If there was one image that so perfectly depicts the atmosphere of Saigon it is the one above. The city shows again the great contrasts of Vietnam as it is the polar opposite to the calm serenity of the Mekong RIver and in general where we have sojourned thus far. Saying goodbye to our wonderful hosts of the Mekong Princess was difficult – they are truly a remarkable staff and will be missed.
Onwards now into the pulsating midst of Saigon, which is now called Ho Chi Minh City after the founder of the Indochinese Communist Party and ultimately the President of North Vietnam. Having become an adult during the Vietnam War, “Saigon” has much more resonance to me so I will continue to use that name in this post.
I have to honestly say that it was a bit of a downer for me to again be in a crowded, concrete and steel city, ensconced in a lovely hotel skyscraper that would feel right at home in Manhattan:
Don’t get me wrong, there was lots to see and do, great history to remember and delicious food to eat and all. I guess I am a nature girl at heart. But while my adrenaline wasn’t coursing through my body as it did during my jungle creek adventure, I still have some fond memories of Saigon.
Of course the Vietnam War, undeclared or not is still evident in the city – from the tanks:
To the old US Embassy that you see in “The Killing Fields” movie:
To the telephone booths in the Main Post Office that were used by reporters calling in their stories:
As you can see the booths are still active – however inside there are ATM’s.
There is still a scribe in the post office who writes letters for those who can’t:
My favorite place in Saigon was the Minh Phuong Nam Fine Art and Lacquerware Company. First, a little background. Lacquer objects in Vietnam date back to the 3rd Century AD. The art is a painstaking one requiring much patience (I suppose all great art has this requirement). While there are cheap versions that can be made for mass consumption, the high-end lacquer work can have as many as 30 separate levels of creation, all done by hand. The lacquer is a resin made from the highly toxic sap of the Rhus verniciflua tree, which is native to the area and a close relative of poison ivy. Lacquer is a natural plastic which is resistant to water, acid, and, to a certain extent, heat. And when done correctly, is exquisitely beautiful.
On a plain block of wood, a lacquer artist inlays various materials such as paint, eggshells, mother of pearl and even gold leaf creating the picture or design. This is a very slow process as the pieces are tiny – similar to mosaic bits. The design can take hours and even days to complete, depending on the size and intricacy. Then several layers of varying colours of varnish (lacquer) is washed over these inlays. Cheap versions use only a few layers – the major pieces of art use 30 or more coats of lacquer. The finished piece is then set aside to dry for approximately a week.
The finished works are incredible and of course I had to pick a couple to make my own. In my nature girl fashion I chose these two scenes – one in sunshine one in moonshine. Lacquer art is very hard to photograph. The surfaces are quite shiny so they reflect everything – these shots do not do them justice – take my word – in real life they are breathtaking:
These two pieces sit on a column right by my breakfast counter so as I have my morning coffee I can gaze at them and remember the wonder that is Southeast Asia.