One week in Saigon

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, March 5, 2007

Masses of speeding traffic, massive flashing neon signs, cement buildings painted with bright pastels or faded and chipped from years of neglect, tv antennae perched high atop long poles like a field of spiky wheat, karaoke bars, upscale boutiques, stark red communist party flags hanging limp in the warm dry-season air, young couples touching foreheads and whispering happily to each other, well kept flower beds and city parks, the sound of a fish slapping on its side as it gasps for air at a market stall, offers for books, motos, tiger balm, guides, food, marijuana, opium, ladies.

Crossing the street here requires a carefully controlled leap of faith. The traffic never ceases, no clear openings appear, so we first make direct eye contact with the oncoming traffic, then with slow and deliberate motion we carefully step into the lane. The approaching vehicles swerve out to make way for us until we're halfway into our first of six lanes, then they suddenly enclose us on both sides, and our perpendicular movement becomes part of the pattern. The game is to keep moving, slowly, giving every oncoming driver enough time to speed up or slow down and glide out of our path. Traffic signs don't matter. Lane lines mean nothing. Speed limits, right of way, direction of travel, all ignored. With as much awareness as you can muster, you place one foot in front of the other until you miraculously step onto the far corner.

There's not a lot to Saigon that feels new to us. The downtown is so packed with western name brand stores and big luxury hotels that we could be anywhere. The food is more approachable - a welcome relief from Cambodia - and we slurp up steaming bowls of pho, Vietnamese beef noodle soup that's eaten at any time of day and costs about $1. And though countless travelers have forewarned us about Vietnamese rip-off schemes and hyper-aggressive sales tactics, compared to Myanmar this place seems mellow. One quiet offer, one pleasant "no thanks", and they're off to the next foreigner.

In the densely touristed backpacker ghetto where we're staying, I strike out on my own and wander into teeny alleyways crammed between buildings. The traffic noise melts away, there's not another tourist in sight, and the locals quickly take an interest in why I've chosen to step into their inner sanctum rather than seeking out another 2-for-1 happy hour back out on the main street. Though it's satisfying to have breached the invisible boundary that foreigners usually don't cross, it's also a little scary. My stomach tightens and I get a little self-consciously jumpy and apologetic as I wonder how welcome I really am here. Taking out a camera to snap a few photos feels unthinkable here.

I squat on my haunches to watch a group of men gambling over a fast moving dice game. They offer me a plastic chair and give a grunt of surprised acknowledgement when I stay squatting like the rest of them.

Down another hidden backway, an enchanting and fearless young girl firmly takes me by the hand and leads me to her grandmother who is sorting through a leafy vegetable. I smile, unable to say anything in this unfamiliar and difficult language - it has seven different vocal tones - and when I squat down to watch, the girl happily climbs onto my knee like a cuddly kitten. Eventually a mother comes to fetch her daughter, a little uncomfortable about this foreigner who appears to be taking interest in such a simple day-to-day situation.

We spend a fun day with Dutch expat friends of ours, Noortje and Koen, who live here - cook some good food, sip drinks, swim in the pool, and remember what it's like to be settled somewhere. Wow! There was some eye-opening discussion about the Vietnamese political system, the influences of capitalism here, how Vietnamese family life operates, and the pervasiveness of prostitution, an activity which is publicly shunned but privately participated in by what sounds like a surprising percentage of the population. They also educate us about "the lingo". Any service that's followed by the word "om" involves "escorts" - i.e. karaoke om, massage om, barbershop om, etc.

Already we've been here five days, much of which has been spent just witnessing details large and small that create the character of a place. Aside from an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum, which graphically lays out the ongoing consequences and effects of what are described as the "imperialist" and "aggressive" actions of the U.S. during the "American War," we haven't visited any tourist sites.

We've finally escaped the internal forces that were driving us toward constant motion, toward an unending stream of tourist sites, pushing us to always seek out ways to fill the natural space of a day. This makes for a boring "travel" blog but an interesting life, doing less and noticing more.
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