If I had to describe Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is more commonly known, in three words they would be hot, busy and noisy. It was quite a shock to the system after two weeks in gentle, sleepy Sri Lanka. The first thing I noticed was the traffic. Sometimes up to seven lanes of traffic go in each direction; motor bikes in the thousands swarming between cars in a haze of hot, polluted air. The only way to cross the roads is to grit your teeth and stride out without either hesitating or looking anywhere but directly in front.
I arrived on Thursday morning after two shortish flights over night. Tired and hungry I dumped my bags at my questionable hotel (where not one word of English is spoken) and set out to explore. First on my list was the War Remnants Museum, a stifling building crammed full of photographs and artifacts illustrating the devastating effects of war in Vietnam. 1000 years of Chinese Occupation, almost 70 years as a French Colony and then more recently the American Vietnam war which lasted 19 years, this is a country which has suffered and fought back repeatedly throughout history. The museum focuses mainly on the effects of the war with America, the thousands of casualties and the dreadful impact of Agent Orange, the herbicides used by the Americans. I stumbled around for forty minutes or so surrounded by other miserable looking tourists before deciding it was too much.
I spent the rest of the afternoon stocking up on supplies in an art shop and wandering around the Ben Thanh market. It's a wonderful and exciting but also overwhelming city. People on the streets warned me not to have my phone out or it would quickly be nabbed by one of the many thieves on motorbikes. The same applied for my necklace which I've had tucked down the back of my t-shirt. It's a St Christopher, the patron saint of travelling, worn by my great grandfather and given to me by my parents on my birthday this year. He's supposed to keep me safe so I don't want anyone running off with him! The best way to get around is by motorbike, so I've been getting Uber bikes around town. It's not quite as fun as it sounds, they have little or no sense of direction and seem to completely disregard whatever map app they have in front of them. After getting very lost on a journey that should have only had one turn, one driver then sped down a main road with four lanes of traffic going the wrong way. The helmets also fly off in a breath of wind and at the junctions there can be around 100 motorbikes crisscrossing at any one time. I've also found it very difficult to know where to sit, as wrapping my more-often-than-not sweaty thighs around a man I've never met before feels a little uncomfortable. Luckily there are handles behind so at least i don't have to envelope them in a whole body embrace.
Yesterday I had booked a tour to take me down to the river markets on the Mekong Delta. I'd paid $50 extra to get a private tour so I could have the freedom to paint. Nhu, my guide was a sweet Vietnamese lady a little older than me, she seemed very gentle until I heard her angrily shouting down the phone at someone in Vietnamese. It transpired that no boat had been booked. I didn't really mind what we did and suggested we just go somewhere else and settle and paint the river. Its often days like these that turn out to be the greatest and most memorable. She found the only boat available in an area so far from the main drag that no other tourists ever go there. So Nhu, Wing (our driver, a shy man of about my age) and I had it all to ourselves. It was perfect. We didn't see a tourist all day, just fishermen and village people. We stopped for a bit on the river where I painted from the bow of the boat. It was a grey, humid morning which made the fishing huts on the enormous stretch of river look very atmospheric, much more interesting than blue sky.
We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where they eventually dug out an English menu. Hmmmm Pig's Uterus or Pig's Udders? Thankfully I found some Satay Beef. Lunch was followed by a brief photo shoot with everyone at the restaurant. My guide said westerners hadn't been there in years and they were particularly taken by my 'princess hair.'
We whiled away the afternoon riding bikes around Coconut Island, with Nhu teaching me Vietnamese. Some useful sentences and a lot aimed a coaxing Wing out of his shell. We wandered through orchards picking and eating fruits I've never heard of until we could eat no more.
A friend from home, Will Bolitho, who's an expat here has been keeping me well entertained in the evenings. Going to delicious restaurants and even going clubbing. I regretted the latter when I woke up with a pounding headache this morning.
I'd been recommended by a few people including Will to try Sophie's Art Tour, which I did this morning. It was brilliant, four hours of learning about art and history in Vietnam since 1800 through a serious of paintings in four locations around the city. Stu took us through four chapters of art history from the French setting up a painting school here to combat artists who had to make propaganda paintings on the front line. One of the most notable painters in Vietnamese history was Bui Xuan Phai. When my father was in Hanoi in 1981 he bought two paintings on the street for a packet of cigarettes, one was by Phai and the other by his son. He bought them off the artist newly painted. Stu, our guide, and the gallery owners were very excited by this as he became so popular after he died in 1988 that even forgeries had value.
The morning made me realise once more how lucky I am to live in a free country doing what I do. If you have an exhibition in Vietnam it has to be approved by the Ministry for Culture and if anything doesn't fit their endless regulations it will be taken down and the artist punished and put on a watch list.
Apart from my painting on the Mekong River I haven't managed any more. The thought of setting up my easel around this city is daunting and I just couldn't face it. Although I've learnt a huge amount here I'm looking forward to leaving Ho Chi Minh. It's been exciting and busy and stimulating but also exhausting and I've felt distinctly uneasy in my dodgy hotel. Tomorrow I'm off to Hoi An and I can't wait!