Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City.
It is a city to inspire poetry.
It is beautiful, chaotic, overwhelming, but not inscrutable. It is dirty but not filthy, maybe cleaner than New York. The people do not live big, but they seem to live well. Vietnam is a socialist nation, but here capitalism thrives on a micro scale.
There are two types of street in this city. On the broad boulevards motorbikes swarm around cars and busses, and tiny businesses spill onto the sidewalks, pushing pedestrians onto the street. Dried goods, fruit, motorbike repair, books, bahn mi, cigarettes, beer. Crossing one is an act of faith: wait for a break in traffic, then start walking. Keep your pace and you’ll be fine – linear motion is easy to predict, and no one wants to hit you. The most dangerous thing you can do is try to dodge.
Turn left or right between the intersections and you’ll find yourself weaving through impossibly tight passageways between overhanging buildings. Though they are barely wide enough for two people to walk shoulder to shoulder, business spills onto the street and mopeds squeeze past pedestrians. The path twists and branches. Most routes lead back to the street but every once in a while you find a dead end, and must swallow your pride and backtrack.
It is hot, muggy, the air reeks of pollution. A morning of wandering the city and my lungs are aching. I buy a cotton surgical mask from a tiny store, the kind I have seen many locals wearing. It is comically small, not even covering my chin – I think I have accidentally bought a child size. My beard breaks the seal and makes it itch terribly. I wear it anyway. Perhaps later I will find a bandana.
A storm threatens to break out; I duck under a tarp and order a beer just as the rain begins to fall. Somehow, as if by prearrangement, the driver of every motorbike and vespa is immediately wearing a poncho. I sit on my child sized plastic chair next to an old timer. We cannot speak to one another, but the atmosphere is friendly. We adjust our chairs to avoid drips in the tarp. The waitress brings out my beer along with a glass of ice, which I have forgotten to tell her to omit for fear of infection. I drink the beer warm, straight from the bottle, slightly ashamed of my waste. Thunder peals, and we watch it pour.
It rains harder than I have ever seen. The streets collect inches of water. The flood threatens to overflow onto the sidewalk where I sit. Vespas throw up huge rooster tails as they speed by. The locals seem unimpressed.
As soon as the rain eases the streets drain, leaving them clear of dirt but scattered with trash that has washed out. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse. At least the rain seems to have cleared the air a little – it is cooler and easier to breathe than before. My friend pays and takes off on his moped; the owner casts the dregs of his beer into the street. I nurse my second bottle and wait for it to subside to a drizzle before I settle up. The price for shelter from the storm: 20,000 dong, less than a dollar.
I wander the streets as the city drips. My vague destination is Chinatown and the Binh Tây Market, but I am in no hurry. Enterprising shopkeepers hurry with brooms to clear their sidewalks of trash. Traffic ebbed a little with the rain, but now it is back thicker than ever. Several blocks of a major boulevard are flooded. Undeterred, motorcycles speed by, the water over their drive trains. I have no hope of crossing and there are no convenient side streets to duck down. I wade through half a block of shin-deep dirty grey water before I can turn down an alley. The locals wade with me; seeing their cheap plastic flip flops or bare feet I am grateful for my sturdy sandals.
This street is full of steel workshops, churning out every kind of part imaginable in tiny first floor workshops. Sparks fly as people weld, cut and shape. I see neither safety glasses nor work gloves, though the welders do wear masks.
Suddenly starving, I turn into a corner cafe and order a bowl of pho just as another deluge starts. The hot soup is a perfect counter to the pouring rain.
I finally make it to the market. It’s late enough that many stalls are closing up, but I purchase a little pair of scissors to trim my beard as well as a bandana. I even haggle a little bit, just to prove I can.
I take the long way home, along the canals to the south. This is not as simple as it sounds – bridges are scarcer than I would like and some roads are so busy as to be uncrossable on foot. More than once I have to backtrack substantially. The neighborhoods are residential, not rich, but I don’t feel in danger. In fact I get a number of “hello”s and “welcome to Vietnam”s as I wander. As darkness falls however, I worry about walking down the still busy roads – even here in the boonies there’s little room on the sidewalk for pedestrians. I spot a well-lit cafe and stop for dinner, thinking I’ll hop on the wifi as I eat and figure out how to get home quickly.
The restaurant’s waitstaff are all young men, and they are all somewhat effeminate. One might even say beautiful. They bustle around me, giggling as I confront the all-Vietnamese menu, showing me in detail how to cook meat in the hot pot and wrap it into a fresh roll. I also attract some attention from the next table, a gaggle of Vietnamese men and women, clearly a little drunk, who call out questions and laugh at my responses. Most lose interest quickly as they run out of English phrases, but one in particular is persistent. His friends leave, but he moves to my table. He has no more English than they do, but he keeps pestering me. I start out all smiles, hoping to avoid things getting ugly, but it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to pick a fight. Finally I arrive at the obvious conclusion: I have stumbled into a gay bar, and this man is aggressively hitting on me. I’m pretty sure he’s trying to get me to pay him for sex. A resolute “no” gets me nowhere. I book a motorbike taxi through an app under the table, flag down my waiter and shove a $20 in his hand, and get out.
Many thoughts pass through my head as I cling to the back of my driver. I feel betrayed – what I thought would be a safe haven for a weary traveler ended up being anything but. I’m frustrated with myself for not seeing what was going on sooner. I’m grateful that this is the first time I’ve felt unsafe on this trip, and that I got out ok. But mostly the feeling is “oh wow, this is what it’s like to be a woman all the time”. Fuck that.
It is a relief to return to the hostel, to relax on the roof and not have anywhere to go next, to chatter in English with the Brits and the Australians and the Danish woman whose diction is better than mine. To take a shower, paying careful attention to my feet. It has been a busy first day in Saigon.