Entering Vietnam was, again, relatively easy as our bus driver became our group handler (In fact, I was asked no questions by any customs representative throughout the whole process.). Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) reminded me of Bangkok, although not quite as large or modern. The one big difference is the motos. There are at least 20 motos to each car and they choke the roads at any hour of any day. I have now traveled a bit in my life and have gotten used to lax driving standards, but I have never seen anything like what I saw in Saigon. Eighty percent of the street crossings are uncontrolled (meaning no traffic lights). There are no lanes and motos head in any direction and not only weave through the cars in the center but also cut through on the edges. Also, the motos are allowed (I guess) to drive up on the sidewalk when they deem it necessary to pass. Trying to cross the street, stumbling under my cumbersome backpack, I felt like a young wildebeest who has been separated from the herd and is just waiting for the lions to finish him. In the end, you just have to go (once you start, NEVER STOP!) and believe in an unspoken pact between you and the oncoming traffic; that they will veer around you as they approach.
My first day in Saigon, I had planned to visit some of the notable museums and was on my way to one when a young guy stopped me to ask directions. He was Filipino, so he spoke good English (In the Philippines, English is the secondary language. Tagalog, the official language is actually a hybrid of English, Spanish and some native tongues.). He told me he was in Ho Chi Minh for a family reunion, staying with an uncle who had lived there for years. We sat and talked for about twenty minutes, after which he invited me to lunch with his family.
Now this is where traveling alone can prove difficult. When you have a second set of eyes looking at the same situation, often they can see problems that you may have overlooked. Perhaps if I had a companion, he or she would have suggested that it was not a good idea to cab it with a stranger to another, unfamiliar, part of the city to be alone in a strange house without anyone knowing where you are (However, if the following events had gone a different way, this could have been the makings of a great story.). But lacking a second opinion, I went along.
We arrived at his uncle's house, which was hidden down some twisted alleyways in a more residential part of the city. His uncle was watching the Laker game when we entered and we quickly hit it off talking about sports (I am a huge boxing fan of which Manny Pacquio is currently ranked as the best pound for pound fighter in the world. Manny Pacquio is to Filipinos what the Pope is to Catholics.). The uncle had only one hand (the other had been lost in a moto accident, save for a loose thumb), yet despite this he continued his work as a professional blackjack dealer for high-stakes games at the major casinos.
My friend served me a big lunch of meat, fish and rice and told me we were waiting for his mother and sister to return from the hospital. (Apparently, health care in Vietnam is much cheaper than in the Philippines.). After lunch, the uncle asked me to go upstairs (again, another point where, in retrospect, this was stupid). I walk into his bedroom and he immediately shuts the door behind me. Before me is a small poker table, professional chips, and a deck of cards.
"Now I'm going to teach you how not to gamble.", the uncle says.
He tells me that he often deals private games to some of the super-rich and he proceeds to name drop Paul Allen and Mr. Tokinawa from Japan (He actually keeps a list of the 10 richest people in the world in his pocket.) as former clients. We play a few hands, straight-up, to make sure I understand the rules, then he proceeds to teach me how to cheat. He is able to flash me the top card of the deck deftly and only at the angle where I am sitting. Then using a basic (way too basic) system of hand gestures he is able to communicate to me what he (the dealer) is holding. In this way, I can never lose (unless I choose to fold). As he is showing me this, he keeps referring to this businessman from Brunei (Brunei is an oil-rich nation of Borneo. A kind of city-state like many of the Emirates.) saying he is stupid and how easy it would be, if he had a partner, to cheat him out of his money. At first, I assume this is a joke. After twenty minutes, we get into what type of gestures would be signals for me to leave the table or to throw a hand, I realize he is serious. Still, he keeps phrasing the statements with,
"If you came into my casino..." or "When you come back to Vietnam..." so I am assuming I have a clear out.
Then things really get weird when my friend comes in and wants to learn how to play blackjack. We go through the game and how to cheat it and I am waiting for my friend to smile and agree that this is pretty weird. Just then, the doorbell rings downstairs and I am assuming that it's his mom and sister. The uncle leaves and I try to explain to my friend how weird this situation is when in walks another man with his uncle. He introduces us.
"So this is my friend from Brunei. This is Aron. He is a computer programmer (not true) from America. If it's alright, he'd like to play some cards with us today.".
It was at this point that I remembered an old Barnum quote, " When you can't spot the sucker in the room...".
I tell them I am feeling tired and that I have to leave. None too tactfully, I make for the door. My friend walks me out and helps me get a moto to the War Remenants Museum (my original goal for the door). I leave, clutching my Vietnamese driver, overcome with relief.
My earlier experience left me pretty disturbed, which was perfect for the War Remenants Museum. This building displays an impressive collection of photos and exhibits of the Vietnam War. It is not a place for the squeamish as there are graphic photos of dead soldiers and children born with birth defects from exposure to Agent Orange. I had expected the museum to serve as a blunt propaganda tool, but truthfully, beyond referring to the US soldiers as the "Occupiers" and the NVA army as "Freedom Fighters", there was hardly anything that struck me as rhetoric. They didn't need to slant the information; the photos and the statistics spoke for themselves. I learned that we dropped more bombs on this small region (including Laos and Cambodia) than were dropped during the whole of WWII, and that we poured one of the most toxic chemicals known to man over crops and neutral villages (actions that have been categorized as war-crimes by international tribunals). I was raised to believe the war was wrong, but I had no idea how wrong. The most glaring fact that I learned about the war was that before it began, 80% of the country was subsistent farmers. Why in the hell were we so afraid of a government of subsistent farmers?