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The warm night air covered me like a blanket. People around me were chatting happily while neon lights advertised the stores lining the street. It was late at night but the city was bustling and scooters crowded the streets. It was a stark contrast to the cold and sterile Immigration and Customs room that I had just been in at the airport, staffed with dour immigration officials who spoke in curt sentences and barely looked at you.
I was picked up in an airport taxi by my friend Thuy and her sister Thanh. We were dropped off by the side of the road where Thanh's husband and their brother waited with scooters. They piled my luggage on their scooters and I hopped on another scooter with Thuy as we rode down narrow streets to their house. After arriving and bringing my luggage in, we made introductions and then went out to eat. The night air was warm and filled with friendly people eating happily as we ate dinner outside.
The next morning, we went out to breakfast at a small cafe. I ordered a Khmer (Cambodian) dish of seafood soup. I had forgotten the Asian preference of eating all sorts of seafood and was confronted with squid and octopus in the soup, not something I would normally eat for breakfast. However, that was the only meal in Vietnam that I didn't really care for. Everything else was delicious. We met up with a friend of Thanh and Thuy, a young man around my age. We first went to tour the government building in Saigon. After we finished the tour, my friends had to work so they handed me over to their friend. We went to the War museum which was filled with pictures and artifacts from the Vietnam War. I marveled at the old Vietnamese tanks and American helicopters displayed outside the museum. The pictures and displays inside the museum were from the viewpoint of the Communist government of Vietnam. It was a strange experience to see pictures displaying the actions of the Imperialist Invaders (AKA America) and see how one-sided the museum was in terms of the war. The museum was also filled with pictures of people affected by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the American Army in Vietnam during the war. It saddened me to see all the people who were disabled and suffered from deformities as a result of the chemicals that were used during the war.
After we finished at the museum, we went to eat. Binh took me to eat at a local Pho noodle shop that was well-known and as he informed me, 'Bill Clinton had eaten there.' The pho soup was delicious and we met up with another friend of his, Hoa. The two of them took me to a local park and famous waterfront area and proceeded to teach me some basic Vietnamese. I learned that 'Hoa' means flower in Vietnamese, which was an appropriate name for the delicate looking woman. Then I was handed over to Hoa and we went to tour the local market. After going through the night market, we met up with some of her friends and went out to eat. Hoa's boyfriend was an older Korean man and the group included a mix of Korean and Vietnamese. They could all speak good English and we had a lively conversation sitting outside while eating. They taught me the Vietnamese word for 'cheers' and there were many shouts of 'Mot hai ba dzo!' as shots were taken. Hoa still managed to get me safely home on her scooter at the end of the night.
The next day, I went with Thuy and Thanh to their workplace. Breakfast was a big bowl of Bo Kho, a spicy beef soup. It was delicious. When it was late morning, Hoa stopped by and took me out. We first went and got Indian food for lunch. The curry was delicious and tasted very similar to the soup I had that morning. Then we went and got a massage. The massage therapists were very good though there was not much privacy in the room. Afterward, we went to another noodle shop for dinner. Hoa had me try the local soup that had originated from her hometown. After dinner, I was happily full and feeling sleepy. We headed to my friend's home so I could get some rest before the next day's adventures.
I awoke early and went to the seaport with my friends Thuy and Thanh and their brother, Dat. We boarded a hydrofoil, a fast, sleek boat and headed to a local island close to Saigon. The boat cut through the waves and I felt the thrill of adventure as I felt the boat lurch through the sea. After we arrived at our hotel on the small island, I had a pleasant surprise. The hotel owner's dog had recently had a litter of puppies. We played with the puppies and I even scooped all of them in my lap for a photo. After resting, we went out to a local seafood place for dinner. It was a distance from the hotel and we took a taxi down a dark street. We arrived at a giant pavilion with long tables and proceeded to stuff ourselves with crab. The pavilion overlooked the ocean and we could smell the sea as we ate.
The next day, we set out to explore the island. We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant with tables set into the steep hillside. Trees bloomed with fragrant flowers around us and music played while we ate. It was truly a piece of paradise. The afternoon grew cloudy and threatened to storm and that was when my friends decided it would be a good time to go to the beach. I was informed that 'People in Vietnam only went to the beach when it was storming so they wouldn't get tan from the sun.' I splashed in the water with my friends until the storm moved in and then my self-preservation kicked in. Even though I was following the philosophy of 'when in Rome,' I was not going to be swimming in the ocean when it was storming! I got out and made my friends get out as well, much to their disappointment. We headed back to the hotel in the rain and spent the rest of the day relaxing until it was time to head back to Saigon. The water was even choppier due to the storm and made for an exciting boat ride back.
The rest of my time in Saigon was filled with more adventures and I was very sad to leave Vietnam and the friends I had made there. Vietnam is a truly beautiful place with wonderful people and great food. Some people may sing of losing their heart in San Francisco but I lost my heart in Saigon.