Saigon and the Mekong Delta
Trip Start Dec 31, 2006
11Trip End Jan 17, 2007
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So some friend back home wondered about the Pho (classic Vietnamese noodle dish) here. Well, I have to say I only had pho couple of
The Vietnamese iced coffee, although delicious, tends to be too small in portions, and diluted with too much condensed milk. But some places made it right--strong! Caphe sua da has been my and Teale's drink of choice so far on this trip. As Teale said, coffee just won't be the same when we get back to the states, unless we do it Viet-style.
Hipsters in Saigon
We needed to shoot Saigon in the present day. Being the cosmopolitan place it is, I wanted to find some hip stylin' kids to shoot. I asked one of the front desk women at our hotel to tell me where the 'hip' kids hung out. She said, "Hip hop?" and I figured, yeah sure, "hip hop" and she gave me an address where young kids hang out. She said it was a sports club. Teale and I hopped on a couple of motorbike taxis and headed over the hang out spot. Teenagers were playing tennis, basketball, and generally hanging out. There was no membership or entrance fee. We just walked in. We came across some kids break dancing and they rocked!
I could totally see this sight in NYC. One of them was a young woman named Thuy (pronounced twee) who attends two universities (studying Natural Science at one school and humanities and sociology at another school) and is at the top of her class. She just started learning how to break dance a couple of months ago and showed much promise. Her friend Vu is a senior in high school and attends the top school in Saigon, Le Hong Phong in District 5 (where Thuy went as well). Vu told me that parents who believe education is a priority send their kids to his school. I told him my mother went to Marie Curie Girl's School back in the day. He said Marie Curie used to be the top school pre-1975 but not anymore. Vu did great head spins. I also met Loc who was a spunky guy with a lot of personality who also had great break dancing moves.
The Ancestors and local thugs - Saigon and Vinh Long
Uncle Phan was in charge of arranging the visits to my great grandmother's grave on my grandfather's side just outside of Saigon and my great grandparent's graves in Vinh Long. Uncle Phan, who is a distant cousin of my mother on her mother's side is from Vinh Long. He wanted to take me and Teale fishing out there so we could eat freshly caught fish. That sounded like it would've been really fun but we did not have time for that. I promised him on my next trip that I'd definitely do that.
The ceremony for my grandfather's mother was less of an ordeal for we did not have to travel too far but we (Uncle Phan, my grand aunt, and myself) did offer two cooked birds along with rice and veggies (Teale was shooting). We also burned paper money, paper slippers, a paper dress, and paper jewelry to send to her. Water, tea and coca cola was also offered, three pours for each.
On our way to Vinh Long to my great grandparent's graves on my grandmother's side, we crossed newly built bridges (no ferries were taken like we had to do when I visited 9yrs ago). One bridge was quite impressive which was made in conjunction with the Australian government. It is a copy of a bridge in Sydney, Australia and it cost $75 million to build. Wow, the Vietnamese have come a long way in such a short period of time!
We arrived to the graves of my great grandparents on my grandmother's side in Vinh Long which was a 2.5 hour drive. Roads were paved and painted for the most part which was a great improvement from my last visit in '98.
We had a roasted pig to offer along with all the sides, and paper money, paper clothes, and paper shoes to burn. The pair of paper shoes for my great grandfather were Gucci!! And the paper money was in U.S. dollars! Some local thugs sort of busted up the flow of our ceremony when I was trying to pray. They were haggling my uncle for more money for setting up the ceremony (cleaning the tomb stones, I guess) and they were laughing and making fun of me behind my back. They said that I couldn't understand what they were saying and all I could do was just smile and nod and it didn't matter if I could hear. I sensed their trash talk and I made my translator, whom I hired specifically for this trip to translate. She told them I could understand what they were saying even if I didn't speak Vietnamese. I started to get angry and I told Teale to use the video camera like a gun and shoot them with it. Teale said, "Are you serious?" And I told her, "Yes! Do it!" We both turned our backs to the graves to stare at the local thugs. The camera was pointed at them and shut them up pretty quick (or at least they lowered their voices when they were talking trash) and I told the translator to tell them to not disrespect us when I'm trying to have a private moment. The translator refrained from saying this for she didn't want to add fuel to the fire. My uncle chimed in and said they were just kidding around but I was furious. I tried to let it go and continued the rest of the ceremony. I really couldn't get into the moment with the distraction. They weren't family and I didn't like them. They had no self-respect or class, whatsoever. My translator pointed at the paper money that we were burning said that's the closest to money they were going to get and my grand aunt told them they'd get roasted pig and that was all. Next time I come back to Vinh Long to visit my ancestors' graves, I'm going to ask Uncle Phan to not invite anyone who isn't family. I just want family there--no outside local yokels. They were such a drag and depressing result of the poverty still residing in the countryside.
Hidden among mango groves along a Mekong offshoot was the graves of my great great grandparents (along with other ancestors) on my grandmother's side. The area felt untouched and timeless. My grand aunt told me that this land used to belong to my family but because of all the wars, they lost everything except the graves. It was like walking back in time. It was quite peaceful, and green. Uncle Phan gave me a sheet with the family tree that dated pretty far back---maybe to the mid to early 19th Century if not further. It was quite impressive. I didn't know we were able to trace our roots that far back! We ate some pig in an old hut on the land with the people who lived there. Another Aunt who told me that my mother loved her so much was there and seemed disgusted with me for not speaking Vietnamese.
We then went to visit other distant relatives and the home that my grand aunt, grandmother and her children (my mother, aunt and uncle) fled from during WWII when the French were bombing the area. They had to cross the Mekong Delta in the middle of the night and were pirated on their boat. They lost are their gold and jewelry (everything they owned) and my grand aunt was smacked by a pirate and they threatened to drown Chau, my mother's sister, who was an infant. They sought refuge at the home of their Chinese uncle who owned a brick factory on the other side of the river. Back then, the Chinese were never touched so the place was safe. We visited that brick factory where my grand aunt re-told the story on camera.