In Saigon, even something as mundane as crossing the street turns into a potentially-life-altering adventure. There are no stoplights or crosswalks: instead, there are massive roundabouts with countless, constantly shifting lanes of traffic. Cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos all interweave on their journeys.
The trick isn’t to run across the street; instead, it’s to assume a slow and steady yet confident march. If the never-ceasing front of motorbikes can predict your path—or so the logic goes—they can easily swerve around you. Crossing the street immediately becomes an exercise in trust and grace under pressure.
The south Vietnamese city is formally known as Ho Chi Minh City, but I prefer Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City sounds so sterile and political, suggesting a city of carefully-ordered communism and dull gray suits. Saigon is anything but: it’s a colorful, thriving metropolis that never stops buzzing, eating, shouting.
Just being in Saigon is an assault on the senses: it’s not a city you can drift through, lost in headphones and texting thumbs. You have to be fully aware, or else you’ll either a) get run over or b) miss something. I’m not sure which would be worse.
Listen to the groan of motorbikes, the honk of taxis, the whirring of bicycle wheels. The men yelling their services as taxi drivers, the women offering an array of refreshments. Early in the morning, before the sun rises, the silence is almost deafening. The thwap of badminton in the park, the alternating grunts of frustration and restrained cheers of success.
See the blazing sun, the impossibly blue skies after the smoke of Chiang Mai and smog of Bangkok. The constant juxtaposition of rural and city life: a rooster calmly strutting past rows of motorbikes, the conical hats of the riceworkers perched on the head of the cyclo drivers. The exotic flowers next to traditional French architecture, the local culture holding its ground against colonialism and globalism.
Taste the tang of freshly-cut mango dipped in a plastic bag of chili salt. Slurping up the steaming hot pho, the iconic dish of Saigon: a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, heaping with beef and greens. The icy creaminess of an avocado shake. The crunch of a frogs leg, the sliminess of a snail slathered in tamarind sauce.
Smell the constant exhaust from the millions of motorbikes.The stench of garbage floats up from the curbs, intermingling with the aroma of a stew cooking over an open fire on the sidewalk. Vibrant fresh flowers, hunks of raw meat, shiny scales of fish stall-by-stall at the market.
Feel the smooth cool steel of the fighter planes crowding the courtyard of the War Remnants museum. The rough husk of the coconuts being sold on the street. The rush of traffic as it speeds by.