“I hear karaoke down in the streets, and I’m fifteen-floors up on a balcony. You hear the karaoke in Saigon. If you’re sitting outside, say right now, you hear the karaoke. I’ve seen on-duty motorbike security guards singing into a mic and a speaker while sitting in their chairs in front of the bikes on the streets, in uniform, belting it out. Here, You Hear the Karaoke.”
Right now we’re flying over a shoulder of the Grand Canyon, a visual of awe-inspiring wonder that was split-open over-time by the thundering Colorado River flowing down from the Rocky Mountains, forming one of the largest canyons on earth. We’re traveling at approximately 486mph at thirty-thousand feet, searing over Lake Mead, over mountain ranges and rolling valleys, flown out from Dallas Forth Worth, having first left Little Rock, on our way to San Francisco. If we backtrack an hour or so, just before boarding, a fairly young-looking guy in a flat-brimmed baseball cap screams, “fuck this airport!” and punches a freestanding corporate sign that falls over into a basket full of Dasani water bottles stacked in front of the DFW airport Starbucks. We can presume a missed flight, or a lost bag, maybe. Back on the plane, continuing our journey west, someone farts and it lingers for a sulfur-dense-minute or so. I have some orange juice and Jenn drinks a coke, we both munch on some almonds we brought from home. It’s interesting how on every seatback, there are touch screens to fiddle with, perhaps even more sophisticated types existing in First Class, (how would I know?) but I click on the 3D map to see that we’re over New Mexico, soon over Arizona and Nevada, slightly north over Death Valley into San Francisco. The temperature on the seatback screen says it’s -40C outside the plane. Below are mountains capped with snow, solar-panel-fields spread out across the acreage, and now we’re meagerly southeast of Yosemite over the White Mountain Wilderness.
Flying over the ocean for eleven hours, west into Tokyo, is some ride. Wings Over the Pacific, I say. Wings Over Tokyo, maybe? Good names to use for something. I chat with a guy who’s sitting next to me, we chat about how much he loves Tokyo and how he travels there on business regularly. In the air for an hour or so outside of San Francisco, again, someone gifts the general area we’re in with a silent pungent fart, and this time I mouth to Jennifer, “was that you?” She laughs and says it wasn’t. Sure. I guess some days at thirty thousand feet are smellier than others. After a few hours of sleeping, strode out across four or five seats in the Tokyo airport, I decide to have a spicy honey latte that’s indeed worth mentioning because it was delicious.
It takes six hours into Saigon from Tokyo over the Southern Sea. Our final descent, beginning a few minutes into sunrise, which I was able to witness through the egg-shaped window, and with the morning light, my preconceptions about how large the city would be are impressively shattered. Saigon, or Ho Chi Mihn City, is quite massive.
The rooster that would come to wake us up the first week of our stay in our Airbnb, in the main expat area named Thao Dien, has ‘cankles’ as I’ve never seen before on a bird, and as it turns out, amusingly, he’s what’s referred to as a Dragon Chicken, or Dong Tao, a chicken specific to South East Asia and a relative delicacy here. They were first bred up North for elites from what I’ve read. So this particular Dong T., “can I call you Dong T.?” has a crow that sounds like a tired smoker imitating a rooster. It’s hilarious. Could it be due to the smog from seven or so million motorbikes? It’s possible, or maybe it’s the breed, I don’t know.
Right-off-the-bat we meet an expat named (Ray) our first day on the city. Ray used to sell steroids illegally and spent some time in an overseas prison before settling here. We had a nice chat over some food and beers and a mango smoothie in, believe it or not, a German pub. (Funny how the first place we met someone turned out to be in a German restaurant, consisting of all Vietnamese staff, of course.) We were talking about the insanity of the traffic when Ray mentions that he witnessed a wreck a few weeks back that involved blood, brains, and pretty much all the innards of the human skull poured out onto the highway bridge, and then he proceeds to stab the German sausage on his plate with his fork, smearing it in ketchup. From the get-go, there are familiarities to Saigon in conjunction with Cuba that I’ve noticed. First, the smell of exhaust, although here dwarfs Havana since there are about six to seven more million people in this city. Other attributes both Saigon and Havana share come to remnants of French architecture and bread, both cities having survived French colonialism for extended amounts of time. There are odors, much like specific streets in Los Angeles, or smells lingering the next morning on Bourbon Street, or how I hear New York and most other highly population-dense cities can waft-about their sewer smells in areas, which seems damn near impossible to solve entirely from the fact that there are too many people to keep cities clean the way one would ideally prefer, I guess.
Our Cankle Dong T. seems to typically awake at four-thirty or so. Each day I wonder what dragon chicken tastes like—in every sense this being a total and absolute threat. We can guess that it’s only doing its job really, like a dog barks at people it doesn’t know. Could it be that roosters forget that they’ve ever seen the sun before? Or are these territorial actions? Or are they circadian clock induced every morning? Every.single.day?
Thao Dien is in District Two, a heavy expatriate area with which we chose to leave within the first week, yet when there, we were still a diver amongst a sea of Vietnamese locals the entire time. The air comes cool in the morning, humidity lingering, pigeons clawing on tin-roofs and shitting all over the city tree leaves. The Vietnamese currency goes by Dong, so in Vietnam, like most places across the globe, the more dong you have, we can suppose, the better off you are in particular situations. Insert ‘dong joke’ here.
The second day we were here we got a little weird, diving right in and trying snake in District One area, which was prepared like snake sausage, and it is uniquely tasty. We also try eel that I, personally, wish I could give back the bite that I took.
Vietnamese coffee, Ca’phe sua, (ca-phay-soo-ahh) comes with a higher stimulate potency, less coffee in volume normally, with condensed milk over ice. It’s delicious and I straight up dig it. Aside from the wonderful coffee, I’ve had this iced mango tea, practically mango, and juice blended into an icee, for only $28,000 dong. That equals about a dollar and twenty cents or so, American dollars. One day I had a pork chop and a plateful of rice with some tomatoes and cucumbers, for $25,000 dong. Reasonable to say the least. Beer is typically a dollar and some change. Not everything will be this cheap, of course, yet on the average, a big ol’ bowl of Pho usually runs you about $45,000 to $50,000 dong.
Our third or fourth day I decided to stroll, or shall I say, walk an excruciatingly long way, turning out to be about six miles from Pop.Co-Op, a grocery store, back to our Airbnb. (I walked an average of five miles a day from here on, a few days trekking ten or more miles. In the snow, barefoot, and up hill.) On this first long trek, I witness a wreck in the midst of this madness traffic of Saigon, crossing over the highway bridge, not recommended, over the Saigon River, and the guy I witness face-plant into the pavement I presume has to have a concussion and a broken cheekbone once I make it over to him. One young guy, who I assume was the one that collided with him, both were on motorbikes, the young gent is calling someone on his phone. The victim’s eyes are rolling back in his head, his arms, and legs sprawled out on his back, blood on his swollen lopsided face, blood on his hands, blots of it on his ankles. I wait before helping as one guy places both bikes in a position to block the area of the highway off from the sea of locals still gushing through. I was reluctant to approach the situation, a little hesitant to witness some serious gore, luckily just a broken face from what I can tell. Jokes aside, it was a terrible situation that could’ve been far worse. We try to move him but an older guy, rightfully I think in retrospect, stops us and says to let him wake up beforehand, and when he shortly came-to, we slowly set him up and out of the way of the continually flowing traffic. I continue my three more miles home.
The next day we ride over to see the impressive memorial to ‘the burning monk’, known as Thick Dik Dong, or I’m sorry, Thich Quang Duc, who set himself ablaze in protest of Buddhist suppression and persecution in the sixties. Respectfully, the statue is beautiful and moving, the video of his haunting death can also easily be found online, or the still-shot you can find on Rage Against the Machine’s first album cover. In the video, Quang doesn’t make a single move or say a single word as he sits cross-legged in the street-intersection, in deep meditation, as another monk walks over and douses him in gasoline. The other monk steps back a bit towards the crowd of other monks and locals who have gathered around to say a final prayer, then strikes a match that drops to set Quang on engulfing fire. Even as his flesh begins to melt, not once does Quang move or make a sound until he falls over dead. I’m not the martyr publicity kind of guy, but it’s an act that induces respect, from the mere fact that he doesn’t make a sound, or make a move as he burns to death. His act forced international pressure on the South Vietnamese regime, led by Diem at the time, which Diem seemed to feel, yet these reforms were never implemented, and the attacks on Buddhists continued.
One night we randomly met a couple who were sitting behind us, and after they invited us to turn around and sit with them, all four us got pretty well smashed drunk and talked back and forth with Google Translate for ‘round about three hours. It was beautiful. They offered me a bite of their snails, which I did not bite at all, on the other hand, out of respect, I did try the cream sauce those little shelled-boogers were sautéed in, subsequently turning out to be delightful. They politely, though drunkenly loud and demanding, ordered us some duck porridge by yelling across the street, calling for a worker to come over to where we all were drinking, and sending him back with the order. This porridge was fantastic. The duck was fatty and tender, the porridge being “juuust right.” Our second weekend, when the city had practically shut down for Tet Holiday, we made it down to Vung Tau, which is a beach area on the southeastern shore. Fisherman and groves of seafood galore, such as octopus, stingray, crab, fish, snails, oysters, and lobster—the works, can be found all over town. We sang karaoke for a couple of hours our first night in a beautiful hotel lounge that was directly off the beach after cruising through the town and night market for a few hours. The drinks were really expensive at this particular hotel, and a friend we met there later decided to roll up a joint as we sang our last few songs. I couldn’t believe he did it, or that he would, and expressed my reluctance by only hitting it four or five times before it was gone, in which the staff confronted us to ask, “more drinks?”
Back in Ho Chi Minh, we had a night out on the town in Bui Vien, this being the ‘throw down’ part of the city with aggressive hookers, illicit drugs, booze, cheap food, loud tourist-filled bars, jammed-packed-streets where it’s a strict, ass to crotch, or crotch to ass protocol when the night really gets going in the late hours. It gets that packed on the streets. I saw an old man poke a young tourist between the booty cheeks and turn around to heartily laugh at me as the lost male tourist in front of us tried to play it cool. One night, I got up on stage and played some drums with a solid band that plays mainly covers at the Sky Bar. The entire band has come across from the Philippines, playing multiple nights a week at tourist-oriented bars for cash. Not a bad gig, and they seemed with little doubt to be good people to boot.
Something that I found odd, come the calming nighttime in the city, the street-sweepers guide all loose trash into the street sewer gutters. People throw trash everywhere here and it’s not a good aesthetic, if I may. This was actually a problem in England I noticed—definitely worse here however, due to the number of people flowing on the streets all day. Turns out, upon further investigation, the gutters have rebar ‘jail bars’ on them, and the next morning, trash gatherers come to pick up the trash out of the gutters. If only they would wise up and throw their junk into the ocean, like a true Corporatist. Furthering from that snarky comment there, Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, embracing more capitalistic avenues, and the cities are notably changing to those who have been traveling here for years, many local businesses moving to a more Corporate aesthetic, with grander changes to surely come.
A note-worthy mention, there was a rather bile tasting hiccup that bubbled up at one point—after my bragging to friends and others before writing any of this, on this wonderful chocolatey Vietnamese coffee. The hiccup is this: My host at one of my Airbnb’s, after hearing me brag on coffee long-winded-style, he goes on to attempt to explain to me that I should be careful. Surprised of course by his comment and body language, I asked him to go on, in which he did so in his charming broken-English, explaining that last year, a place was astonishingly busted for putting “energy” on their beans. With a few more tries and hand signals that we were using to communicate, I extracted from his last hand signal from him by asking, “you mean a battery?!”
“Yes!” he was excited that I understood. I, on the other hand, became the exact total opposite of excited.
So, as you can find online, a Vietnamese distributor of coffee beans was busted in 2018 for dyeing their coffee beans with remnants of old batteries, meaning that everything that’s in a battery was blasted onto these beans they were selling. The government was notified by locals who were suspicious about the company’s actions, and they were subsequently shut down, but the question still lingers, are there beans circulating around with this “energy” in them? Luckily for them, I’m into battery acid.
Entering the Ben Thanh food market, I order some Thai fried noodles with beef and accompany this with a Saigon Special Lager. You should definitely come to the Ben Thanh Market, as well as the separate food market around the corner if you’re ever here. You can get a broader taste of food specialties around the corner. I can only say or talk about what I’ve seen, or that’s the goal, anyhow, and one of, if not the most shocking thing to experience here is the traffic. You will experience the phenomena of fuming motorbikes and growling motorcycles moving like schools of fish, or really moving like the sea itself. And however much they add to Saigon’s smog pollution, the noise pollution more dense and thundering because of them, knowing these things, I never thought I’d come to consider how the cultural personality revealed from this seemingly chaotic traffic, sort of, to myself anyhow, leaves this hint of wanting. A wanting to experience such a cultural and societal experience that moves in such a fluid way, even if it is *explicit* traffic. There’s something oddly communal about it that isn’t as much of a turn-off like in American cities where murder enters the mind. Rules are sometimes applied, like, there are stoplights at intersections most of the time, or crosswalks with signals sometimes, but they aren’t always abided by. And people are rather accepting about it here. ‘Fine, go the wrong way in traffic, just be safe about it, brother.’ Locals drive on sidewalks constantly, and sidewalks are not in place for the strolling of the feet, the locals park their motorbikes on sidewalks. That is their main purpose, no kidding.
The town folk of Saigon, for the most part, get along most of the time too. Everyone’s not going around giving high-fives to one another and slapping asses, no. “Excuse me, may I slap your ass in good fun, sir/ma’am?” in Vietnamese.
There’s something here I’ll refer to as wholesome. I saw this George Carlin bit, years ago, where he proceeds to go on about this certain kind of “faux niceness” that happens, this breed of unauthentic chivalry, where people will stop and let you out of traffic for instance, this overly-dramatic, ‘I’ll sort of make matters way worse to make this gesture, this one particular time, to show love to my neighborhood or something’. And I think what he meant is that if these sorts of gestures aren’t typical of your character all the time, don’t they seem a little fake? BE NICE, by all means, but at least MEAN IT. Make it contagious. There’s another example of how people will do something like, pull over and ask if you’re ok, let you out of traffic, give a dollar to a homeless person—wonderful humanely human gestures that should continue until the end of time—and yet, come election time, people will go vote to end any capacity of a communal social-net that this same neighbor you let out in traffic, just last month, needs. Here in Vietnam, although you can read about how the government funds are being skimmed heavily into elite hands, hear stories about how in order to work for the government, there is a background check into your family up to three generations to prove that your family was loyal to the Communist movement. People here don’t really interact much in the day while on the street with one another other than for some sort of business exchange. It’s survival mode I think, like in most metropolitan cities, yet there is a communal consciousness to it I can’t quite articulate well enough to spell out. A person or two will breeze right up against you with their motor bikes, and if you don’t stop right now, like RIGHT NOW, there will be a wreck. So you stop. Was that rude? Is he a jackhole for that? I rarely, if ever, see a local react in that manner. I still happen to see a few jackholes a day here. That’s my commonplace from my culture. “Should I slap this guy for almost killing us?” And maybe they deserve it, and then again, maybe they don’t. That last bit seems to be the answer the local Vietnamese gives ninety-nine percent of the time. I’m interested in adapting to that response as long as there’s this stronger camaraderie in the entire society. However, even with Saigon’s population being massive, Vietnam in comparison to say, the U.S., is quite small. Meaning, it’s likely harder to maintain a tenacious camaraderie the larger a population grows, let alone the amount of diversity in the States. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s not that, though. And with the more we learn and to help strengthen the most heartfelt and brilliant ideas, such as camaraderie between communities, allowing these ideas to float to the top, maybe we can see some change in the struggle. I don’t know. Essentially, you don’t have to hold the door for me, or my mother, if we look out for one another when it really and truly matters. Can both happen, this holding of doors while simultaneously caring about you starving?
I didn’t come here for a simple vacation, I also came to work as a substitute teacher. Truth is I only substituted for four classes before having to cut my trip short to make it to my aunt’s funeral (RIP aunt Sharlotte). In a little over a month I was able to connect with a few students, play them some music that inspires me, and attempt some iffy-translated lesson plans. And in the midst of this, it turns out, the kids dig southern American accents. Vietnam will hold a special place in my heart, I mean this sincerely. Locals have a survival way about them that is with little doubt, different, usually quiet, a little more zen about their daily routines. Of course, there’s still anger, rudeness exuded—there was guy driving around hitting people with a hammer the other day. Thus, travel remains a persistent reminder that no matter where you go, you find people trying to survive. I’m not sure the translation in Vietnamese to know for sure that I didn’t hear it, but I’ll at most say that the tones we such use in America to call someone a dickhead, that tone is lacking from a lot of everyday events in Vietnam interactions. Not that people are ruthless to one another in America, and I don’t know quite how to articulate the difference other than, again, there’s a camaraderie peeking its third eye a little more in Saigon culture, and I’m not sure it’s as simple as governmental differences, things are complicated. I think it’s people-mental. There is something to bring back from Saigon that appears wholesome, and this wholesomeness, along with my experiences of this fascinating culture, I hope they will remain with me for as long as my brain continues to work, and I invite these gifts to stop just short of me bringing back a parasite in my gut.