We forsook our horse-drawn coach after yesterday’s vice-regal festivities and returned to the Toyota for a very hot tour of Saigon city. Randy explained that, commercially, the city is broken up into specialist trading districts. Apart from upmarket shopping centres of chrome and glass dotted about town, where designer labels of many genres do battle, you save time and money by heading your motorbike towards the product group you want. For instance, if you want a hi-fi system, you go to the electronics district where there are blocks of retailers all in hot competition. We wanted to see flowers, fabrics and temples.
As a warmup we went to the History Museum set in an old, charming French designed building containing artefacts not only from Vietnam’s history but much of Indochina’s. The exhibit notices glaringly avoided the advent of communism, declaring instead Vietnam to be a democratic republic, hadehaha. Oddly, I found the collection of Buddha related images the most interesting, and not necessarily those from Vietnam. My favourite was a very tall, very skinny (assisted by being partly rotted away) woman that was called a female Buddha. She stood about nine feet tall and had disconcertingly long toes. Then there was an early Cambodian stone sculpture depicting sexual harassment, where the bloke has is hand firmly clamped around the lady’s bum (see picture). She may have been his secretary. In any case, they both lost their heads over the incident.
On our way to the flower market, we dropped in at a Buddhist temple in full swing because this was the first day of the lunar new year. There was a swirling fog of incense as the believers crowded in to pray for good fortune. One of the favoured ways of doing this is to buy a coil of incense (it looks like a giant mosquito coil) and attach your prayer to it. It is then hung up in the roof, and when it burns out hours later your prayer flutters down for consideration by Buddha. There is no guarantee that he will grant your request because it may clash with more deserving others – which somewhat deflates the value of the investment in the incense. That didn’t stop Michelle who loaded in a number of prayers (some to my benefit, I hope) and had her coil hung up in a propitious position.
Still on Buddhist temples, we visited another one later in the day and it too was smoked out in burning incense. Michelle had already done the mozzie coil number, so she turned her attention to the whopper, highly decorated cylinders of incense that get a better hearing from Buddha than the bundles of uncooked spaghetti looking stuff that we’re familiar with. Michelle lit up her pole, waited until the flame had settled into a smoky smoulder, and then planted it in the alter sandpit. She made her prayer and we escaped into humid, but at least clear air. Later we discussed what we could possibly ask of Buddha. We have enough of everything to live on, our country and way of life is the best in the world, we probably live at the best time in history so far and, in my case anyway, I cannot die young. What more could I ask Buddha for? Maybe a few more healthy years and a painless death. So I’d just say thanks to the smiling fat man sitting cross legged on his plinth.
If you want to buy flowers either wholesale or retail, you go to the flower market district where there are hundreds of vendors with billions of blooms. Many of the flower sellers live in unbelievably small houses or flats in the flower market district. A two-floor apartment I photographed (see picture) was less than two metres wide. There were plenty of others of this size. Flower marketing is not a high profit business, I think, and neither is the commission in selling the real estate.
Our next market district was textiles and here I experienced bliss. I again forgave my father for making me work in a Melbourne weaving mill for a year and for the many textile people who force -taught me for the 20 years I ran Ragtrader. I love textiles, and buffeting down the narrow cloth- clogged alleyways in this market was a homecoming. Not that I intended to buy anything, of course. But I became so intoxicated by the smell and the infinite textures and colours that I emerged with fabric for two shirts and a pair of pants. When I went to Randy’s tailor she said I had supplied too much for my trousers and threw in an additional pair of shorts. Usually it is the tailor’s son who gets the shorts.
Across the road from the tailor Randy took us into a little shop that specialised in Vietnamese chocolate and honey. The chocolate tasted like laxative, but I bought a couple of blocks because the old granny at the back looked like she needed dental work. But the honey products held a stronger attraction. There were bottles of Mat Ong Len Men fermented honey liquor. ‘What’s this,’ I asked?
‘Oh wine,’ the lady said. ‘Very nice. Made only from the honey.’ It came in a whisky type bottle with square shoulders. ‘How many percent alcohol,’ I asked? She tried to tell me what she thought I wanted to hear – because the label was all in Vietnamese and no percentage was mentioned. ‘Ah, maybe five.’ She held up her fingers. I looked disappointed. She laughed and held up both hands. ‘Really ten,’ she said. I tasted it and got hit by Muhammad Ali. ‘Maybe forty,’ I said. Of course, I had to buy a bottle. It couldn’t really be that strong. It called for further investigation. Back at the residence I drank three fingers and went down to dinner with two personalities, one spouting unfunny one-liners and the other telling it to shut up. Over a pizza the sensible one got the upper hand and saved me from divorce and being thrown out of the restaurant. Bee keepers have a lot to answer for.