Burgess and the Big Night Out

It’s a new year in the former Saigon, and the smoke, the explosions and Mylar fish are just as they ought to be.

By Steve Burgess 11 Feb 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It’s Tet holiday time in Ho Chi Minh City, and that means balloon crime. A siren howls as a small gang of balloon sellers, their getaway impeded by the drag from towering columns of Mylar fish, stars, and roosters, are hotfooting it down the street through a crowd of holiday celebrants.

They pile around the corner but the blaring police truck ambles on past, perhaps chasing down the Counterfeit Pinwheel Boys. Relieved, the outlaw balloon merchants pick up the plastic sticks they dropped in their panicky run and go back to their places by the curb. I gotta say, if the cops couldn’t spot that crew I despair of Vietnamese detective work in general.

Tet is in full swing here, which is to say that almost everything’s closed. The streets of the city locals still call Saigon are packed with strolling families and the vendors who scamper when the cops show up. At night there are stage shows on the boulevard in front of the Rex Hotel. The lunar New Year celebration is a very big deal, the biggest of the year, and like Christmas it seems to be all about kids.

Kids and chickens. A family of huge straw chickens has been set up on the main drag, complete with a set of speakers emitting clucking and scratching noises. Crowds pose in front of the big mean rooster, which would resemble Godzilla even without the looming bird flu threat attacking this country. As it is, this looks to be some sort of public service announcement — the Giant Rooster of Death, signifying potential trouble as millions of Vietnamese cook traditional holiday birds for their families.

But everything will be OK. I know, because the newspaper tells me every day. A recent headline in the Viet Nam News read: “Nation Ensures All Have a Happy Tet.” Wow. If only we had a swell government like that.

It feels just like a chicken suit

Generally, Saigon has been a big relief. My first walk down the street was like a dose of morphine for a migraine headache — I was pestered only modestly and for the most part allowed to stroll unobtrusively like a real human being.

Unlike in Hanoi, these people appear to have encountered large white guys before. (You think?) Saigon’s wider boulevards also ensure that, despite the city’s slicker, more modern look, traffic is not experienced with the same brutal immediacy as in Hanoi, where every horn on the narrow streets seems to honk directly into your auditory canal.

My fears about casual Vietnamese strolling were greatly increased by the one evening I spent in Pan Thiet, a town four hours up the coast from Saigon (and briefly home to a teacher who would later be known as Ho Chi Minh). I took a taxi in from the beach resort where I was spending a blissful week in the friendly surf, hoping to take in a Tet holiday festival and market.

I stood watching a bunch of cute little tykes performing songs on a stage, but soon felt it was only fair that I leave — I was upstaging the poor little singers. Kids crowded around me instead, staring, shouting “Hi!” One parent dragged a toddler up to a distance of two feet and pointed at me, chattering excitedly. As I left the stage area a crowd swarmed around, some measuring themselves against me, some shouting greetings, some just gaping.

All very surreal and disturbing until revelation suddenly struck: I was Mickey Mouse. People’s behaviour made perfect sense if I just assumed that I was wearing a huge Disney costume, or perhaps a giant chicken. (The odd thing was, I saw a few other Europeans over by the market. Maybe they just didn’t venture into the fairgrounds. Or maybe they didn’t have the right kind of ears.)

So Saigon was a welcome change. And yet — four hours after my arrival here I was once again sick as a hound. Food poisoning, for the second time in a week. I realize I have developed a digestive hair trigger, but still — I am unimpressed with the culinary offerings here. It was a cob of corn for God’s sake, purchased from a cart in a street market.

Who can screw up a hot cob of corn? But when I actually bit into it the nice lady had done some sort of bait-and-switch, since it was not hot but stone cold and very stale-tasting. She has a special stash for foreigners maybe? I went to the war museum this week and saw a display on ingenious homemade weaponry. But geez, lady, it’s over already.

More than an American mistake

Certainly Vietnam deserves to be viewed as something other than the backdrop for America’s foreign policy mistakes and Hollywood’s cinematic obsessions. But understandably the war is not hard to find here, from the aforementioned museum with its planes and guns and strangely domestic little homemade rocket launchers, to the shop on Le Loi Street selling classic old wartime propaganda posters. With nightclubs boasting names like Apocalypse Now, Vietnam is only too happy to reflect the image Western tourists expect.

Most of the catering to tourists involves the usual stuff — local crafts, suspiciously alike in every passing shop. I bought a carved soapstone box from one of the many. After a bit of linguistically maladroit flirting, the two women on duty, Nyu and Ty, invited me to join them for dinner later. I took a motorcycle taxi to my hotel to freshen up, hiring a suitably crazy dude who believed in using the sidewalk when necessary and encouraged other bikes to move by first barking at and then gently rear-ending them.

Then it was onto the back of another motorbike, this one piloted by Nyu. W

e made a sight for the locals — the big guy is supposed to drive here, not perch on the back like a 170-pound chicken. They ordered up a good meal (no small feat for me in this country), an odd amalgam of fried noodles, barbecued shrimp, and beef nuggets with French Fries.

Then Nyu rode me home, slowly, slowly down a main street absolutely crammed with motorcycles, everyone out cruising on the first real night of the holiday season. You’ll see families of three or four on motorbikes here. You won’t see many girls with big gawky dudes on the back of their cycles. So I was a spectacle once again. She dropped me at the Hotel Majestic and rode off to celebrate Tet with her family.

Family togetherness is the overriding theme of Tet week, but the holiday incorporates the familiar elements of the New Year’s Eve bash as well. As midnight approached, the boulevard that runs along the river was crammed with spectators awaiting fireworks. High above at a fancy dress party atop the Hotel Majestic an emcee started the countdown with about 30 seconds to go. “10!... 9! 8!...7!.....6! 5!” He reached “2” with about 7 seconds left, which really heightened the suspense, I thought.

Abba’s morose “Happy New Year” blasted intermittently from a malfunctioning sound system and the fireworks went off — on the opposite side of the hotel, out of sight. I could hear explosions crashing off the buildings and see drifting smoke over the river.

Yup, this is Saigon all right. Just like I always pictured it.

Steve Burgess is still filing dispatches from his Southeast Asian sojourn, so the food can’t be all that bad. Below are his previous reports.

Walkabout with Hanoi Steve

Burgess in Bangkok

Dispatch from Hong Kong  [Tyee]

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