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've got 20 days in Bali under my belt. Still, getting from District 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 around here. The only rule here is "The one in front of you has a right of way," or "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-timers 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. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.