Saigon is huge and crazy and I didn’t see enough of it.
Some things still remind me of it. Lemongrass oil to keep the mosquitos away and sooth their bites. The strong minty smell of Tiger Balm, as you rub it on your feet to battle a cold. A silly child’s song, Jasmine tea. It always takes me by surprise, like time-travel, a hint of a smell that appears for a second at takes me back into the busy streets.
We stayed at the same hotel, with Miss Vy and her family. Their living room was also the lobby. They lived on the second floor, where the kitchen was, and the upper floors were for the guests. We’ve got to know everybody, Vy’s parents, her sister, and her sister’s child. She used to sing for him in English. I had a fever for a couple of days and stayed in bed, the sister’s voice echoing as she played with her son.
On our first night, we did our favorite thing – got lost in the city. Hồ Chí Minh has 24 districts and no matter how much we walked, we probably saw only parts of district 1, where we stayed.
We found ourselves in a huge walking street with many people and children, and big statues of past leaders. The whole area was fancy with designers’ clothes and huge stores. We’ve spent perhaps hours in a huge bookstore and I tried to read the titles in Vietnamese, to see if I can recognize some of them.
At night, big cities cradle you with their distant constant roar, putting you into the deepest sleep you’ll have.
Near our hotel was a big park. It had badminton courts, ping-pong tables, and small pagodas for meetings. The park kept changing its face, with aerobics classes in the mornings to gatherings of young people in the evenings. Sometimes, local students would approach us to practice their English. The conversation was always the same – Where are we from? How long have we been traveling in Vietnam? What do you think about Hồ Chí Minh City?
One time, a student taught me how to haggle. If you want to tell someone that the price is too much, the facial gesture as you speak is more important than the words. It has to be theatrical.
On one of these days, we took a bus to Chinatown. It had a big and colorful market where we bought some things for our apartment. When we got hungry, we sat at an old lady’s stall and had noodle soup with dumplings.
Then we sat at a cafe and ordered our drinks and had a small chat with the waitress, all in Vietnamese. How casual it was.
Miss Vy sent us to a Bánh xèo restaurant. Bánh Xèo is like a savory crêpe based on egg, fried with vegetables and proteins, usually shrimps. The Bánh stands for “cake”, and Xèo stands for the hissing sound it makes as it’s fried. The restaurant itself was beautiful, with shades of green, and wooden tables with a glass cover, showing miniature sceneries beneath.
After we came back, Vy took us to the kitchen and showed us how to make a homey version of the Bánh Xèo. She had this pan with sockets in it, into which she poured a rice mixture and let it cook for a minute. Then she put inside crispy shrimps and vegetables. When the bottom part is fried, you can flip it over with chopsticks and let the other side cook.
The hotel was inside this crazy maze of alleys. There were restaurants, shops, and massages, all cramped up in the narrow streets between the tall buildings. It had this casual, chill vibe, so different that the busy streets outside.
And outside, were so many tourists. There was this big street with modern bars and cafes, where all the sunburned Europeans and Americans walked around in big loud groups, dressed in Sharwals.
One night we had dinner at a street-restaurants. On the other side of the street stood two young women, probably not older than 18, dressed in red. They gave away flyers offering massage. Another one, probably their boss, sat on a high chair at the entrance of their shop. Two big, middle-aged men walked by, and one of them stopped to speak to the girls. I looked carefully at their body language as he tried to sniff around, see if they also offer sex. She smiled but was obviously repulsed. Then the man yelled to his friend, in Hebrew, “Come here Yossi, I’ve found a girl for you!” and walked inside.
Then a local kid came by, holding torches, and began performing this dance, while playing with the fire. Once in a while, he took a sip from a plastic bottle and then put one of the torches in his mouth, and spat a big fireball. People around applauded and he smiled and bowed, showing terrible black teeth.
Seeing this, I’ve felt my bubble starting to crack. We are all probably the same, just tourists, bystanders.
Saigon is a bitch. She will break your heart, eventually.
I could never ever understand, I could never be a part of her.
On the last day, I had an anxiety attack. It didn’t help that I was still weak because of the fever. All those thoughts ran in my head – how will I get through the flight to Thailand, and the long flight home, when I’m feeling so sick? What are we gonna do back home? Will we really start a new job? Will we actually have a wedding, as expected of us? And is the trip really coming to an end?
The best way to battle anxiety is to walk it off, so we walked to the Bánh xèo restaurant again. I was hungry but couldn’t eat much since I was so nervous. Still, I enjoyed the ambiance, the beauty of the place, the way the food sizzled.
When we walked slowly back to the hotel, I paid special attention to the surrounding. The treetops painted the streets in green, making the air feel somewhat cooler. I’ve felt thankful for being there.
In the evening, Miss Vy took us on a tour of the flower market, and then we sat at a restaurant. The food was good, but I was still too anxious to eat. The owner showed us how they make those thin rice leaves, as they pour a liquid on a hot surface and then gently remove it with a stick, maintaining the flat flexible shape.
I couldn’t sleep that night so I listened to music. From within the darkness, I could almost see the shapes and colors of the flowers from the flower market.
Then came that thought, that sent me into sleep –
This isn’t about me,
this isn’t my story.
I’m just here because I’m a lucky bitch.