Somehow the lights of Sài Gon are different from those of other cities from the air. They are Sài Gòn and I feel the difference when I see them as the KAL 747 descends. I experience an overpowering feeling that I am coming home. I have only been there once since the war and only for a month but I am coming home. Lilith knows not to talk to me until after we are on the ground. Lilith is my daughter who elected to come with me this time.
In the airport customs is less of a hassle than it was four years ago when it was pretty perfunctory. You run your bags through an x-ray machine that may not even be turned on and the uniformed attendants are telling you to pick up your stuff and get out of the way. Thông and Ly are waiting for us on the street and Thông grabs a taxi as soon as he sees us. The taxis have meters now, no negotiation about the price of the ride. There is still the problem of finding an address in a city that is laid out pretty randomly. The driver has to stop and ask directions a couple of times but the $5.20 fare is not inordinate.
The hotel that Thông had arranged for is not the one I had expected to stay in. An internet acquaintance who lives in Sài Gòn had arranged ahead of time for us to stay in a small inn owned by a friend of her family but I was not of a mind to reject Thông's choice because the proprietor there was a friend of his family. So we compromised, one night in that one then 2 nights in Thiên Trang's choice. Hers was a more laid back and better appointed establishment.
I called Thiên Trang and left a message because she is a very busy young lady. She works full time and tutors English and runs some magnificent charity work. She called back and we went to dinner in a semi-open air restaurant where the food, being Vietnamese, was excellent, and being a good restaurant, was better than excellent. Lilith and I had been looking forward to meeting this dynamo ever since we actually set to planning the trip. She is very much what I expected and Viẹt Nam grows better and faster because of her and others like her that provide tremendous energy to the economy and the society. Her father is an ex-military officer who could have stood in for Cary Grant in old war movies.
Sài Gòn is busier now than four years ago. There is ever more building and there are many streets torn up as the water system is being repaired/replaced and the work seems to be going forward with determination and even some efficiency. There are no workmen tasked with holding up shovels or guarding coffee cups. There are ambulances that go by with sirens and lights. I count six of them in a couple of days. I saw none four years ago.
Mornings I am up before dawn and waiting for the hotelier to come down and unlock the doors so that I can go out. Lilith sleeps a little later but is out by six. We get coffee at a momentary café of tiny molded plastic tables and chairs in the mouth of a 2 meter wide side street. There are badminton games in progress on the wide sidewalk across from us. As the air heats up the nets come down from the poles and it is all packed away until the next morning. I buy a newspaper from a lady on a bicycle and work at reading for a few minutes. The two gentlemen at the other table are scoffing quietly at the foreigner who pretends to read Vietnamese so I smile and say, in tiếng Việt, that I am only looking at the pictures and will read when I have learned some Vietnamese. That gets a laugh and they want to talk now so I answer questions about where I come from and why I am here and when was I here in the war. They never ask what I did in the war. For them, unlike for many Americans and Việt Kiếu, it is over long ago. There are no animosities, no bitterness. It is Fate that things happened as they did and there is no responsibility to nurture the evil that has passed away. It is easy to do these impromptu conversations with my limited command of the language because it is always the same series of question-and-response. I have it all memorized.
Lilith is fascinated by the open front shops and the seeming combination of eagle-eyes and trust. We do not buy anything in Sài Gòn, we just walk the streets and eat in whatever café we are passing when the desire for food arises.
The owner of the second hotel was a French teacher before 1975 and was unable to find a position after that. When the hard times were ended by the realization that this people works efficiently and energetically when left to its own devices, he was able to promote a sizable loan from relatives in the US and added his own savings to purchase and renovate the hotel. He paid it all back in a couple of years. I would recommend the Mini Hotel to anyone who wants to visit Việt Nam rather than just go there to visit a generic Resort and stay in Grand Hotels insulated from everything but other foreigners. With enough money one can come to Việt Nam for two weeks and live in luxury without hearing a word of Vietnamese or seeing a xich-lô. I try not to be disdainful of such folks. They do leave a lot of money in an economy that needs it and can use it wonderfully well.
Lilith has experienced her first ride on a motorcycle and it is in the scariest looking traffic on earth. But the speeds are low and every move is signaled and traffic keeps rolling. The traffic in the streets of Sài Gòn moves more people safely and at a faster rate than in any other large city on earth. There are no traffic jams. A hundred motorbikes move more people here than a hundred and fifty cars do in DC.
Lilith learned to cross the street by watching others do it and doing likewise. My first attempt at crossing a street when I was here before was with some trepidation until I recited to myself the rules and stepped off the curb and miraculously the sea of motorbikes and xe đạp parted around me. Sally showed no tension at all. She saw that many other people did it and there were no bodies on the pavement so it must be okay.
Thông has got us- Lilith, Thông, and me- tickets on the hard seat train to Nha Trang. I could get the soft seat train for only a little more but the conversation is better on the hard seats