A Week In Saigon

(My sister-in-law, J, and her teenage daughter, G, have just moved to Ho Chi Minh City. J has a 2 year contract at an international school.)

Pony tail

Early morning, humid and still, but with a hint of fresh breeze to make it bearable. The handsome staff at this little cafe sang as they pottered about, smiling at me as though we shared secrets. Nearby, an older man sat, eating pho (noodle soup). Two sweet girls in white blouses had served him, unloading the accompanying plate of fresh greens, their ponytails swinging gracefully. A tall young man called “Madam?” asking with gestures if I’d like the overhead fan on. Yes, I would.

When the bill came, it was offered, with two hands and a slight bow. I received it the same fashion, showing politeness in this familiar Asian way, feeling as though I knew the steps to a pretty dance.

I’d been drinking caphe sua da, Vietnamese iced coffee, loaded with condensed milk, served in a tall glass filled with ice. It is a measure of my old handedness that I relish the ice, instead of shunning it completely.

Caphe Sua Da

Most of these days I have been aware of the ghost of the younger me, visiting this land some 17 years ago — more eager, intent, hungry to understand, but infinitely less wise and less informed, despite all my careful study of the Lonely Planet. That girl wanted to get all the understanding, all the images, to suck it all in, to be ahead of the game. To take rare pictures, to be in difficult places, to go far from the well-trodden paths.

I feel a tenderness for her, and this country as it was; I seem to remember through my skin rather than by my brain. The deep experiences, sensual and intellectual, come bubbling to the surface: some words in the Vietnamese language, the taste of lime and chilies in soup, the smell of coffee, like snatches of far-off music. Back then, I would have taken scrupulous care about what I ate and drank. These days I put my trust in inoculations and treatment medicines, and hope that this big modern city has sophistication enough to take care of its water supply. I worry less, and spend my energy looking at the life around me.

This is not like the rugged adventure of my first trip, when I travelled by jeep over mountain passes, in places where white people had seldom been seen – I’ll tell you about that some other time perhaps. This time is about being in a modern Asian urban landscape. Now I want to make sure my friends are well and happy, and find myself guessing at the lives of these young city people — what did they want and what would they get?

I read in one of the glossy bilingual magazines, the ones that all big Asian cities seem to have these days, about the production of coffee in Vietnam: how Arabica was starting to be favoured over the more easy-growing Robusta, as tastes became more sophisticated. Or perhaps just more globalised, in line with the world’s love-affair with espresso. The article also described some of the places to drink traditional Vietnamese coffee, in small stalls with plastic chairs, along the city’s canals – if I had longer, I’d seek out such places. I thought of my brother-in-law, not yet arrived but due shortly – he was also a coffee drinker. What fun it would be for him to find such places, to get the feel of the city through small cups of bitter-sweetness.

J’s new apartment is a luxurious townhouse, with bedrooms and bathrooms on many levels, balconies, garden courtyards, carparking spaces. I told her that it was about three times larger than our apartment in Hong Kong, joking that we’d feel like poor relatives when she came to visit, even though we both knew that hers cost a fraction of ours. Things get valued so differently in different countries, according to the dictates of the mysterious Market Forces. I think of these as manifestations of God: Mammon at least.

The apartment and school are located in a new satellite city, nestling on the underside of Saigon, built by Taiwanese businessmen on reclaimed swampland. The streets were wide and clean: straight and busy in the business areas, curved and tree-lined in the quiet residential areas. In J’s street, small children ride bicycles in the twilight, men wash already gleaming late-model cars, families play badminton. I looked up at the exuberant trees, three stories high, and marvelled that they were only 15 years old. Despite its newness, there is plenty of life on the streets nearby, many cafes and restaurants, hotels, bars, massage places and spa salons. And corner shops selling gourmet cheeses and chocolate, or providing travel services – lots of foreigners live here.

It was just as real and is true as the picturesque images on the postcards, the sampans and market scenes of women in conical hats.

Which are still there, of course, in their place, in layers around and below the pulsing modern city. It all feels familiar to me – not because of my brief visit here nearly two decades ago, but because it resembles many Asian cities now. I know more now, I hope, about life in Asia, due to my  years travelling in these lands. I’m more aware that the driving forces and pressures for these people are much the same as they are for everyone – Eat, Drink, Man, Woman*.

It could also be that my long experience of Asia, which I like to think of as being a sturdy platform for my understanding, is really an obscuration – a stiff structure blocking further view. But I hope not. It is a structure built of little things, useful things. For example, I have learned how to drift steadily across roads full of vehicles without getting hit, and how to smile and bargain as though it is a game, and which tropical fruits are good to eat. And these are probably the most useful things to share with my newly arrived relatives.

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After walking miles one day to find the perfect bowl of pho, we retired to a French café across from a park. This was in the downtown area where many lovely old villas remain. Thousands of motorbikes swarmed past, in surges dictated by traffic lights. “Like the sea!” said J: her naturally cheerful and positive nature meant that she found things to admire and enjoy everywhere. By squinting one’s ears, it was almost possible to imagine a roaring ocean beach.

French cafe

I had found something different to admire: because most of Saigon’s traffic seemed to be two wheeled, the roads, built for colonial traffic, served well enough, and the gardens and grounds of the old mansions did not need to be destroyed for road widening. If only bike appreciation would continue ! Saigon would have cleaner air, better traffic circulation, fewer giant motorways, less cost all around. However, it seemed likely that Market Forces would increasingly push the demand for cars up, and the Vietnamese will surrender these smaller victories for a chance to be more like the rest of the world, as we all did. As we all do.

*      *     *     *     *

When G and I visited the War Remnants Museum, we were able to understand that the girl who had sold us some small embroidered bags in the market the night before was probably a victim of agent orange: she had no hands and only one foot. We didn’t bargain very hard with her, we were too conscious of her deformities.

At the museum, we saw many more images of deformities and suffering bestowed on these people by a horrible war. I tried to be heartened by the photo exhibition showing people who had managed to build businesses and family lives despite their injuries, like the gift-seller in the market. But it was hard to think – I was too overcome by my emotional response. Subdued, we climbed into an air-conditioned taxi to travel home, me almost tearful, absorbed by sadness.

Until G pointed out with alarm that the meter was running much too fast, and I snapped back into a different state of mind: the familiar conflict between rich foreigners and too hungry locals. “It’s okay,” I promised my niece, “we’ll just give him the correct money.” She was a little fearful, but it was okay: when we reached our destination, I looked stern and made a point of ostentatiously writing down his number, and remained adamant about paying the right price — about a third of what the meter showed. He argued, but accepted defeat, tsking as he drove away, and I found myself thinking about his life too: he was a young man who would probably prefer to work for one of the reputable taxi companies, but could only find an opening in one of the lesser ones, with their slightly worse cars and slightly worse uniforms. And dodgy meters, designed to trick the newcomer. Nobody could blame him to trying to make a buck, to try to get ahead – was this any worse than charging foreigners too much for trinkets in the market?

Quiet girl
Art museum elevator
Temple roof
French colonial architecture

* (Eat, drink, man, woman – 饮食男女) : this is a Chinese chengyu, a 4 character idiom, which refers loosely to the things necessary for general life. It is also the title of Ang Lee’s 1994 film, which you should see, because it is a great film in any language.