Instead of roughing it on the rails for the 20hr overland journey, I cheated and flew to Saigon from Hoi An, via Danang. Just over one hour and I was square in Ho Chi Minh city, more modern and more crowded than Hanoi.
I didn't see too much on my first stop through – I had some kind of bug and could only haul myself from air conditioned coffee shop to coffee shop along the route of the Lonely Planet's half day walking tour that took me most of the day. I passed some of the major landmarks – the over-priced Ben Thanh market, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which is described not inaccurately as looking like a cd holder with a tambourine stuck in the side, the Continental and Caravelle hotels, the place where the Brodard Cafe from Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American' was supposed to be, the Central Post Office designed by Gustav Eiffel and the Cold War era Reunification Palace which I toured the next morning.
The highlight of my visit and that of my return trip was meeting Nga and her 10-year old daughter Nhi. Gathering steam after the sun went down, I had directed my renewed energies to some shopping. I met Nha and Nhi at their plaza stall where they sell scarves and t-shirts, and we got to chatting. Nha showed me pictures of her birthday party with her family from the night before, and I met Nhi's aunt and some other friends who dropped by the stall. After helping them close up they took me out for some sweet tofu dessert soup, and then for Hue-style pho, where a big bowl of beef-filled soup was plunked down in front of me. Nga had understood that I didn't eat pork, thinking I might be Muslim – when it became clear it was the same for beef, Nga asked if I had given up men in my life – it took me a moment after she added in a praying motion to realise she was asking if I was a Buddhist nun. In all of my meat-free years this was the first time I'd been mistaken for a nun. While I hadn't thought of myself as progressing along a path of religious devotion, it was an interesting idea that I might already be partially qualified for a new calling, at least in some countries where swearing off meat might be considered a bigger part of the sacrifice. It was a fun night speeding along on the back of their motorbike, all three of us together, riding through the city.
On my way back through Saigon from the Delta before departing to Cambodia, I went to the War Remnants Museum, where I saw photographs from the front lines of the American war and disfigured and deformed Agent Orange victims. As with other war accounts I have seen in my Asian travels, it was a new window on a sobering history I knew only little about. The graphic images and personal stories brought home the violence of the war much more clearly than references at home made to a place so far away and exotic.
I saw some photos of a happier sort when I visited Nga and Nhi again. This time after closing we dropped by the small home they share with Nga's mother, sister and her two children. Independent women all, Nga's mother and sister are divorced, while Nga's husband died 9 years ago. I saw photos of the whole family and over dinner heard about Nga's challenges trying to support her parents as well as her daughter on her own, while her siblings are each struggling to make ends meet and for the most part are less able to help out. We went out for vegetable soup with pieces of fried batter with bean curd inside, at a small streetside stand that has been there for around 20 years, and then had fruit and jelly dessert soup at a large dessert place that Nga has been visiting since before Nhi was born.
I was sorry to say goodbye, without any plans to return to Saigon, it was hard to expect I would see them again. Nhi said “I miss you already!”
A sweet farewell to Vietnam and the friends I made there.