Outside of food, coffee and Applesauce (a person), there was only a few things on my agenda here in Sai Gon; one was a motorbike. Ride around Sai Gon, testing my skill and luck. Not athletic at all and my track record has more crashes than falls, but I tell you; I see more accidents in LA traffic on a daily, than this madness in which everyone is constantly inches away from bloody disasters. And they are always inches away because they pay mad attention to their surroundings, much like massive hordes of fish in the ocean, swimming in every direction and never colliding with each other. As if it's in their DNA, from old pops on a trolley to school kids no older than their day. I saw one bumper-to-bumper, a skinny brother lightly tapped on this auntie's license plate. But boy did she go out for his blood and make a soup out of it. The boy could only hold on to his helmet as she slapped him nonsense. God I love being in this traffic.
Of course it's no pleasure cruise; one; you could die. Easily. They'd rather kill you than hurt. Two; the indochina sun so merciless I wish I wore a skirt. The tan I've got on my arms is two-tone, and my body I'll leave up to your imagination. Three; the city is a maze. On top of unfamiliar street names and fucking roundabouts, G Maps get often confused and leads you to some nerve-racking sharp turns and the worst of all, is late. I'm on earbuds so I don't have to go one-handed like Grab-boys, but a lot of times you need a visual. It also doesn't allow you to make illegal U-turns so when you miss a street, it kicks you into some hood alleys where grannys got chickens by their feet.
Speaking of Gmas; in or outside of the city proper, I make sure to grab a coffee, sit down in the sun, and observe powerful characters on the street being who they be. I hate to come off ageist, but the older they get, the less fucks they seem to give. How refreshing. Makes me wanna live. Makes my worries seem small. Reminds me to stand and/or sit tall. Also to watch where you're going 'cause you could easily fall. Don't be so confident with your judo roll. The majority that you'll meet here are probably "less-fortunate" than we are in the states (and Japan), but I'm also think that they've their life priorities straight. Every time I come here I feel my cynicism evaporate, my senses elavate and about all of this I want to elaborate. Like I am doing now.
Sai Gon thrills me. Next time I come she might kill me but until then, she continues to heal me.
The first whiff of hot Saigon air makes you wanna drop what you wear, get off your comfy chair and also reminds you how you're never prepared. This is the city as dense and diverse as any metropolis in existence. The history as old and complicated, the culture as bold and traditional, the development as fast and uneven, the climate as unabashed and visceral.
The streets of Sai Gon remain familiar where my eyes and skins meet, with added construction and murderous heat; I do say this in almost every city the record shows, but my memory fades with the sun so merciless. Dry season I suppose, but I digress. Despite all the sweat drops off my nose, for this city there's more love than hate that I want to express.
After all is said and done about gorgeous sights and people you meet, there is no denying this one; I basically come here to eat. I admit my lack of knowledge regarding all things Vietnam, but I can say wholeheartedly that Vietnamese food is my favorite. Equal to my native cuisine. Its texture dressed with heat, the bold strokes of sweet, the complex mixture of raw and neat - All provokes the thought that with this, life is complete. And that, they know. The number of eateries in this place so overwhelming, with many of them simply an extension of their dwellings. Seems that every household is sharing their family recipe for a small fee, and their set up often out in the open for all passers-by to see. Literally, every meal was a delight; on the little street I stayed, every food stall offered something that I didn't know but felt right. So I stopped googling and was not afraid.
(I do not claim to be a specialist, just a fan. Please leave a comment below to correct any info on the caption when found.)
A moving walkway. Clean carpets. Advertisement on the walls - am I back in NRT? Did I get on the wrong plane? No. It's just that it's been 3 years. And HCMC aka Sai Gon has been in the middle of massive and steady growth.
The city also offers a much more vibrant and complex scenery from the vantage point of a commuter; something that I was reluctant of on my first visit, but this time I have got 20 days in Bali under my belt. Still, getting from Distric 2 or 3 to 7 where I am staying (courtesy of Applesauce) ain't no joyride, no matter the time of day. Making it home in one piece itself is a daring game of survival, cause I repeat; traffic laws are merely mild suggestions. The only rule here is "The one in front of you has a right of way," or I "Don't get hit." They will come from every direction, can't rule anything out. There'll be a streak of motorbikes "going the wrong way" staring down at you like YOU'RE going the wrong way, impatient ones are passing others from either side, intersections and roundabouts are completely jammed where the few/the brave would squeeze themselves outta there like tadpoles popping out of egg-mass. Occasionally you see pedestrians trying to frogger their way across 6-lane traffic of death, some old faithfulls pushing food carts and carriage bicycles completely #zerofucksgiven, or cows. or goats. And as previously mentioned, any of these motors can be transporting anything from cardboard boxes, quads of truck tires, 8-foot flower arrangements up to a family of 4. Naturally not all of this comes without some friction; I witnessed 2 vans parked in the middle of an intersection where the drivers were grabbing each other by their heads while the others tried to break them off or just watching how it was gonna fold. Applesauce also had told me that if you get into an accident where it looks like you'll get immobilized, they might run over you again just so that you die and not gonna be a financial burden. Keep your eyes on the road, your life ain't worth shit around here. (GTA: HCMC, anyone?)
Although our last visit was mostly confined to the modern comfort and luxury, I had gotten the whiff of exhaust and human waste in the streets that showed rapid industrialization, making me imagine what Tokyo must've been like in the 70~80s, with the post-war rebuild efforts behind and moving on up to the lighted stage of world economy. Now, boosted by the internet, one of the last four communist states is embracing the 21st century consumerism/individualism more than ever; high rises with familiar brands are sprouting above yellow-on-red flags, cold pressed juice has squeezed itself next to fruit smoothies and coconuts. Dist 1 as a whole has gone through a major makeover in the few years, getting rid of street food stands and bringing in Takashimaya to sell Japanese sweets. Across the river from Hotel Majestic stands blatantly oversized billboards of Heineken, the tallest landmark of Ho Chi Minh City is now joined by other modern architectures. The transformation, even in the eyes of locals, looks a bit too hasty. You do still find the old Sai Gon, like local markets of questionable sanitation standard (if any) and eateries that only serves one dish and, if requested, will deliver to and from each other in the same block - but it really depends on the area.
A new find for me this time is the introduction of suburb malls. Branded by a familiar name for Japanese natives, Lotte Mart is every bit a consumerist haven for the middle-class complete with grocery store, food court, apparel, electronics and cinema complex. I admit that I took full advantage of this convenience (by paying merely $40 for a brand new pair of glasses and an eye exam) which I think they deserve, the fate of local markets where various perishables sit exposed to heat, humidity and motorized traffic seems uncertain. In some cases they are located right next to each other, as the modern mall accompanied the condominiums obviously marketed to expats who probably wouldn't dare set foot into a place of business where a severed pig head sits staring back at you. I do not doubt that local youth is enjoying (or taking for granted) the benefit of these new development just as foreigners, but I do wonder about the consequences of expatriates and migrants not forced to learn or adopt the Vietnam way and be able to stay distant from the locals.
I won't indulge in detailing the Sai Gon food scene which has been better covered by so many. Three words; Mind Fucking Blown. The most amazing part is the sheer number of places to eat. Within walking distance I find all kinds of banging stuff of which I provided pix above. None of these costs more than $2. And I doubt that this neighborhood is alone on this. By the time I made it to the famous Lunch Lady, I thought well-worth a visit but nothing special. And there are tons of more sophisticated places in the city center that would cost you like $5. I hate to repeat myself but again, the US food scene feels pretty shoddy compared to this.
So what to make of this revisit? Is this love that I'm feeling or was the last time just a fling?
I know now, after seeing both sides of the argument, that I need to come back again (hopefully for much longer). I'm not sure about the music scene (yet), not sure how long it's gonna stay this affordable, and not sure how much further they will go with this lightening fast transformation, not sure how much of that the people actually are asking for, or just that the corrupt shot-callers and whoever's in bed with them are demanding that Sai Gon become HCMC, the economic powerhouse to be reckoned with. Either way, I'd love to see it through. Because this feels like a home that I never know that it was. A strange blend of familiarity and eye-openers, comfort and shock, annoyance and adoration. Besides, there is just so much more to explore in this gorgeous, complex and huge country.
Until the next time ;)
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.