We are in Saigon. Today I took Jameelah to see the dentist because she needed to get a filling done, and it would cost several hundred dollars in the US. Why pay for complex dental services in the US when you can just go to a developing country a get them done for pennies? I had a root canal and crown several years ago for about $150 total. And they even served tea. And the dentists here are rather attractive. Jameelah got a filling for 8 dollars, and two sets of plastic retainers for about $13 each. That’s a saving of approximately $800! And it wasn’t scary at all. Except for the part where the dentist and her assistants misinterpreted my Vietnamese translation and started extracting the molar before I told them it was just a filling.
The rest of the stay at the village was great. We walked the paths I used to walk as a child. Memories came flooding back like monsoon. Unfortunately, they all mainly involved me playing with a stick and some dirt. We were poor back then, and it took weeks of saving to afford a stick. We took the cousins to fly kites, and I was struck by how excited the kids were. Each day, in the evening, before or after the daily rain, the children of the village would bring their kites to the dam to fly. Sometimes one kid would ride a bike, and another kid would stand in the back of the bike holding the kite, and they would zoom down the hill, weaving between cows. It is a picture of childhood that many of the kids in the US these days are missing, surrounded by their Nintendo DS’s and Facebook accounts.
Saigon feels different than the village. Jameelah has become an expert at crossing the street, filled with hundreds of motorcycles, taxis, cyclos, wagons, and bicycles, some carrying staggering amounts of stuff. She has been amazed by how many people a motorcycle can carry (five!) or what sort of things (a mattress! And some ducks!). The city, with its neon lights and streets packed with people, can feel rather surreal. Last night, walking around District 1, we were struck by the economic disparity. Several restaurants had menus in front with dishes for $300,000 to $400,000VND, which is about 20 or 25 dollars, a huge sum considering that many people here only make 3 or 4 dollars a day. Around the corners, under verandas, we saw homeless families huddled against the rain, and children as young as 4 or 5 years old selling flowers or begging for money. At midnight, an old woman, probably in her 80’s, ambled around the streets selling gum and lighters from a small basket she held. “Please help Grandma,” she said when we passed by. Her hands were deformed. I felt cold, not because of the rain, but because it seems like I’ve gotten better and better at ignoring these pleas, which I’m not so sure is a skill I’d like to further hone.
Anyway, this is depressing. Overall, I like Saigon, with its lights, bustle, people, dust and heat. In the morning the vendors wake us up with their chants as they peddle their wares down the alleys. In the afternoon, the rain falls, cooling the city, and thousands of motocycle drivers stop their vehicle, flip open their seat, and take out raincoats. The street vendors, pushing carts filled with guavas, batter-fried bananas, and boiled quail eggs, move their wares aside to wait out the rain.
Tomorrow we set out for Northern Vietnam: Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay. Sapa and Ha Long are supposed to be some of the most beautiful places in the world. Hanoi…it’s a’ight. The relatives have been pulling us aside to warn us. “Beware of the Northerners,” they say, “they’re mean! And they use way too much MSG!” We’ll report back to let you know if this is true. I don’t really see how it would be possible to use more MSG than what is being used here in the South.