27 January 2011


Jan 2011
There are always changes when one returns to a place after several years. Judging from the changes I had seen in just the three years I had lived in Ho Chi Minh City, (2005-2008), I thought I would be ready for the difference between 2008 and 2011. I wasn’t. Or maybe I was but still find it rather shocking.

The traffic was insane when I left and now I find I am without adjectives to describe what it has become. The shuttle bus in from where I live to the center used to take about 20-25 minutes. A few days ago it took nearly 40 minutes. It’s just one big parking lot on all the streets. When last here, it was mostly motorbikes, (Vespa’s), trucks and taxis, and not that many private cars. The motorbikes seem to have multiplied like bunnies and a lot more people are driving cars. If streets were jam-packed three years ago, and are super jam-packed now, what will happen in five years time? I don’t think I will stick around to find out.

The quiet neighborhood where I used to live and where I am now in a hotel, still boggles the mind with its massive change. I was having trouble figuring out where all the traffic on the main road was coming from and where it was going to. True, there are numerous, massive, new apartment buildings here, but the people traveling through this area do not live here. I finally found out that this road/highway has been extended in both directions and bridges have been built connecting outer sections of the city. Even though it is always busy, traffic does move along and has enabled people to get from point A to point B much more efficiently.

The problem with the main intersection is that there are about 6 lanes in each direction; some for motorbikes, some for cars, and some for trucks. This means that if you are in the motorbike lane and want to turn left, you must cross in front of the car and truck lanes that are going straight ahead. And if you are a pedestrian trying to cross you have to continuously look left and right and then back over your left shoulder and right shoulder because no one cares that you are crossing the street. Just when you think you might be OK, a motor bike appears, going in the wrong direction, trying to cut in around cars and trucks. It’s a veritable minefield.
I used to love taking weekend and evening walks up by the river; so quiet and peaceful and green. That is no longer possible. At the time, they had just completed this spectacular garden walkway where you could stroll along a landscaped path and listen to the chug-chug of the boats on the river just a little bit away. They have now built giant, ugly apartment blocks on both sides of the garden path. The ground floors are all shops giving it a strip-mall look. I tried walking there last night and none of the positive energy of the garden has survived.

Jan 2011
I suppose progress is inevitable and that entrepreneurs will open new businesses in a new area. But as I walked past new restaurant after new restaurant, with either no one inside or possibly two customers, I wondered just how long any of these will be open.

Having said all that, there are lots and lots of beautiful, quiet streets out here. I love walking along them, saying hi to construction workers on a coffee break, or waving to the ladies sweeping the streets, or stopping to admire a baby sitting with his granny on the front steps of a house. The people remain lovely and friendly. If they can seemingly ignore the clamor and clutter around them, maybe I can too. 

23 January 2011

A Museum & Artists

The combination of Colonial French Architecture, cool interiors, and marvelous artwork makes the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts a lovely retreat from the chaos that surrounds it. I had heard that it had originally been a commercial building, but their website says that it was used to board the daughters of the French Colonial rulers. No wonder I always feel like I could take up residence inside the museum.

My friend and I arrived the day they were having some sort of ceremony, possibly an art contest finale as several of the works had prize rankings attached to them. Lots of people and lots of floral arrangements graced the main entrance. However, the rest of the art filled rooms, covering three floors, were quite empty.

We strolled through the wide corridors with open windows on our left and into rooms on the right with examples of art ranging from the 1930’s to the present. There were oils and lacquer works, sculpture and acrylics. Several areas showcased ancient ethnic artwork. We walked up the wide staircases glowing with color from stained-glass windows that looked out onto the courtyard below.

It always amazes me that these old buildings, with no air conditioning, are never hot and usually have a nice breeze running through them. Perfect tropical architecture. In some of the museum rooms there were small fans, but they weren’t on and at the time we were there and were not needed.

The Fine Arts Museum really is the best place in town to cool down, relax, and feel revitalized.


Walking back from the backpackers’ area on Pham Ngu Lau St., I passed a small group of people in a tiny shop that opened onto the street. I could see that an older woman was instructing two young men who were working on an oil painting. Two other men and a young woman sat on small, folding chairs out front, and a few others were inside the small space. I stopped to watch their work and caught the eye of one of the guy’s who was inside. What with the noise of traffic and my limited Vietnamese, I did hand signals to indicate that I was watching the artists work and that I liked what they were doing. A look of surprise came over the young man’s face and he started to use sign language to reply.

Years and years ago, I took several semesters of American Sign Language and since that time, whenever I am overseas, I tend to use signs that are clear to anyone. It has gotten to the point that I assume I am using Universal Gestures, and some of the time I possibly am, but this time I was actually using ASL.

I know from my last trip to Vietnam, when I had a similar experience, that ASL is quite similar to VNSL. I assume that is because ASL is based on French Sign Language and that the French brought Sign Language to Vietnam.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting with the group chatting. This consisted of Sign Language and Vietnamese and English. Some was written down in English, and some was translated by the Vietnamese teacher, who was hearing but spoke limited English, and some by the young deaf man who had spent fifteen years in Australia. We were all so excited that we could communicate together.

They were part of the SHI, (Saigon Hearing Impairment), Fine Arts Club. They gave me a brochure of an exhibition going on just down the road, and pointed out their works pictured in the brochure.

This was really the first time since arriving that I remembered why I go off to other parts of the world; it’s for these truly magical moments that simply don’t happen when one knows one’s surroundings and the people that populate it.

For about thirty minutes we talked about where I was from, what I did, and a little about their lives. I learned that ASL has a far larger vocabulary than VNSL. The young man I first spoke with told me that his friend was studying at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, CA. Excitement reigned when I told him that it was very close to where I was from in California.

When it was time for me to dash off so that I could catch the little shuttle bus back to my hotel, (rather than pay for a taxi), I promised to go by their exhibition and to come by again. I plan to go the see their work tomorrow and go back to talk sometime next week.


15 January 2011

Back in HCMC

Yesterday I finally had to use the internet to figure out that it was actually Saturday and not Friday. This is one of the minor hassles of losing a day when you fly half-way around the world. Not only am I now on the right time and the right hour, my body is also starting to recognize the change.

I never can sleep on a plane but since I was flying EVA airlines and had upgraded to Economy Deluxe, I wasn’t overly concerned. When I last flew back from Vietnam, nearly three years ago, the price difference between Economy and Eco Deluxe was only $100 each way. Totally worth it when you get wide seats with plenty of leg room and your own personal movies-on-demand screen. Unfortunately, that price has now doubled. More unfortunately, I flew on one of their more shabby planes.

It wasn’t until I had spoken to a travel agent, (and after I had already bought the ticket), that I found out that EVA uses well-worn 747’s three days a week and brand-spanking-new 777’s on other days. Prior to knowing this I had been mesmerized by the beautiful look of the “New Eco Deluxe” seats that EVA kept emailing to me.

Yes, the seats on the 747 are far wider and more comfortable than in economy, but the movie screens are old school. You do get your own private screen but you are at the mercy of whatever is currently playing; no pause, no rewind, not options other than channel 1, 2, or 3.

On one of my frequent strolls around the plane, a woman asked what was wrong with my knee. (your basic middle-aged joint problem). Then she kneeled down and started working on the knee, massaging and probing and hitting all the right spots. She told me she was a Thai masseuse, going home to visit family. She worked absolute wonders on my knee and then again gave me a treatment shortly before we landed in Taipei.

At least the three hour flight from Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City was on one of those new 777’s; shear luxury. When I fly back, I will make sure I get on a 777 for those 14 hours back to California.
Pure euphoria is how I would describe my emotional state as I walked out of the airport and into a taxi, headed for a hotel in the neighborhood where I used to live. I could not stop grinning and trying to talk to the driver. I was warm, it was chaotic, it was Vietnam. It wasn’t quite the feeling one often gets when returning home after many years, but very close. I was just so happy to be on a new adventure.

I mentioned “trying” to converse to the taxi driver because I had forgotten all my very basic Vietnamese while in California. I had big plans of taking out my language books so that I could at least try to refresh my market/restaurant/taxi vocabulary, but just never got around to it. But the most amazing thing has happened; it is all coming back. I’ll be walking down the street and a phrase will just pop into my head. Or I’ll be at the supermarket and turn to a clerk to ask a question and the words just fly out. We’re not talking anything other than basic survival language, but it is still there. The mind truly is amazing.

The first thing I did when I got to my hotel was to take a shower, unpack a few things, then went out to run errands. Water was the first priority. I drink copious amounts and the cheapest way to get a large, clean water supply is to have a 19 liter/5 gallon bottle delivered to your house. I walked a few short blocks to the little shop that had been my supplier in the past. Right away all the delivery guys recognized me and even remembered my apt/street address, which I had forgotten. I paid and arranged for the water to be delivered in an hour.

Next I went to my old apartment building in hopes of seeing a favorite neighbor. I wasn’t sure if he was even alive as he had been in his mid-80’s and getting a bit frail when I’d last seen him. Much to my great pleasure, not only was he alive and kicking but in better health than 3 years ago. We had a lovely chat before I went back to the hotel to wait for the water.

4pm is the witching hour for me when I have crossed too many time zones and datelines. It’s like someone has shot me with morphine although it doesn’t really feel anywhere near that pleasant. In fact not pleasant at all. I can’t move, can’t keep my eyes open and finally just lie down. The hours are all a big mess to me, but I think I got up at 3am and left the hotel at 6am looking for food.

When I moved to this part of town in 2005, it was quite deserted. A lot of apartment complexes had gone up, and there was construction on every block, but that was about it. One supermarket existed and it was rather dismal. A few tiny eateries, that I would never dine in were scattered here and there, and I don’t think there was one hotel. What I did like is that there was very little traffic, even on the main highway that ran through the middle of this new part of town. Oh my gosh; things have change.

Restaurants and supermarkets and hotels abound. That has its advantages. But the traffic is unbelievable. I have no idea where all these people are coming from or going to. It’s not like downtown Ho Chi Minh City, but one does have to be extremely cautious when crossing a street.

I’ve spent the past few days visiting friends and have been into town twice. Today I am staying in. I do have a mini-fridge in the room which is nice except you have to remember that the electricity cuts off when you leave the room, so what you store has to be limited to non-very-perishables. I was able to find regular light bulbs to replace the florescent bedside lights. (this only took two days and about 5 hours of walking around the entire city to find.)

I’ve managed to get over my initial fear of using my costly, brand new, DSLR camera. I’m still having a bit of trouble figuring out where I have stored the photos on my computer. I’m still questioning if lugging around a high-dollar camera was a smart move. I can’t just whip it out of my bag and throw it back in. I haven’t yet figured out exactly how to walk around town with it. Do I keep it in my shoulder bag which is really not comfortable or do I put it in a back pack which is really not as safe? Did I spend a fortune on an impractical piece of equipment, or is it really the apparatus that I have been dreaming about owning for years? I’m hoping it is the latter.