Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Full-on Saigon

Saigon is not the kind of city that lies around waiting to be discovered. Saigon grabs you by the throat and demands attention.

The instant we stepped off the bus from Phnom Penh, a guy with a little bottle of glue was trying to fix Chad's sneakers (which were, in fact, badly in need of repair). Half an hour later, when I set out on the search for a guesthouse, a guy came up to me and bellowed "CHEAP ROOM EIGHT DOLLAR." He led me down a little alley where I walked through various families' living rooms -- TVs blaring, kids squabbling -- and climbed up narrow spiral staircases to examine their rental rooms.

Down another alley I decided to splurge on a small hotel with air conditioning and wifi. The room was so tiny, the door only opened partway before hitting the bed. But for $10, you can't expect lots of wasted space!

The intersecting network of alleys was a constant jumble of motorbikes, food sellers, kids playing, and people just hanging out. All the residents leave their front doors open in the hope of catching a cool breeze. You can walk down the alley and see what everyone's watching on TV and eating for dinner.

It's hard to square all this commercial activity with the idea that Vietnam is a Communist state. It couldn't be more different from the USSR in the late 1980s,  where I spent four months as a student. There, everything for sale (and it wasn't much) was gray or brown and shaped like a box. The common refrain was "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." Saigon is a riot of shapes and colors, and everyone seems to be working around the clock ... even those who look too young to hold down a job.

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