Guest blog from Jessica: Hello Marjie's faithful readers. I am Marjie's friend/former student who is visiting for the next two weeks. I arrived Tuesday night, and this is the story of my day yesterday.
I met Marjie downstairs at 6:45 after a restful sleep in the balcony room. I'm sure Marjie has mentioned this before, but there is open grating high up above the front door of the Castle and so it sounds like everything that is happening in the alley is happening in the house. In other words, when the neighborhood wakes up, you wake up. And they are all up very early. We walked down the alley into the market and Marjie pointed out her favorite vendors to me (or where they would be if they were there this morning, which some of them were not). We stopped by Thuy and Thanh's fabric stand to find material for the clothes I want to have made. They didn't have have what I needed so we moved on to the food. I ended up with two spring rolls, a bag of rice with beans and tapioca, a mangosteen (amazing little fruit that looks like wet garlic but tastes like candy) and some rice cakes (but not THE rice cakes). Oh, and coffee. Sweet, sweet Vietnamese coffee. We said hi to vendors and saw an escaped crab make its way down the alley.
Nam picked me up promptly at 9 outside the castle and we began our adventure. I had ridden on the back of a motorbike yesterday, so I knew the drill a little bit (like which side to dismount from - painful lesson), but as we pulled out into traffic I couldn't help but adapt a line from the movie "Almost Famous": "I'm riding fast through Saigon on the back of a motorbike, and we're all about to die." Nam was a very cautious driver -- especially after we saw a four-bike accident - including a woman holding a child - happen a few feet away from us.
Our first stop was Reunification Hall. In short, this was the White House of Southern Vietnam and was where Northern Vietnamese troops drive tanks through the gates on April 30, 1975 ending the war and reunifying Vietnam. The place is amazing. It was rebuilt from the French building that once stood in its place by a Vietnamese architect in 1960 and is basically frozen in time. Very mid-century modern. I only made it as far as the second floor though before getting asked to leave the tour group that I was apparently crashing. Marjie had mentioned that I should take a tour rather than just walk through on my own and as soon as I walked in, there was a little tour starting in English, so I figured that was where I was supposed to be. When we got upstairs to what was essentially their situation room (detailed maps on the walls and a row of different colored phones on a table) a man in the group turned to me and said that it was a private tour that they had paid for and that it was really rude of me to tag along. I asked if he was asking me to leave but I'm not sure what he answered, I had already turned away to go. Another man said that it was ok for me to stay, but I certainly didn't need to be in a group where I wasn't wanted.
So I left and told Nam to take me to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum. I'm not sure if it was the jet lag, the heat, or the gravity of the photographs, but by the time I made it to the two rooms filled with pictures of Agent Orange deformities I was past fighting back the tears. I randomly bought an American soldier's dog tag and a Vietnamese uniform patch from the little gift stand and left.
When I got back to Nam- the bossy driver who Marjie has told us so much about- his bossiness started to show. He pointed through the fence where you could see the front of the museum and told me to take a picture through there and then from a different angle. His art direction of my photography continued for the rest of our tour. The next stop was Cholon, which is Saigon's Chinatown. About a block away from the main market Nam's bike broke down, so we walked it around the corner to a bike shop and then he directed me to go to the market. He proceeded to direct me through the maze of knock-off handbags, shoes, hats, plastic things (chairs, containers, etc), spices, pickled things, meats . . . . finally to a beautiful courtyard with a dragon fountain. We lit insence and then headed back into the maze.
I tried to ask him if we should both sit down and eat but apparently he wasn't hungry because he led me over to a counter, pulled out a stool for me, told me where to put my bag and ordered lunch for me. Then he told me that either he was going to go have a drink and come back for me or go get his bike, I'm not sure, but I was able to communicate that I would wait there for him. I held my bag between my feet on the ground in front of me, but had the phone Marjie had bought for visitors on the counter in front of me. There are people who come around asking for money here who hold these little tickets. I'm not sure what they are, I like to think they are lottery tickets, but I'll have to ask Marjie. Regardless, an old woman came up to me with them while I was asking how much my lunch was. I felt really uncomfortable since I obviously had money out in my hand but was trying to be polite and tell her no thanks. She stayed right by my side through the transaction but disappeared suddenly before I turned back towards her. My phone disappeared with her. Luckily, I already had a plan to meet Marjie, I'm just hoping the phones are as cheap as everything else is here...I'll be filing that under "miscellaneous travel expenses."
After we left the market there were still two hours before I was supposed to meet Marjie at her school. From the way Nam exaggerated his hand making an around the clock motion (it was from then until 2:30) I got the feeling he was done with me. We looked back in my guidebook and decided to go to the general post office. After my 10 minutes looking at the giant poster of Ho Chi Mihn (keep in mind that Nam just sits outside wherever I am waiting for me to finish), I thought it best to just have him drop me off at Marjie's school so I could read or something until she was ready. I was also hoping to have a chance to visit the school nurse so that she could have a look t my "kiss" which I had been covering with a make-shift bandage of a tissue taped around the edges with bandaids that kept slipping off and falling out from under my pant leg.
The rest of the day was great. Marjie's school was air conditioned -- so much so that I was actually a little chilly by the time we left. I was able to use a computer in the lobby until Marjie came down and retrieved me and her whole class greeted me when I came in the classroom. Then we bought fabric and dropped off clothes to the seamstress and headed across town to the Continental Hotel for drink at the rooftop bar. Except they apparently don't have rooftop bar like I could have sworn I read in a guidebook. We went into their non-rooftop bar but it wasn't right. See, we were going there because that is where a lot of the Graham Greene novel The Quiet American takes place. This falls under the lesson that you should not try and recreate scenes from books or movies, as your own experience in the same places will never be the same.We instead went down the street to the Sheraton where they did have a top floor bar and a breathtaking view of this massive, sprawling, living city. Over a dinner of Banh Xeo, Marjie and Katherine told me about my many options for day spas that I should try out today and I think I will do just that . . .