Thursday, July 14, 2005

Sartorial Observations In Saigon

I was rather apprehensive before coming to Vietnam as it has quite a bad reputation on the backpacker circuit for being full of touts hassling you all the time and getting ripped off left, right and centre. None of which has so far been the case. Indeed, the Vietnamese I've met so far have generally been incredibly warm and friendly people, one episode left me particularly admiring. I was having my dinner at one of the many rice stalls dotted around town and the guy sitting opposite me, upon leaving, paid for my lunch as well! I hadn't so much as exchanged a word or even a glance with the man and there he was buying me lunch (the fact that it cost only 20p is neither here nor there). It might have been due to the fact that I was actually eating at a stall where locals eat (most tourists eat in restaurants where the same food costs at least double) or maybe because I scowled at a group of western girls wearing skirts and halter-tops (women here almost exclusively wear trousers and always cover their shoulders). Whatever the reason it really touched me as the man obviously didn't want or expect anything in return, and I barely even managed a thank you before he scampered off.

Seeing as I've already mentioned clothing I might as well expand upon the subject. It is one of the things that I really enjoy about this country: it's probably the only place in the world where wearing your pyjamas and a lampshade is common practice. Not that I'm being derogatory, in fact it's very practical: the pyjamas are light and airy so keep you cool, and the broad bamboo hats are perfect sunshades. Actually I feel rather comfortable here as I've taken to wearing my pyjamas for quite some time now. That said, I also find their more formal national dress, the ao dai, incredibly elegant and sexy.

Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City), though not the capital, is the economic hub of the country. That, coupled with the fact that it is quite a new city, means that it isn't particularly pretty. There are, however, some interesting things to see in the neighbourhood. About 100km outside of Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels, which played a very important part in the Viet Cong resistance against the Americans. There were over 250km of tunnels in the Cu Chi district, sometimes in 3 layers and to a depth of 10m. The ingenuity of the VC in building the tunnels is extraordinary (they had kitchens, smithies, sleeping quarters and, of course, booby traps) and shows how dedicated they must have been. Although the tunnels are a major tourist attraction and have therefore been enlarged to double their size, it was still a bit of a squeeze for me in places (and I'm not particularly wide or tall (I would have loved to see a fat American get stuck down there!)), so I'm not at all surprised that the Americans never managed to dislodge the Vietnamese. Another stop on the obligatory tour is the Caodai temple. Caodaism is a religion that was "invented" only 80 years ago by a local prophet (mystic? spiritualist? philosopher?) and is as syncretic a religion as you can get, being a mélange of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and local animist beliefs. But for me the most interesting sight here has been the War Remnants museum (formerly called the American War Crimes museum). It presents a lot of information about the effects of the war on the local population that is often not mentioned or glossed over in the west, and frankly it's not even as biased and full of propaganda as I had hoped. Although I was dimly aware of many of the facts the museum put a light on it as a whole and made me realise the extent of the atrocities. I'm not going to write a great deal about the subject just now (as my rather depressing post about Cambodia wasn't that long ago) but I'm sure it's a subject I'll come back to in a later post.

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