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15 Vietnamese boys and 1 hairy american
Rating: (4.9)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Feb 16, 2004 04:05

Pros: fun, friendly and lively city, adventurous
Cons: pollution, traffic

We won't be settling down and raising our kids in Ho Chi Minh City (too much pollution, traffic, and we happen to believe in child safety seats), but it's been a fun, friendly and lively city to spend two weeks.

After reading the "Dangers and Annoyances" section of Lonely Planet Vietnam, Jill expected Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to be teeming with pickpockets, annoying vendors, and streetkids. This turned out to be not true. In fact, the streets were eerily empty of streetkids (more about this later), so we went and sought them out.

Prior to arriving, Andy had researched possible volunteer opportunities and discovered Thao Dan, a non-governmental organization that provides shelter and care for streetkids. They operate three centers -- a drop-in center near the heart of HCMC, a Hope House for kids living with HIV/AIDS, and a Safe House for boys ages five to 16 to live while they go to school.

We met with some of the Thao Dan staff, who decided Safe House would be the best placement for us. We were initially skeptical since it was located on the outskirts of town and after experiencing HCMC traffic for one day, we were terrified of bicycling or motorbiking ourselves out there. Fortunately, they helped us decipher the public bus system. The NO. 3 bus took us each day from the central market to within three blocks of the Safe House. We only had to cross two "streets of death"!

The boys were not the tough, mean souls you might expect. We felt more like guests in their home than volunteers. They were kind, respectful and well taken care of. There was always someone eager to play a game of foosball, badminton, or just horse around. We tried to remember all the childhood games we used to play that didn't require communication and would bring puzzles, modeling clay, and other activities. The boys especially liked Andy and were fascinated by the hair on his legs, chest, and arms. Andy also joined in their frequent soccer games at a nearby field... er, rectangular pit of dirt... where they would play barefoot.

After a few inquiries, we learned that most of the streetkids in HCMC were rounded up by the government prior to the SEA Games, which was hosted by Vietnam in December. Why they're still missing from the streets or where they've gone is still a mystery to us.

Andy, who has a knack for foreign languages, calls learning Vietnamese a very humbling experience. The many sound intonations make words difficult to pronounce and understand. Regrettably, we didn't even get the name of our "favorite" boy, Bao Anh, right until our last day. It was a learning experience for both sides. When Bao Anh learned we were leaving, he looked up the word to express his feelings in our Vietnamese-English Dictionary and told us he "holds us in contempt." Now we don't think that's what he meant, which makes us wonder what we've been telling them in our feeble attempts at dictionary-aided Vietnamese.

Our daily schedule usually consisted of being tourists in the morning, enjoying a Vietnamese lunch, resting in air conditioning, playing with kids in the afternoon, eating dinner at the Safe House, and reading in the evenings (until we figured out how to get HBO on our TV). We visited the Reunification Palace, which hasn't changed since the Communist Forces crashed through its front gates on April 30, 1975, ending the American War (or Vietnam War for you Yanks). Another highlight was a day at Saigon Water Park, which was like an oasis from the steamy and crowded streets of HCMC. Our other tourist adventures included the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City Museum, History Museum, Cholon (Chinatown), Dong Khoi shopping, and getting massages from a blind masseuse.

Our gastronomical adventures have been equally gratifying. We've run the gamut from sitting down to pork on rice at the corner stall for less than $1 for both of us to eating at one of the finest Vietnamese restaurants on Valentine's Day for a splurge. Our favorite eatery was Pho 2000, where President Clinton ate some noodle soup during his visit in 2000.

Jill's recent disturbance has been the many, many, many sightings of public urination. This practice is not confined to the homeless. Every man, boy, and even the occasional woman feels compelled to pee in public. Add this to the hot weather, and HCMC has a serious odor problem.

Despite this, HCMC has been a hospitable city (and a great place to get a close shave). But we know we've been here too long when the traffic system has begun to make sense. Think about it... in the space of 2 single-passenger SUVs in America, they can fit 20 motorbikes, some carrying families of four! And there's never a traffic jam because they just weave their way through intersections -- traffic lights and pedestrian right-of-way be damned!