On On, Saigon

Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, is a bustling metroplex and home to over 9 million people. It offers a plethora of engaging activities from kicking around a feather shuttle (the Asian version of the hackie sack), to visiting some of its many pagodas and museums, or just stumbling around a local market and tasting something with initial skepticism. It’s a fascinating place oozing with historical significance and much like the rest of Vietnam it didn’t look or feel anything like the war movies from 1987 would suggest.

We soon found out that one can never truly escape the motorbikes in Saigon. It’s a tough call but the traffic situation may be more intense than it was in Hanoi. Sure, there are a few million more people but the lanes are much wider and people seem to pay more respect to the traffic lights. Hell, even the sidewalks were huge so it seemed like the perfect pedestrian-friendly setup. But suddenly, and without warning, VROOM! One, two, three motos would shortcut across the sidewalk in front of us. This definitely wasn’t the town for leisurely strolls.

Our first agenda item was to find someone to repair the gaping holes my bags left by the dirty rat from Jungle Beach. After trudging around for about an hour, we eventually found a guy with a machine (and needle) that agreed to do the repairs in a couple of days for about $5. Perfect! We left the bags with him and headed into the market for some lunch and shopping.

The food stalls in Vietnamese markets are full of mouthwatering delights and other things that make you tilt your head sideways while silently asking, “What the f*** is that?” We settled on a plate of noodles, some spring rolls, and a fruit shake. Nick’s shake was a delicious blend of pineapple, banana, and coconut. Mine tasted (or smelled rather) like the love-child of an open sewer and a dirty sock. I must have overlooked the fact that it was laced with pungent durian fruit.

The next day we made our way to the Reunification Palace – the former home and office of the President of South Vietnam during the war and the very site where Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese communists in 1975. The Palace is pretty much untouched from that moment and you can still see war maps and old communication equipment in the basement. The rooms upstairs are simple, elegant and adorned with some of the finest Vietnamese art and textiles. Though we found some of their accessories questionable such as the horse tails hanging on the wall and the elephant feet basins.

By far the most disturbing experience was our visit to the War Remnants Museum. Outside its walls, we solemnly observed several tons of heavy artillery, vehicles, bombs, and weapons before entering. As if standing next to equipment of that caliber wasn’t sobering enough, the atrocities documented inside were heart-wrenching and deeply painful. Our minds were imprinted with photos of distressed soldiers, desolate landscapes, lifeless bodies, deformed children, and innocent Vietnamese civilians fated to die. An entire wing of the museum was dedicated to photos of children effected by napalm and Agent Orange. And actually, much like the little girl mentioned in our previous post, we continued to see the aftereffects of the infamous herbicide throughout the city. On the city streets at night people would display their physically deformed sons and daughters and beg for money. We saw a boy with a grossly enlarged head unable to move or speak. Thankfully, these birth defects are becoming less common but they’re certainly not unheard of.

The next evening, in need of a pick-me-up, we headed to the famous Acoustic Bar to hear the locals nail cover versions of Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams, and Elton John amongst others. We may have been the only people in the joint that actually knew the words to the songs but the bar was packed and everyone was having a great time. Afterwards, we hitched a ride with some British and Australian businessmen to an excessively loud nightclub called Apocalypse Now. We had a few drinks, watched a swarm of hookers work their magic, and made our way back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning while declining the special after-hours services of the moto drivers.

Throughout Vietnam, and no doubt much of southeast Asia, the moral and ethical offerings from motos take a steep decline after the sun goes down. They begin with the obvious, “Moto?” Once ignored or denied, they test the darker side of the prospective customer in a lower voice, “Marijuana?” If you’re a guy, and the drug offers fail, they resort to a darker vice in a seedy whisper, “Weemen?” It’s comical and the progression is, as our friend Michele says, “always down.”

Fortunately, our lively night didn’t haunt us with nasty hangovers; good thing too, because we had some serious running to do. Well, semi-serious running. January 9, 2011 marked the day of our very first Hash run (and no this isn’t a drug reference).

Hash House Harriers
For readers unfamiliar with the Hash House Harriers, they are, self-described: a drinking club with a running problem. In the late 1930s, some expats in Kuala Lumpur started an unofficial running community basically as an excuse to drink and feel less guilty about it by jogging beforehand. One of the more hilarious highlights are the “Hash names” designated to members. Some of our favorites from the Saigon chapter include, “Goose Mooser,” “Comes In Style,” “Aushole,” “Pencil Dick,” “Haji Orifice,” and, of course, “General Erection.” Come to think of it, we don’t actually know any of their real names.

We piled into a bus with about fifty other hashers and rolled about an hour outside of Saigon into the countryside. When we arrived, ShitHouse, the leading hare*, explained that the course would cover slightly more than 10km with a rest checkpoint in the middle. Once we found the starting marker, the trumpet sounded (yes there was a trumpet player for the duration of the course) and the hash leaders yelled, “On, on!!” That said, the hash had begun.

In a nutshell, a typical hash run operates something like this: a Hare (or experienced member) marks a trail beforehand in a predetermined territory with an appropriate material or substance. In our case, the trail was marked with small piles of shredded paper. The hashers follow the marks until they reach special checkpoints such as paper sprinkled around a tree trunk. Hares often mark false trails around the checkpoints in order to throw hashers off the trail and also because they are assholes. Once hashers can track three consecutive marks beyond a check point, it’s “On, On!” – a term used to declare the correct path as well as beckon other runners towards the trail. There are lots of other signals and terms used throughout the run to ultimately herd the group on the “on” direction.

The group rambled through fields of brush, thorn bushes, muddy inclines, leech infested creeks, angry cows, questionable bridges, and rocky paths that make weak ankles shutter. We ran through small villages shouting “On, on!” while the locals stared at us in a state of utter confusion. A couple of hours and zero instances of unexploded ordinance later, we arrived at the finish line where coolers of beer and water shone like beacons in the vibrant Asian sunset. They even had the customary block of ice that serves as a temporary seat to melt away the heat and pain form the run. Although some hashes use it as a torture device for the newly hashed.

Scratched, bloody, and devirginized**, we savored a couple of bottles of Tiger each and laughed as the Hash committee gents chanted and sang their usual post-run jargon. After making a tinkle in the bushes, we boarded the bus, continued drinking, and made our way back towards Saigon to ShitHouse’s home for the after party.

It was a memorable night of quirky hash traditions, homemade Malaysian food, and otherwise inappropriate behavior by the poolside. A local attractive runner named “sticky buns” was the primary “butt” of many jokes. The celebratory activities continued on, on throughout the evening and Nick and I were pleased to close our Saigon chapter on a high note. The morning of our departure, we met our new moto guide, Long, for a cup of joe before hitting the road once again at a blazing 40km/hr. Helmets securely fastened, it was on, on to the Mekong and our upcoming post.

* the hare is an experienced hasher(s) who sets the trail for other hashers. Usually, once the trail is set, other hares lead the pack in the right direction, or commonly, astray.

** hashers participating for the first time are called “virgins” and after completing the run they have popped their hash house cherries.