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Good Morning Vietnam

If an early breakfast of sour soup and salted duck eggs turns your stomach, then you’d best avoid these offerings on your way to find the English daily. Even at this early hour, the streets and tiny lanes hum with the sound of small shining motor scooters – metallic bees off to work in their hundreds. Weaving and dodging together, it seems impossible that any of them will make it – it’s cooperative chaos.

Like the singers of a quan ho, a song from the northern region of the country and typified by alternate versus sung by different singers, each rider takes their turn in the swarming traffic. 

In the country’s largest city, where my journey began ten days ago, I decide to set out early for Ben Thanh Market, best explored in the early morning, for some last minute shopping – Saigon style. The city’s centre is still unofficially called Saigon, officially however, Saigon only refers to District 1 – a discrete piece of a 300-year-old metropolis.

Captured by the French in 1859, the city became the capital of the French colony Cochinchina some years later, marking a long period of French colonialism that ended in 1954 after the eight -year Franco-Viet Minh War. Today, examples of its French colonial past can be found in the often photographed Hotel De Ville and Notre Dame Cathedral in central Saigon.

In 1956, Saigon became the capital of the Republic of Vietnam and the beginning of a long struggle between the North and South of the country, ending in the fall of Saigon in April 1975 at the hands of communist North Vietnamese forces.

It’s said that on their first day of victory, the communists changed the city’s name to Ho Chi Minh City – after General Ho Chi Minh (meaning “bringer of light”) and founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party that still dominates the political landscape.

But the fall of the city spelt more than a change of name.

It ended more than a decade of US led military involvement in Vietnam which took the lives of over one million Vietnamese and some 60,000 American soldiers respectively. Four million Vietnamese civilians – the population of Sydney – are estimated to have been killed or injured during the war. Australia’s participation in the conflict was the first time it had entered a war without Britain, and opened the beginning of an interdependent relationship with the US. Over 40,000 Australians served in the war and 500 lost their lives.

The fall of Saigon, and with it the South’s economy, also began the mass exodus of South Vietnamese who chose to brave the open waters in search of a new home – refugees who became known to the world as boat people.  

Standing in the morning’s humidity, it’s hard to imagine the brutal struggle and sadness that dominated the lives of so many and of the country whose green slither of land, arching its back on the borders of Laos and Cambodia and lapped by the South China Sea, seems so inconspicuous on any globe of the world.

I take my position on the edge of the striped crossing on busy Le Lai Street in District 1 – but the traffic’s not stopping. In careful steps learnt by watching locals, I begin my “Saigon shuffle”, gliding forwards with eyes to the left and right.

Letting a taxi pass, I take my place between an oncoming group of cyclists and scooters. Two, three, four steps. The traffic lets me through, flowing around me like water to find another path of least resistance. Halfway across on the median strip, two young girls scream past me carrying the morning’s shopping. I look right and zigzag between a cyclo and an elderly woman on a bicycle carrying an impossibly heavy load. She moves towards me slowly and I cross in front of her to the other side.

My arrival is welcomed by a loud “Hello, my friend!” – it’s a greeting of which I’m now familiar. The voice belongs to Seyt (pronounced, funnily enough, say – it), Saigon resident and shop-owner extraordinaire on one of the district’s busiest thoroughfares. His shop carries all manner of things; some kitsch, some not so, as well as animals; dead and alive.

In true entrepreneurial style, he begins by offering me a variety of tiny, brightly coloured wooden fishing boats. I’ve been diverted from my morning mission to take in the sights and sounds of Ben Thanh Market, but detours in this sprawling city are part of its discovering.

I examine the tiny craft, the kind that sliced the aquamarine waters off Nha Trang, a coastal village about 10 hours north of the city by train where I’d previously spent a few days escaping the bustle of Saigon. 

Standing in Seyt’s shop, I remember the boats’ daily ebb and flow from that tiny harbour. Guided by the elements, they’d leave silently before dawn to return to hot blue afternoons when the breeze shifted south. Sometimes the wind would bring dumping rain to Nha Trang. At other times, the rain would tease the coast and hug the mountains in the distance.

Aside from being a popular beach resort, Nha Trang is also home to hundreds of fisherman who trawl the waters off the coast and sell their catch to local restaurants – the lobster is a local speciality. On reaching the wharf, the boats would be emptied of their catch and great slabs of ice, used to keep fish fresh in the afternoon heat, would sweat in the sun. I recalled how during walks around the harbour I’d sometimes catch glimpses of those fish staring up at the afternoon sky – hundreds of triangular heads asleep in beds of ice.

I run my fingers against the striking blue paint work, and as if by doing so, break the tiny craft’s spell. 

I’m back in Seyt’s stifling shop, staring at exotic birds whose journey from the central highlands located to the north of here, was probably by cage and not flight. The bird eyes me suspiciously as I step forwards for a closer look, only encouraging my new-found friend to offer me his best chicken. I politely explain that I leave for home this afternoon, my visit is over and I simply can’t take the chicken with me. He looks incredulous – I’m turning down a perfectly good specimen.

He smiles anyway and offers me tea from white cups that look too delicate to hold anything. The walk and the humidity have left me parched and I gratefully accept, knowing that I’ll be expected to purchase now – well, at least something small. The tea is refreshing as I stare silently from the front of his store at the streetscape.

A group of weary men lean against their cyclos (three-wheeled and pedal-powered rickshaws) across the street. Some lounge in theirs – testimony to a hard night’s work of ferrying locals and tourists around the hotels, restaurants and nightclubs of central Saigon.

My first afternoon in the city was spent aboard one of these cyclos. What seemed at the time as a never-ending, head-long rush into oncoming traffic and a series of near death experiences, became a dizzying circuit taking in the street markets along Ton That Dam Street, past the famous Rex Hotel on Nguyen Hue and stops at the moving War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace – former home of the South Vietnamese Government and the dramatic setting for the fall of the city on that early April morning in 1975.

One of the cyclo drivers from across the street notices me sipping tea and waves as if to suggest that I do it over again. His cheeky grin and unevenly worn leather sandals are a foretaste of more hard-breaking and fighter-pilot manoeuvring. I shake my head and mouth “No thanks” – my movement provoking a flurry of activity from competing drivers.

But the young girl on the bicycle breaks our exchange.

Dressed in a pale shirt and long pants that fall about her, hair black and flowing, she’s composed amid the drama – high heels on pedals contrasting sharply with the cyclo driver’s weathered sandals.

Her eyes shift only once towards me – a slight movement of the head, nothing more. I’m a curious figure, but a welcome guest in a country of contrasts and contradiction. She is poised, mysterious and beautiful at once.

There’s a tugging at my elbow and I’m being handed the small wooden fishing boat from before. Seyt looks at me hopefully – smile beaming. As I hand over my last crinkled notes he places the memento in a box and his fingers delicately arrange soft paper around it.

He knows the boat’s charm has worked today – I hope it will do the same again, some day.

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