Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Arrived safely in Vietnam! + First Day
Welcome to our Vietnam trip blog! We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City safely on Tuesday evening and were quickly welcomed by the hustle and bustle of this crazy town.
We spent yesterday getting our bearings and visiting the VCHAP (Vietnam-CDC-Harvard Medical School AIDS Partnership) Clinic in District 5 of Saigon. We meet with their staff and saw three HIV case presentations, and in doing so, discovered a gap in our respective strengths. I know more Vietnamese than Holly, and she likewise knows more medicine, but my already tenuous ability to piece together meaning starts to break down when words like "Zidovudine" are thrown in there. The situation was made all the more difficult by the presence of Dr. Donn Colby, Medical Director of VCHAP-HCMC, who speaks Vietnamese as fluently as the guy that sold you pho at the street corner. Only he also knows the medicine.
From the Infectious Disease Hospital, we went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, expecting to see a tourist-oriented, grand and ancient spectacle of a temple. Unexpectedly, but not unpleasantly, we instead found ourselves visiting a quiet, somewhat-shabby, but serene place of worship for the Buddhists of Ho Chi Minh City. We were some of the few tourists tip-toeing around people prostrating themselves before altars, suffused with the smell of the incense placed by worshippers going about their daily prayers and meditations. Turtles big and small splashed obliviously around the moat that surrounded the pagoda, symbols of good luck and fortune. Then the torrential rains came, reminding us that for all of the urbanity of HCMC, we were still essentially in the middle of a coastal jungle.
We decided to make the long walk that transects three of Saigon's 10 Districts back to our hotel. We saw huge differences in wealth, cleanliness and western influence, moving between streets with classic Vietnamese sidewalk food for sale from carts, to high-end shopping streets with young professionals and French pastry shops. We saw the pagodas and rickety shanty huts of Saigon's massive underclass and the huge French colonial buildings that still held the seats of the city's power. But most of all, we saw the scooters of Ho Chi Minh City.
Honda must do brisk scooter business here in Saigon, because you cannot turn a corner without seeing about 800 of the loud two-wheelers buzzing around you like a school of fish. Nor should you turn a corner without looking both ways ten times with three Hail Mary's thrown in for good measure. Only through the powers of divine intervention and Matrix-like bullet dodging do the people of this city survive unscathed. Scooters dip and dive between taxis, zip around pedestrians, plow up onto sidewalks in droves during rush hour. Seriously, the margins of clearance between people, cars, and scooters cannot be more than a few centimeters, and although I'm glad that all scooterers wear helmets, walking in this city makes me want to have a riot shield and a baseball bat.
Holly holds my hand like a small child and is afraid.