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Inside A Shoebox of Travel Memories

Remembering Saigon A City For Lovers

During the lockdown and travel restrictions, decluttering has become one of many things I put myself into it. One final decluttering job was the basement storage. Looking around piles of junks collected over the years and thinking where I could start first, my eyes caught a pile of shoeboxes covered by a thin layer of dust.

There were nine or ten of them piling up against the wall. Each one was labelled with a country and the year of visit. I was drawn to the one that I had forgotten for long. It was the one with the label ‘Vietnam’. The year was 2018.

If this shoebox is a flashback of the past, then let the past celebrate the present.

Then I lifted the lid. I found a pile of attraction brochures with a wrinkly city map of Hanoi and Saigon, Vietnam travel guide book, travel bills, Vinaphone SIM card, magnetic pin souvenirs, tickets from museums and Saigon Sky Deck tower, and a little black notebook with a faded photo. The ink blotted all over the pages that I could hardly read it.

The written words may vanish. The ink may be blotted out, obscuring stories I’d written. But only the memories would lead me back to remember the travel tale on each page.

On that photo, across Paris square, the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral in the distant background remained intact. The terracotta roof tiles looked orange and rustic, against the twin white towers tipped with iron spires.

It looks like a wedding cake. I heard you, pointing out at the Cathedral.

The neo-Romanesque church, built in the late 1880s by a French architect Jules Bourard, is a dominant landmark in Ho Chi Minh government quarter. That day, I was looking up at the large windows, admiring those highly skilful crafted stained glass and the detailed ornaments on the walls. They indeed showed the neo-Romanesque era like the one you see in France.

Across from the Cathedral, a French colonial post office is well preserved. At first, I believed it was built between 1886–1891 by a renowned French architect Gustave Eiffel. But the tour guide, a Vietnamese lady who prefer speaking in French than English, corrected me. She said it was designed by a French designer Alfred Foulhoux before she described in details how the building was the marriage of gothic, renaissance, and French colonial.

Look at the Game of Thrones map! You said, pointing out at the wall.

Our tour guide lady, again, corrected. She explained that it was the map of Saigon in 1892. She then showed another map of South Vietnam and Cambodia, made in1936.

I wouldn’t believe that actually, I was in Vietnam. A country in South East Asia that forty-three years ago was torn apart in a perpetual war of two decades. Officially renamed Ho Chi Minh in 1975, Saigon wouldn’t forget the past. It had arisen from the wounds of war, torture, and atrocity. Colonial buildings are preserved in a way to remind the present and the coming future that the wars had paid its cost.

Everyone in Vietnam — if you dare enough asking them — has their stories of war. They can talk about it eloquently like it happened yesterday. The city and its people moved on.

I remember the day trip to Mekong Delta, a two-hour bus trip from the government quarter. The tour guide told us that the Vietnamese are resilient people. We had been in so many wars, he said. Even now, looking back then, Vietnamese can make jokes out of war stories and laugh out of life misery.

There are ten wars to be precise. Vietnamese had witnessed the wars since the beginning of the 20th century; the first one was the Franco-Thai border in 1941, and the last one was the Sino-Vietnam war in 1979. Among those, only one was significant — because of the American involvement, American-Vietnam war 1956–1975.

The boat was running through the murky brown vast body of water. Mekong Delta was like a giant sleeping dragon.

For the first time, I saw your vulnerable side. Stories of war always touch the cores of humanity.

Mekong’s charms are the livelihood it gives to the people of Vietnam; trains of boats transporting logs and goods, fishers make their daily commutes, the boat ladies selling anything from food to kitchenware. The pulse of the river makes the Mekong attractive in its own way.

From the boat journey in Mekong delta to the 48th floor watching the city lights, we sipped our cocktails from the height of Eon Heli Bar at Bitexco Financial Tower. From the sky deck, we watched the sunset beyond the river, rustic roofs of white-chalk houses, and towering buildings. The river, gold and silver, dotted with illuminating lights from boats and cruise ships.

Because you were here with me, I was a lover in Saigon.

We spent the night on Saigon river cruise while watching a singer performing her rendition ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ that it was as jazzy as illuminating city lights. Though the night was young, and the city was charming, it saddened us to farewell the river of night and life. Tomorrow awaits another adventure, you said.

We were both lost in the city — or did we just let us get lost?

The smell of Huong, the burning incense, filled the humid air of the city. You asked, ‘how are we getting back home now?’ I said, ‘Follow the pathway of the divine.’ The smell of Huong was pungent in the humid air of Saigon. The city streets were buzzing. I was bathed in sweats. We then walked through laneways and bustling traffic, following the smokes of incense.

If you ever read this story, do you remember?

Somehow the pathway of divine ended us at a jade Emperor pagoda, the red walls with rustic tiled roofs and a mysterious tropical garden. The kind of place that made you believe again that the Jade emperor once defeated the green dragon.

In front of the city god, you threw a red banknote into a box — as the gatekeeper lady instructed. When you rubbed the red paper against the city god statue, you made a wish.

And ‘wish’ was the last word on the page.

I closed the notebook and placed all other pieces of the memories back in the shoebox. I owed Saigon and Vietnam a thank you, and it was, in fact, two years overdue. Well then, thank you Vietnam that you remember me as a lover.

Mercy Saigon, for remembering me that once upon a time in my lifetime, I had been loved.

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