Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Vietnam 2016 Day 1. Slightly lost in Saigon

After a nice Vietnamese breakfast, and a couple of back and forth messages, I finally got my scooter and was ready to explore Saigon. My first task was to become reacquainted with the craziness of scooter riding. As I was swerving to avoid colliding with pregnant mothers, little old ladies, and whole families precariously mounted on speeding scooters, I couldn’t help but think on the beautiful coordination one sees in a hive of bees or a school of anchovies. The same would be true of a gaggle of Vietnamese going to work, were it not for the fact that clumsy little me was right in their middle, gumming up the whole works. But what is well learnt is never truly forgotten, and after a few close calls I regained my legendary scooter-riding ability. At some point an older couple riding a scooter stopped by my side and asked me where I was from. “Mexico”, I replied. “That is what my husband thought”, answered the woman (probably based on the boldness of my scooter moves). “And how long have you been in Vietnam” asked he. “Just a day”, said I. “And you are already riding a scooter in Saigon?”, he exclaimed, with a real sense of awe in his voice. Fortunately the traffic got going at that very moment, and I was able to leave him wondering what the traffic was like in Mexico City.

My first stop was the Museum of History, which is OK but not grandiose. Relatively simple displays take you through the presence of Homo erectus in the Mekong Delta as far back as half a million years ago, the bronze age in a basically agricultural setting, and from then on to the Chinese invasion in 179 BC and the many dynasties that followed (with or without Chinese ties). One of the golden moments was that of the Champa culture (200 to 1600 AD) of southern Vietnam, in which the arts flourished and pottery reached a high degree of refinement. The second half of the museum was devoted to a hodge podge of displays about the peoples of southern Asia, largely based on personal collections that have been gifted to the museum. A highlight was the water puppet theater, which I had seen in one of the museums in Hanoi a couple of years ago. I will tell you more about it later, but for now will say that a day care was doing a visit to the museum, and the little kids had a great time seeing the dragons come out of the water, or the fish frolicking in front of the fishermen.

Next I wanted to visit the Women’s Museum, but I got there just in time for the midday siesta (11:30 am to 1:30 pm) and had to come back later. I used the time to meander around town in my scooter, getting lost and finding myself again as I slowly developed a mental map of the downtown area. Saigon is a bit crazy, but nothing like Hanoi, and I soon started recognizing parks and major intersections. Just then it started to rain, and I had to find emergency shelter in a sports complex that also serves as the neighborhood conservatory. People come to learn to play an instrument, or to participate in one of the very popular ballroom dancing classes. While I was there a group of about 30 adults was working on the intricacies of rumba and cha-cha-cha, following with gusto the beat marked by the instructor. Also at this complex was the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, which was much touted as being the best in the country. OK, I thought, now I know what I can do later in the day.

A little farther I got caught by yet another squall, and I thought this was the perfet opportunity to stop for lunch. I dove into the covered garage of what looked like a nice restaurant, parked the scooter, and found that my bad luck had landed me in a health bar, where the beautiful people can load on fruit smoothies, yoghurt, and the latest health grains. With a heavy heart I had to settle for a watermelon juice and a healthy sounding baguette sandwich, for which I paid the outrageous amount of 120,000 dong!

I should at this point clarify that here I am a millionaire! I visited the ATM on arrival at the airport and walked away with a cool 6,000,000 dong, at a rate of exchange of 1 US dollar for 20,000 dong. The thing is, prices are generally very cheap in Vietnam, so a little money generally goes a long way. Still, a scrawny lunch for 120,000 dong is highway robbery, but with the rain it is hard to go stall hopping like I would rather go.

I did get back to the Southern Vietnamese Women’s Museum, with which I was very impressed. The first floor has displays of the dresses and regalia used by Vietnamese women in the many ethnic groups found throughout the country (something like 50 distinct ethnic groups), as well as of the arts of pottery, weaving, dying, and reed weaving practiced by women. The second floor was devoted to the crucial roles women played in the two armed conflicts faced by modern Vietnam: the French and American invasions. Women not only stepped in to do Rosie the Riveter kind of work, but were also the core of the logistics operations, combatants, and leaders of the civil resistance movement. The tasks of moving ammunition and supply through jungle paths fell on the capable shoulders of young tough women, but the number of middle-aged and older women depicted on the photographs was notable. The “hero mothers” organized the people on the town, walked defiantly at the front of peace marches, demonstrated fearlessly in front of the armed forces of occupation, and overall maintained alive the pride and self-determination of the Vietnamese people. I was very impressed by this museum.

I finished the day with a performance at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, where I was indeed treated to a highly polished version of this popular Vietnamese entertainment. The funny thing is that the stories told were for the most part the same I had seen at the simpler performance at the museum! I wonder if it isn’t the same puppeteers who run both shows. In the professional version, however, you have an orchestra of six musicians who double as narrators, actors, and peanut gallery to the antics of the puppets, and that makes a world of difference. The puppets pop out of a pool of water that stands in front of a set pagoda, manipulated from behind the reed mats that close the pagoda’s entrance. What is amazing is the incredible range of motions they can achieve: dragons jump out of the water spraying the audience, fisherrmen chase after frolicking fish, three boats of 8 rowers each have a race in front of an amazed audience, and the local prince takes a leisurely boat ride across the pond accompanied by an amazing retinue of courtiers and musicians. At the end the whole crew comes behind the mats, and you wonder how a dozen people managed to fit and maneuver their puppets in such a reduced space. 

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