Under a different set of circumstances, I would’ve fallen in love with Saigon (I know its name is now Ho Chi Minh but Saigon just rolls off the tongue better) — with its narrow buildings where residents still strive to nurture a bit of greenery in their urban habitat, with its cheap and tasty food, with its numerous parks and wonderful architecture.
I found Saigon easy to navigate on foot, which, I am gradually discovering, is my preferred way of initial exploration. (Riding the bus would have been the next option but we were utterly confused by the city’s public transport system.) Most of the roads have sidewalks that actually function as sidewalks as opposed to the streets of Metro Manila where sidewalks are fair game for vendors of all kinds. The only deterrent to exploration by walking are the motorists who drive with almost no regard for pedestrians and road rules. If I were at high-risk for heart disease, crossing Saigon roads would be enough to give me a heart attack.
Ah, Saigon would’ve totally captured my heart had it not been for those two men on a motorcycle who managed to make away with the DSLR camera I borrowed from my sister. I would succumb to nostalgia for the city — and its spring rolls and unforgettable iced coffee — if I didn’t remember how it felt to be standing in the middle of a street filled with people just staring at me. I would be longing to stroll along its streets again if it didn’t make me think of an afternoon spent in a police station unable to explain your predicament to officers who didn’t speak English.
That first day in Saigon gave me a paranoia for the entire trip, a paranoia that stayed with me even when we had crossed over to Cambodia. Granted, I was probably too heedless a tourist to begin with, so perhaps Saigon only gave me a healthy, much needed, dose of precaution.
The next day, we were terrified of going out again. The fear, however, was conquered by the conviction that hiding out in the hotel room would just give more power to the experience we still couldn’t believe actually happened. I couldn’t bear for that to be the strongest memory of Saigon I would carry home. So we headed out to be all touristy and shiz — this time riding a cab.
War Remnants Museum. The Reunification Palace. Notre Dame Cathedral. Central Post Office. All typical tourist sights — but they all gave a glimpse of how Vietnam frames its history. The War Remnants Museum, in particular, was an interesting study of how the country constructs memories of the violence it has experienced. (It is by no means an “objective” display of the Vietnam War, which made it both fascinating and disconcerting at the same time.)
I am glad that a. we decided to venture out of our room that day and that b. the Central Post Office was our last stop in Saigon. I have not yet let go of the romance of the post and the act of faith that accompanies every entrusted letter or package, and the hope that it would indeed reach its destination. Standing on that site where connections meet and words converge, it was a moment of clarity: how I wanted so much to go home and yet I really didn’t.