Roaming the Streets of Saigon
During off days, which were many, I roamed the city with a new camera I’d bought at the PX. This display of American excess annoyed Phil who refused to be seen with me toting my camera gear. But tote I did. With the help of film at well under a dollar a roll and similarly priced processing I used hundreds of rolls of film. For me, the sheltered product of suburban Seattle, Saigon was a zoo filled with exotic things and people. I was a naive eyed observer in a strange new world.
In my exploring I used mostly public transportation when I wasn’t walking, only occasionally borrowing a motorbike from a friend. Saigon had many forms of public transportation, all of them seeming suicidal. The cyclos, brightly painted and decorated tricycles, sometimes called tuk tuks, were most to be feared. Belching blue exhaust and driven as fast as possible, they left all of Saigon in a dense blue haze. The passenger sat ahead and the driver behind — no bumper, only a step to assist you in and out. Brave men rode in them after a night of drinking.
Next in the order of suicidal transport were the blue and yellow, Renault 2CV, taxis They were just as aggressive in traffic as the Tuk tuks and nearly always driven by a middle-aged man who had wedged a large bag of weed between the windshield and the dashboard. At any of the many traffic jams he might pull the bag down and roll a large joint. He might sell you a little too.
The cheapest and safest were the jitneys. These were Italian, Lambretta, three-wheeled trucks with a covered bed and benches, also with a two-stroke engine making blue smoke. There was room in the bed for about eight Veitnamese people but it was a tight squeeze for a six-foot american.
Street scenes in Saigon were like nothing I’ve seen before or since. Bamboo scaffolding, many stories high next to buildings under construction, facilitated raising buckets of concrete mixed on the ground from piles of sand and gravel obscuring the sidewalk and spilling out into the street. Piles and piles of red bricks, new and from tear-downs were raised with rope windlasses to the top of the scaffolds.
Creaking ox carts shared the streets with flatbed trucks, overloaded with bricks or cement, their springs stacked with double the normal number of leaves. Honda step-throughs weaved in and out, sometimes with a dozen live chickens hung from the handlebars by their feet. Whole families rode one behind the other on small motorcycles. Human-powered tricycles pulled passengers, shielded from the sun under canvas tops. Gangs of young men roared about on motorcycles without mufflers. Saigon Police cruised on green Harley Sportsters provided by the Americans. And the green military busses on their routes between various military installations and hotels, roared along the streets, horns blaring, scattering pedestrians and other traffic in their wake.
Children and old women carried rice and chicken or pork for hot lunches hanging from a coolie pole across their shoulders, cooker basket on one side, food basket on the other. At lunchtime construction workers abandoned their scaffolding and squatted on the sidewalk eating hot meals brought by the basket carriers.
And all along the sidewalks, people sat or slept on stacks of colorfully boxed American consumer goods, Coke, Pepsi, Pepsodent, Arid Extra Dry, Snickers, Campbell’s, all the items normally found in the military PX and off limits to vietnamese civilians. Motorcycle repair shops spilled out onto the sidewalk, new and used tires hung from pegs along the interior walls. The mechanics squatted next to the machines. Stacks of truck tires, mostly well used lined the walls and spilled into the street from dimly lit, cavernous garages that housed the thousands of trucks that choked the streets by day. Endless ranks of small motorbikes clustered around the cafes and offices, guarded by small boys paid a few piasters by owners wanting to keep the otherwise vandals employed.
The largest intersection in the city was a huge rotary with a market at its center. I knew it only as the Perlon market because of the huge Perlon Dental Creme signs ringing its perimeter. It is officially the Bến Thành Market. Inside was a fantastic array of wares from bolts of brightly colored cloth to local fresh vegetables, fish, barbecued chicken, pork, mounds of rice of every description, magazines, clear vinyl records of Vietnamese pop stars in red, blue and green and bootleg copies of American rock ’n roll in similar colors. And ubiquitous ceramic elephants with flower pots of various sizes on their backs.