So, to get oriented in Ho Chi Minh city today I thought I would take a foot tour. Chanh, the oh-so-helpful manager at my hostel circled our location and some of the main attractions on a map for me. I booked this place knowing that I wanted to be within walking distance to these spots, so that was a good sign. A side note: every time a guest leaves this place, one of the desk workers- and there are only two, who each work 12 hours a day!) asks, “where are you going?” This is not out of nosiness- it’s a real question, meant to find a way that they can help you with whatever you’re setting out to do. So, today, I replied, “Walking – you know, the main attractions.” “Okay, see you this afternoon” was the reply. Hmmmmm… I thought – Lonely Planet calls this a six hour tour; I’m pretty fast, and I’m not going to do the whole thing today; and it’s only 9:30ish. That was a good clue that I would be covering a bit of ground.

I got out of the alley where the hostel is, and was quickly greeted with, “Lady – you want motorbike?” “Where you go? I take you.” It’s moments like these that I’m so glad I’ve been here before – I know that these guys need to make a buck, and EVERY time I look at my map, I’m going to hear this. It’s just a way of life in Vietnam.

I will say, though, that the moto drivers in HCMC are much less aggressive in their style than those in Hanoi were, and for the most part, when I said “No, thank you” I was left alone. Even when I was red-faced, dripping in sweat, and turning my map every which way. Which was most of the day.

The first major victory, besides fending off moto drivers, was remembering how to cross the street without getting killed. I have described this activity before and won’t go into too much detail here other than to say that you have to have nerves of steel and go for it – no hesitation, changing of pace, running, faking, or swerving allowed. It’s find your opening, go, and keep going. Starting out in rush hour traffic this morning made this intimidating at first, but after a couple of streets I was good. I even jaywalked a couple of times (like I said – find your opening and go!)

Following the Lonely Planet plan LOOSELY, I headed towards the Fine Arts Museum. Found it easily, paid my 15,000 dong (roughly 73 cents) and stumbled around the museum. I was unimpressed at first- the organization was tough to figure out; there were pieces all over the place, being moved around, swapped, and even stored in plain sight. Well, then I got to the “main” building that houses the real gems, in particular the Chinese- styled pen and ink drawings; wood carvings; American War inspired portraits; and the Vietnamese lacquers – fabulous! Then I was on to the next sight, deviating from the Lonely Planet plan and not taking the “cool down and hydrate” break that was recommended. That turned out to be a bit of a mistake, but I compensated later.

I found a “main” cross-street that I had been looking for and immediately realized I had found the financial district. Air con wafted from every doorway, prompting me to sit on a ledge next to a bank door for a quick second. An American tourist, 50-ish, approached me and asked me if I spoke English. Heh! Then asked me if I knew where the Saigon Market was. I had no idea, but I had a map and he didn’t (duh!) so we looked at it together and attempted to locate this market. He said, “You know- where they sell the North Face stuff?” I still had no idea, and could much less understand why he would be trying to buy North Face stuff in downtown Saigon. Meanwhile (and I spotted this out of the corner of my eye) a local moto driver ambushed us, and asked, “Where are you going?” My tourist “friend” proceeded to ask him where this market was, and the local told him where it was as I backed away… Slowly… Because the next line is ALWAYS “I take you there!” and angry words when the tourist refuses the ride. Sigh.

I lost this guy ASAP and proceeded towards the structure referred to as both “Reunification Palace,” and “Independence Palace” – paralleling my utter confusion about the American/ Vietnam conflict and how to refer to any of this, especially as an American, and especially when speaking to locals about it. Along the way I encountered the gloriously renovated opera house, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, and other landmarks. I traded travel and life stories with a Filipino couple who sought shade in the same square foot in which I attempted, with futility, to cool myself; I got lost several times; and I finally found “The Palace” as I will now refer to it. Closed from 11 to 1. It was 11:30- great! I was so thirsty and hot by this time I desperately sought a Coke from the closest purveyor. Walked into a park kiosk and asked for a Coke (universal, right?) and was presented with a menu that translated “Coke” to “Coke.” I again ordered a Coke and was handed a can of Coke, with a straw, in a plastic bag. Now, those of you who know me know the disdain I have for plastic bags in kind of a general way, and specifically, when it comes to the excess of them in Asia, but It FINALLY dawned on me today whey people here do this: cold beverages, like American tourists, sweat profusely, and this bag is meant to keep the sweat from the can from getting all over the place. No mind that “all over the place” in this case means all over my legs, which would be fine, given how hot it is, but people here actually dress nicely, and they don’t tend to pit out their shirts in a mere ten minutes. It’s amazing how things start to make sense…

I killed some time eating lunch at a place that was kind of like a food court, traditional Vietnamese-style, but with no A/C (I can’t even describe this) and was literally begging for a glass of water by the time I sat down. Too bad the person next to me had to translate that for me:) Ahhhhh….. The glamorous life of a tourist! Apparently we only drink bottled water and, although in Saigon the water is perfectly okay to drink, no one does it.

After lunch I killed some more time checking out the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, then headed back to “The Palace” just in time to sneak around before the 1:00 organized tour put that whole group on the very same trajectory. “The Palace” is preserved in such a Brady-Bunch late 60s early 70s way- it’s meant to be intact, the way it was in 1975, and I can tell anyone alive in that year that it pretty much takes you right back there. There are historical reasons for this that again confuse the heck out of me. I learned a lot in a photographic history in the basement – the only air conditioned part of this whole journey, aside from my room in the hostel. Mainly, I learned that I have a lot more to find out before I have even a rudimentary understanding of what is referred to here as “The American War.”

I wandered out the back door of “The Palace” and found a curb to sit down upon. I was hot, tired, overwhelmed- I couldn’t imagine conquering another long walk, museum, fact about our war, or sight. I just sat there for long enough that I felt conspicuous – no one else was out on that side of the site except those who worked there.

After i decided that I was being a wimp for being so hot, I got up and started walking back to my hostel. A few “Lady- you need motorbike!”-s later I was back in my room, basking in the sweet, sweet air conditioning.

When I was quizzed by one of the desk workers about what I had done, and how I had missed “The War Remnants” museum, he informed me, with a very serious face, that this was the one that I TRULY needed to see. Crap!!!

Well, since there’s a pagoda in the same general direction (only considerably further) I guess I’ll be experiencing more war atrocities and heat stroke tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Please pardon any typos- going to try to add photos tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

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