Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our Arrival in Saigon, Vietnam

ooooooooh.... where do I start???????

motobikes motobikes motobikes.... an insanity of crazed zippin' zoomin' motobikes is the first thing that comes to mind when I look back to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon - which the locals still call it).

I also remember the zillions of plastic shoes laid out on plastic sheets, gorgeous iced coffees in everyone's hand (1 part coffee:20 parts sugar and loads of ice), carts of steamed dumplings, french bread and meat skewers being sold on street corners, little girls with large baskets of roasted peanuts, Pho (noodle soup) shops clinking in the mornings while people shoved chopsticks full of rice noodles in their mouths, kids in colorful t-shirts and ripped shorts - or no shorts at all, thousands of electrical cables strung together in a chaos of knots and tangles...

Lonely Planet lists these stats:

200 million litres of nuoc mam (fish sauce) produced every year

Tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam: 15 million

Annual rice production: 32.3 million tonnes

Millions and millions of motobikes

Dec 18th. Thursday

Touch down in Vietnam. The humid heat hits us as we walk out of the airport. We strip off our layers from the snowy freezing Hokkaido weather. Waiting at the airport for us was Johns mom, one of his many Uncles and his Grandma he had never met.

Johns parents grew up in Vietnam... but when the war hit they were one of the lucky Vietnamese to flee the country by boat. Only about half of the boat survived on its journey across the sea... and luckily his parents made it safely to Canada where they had to start a new life, learn a new language and soon gave birth to 5 children. They later divorced, so his mom was left to raise 5 kids on her own in a country so different to Vietnam.

When we arrived, Johns grandmother automatically started spewing out Vietnamese to us... but we sadly looked back at her in complete bewilderment. um.... we bowed and accidentally said: "O genki desu ka???" I guess we need to stop bowing and leave our Japanese behind for a few weeks. AHHH...

John doesn't speak any Vietnamese. We were later told that he could speak it until he was 5, but then his Mom wanted to learn English, so they started only using English at home. And since the father had left they never heard Vietnamese spoken while growing up - except for the TV dramas his mom would watch. John asked me if I wanted to go to Vietnam with him to explore the country and meet some of his relatives... since I'm always up for a new adventure I couldn't resist!

As soon as our mini van taxi pulled out of the airport I realized... HOLY CRAP - were not in Japan anymore!!!

The streets were FILLED with motobikes! Thousands and thousands zipping weaving and dodging about. Little tin shack shops lined some of the side streets. I suddenly felt really uncomfortable. I realized I had gotten so used to life in Japan. So clean, so organized, everything is on time, so comfortable and safe. I MISSED SAPPORO ALREADY!!!!!!!

Even on the plane I realized we weren't in Japan anymore. Once we landed and before the seat belt sign turned off - there was a mad dash of people grabbing their bags and elbowing their way to the front!!!!! WHAT?!?!?!!? no "Sumimasen"??? (excuse me) Man... I miss polite Japan!!!!

But then I just sat back and soaked it in. HCMC reminded me of a mix between Kenya, Guatemala and Ethiopia - the little tin roofed kiosks, the crazy roads, the poverty, the colors, the street vendors, the chaotic nightlife on the streets.

Besides the insanity of motobikes I also realized the insanity of tangled electrical wires!!! there were 100s of wires strung in a mess together. I sure do hope there's not an electrical storm while I'm here cause this place would be up in FLAMES.

We arrived at his Grandmothers house around 10:30pm. It was a gated compound with an open aired living room where the Uncles and cousins parked their many motobikes. The layout reminded me of my homestay in Guatemala. They too loved gaudy furniture, fake flowers, and hilarious decorations such as crazy self portraits from the 70s. (in Kenya I think they had these exact same pictures - but they were random strangers... here in Vietnam they dress up their grandchildren and pose them with 70s backgrounds - a little similar to the purikura photo booths of Japan too!) They also had Ho Chi Minh red neon digitized clocks everywhere. Like Japan, they removed their shoes before entering the house. It felt amazing to take off your shoes and step onto the cool tile of the floor. I just wanted to plop down and spread out on the floor to cool off. Where did all the snow go???

A slew of aunts, uncles and cousins came wandering in to say hello to us. It must have been weird for John to meet all of these relatives for the first time. We used our one Vietnamese word we knew C'am on (thank you) and then relied on charades or John's mom to communicate.

We scarfed down a rib, rice and soup meal before we settled into grandma's bedroom. She came in and gave me a jade bracelet. It took 3 people (gma, great aunt and Johns mom) to shove it onto my wrist (I still can't get it off!!!) and then we slepppppt.

12/19 Friday

For breakfast we had a rice bowl with last nights rib leftovers in it with a banana chopped up on top. And grandma made us a GORGEOUS Vietnamese iced coffee!!!! MMMMMM..... soooo good but sooooo sugary!!!!!

Johns mom led us around the corner to see where she and Stella (Johns sister) would be staying. John's mom, brother, sister, brother in law and niece moved to Saigon a month ago to live. His sister wants to start up a clothing shop with the help of his Mom. To get to their new house it was just a 3 minute walk and we were sweating bullets. What a drastic change - from the SNOW and freezing temperatures of Hokkaido to the HEAT of Southern Vietnam!

After visiting the new house they were building we took the same taxi minivan as last night to go visit John's uncle who is a monk at a nearby temple. We were dropped off at these yellow colorful gates. We first had to meet MORE aunts and great aunts and then met his great grandmother who was sadly paralyzed on one side. She sat in a big wooden throne and grabbed our hands with all of her might. She was so sweet. We entered the temple and placed incense then sat to have tea and snacks with his Uncle.

We went back to Grandmas house for lunch and waited for Johns cousins to return home for school. Then 8 of us piled back into the minivan taxi and headed to a "park." It took over an hour to get there and the cab ride was less than $30 for the 8 of us!!!! I was picturing a normal green park with benches and maybe a lake and a few streams... but NO!!!! It was some crazy elaborate vegas-style theme park!!!

With golden temples, crazy rivers with huge dragons intertwined, a Bellagio water fountain show, roller coasters, mountain temples, kiddie playlands, train rides... and my all time favorite: The GATES OF HELL haunted house. Which was pitch black except for creepy flashes of neon lights which showed skeletons, dead bodies, crazy warped scenes, demons flying above your head, creatures grabbing at your ankles. We SCREAMED and I held onto John's cousins for dear life as we stumbled through the Hell Maze.

Back home at Grandmas we collapsed. I played with Bee - Grandmas little dog who looked like a long pregnant smashed face version of Gizmo. Grandma plugged in this vibrating foot pad and forced my feet on it. Then she pulled out a HUGE bag of 80s sparkly shoes and heels and tried to shove them on me - convincing me I looked beautiful (despite that they were all 4 sizes too small) I had glitter glue on my hands for days after that!

We ate as more and more uncles, great uncles, aunts and great aunts came to visit. The house was open to everyone and anyone. We had completely lost track of who was who. We also met another "Uncle" of Johns who couldn't be more than 16 years old. Johns mom tried to explain to us the strange hierarchy of relatives. Since John's Mom was one of the youngest siblings - John is quite low on the pecking order. So since his cousin whose father was older than John's mom - John had to call him "Uncle" instead of cousin. UFF!!! so confusing.

And to make matters worse no one spoke a lick of English!!! After awhile his Mom was sick of translating so she stopped and left us to our own devices. It was a game of charades after that!

This is just the end of Day 2!

Saigon Photos:
HCMC Crazy Parks:

John's blog on his First Impressions of Vietnam:


Erickson said...

Callie, could you tell me what is "HCMC"?! Wow! It's interesting to read your stories in Vietnam!! In fact, my brother is engaged to his girlfriend from Vietnam! ha!

Hope all is well with you in Japan! Missed ya!

Callie Sorensen said...

awwww.... thats great! you gotta get out there then. :)

HCMC = Ho Chi Minh City!