Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One night in Saigon

So obviously I am back in Chicago while I'm writing this - my last couple of days in Vietnam were quick and then I had limited internet access in HK, so I didn't really get a chance to update the bjourn. I'll try to finish up about the trip and then post some photos, so here goes! **Ummmm I am writing this a few hours before my flight to Prague, so it is unlikely that I'll get those photos posted anytime soon. Sigh. At least I hope to finish writing about the trip before I go(HK post next), and then I'll go back and insert photos - hopefully - soon!

I forgot to mention in the last post that, on the way back to my hotel from the opera house in Ha Noi, I stopped in at a popsicle store - not just any popsicle store, but a very popular stall where people were mobbing a few ladies standing behind coolers filled with fruity popsicles. There were actually a couple of storefronts right next to each other, with tons of wrappers and used sticks littering the street in front. Heading home, I was emboldened by the heat, and pulled out a 5000dong note (about 35cents) and joined the fray. I basically just pushed myself into the crowd, smushing in amongst a lot of sticky, sweaty skin, and held out my money hoping one of the ladies would help me. When I made the much-coveted eye contact, I ordered: "mot sue dua" (one coconut). She gave me a taro one and I firmly shook my head. "Khong, sue da". She gave me the right flavor, and I extracted myself from the crowd triumphantly. It melted quite quickly on the way home, but I was pretty proud of myself!

The next day I woke up for my early flight to Saigon, but found that my flight was delayed a few hours. Rescheduled my transfers, then went back to sleep. I got in to Saigon easily, and then went to get my hair permed. I had intended to get a digital perm like what I have been getting (and loving) back in Chicago for the past year or so, but it ended up being...not so great. Let's just say it did not turn out like I had expected nor wanted. It was much cheaper than in the US, but I guess you truly get what you pay for. Anyway, after the perm I called the girls from Habitat - Sengmin and Cathy, and arranged the evening's activities. Sengmin picked me up at my hotel - she is adorable. She's a student in Korea but taking a bit of a break to work for Habitat in Saigon. Cathy is actually a Vancouverite who has been living in Saigon for the last 4 years, freelance writing for various charities. They both came to My Tho with us and worked on the build. I was pretty excited to spend my last night in Saigon with them.

We went over to Vincom Center, which is the huge posh shopping center downtown. Cathy and her friend were at Carl's Jr. (Yes, Carl's Jr. It is the first fast food burger place to open in Saigon - possibly the country - and it had just opened a couple of days earlier, so it has been mobbed. I only then realized that there were no McDonald's anywhere that we'd been. Apparently they do not pass the "local needs" test that is required of foreign companies that want to come to Vietnam, so they haven't yet infiltrated the country. Amazing!) Both Cathy and Sengmin talked about the things they miss in Vietnam - fast food, doughnuts, Starbucks, etc. I guess I actually enjoyed this about the country - that every restaurant was a one-off, not a franchised pre-fab. All the food is incredibly fresh, whether you're eating in a fancy, air-conditioned tablecloth restaurant or right on the street on a plastic stool. I can see their point, I guess, that after a while sometimes you just want the not-so-good-for you greasy stuff, or the coffee that you know will taste the same no matter where you are. (Who needs starbucks when you have Cafe Sue Da, the amazingly strong vietnamese coffee served with 2 tablespoons of condensed milk?? Mmmmmm. (On the build some of us wondered why we weren't losing weight. I'm sure it had nothing to do with drinking 2 or 3 of these a day...)

We ate dinner in Japanese cafe in the same building, then spent some time in the supermarket (also in Vincom Center), picking out Vietnamese specialties (coffee, tea, candies) for me to take as gifts. After that, we walked down to the Majestic Hotel and had drinks at a bar overlooking the Saigon river. Quite a nice way to finish my time in Vietnam!

Back to the hotel, I packed up and got ready to move on to Hong Kong. What an amazing 3 and a half weeks. Vietnam can be both beautiful and difficult. I am so glad I went there, but I am not sure that I need to go again (given all the other places in the world I haven't been yet). I am especially proud to have been part of the Habitat team, because I feel like we did some great work and forged some terrific friendships that I look forward to developing. In fact, a great couple (Andrew and Emily) live in Chicago and I hope to get to know them better on our own turf. I hope to see Michal and Basia, two teammates from Warsaw, in Krakow in a couple of weeks. And when I go to LA in September I will call up Farhan and Amin, two more teammates who live there. I guess building houses, and celebrating with dance parties and karaoke are pretty great ways to make new friends!