Friday, January 25, 2008

Sojourns in Saigon

Written from Saigon, Vietnam

We woke up at 9am, high above the busy streets of Saigon. We turned over, away from the alarm clock, not wanting to get out of bed. The events of last night were still fresh in our minds.

Wait a minute! Haven't you read this post once before? You have! But it was about a completely different city, and as far as we're concerned, it could have been about a completely different planet. Because today we woke up in Saigon, not Hanoi. And last night we ate at a pretty fun restaurant and walked around the city a little bit. Despite the fact that Lonely Planet gave us grave warnings about how insane this city would be, how many motorbikes would try to run us over, how lost and overwhelming it can feel, we found their warnings to be totally unfounded. In short, we really loved Saigon, and we're going to sleep tonight wishing that we could have had more time here.

In the days since I wrote that last post about our experiences in Vietnam, I've received emails from a few people asking if we're okay, if things got better. And the short answer is that yes, things DID get better. The long answer, which of course I'm going to share with you now, is that they got better because we decided we were going to make them better. When we realized that we didn't like Hanoi, and that we really didn't want our experience there to cloud our entire time in this country, we decided to do a few things to help ourselves out. Accordingly, here is our recipe for having a better time in a place you're on the verge of hating:

1) Stop rushing around in the morning. If you're tired, sleep in. You're on vacation. Act like it.

2) Stop chastising yourself for feeling sick of eating noodle soup. If noodle soup isn't doing it for you, eat something that IS doing it for you. Something a lot like a chocolate croissant. Or a yummy baguette. Or pizza. Eat pizza.

3) Buy yourself something that reminds you of home. In our case, this was a bootleg DVD of Friends, Seasons 1-10. We watched a few episodes at night before bed, and we were instantly transported to those nights we spent on the floor of J and Cris's living room in Arlington. It made us feel so much better.

4) See the things you want to see. If you're reading your Lonely Planet and there's something that sounds just dead boring, skip it. Instead, after you've managed to roll yourself out of bed, pick ONE THING that you really want to see and see it.

5) Drink cocktails early and often. Vietnam is brilliant with the drinks, I'll give it that. They have 2 for 1 happy hour specials. And happy hour? Make that happy FIVE hours. Because it runs from 4pm -- 9pm. Yes, please.

6) Shop. Oh, little Hoi An, we didn't know how much we'd spend in your beautiful french colonial town. But we did. Matt had two shirts made for him and I had three (yes, three) jackets made for myself. It was magical. And it also made us feel guilty. Which made us need cocktails. Luckily, Hoi An stepped up to the plate. See #5.

And there you have it. In the end, it was only Hanoi that we really didn't like. Hue was so much better than Hanoi, and we would have loved to have had an extra day to wander around the Imperial Palace (which are the old royal grounds of the Nguyen Dynasty). Even though we spent a very depressing day at the DMZ (about which a post or two will be forthcoming), we stayed in a nice guesthouse and ate good food. And in Hoi An, we managed to give ourselves some time to get to know the city. We didn't plan any side trips, and we basically spent our time walking around the windy streets, and balancing our meals between western and Vietnamese food. And then we got to Saigon, and as we were walking back to our guesthouse tonight, I was feeling really kind of sad that this is our last night in Vietnam, and there's a chance that I might never be back here. Saigon especially really managed to endear itself to me (something about it reminds me of a gentle mix between Bangkok and New York) and I can honestly say that when the bus comes to pick us up bright and early tomorrow morning for our 8-hour journey to Cambodia, I WILL be sad to wave goodbye to this place.

If you look for it, the Pho in Vietnam is every bit as awesome as it's cracked up to be, and that nudging French influence peeks its way out from around corners. Our collective history with this place, and my own relationship to that history is part of what made being here so unique. While our experience in Hanoi is one that I hope we don't have to relive while we're on this trip, I wouldn't go back and erase it even if I could. In the end, we're leaving Vietnam with more than what we came with, both emotionally and physically (our packs are STUFFED!), and in the end, that's all you can ask for from a place.

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