I’ve depended on guidebooks all my adult life. For this trip, I carried Lonely Planet’s guide to Southeast Asia with me, and in Saigon we followed its suggestions for a few things. All the sites we visited on our walking tour with the student were warmly recommended by the Lonely Planet writers. On our own Monday, Steve and I relaxed our aversion to Vietnam War tourism and visited Saigon’s War Remembrance Museum, which pretty savagely indicts the entire US involvement in the region. It’s an entirely one-sided view of those events, with no tolerance or understanding or attempt to present what the warriors or America’s leaders thought they were doing. Heavy attention is paid to the huge numbers of people who died, to the war atrocities (like My Lai), and to the spraying of millons of gallons of Agent Orange to destroy vast areas of cropland. (We have seen a number of hideously deformed folk in the streets, who may be part of that legacy.) Lonely Planet gives it a star.
In recent years, however, I’ve become more and more fond of finding travel suggestions online. The information in even the very best printed guidebook is typically several years old by the time it hits bookshelves (or becomes available on Amazon). Cognizant of this, I’ve started turning to the Internet for more up-to-date suggestions. There, for example, I found a New York Times travel piece published this past summer (“36 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City”) that led us to two phenomenal dinners (one about $12 and one about $25).
I perked up when I came upon the “Fly, Icarus, Fly” blog. It contained a post in which author “James” recently enumerated some of his favorite quirky things to do in Saigon. An intriguing list, it led me to the free student tour. It also advised that while tourists usually experience the Bitexco Tower (Saigon’s tallest building) by paying to go to the “Skydeck” on the 49th floor, locals head to the coffee shop on the 50th floor. We did that, and sipped delicious iced coffees with condensed milk while drinking in the mind-boggling skyline.
James also recommended seeing a show at the Saigon Opera House, and that turned out to be the impetus for me securing tickets to an amazing Cirque de Soleil-style performance (“AO”) that dazzled us Sunday night. He sung the praises of local barbers, and although neither of us got a haircut, we did spring for foot massages ($5 each for 30 minutes). Best of all was James’ advice to stroll over to Tao Dan Park to see the bird men of Saigon.
He said these were bird owners who every morning gathered in the park to provide their feathered friends with a play date. Intrigued, we set our alarm and were walking out of our hotel by a little after 6 a.m. (Tuesday). It was a pleasant time to walk in Saigon, warm, of course, but not the steamy blast furnace that it builds to by late morning. The streets were far from empty, but the cars and motorbikes seemed more like battalions than armies. Folks were setting up their wares and cooking grills on the street; carving hunks of meat, displaying vegetables for sale. The world felt calmer and quieter than it would be a few hours later in the workday.
The park was a haven of pathways winding in the shade provided by huge, old trees. We arrived shortly before 6:30 a.m. and gaped at the bustle of activity: young men And women clad in black practicing martial arts, joggers, ungainly middle-aged ladies jazzercising to Vietnamese pop music, couples playing badminton. But no bird men! Had we been duped? I pulled out the blog post and re-read it; noted that it mentioned the action occurring next to some kind of cafe. We saw a building like that, headed for it, and found what we were seeking.
Men were sitting on blue plastic chairs at little plastic tables set under metal structures that looked like abstract representations of trees. From these, they’d hung the beautiful wooden cages housing their birds. From what we could see, the birds for the most part weren’t beauties. Some were the size of finches, while a few could have been mockingbirds. Most were singing in the dappled sunshine. In his post, James claimed that the birds actually learn new songs from each other.
He’d said that up to 100 bird owners sometimes gather, and indeed, in the 15 minutes or so in which we watched the scene, we saw at least a dozen more men (young and old) arrive, remove the colored cloth covering their cages, and hang them up to join the other birds. It was the kind of scene that makes you like a place, and we were sorry we had to leave it, to rush back to the hotel. But we had a bus to catch for a gathering of boats, rather than birds, in the Mekong Delta.