buying up trinkets. I explained my failed mission to find certain temples, and they directed me to one a block away. It was also there that I was able to take a few pictures, having a big, local guy watch my back.

The second temple was also lovely and calming. Recharged, I was determined to get the fabric I needed. But half way to the market, which was only a few blocks away, I hit burn-out. I needed a taxi out of there and fast. This was a little more difficult than I had hoped. Taxis down there are not as numerous, but I finally found one.

At that point, I really just wanted to head on back to the homestead, but needed to go by Vietnam Air to argue my case for not loosing my ticket to Malaysia. I talked to one of the sales agents, then had to come back an hour and a half later to see what a manager said. I still don’t have a final answer, but it looks like either I loose the ticket or fork over nearly the same amount as the ticket cost to turn it into an “open” ticket, which is something I will not do. I will get a final answer sometime next week.

I intend to spend the rest of my vacation sequestered in the burbs.
Happy Valentine’s Day!