Saigon From Here

Sunday, May 11, 2014

It’s been awhile, too long, I would add. Hel-lo! And because I don’t know where to begin, I’ll start from here. At the moment, music is pumping from both sides of the innocent establishment from where I sit, slugging lemon juice that’s cold around the ice at the top and warm at the bottom of the glass. Apparently, but not intentionally, I’m on the biggest party street in the city. There’s a cart set up in front that advertises Pho Bo, with the words Traditional Beef Noodle Soup written below it, and a woman hawking dvds from a tower in front of that. From the cheers that just erupted from somewhere to the right, you’d think we were watching the World Cup. A man with wild hair and an eye full of milk keeps circling the block in his wheelchair and stopping in front of the same table set in front outside, staring at the closest person within sight and holding out his hand. People see him. They pretend they don’t. I wonder how long it’s been since he’s felt seen, or if he has the mind to sense the difference.

Saigon is a dizzying place. It is electric and cloaked in noise and dirt, and today marks three days longer than I thought I’d stay originally. But I like it here, especially outside of the city center in District 8, at my new friend Linh’s house, where you can get two banh mi for less than two dollars and your toes painted for fifty cents. Saigon is lively like Flushing, but with wider streets and fifty times the motorbike traffic. To cross the street, you walk steadily and directly into traffic–to hesitate is to disrupt the flow that at first glance, seems impossible. Yet somehow, it works, and every successful walk-across feels like a bigger triumph, as if you, an outsider, have melded with the flow of the city.

Linh organizes homestays through airbnb. She lives down a tight alley off the main road and just over a bridge, in a narrow, stark white five-story home that she shares with her parents, her brother, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter. She hosts guests all the time, both friends and strangers, like Juan Carlo from Italy. Juan Carlo was staying long-term in his own room, and his friend, also from Italy but living in Saigon, in his. A traveling couple from Slovakia took the last empty room, and Linh’s father slept next to the kitchen on the floor in front of the television. The family has five motorbikes, and at the end of the night they’re each steered into the house up a ramp and parked directly below the kitchen. A thief had helped himself to the brother’s rooster from the front terrace the night before. This, according to Juan Carlo, was a lucky thing, but the brother was in despair–the bird was scheduled for an upcoming neighborhood cockfight, and without it, there’d be no gambling, no potential victory, no fun. In other words, rooster or not, it was a full house.

When I got to Linh’s, she and Juan Carlo asked if I wanted to join them for drinks, somewhere, and I, without catching the full terms of agreement, said yes. Moments later, Linh was snaking her motorbike through freeway traffic, with me on the back wearing a dysfunctional helmet, feeling curiously at ease (at home, I would stress about this, but traveling brings out a more carefree and relaxed temperament of mine that I find much sexier than the worrywart, who, in a snap, can bring forth images of the worst-case scenario. It’s a total buzzkill). We got to The Deck, a fancy restaurant along the Saigon River, Linh looking radiant, Juan Carlo in a ratty t-shirt, and me in stale clothes worn for the third day in a row. It was happy hour. We ordered martinis. The river rolled past, carrying plants with it, and well-dressed dignitaries and young entrepreneurial ex-pats filled the candle-lit tables on all sides. Later that night, we had dinner local, at a noodle cart around the corner of Linh’s house. A lady next to us came over and plucked one of the limes from a plate of several, a gesture I’d soon learn was commonplace at restaurants. Everyone shares the accoutrement. We sat on short plastic chairs around a table inches from the ground, in the dark, sweat dripping from our chins, slurping piping hot bowls of noodles, sliced pork, sweet basil, and fried shallots, and two things occurred to me: Street food is the best food, and that as many bowls of pho as I’d had, I’d never tasted Vietnamese food before this. Not like this.

Vietnam has been a dream destination of mine for years. I’ve been drawn to the food since I first tried it in high school, but also to the desire to better understand the grievous past to which Vietnam and the U.S. are forever tied. When I was twelve, my dad took me to the Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. I was too young then to comprehend the atrocities of the war, or maybe too shy to ask questions, but the visit must have planted a seed. I waited to come here until I could spend more than one week; even two feels rushed. And so I first flew to Cambodia for a few days (which I will get around to writing about one day), and then from Siem Reap to Saigon with the intention of busing north along Vietnam’s coast. Tomorrow I’ll be in Na Trang, for a day at the beach sandwiched between two overnight bus rides, before making my way to Hoi An, Hue, Sapa, Halong Bay, and Hanoi. It’s a heavy schedule to pack into two weeks, but I’m going to try. I can’t wait to tell you about the food (especially the street food!!!) in another post devoted just to that. Until then, I’ll leave you with some photos of Can Tho, in the southern part of the country, and some from one of the floating markets in Mekong–fascinating place. Have an excellent Sunday, this Mother’s Day, and an even better week.



  • Nikoline

    So glad to hear your safe and having a great time. It’s amazing, the things we do on vacation that we’d never do at home. I totally know the feeling.

    Keep on truckin’ and I’ll see you on the other side!

  • Habiba

    You must be having the time of you life. Eat some pho for me.

  • Amanda Paa

    your travels, so beautiful. brian would have matched you with clothes worn for 3 days in a row and ready for a martini :) xo

  • ji sun

    vietnam is a dynamic place–you’re packing in such a magical itinerary! have a FABULOUS time! i love that i can see how you see what you see through your lovely photos. as always, thanks for sharing. xo!