Saigon: Part I – The Arrival

‘It’s hot. Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest thing is my shorts. I could cook things in it. A little crotch pot cooking. It’s so damn hot, I saw little guys, their orange robes burst into flames. It’s that hot!’
If you’ve never seen the movie ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ that quote will be lost on you, but believe me, it was hot. A soaring 34 degrees and rising. Even at 10.30pm, a blanket of heat immediately smothered me as I stepped out of the airport terminal and in to the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

This would be my home for a fortnight and I was doing more than just sight seeing this time. Having read about the benefits of volunteer-vacations, I signed myself up with International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) who offer a vast range of programmes all over the world. As well as the sheer reward of ‘giving something back’, volunteer vacations offers you more insight in to the local culture than you would ordinarily as a tourist… You get to eat where the locals eat, shop where the locals shop, learn more than ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ in the local language and more importantly, make friends with the locals.
I was assigned to a local organisation called VPV (Volunteers for Peace Vietnam) and for the next two weeks I would be working at a children’s hospital with disabled children.

I must admit, I was filled with trepidation. I set out on my adventure with the intention that this would be a journey of self-discovery but to volunteer at an orphanage with no experience of working with disabled children? Would they think I was just another mere foreigner, full of self importance to assume I could make a difference to their lives? My two weeks voluntary work seemed so insignificant really. But I’d set myself a challenge and I was not going to back out…

Unfortunately I had come down with a bad case of conjunctivitis and I searched the blurry crowd of Asian faces in a mad fury. Thankfully I could make out my name ‘Anna Jim’ written on an A4 piece of card. Behind it was a young smiling local man. His name, he told me, was Wing and he was an employee at VPV; one of a young generation of Vietnamese dedicating their lives to the unfortunate.

I was ushered in to my cab where I was taken to a dedicated hostel for the VPV volunteers. Called the ‘Peace House’, it was a typical skinny, six storey townhouse in a suburban area of District 7. We were a full house of over 30 volunteers; an assortment of Americans, Australians, Asians and Europeans. I was the only thirty-something representative there; a bridge that tied the 19-25 year olds to the fifty-somethings. It only highlighted the fact that women my age are either focused on their careers or on their new families. Or at least it felt to me there wasn’t the middle ground I found myself in. Not that it mattered. Age didn’t hold any weight for me – which was a good job as I was put on a top bunk in a ten person dormitory. I felt like I was living in a St. Trinians book and had regressed twenty five years.

The other volunteers were wonderful, a crowd genuinely impassioned to help those less fortunate. Designer handbags, Jimmy Choo shoes and a step up the proverbial ladder was not on anyone’s agenda here. ‘We’ were the new Generation ‘Z’, a sensitive bunch intent on making our world a better place.

Well, that was our utopian dream when we signed up to the programme anyway. My positive attitude was fraying at the seams however as I dragged my hot sticky self on a city tour the next day. A sticky humidity clung on to me as I dragged my feet from the Museum of Vietnamese History, General Post Office, Notre Dame cathedral to the War Remnants museum and presidential palace. My energy was being zapped out of me with every heavy step.

Heat and lethargy aside, I could see the charm of this bustling city. A strange conundrum of east meets west; it is an evocative jumble of pastel coloured colonial architecture, trimmed with decorative white mouldings, offset with frenetic street markets that would no doubt leave the Ministry of Food & Hygiene back at home in shock. Slabs of raw meat in the open markets lie uncovered on a make-shift table; a welcome temptation for E. Coli and Listeria in the 34 degree heat of the day. This is a snapshot of the poorer side of Vietnam, but this, plus the shanty houses are dwindling, giving way to the ever growing number of designer malls and five star hotels. High above the city on the 26th floor of the AB Tower is Ho Chi Minh’s hippest bar – a swanky club with an impressive back lit bar where tuxedoed bar men serve you delicious cocktails. As you sip on your cocktail overlooking the luxury cruise liners that come to dock in to Ho Chi Minh city, it is hard to believe this was a city in turmoil just over a generation ago.

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Of course there is the infamous never ending traffic that choke the streets. An indescribable mass of scooters and motorbikes race towards you as you play ‘Frogger’ across the streets. The mad symphony of horns intimidate as you repeat to yourself ‘walk straight… no hesitation… straight… straight… straight… no hesitation…’
Barely strangers but recognising there was safety in numbers, we linked arms as we waited for a safe gap, hoping our human chain of five girls would bulldoze any oncoming scooter.
Hearts thumping and adrenalin coursing through our bodies, somehow we made it to the other side of the street and stepped in to one of Ho Chi Minh city’s most famous landmarks – the Ben Thanh market.

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Marked on the tourist maps by its monumental clock tower, Ben Thanh market is the largest market in Saigon with over 3000 stalls. It’s also a place that tests your claustrophobia at every turn. A maze of impassable narrow aisles burst at the seams with clothing, tailors, paintings, lacquerware and other touristy tat. Snapshots of haggling can be heard at every stall. ‘200,00 dong for this?!’ another unsuspecting tourist asked pointing to the prevailing red t-shirt with the Vietnamese yellow star. Meanwhile another tourist walked past sporting the exact same t-shirt. I eyed a pretty lacquer bowl and suddenly arms pulled me in. It was all too much. I parted company from my co-volunteers and stepped outside where I followed the aroma of the outdoor food carts.
Authentic local food at bargain prices is probably the best thing about the market. I felt like I had died and gone to food heaven. I wanted to try everything, well within reason. I passed on the snake blood, dog and frogs. My flexibility was tested as I sat ‘Vietnamese-style’ on a ridiculously low plastic stool, knees level with my shoulders. I slurped away on a satisfyingly sweet iced coffee while I contemplated my reason for being here again.

Tomorrow we have our orientation. I’m nervous. Am I going to show the love I easily extend to my beautiful nieces and nephews to the children of Vietnam with the horrific disabilities I saw at the Agent Orange exhibition? I consider myself to be a decent person, one without prejudices but I’m beginning to doubt myself.

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