If Saigon is the commercial heart of Vietnam, Cholon is the commercial heart of Saigon. What used to be China town still has a distinct Chinese flavour – plenty Chinese writing here, and shops selling distinct Chinese lampions and masks -, although the Chinese are struggling, with the business acumen of the Vietnamese developing fast. Cholon means big market, and the name couldn’t be more appropriate: it seems every street is full of shops, full of market stalls, and full of individual vendors hawking their ware on the pavement. Colourful, chaotic, characteristic for this part of town, and loosing oneself here for an hour or two is fun.
(1) Binh Tay market in Cho Lon, not the biggest, but the most characteristic market in this area.
(2, 3) You name it, they have it.
(4) A lady selling lottery tickets, a national past time in Vietnam (the lottery, not selling the tickets, this is often done by handicapped people).
(6) And somebody needs to sell all those scales, no? Also in the market!
If it gets too busy, too noisy, there are always the pagodas, tucked away in small side streets, recognizable from a distance from the activity in front, selling incense and other offerings. They are not very old, these temples, but old enough to create a special atmosphere, further enhanced by the smoke from jostle sticks, and incense burning coils that hang from the roof. You get tears in your eyes – not from emotion, but from smoke irritation. The ultimate escape, if even this gets too much, is the small Cha Tam church, nothing special, but an oasis of peace in between the bustling market streets. Not on Sundays, perhaps, as four huge flat-screen TVs presumably aid the church goers during mass, bringing the service up close wherever you sit.
(7) The Quam Am Pagoda, and all its activity outside, (8) roof decoration, made from pot shards, and (9, 10) the activity inside, as far as you can make out through the incense smoke.
Somehow it is difficult to reconcile this Saigon with the city that appears in so many American Vietnam war films, always seemingly small scale, cyclos in the streets, fighting for space with pedestrians. Nowadays the cyclos are for tourists only, and the pedestrians have taken to the motorbike instead. Yet, the war, or should I say wars – we count three 20th Century Indochina wars, first the liberation from the French, second the defeat of the Americans and third the conflict with China after Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia (there is no country in the world that fought three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in a time span of 30 years…) -, are still very much present in Saigon, through the various buildings that sport hardware like old tanks, fighter planes and helicopters. There is also the War Remnants Museum, essentially a heavily biased propaganda instrument for the North Vietnamese victors. There is a ground floor full of pictures of people demonstrating in support of the Vietnamese people – a bit outdated, perhaps -, and upstairs there are all the gory details of war crimes of Americans and of the South Vietnamese “puppet-soldiers” against North Vietnamese patriots, but failing to balance this with what must have been equally, if not worse atrocities committed by those same patriots. After all, that is what war is, unfortunately, a series of excesses. A pity that 35 years after the reunification of Vietnam they cannot do a better job educating way over half of the population that has not been part of any of the wars.
Incidentally, reunification is a bit of a misnomer, considering the history of what is now Vietnam. The South used to be the Champa Kingdom, an ethnically and religiously different entity, whilst the North has been under Chinese hegemony for a significant part of its history, and the few times the country was under central government, civil war made it fall apart again soon after. Ironically, it was the French expanding their first colony, Cochinchina, in the South, with the annexing of Annan (Central Vietnam) and Tonkin (North Vietnam) that perhaps created the present outline of the independent Vietnam, as is the case in so many other countries.
Anyhow, in reality history is much more complex, of course, and there are many different views, as the War Remnants Museum shows. I guess the last winner writes the most recent version of history.
(11) Reunification palace, a rather uninspiring 1966 building that was originally called Independence Palace.
And that’s the Vietnam war as far as my blogging goes, we didn’t come here for that.... but we did come here, amongst other things, for the food, and I need to set a few things straight. Because food is one of the major attractions of Saigon. That much we have learnt. I have been complaining, earlier, I know, but none of that applies anymore. Brilliant food, tasty, subtly flavoured, varied, no, this does not disappoint at all, anymore. And whilst we are at the subject, the people here are also somewhat nicer than the ones that confronted us first, in the delta. Less rude, more refined, more helpful, also. Friendly, almost. Maybe this country turns out all right, after all.