Man, how we used to tear apart this town
We were sitting on the curb, trying to make sense of Saigon. Evan and I had barely made it through customs, lacking the fifty dollars to pay for our entrance. (An Israeli family saved us and I ran around the domestic terminal till I found an ATM to reimburse them from.) The ride from the airport was dizzying too, a sudden jolt of mania, neon and noise. On either side of the taxi, motorbikes thrummed hectically, their engines grunting like clearing throats. When we arrived at our hotel on Bui Vien, the street was dense with action. Vietnamese vendors mixed in with backpackers, mid-'90s hits pumped out of the corner bar, the purpling air smelled like rain and pork. We checked in, threw down our bags and hurried back out. We got spring rolls, bahn mi and a bottle of duty-free whiskey; we sat on the curb and admired the nonstop stimuli like it was theater.
"Hey, do you want to stay here longer?" Evan said, biting into his sandwich. We were supposed to be in town for four days before heading off to Cambodia. I watched the men playing Chinese chess, women patrolling the bright wares of their tailor shops. I had nowhere to be and the thought of going home seemed especially awful. "Yeah," I said without really considering it. A minute later, women carrying towers of Xeroxed books, toddlers waving packets of Happydent gum, and men toting suitcases of Zippos were ringing around us, begging us to buy something from them. Another woman cut through the crowd, offering us cocaine, opium or "a good time" with her fifteen-year-old daughter. It was a side of Saigon we'd sometimes see in the two weeks we spent there, the desperate and needy, a people still reeling from their national history.
Looking to investigate that history, we caught motorbike taxis to the War Remnants Museum the next morning. Its former name, the Museum of American War Crimes, turned out to be a more accurate summary of its intentions. But even recognizing the underlying propaganda couldn't dull the impact of the images on display: children scalded with napalm, tortured soldiers, ruined villages, bodiless limbs in jungles. The dire data of the explanatory captions forced you to wonder how much to accept as truth, how much to accept as a skewed version of the truth, and how much to outright reject.
A few days later, we ventured out to the Cu Chi tunnels, one surviving site of the intricate, impossibly narrow passageways from which the Viet Cong ambushed their enemy. There, we watched a hilariously outdated propaganda film, listened to the factoids, and crawled through the tunnels. It felt vague and distant, about as historically relevant as Colonial Williamsburg. The fact remained, no matter how much dirt smudged on our T-shirts, we were a bus full of young, spoiled tourists and even those of us from countries currently at war were too detached to respond with much more than another round of Cu Chi puns.
The residues of war were still visible in Saigon, but not to the extent that I expected. It was most present in the absences--the faces of young people dramatically outnumbered the old. The elderly veterans we did see were often crippled or legless and on crutches. It wasn't unusual to see at least a few deformed beggars a day, their frames scarred and warped by Agent Orange birth defects. Still, it was nonetheless remarkable how life pressed on despite all this, vibrant, humming life in the face of poverty and mass-scale casualties.
With our sightseeing essentially completed, Evan and I were free to roam. I set off on random tangles of streets, exploring backroads and side paths, jotting observations in my notebook. This was the way, I thought, to see the city--not in exhibits or artifacts but pushing into the pulsing artery itself. And there was beauty to be found in the busy throb, the ceaseless current of bikes, the overflowing market streets, the skewer-sharp odors. Whenever I felt a lag from all the industry, I'd hit up the coffee carts (a quarter for that dark, bold jolt of Vietnamese espresso) and fell right back into the mix.
We stooped over pho on child-sized stools and splurged for dinner at French restaurants, a culinary remnant of colonial days. We learned how to cross the street, moving as an act of faith, plowing forward confidently and trusting the bikes would swerve around you. Our steps took on a newfound air of belonging, of determined purpose. When we passed by taxi rows or souvenir hawkers, they hassled us less as if they recognized us becoming unconsciously assimilated. And I fell in love with a street vendor's fried rice, a spicy, garlicky, crunchy meal topped with tomato, parsley and an egg over easy. From half a street away, the smoke of it sizzling could get me salivating like Pavlov's pets.
At the Yellow House Hotel, Evan and I began to hold court. We were paying ten dollars total a night for a twin private room with a shower, TV and DVD player, living like destitute kings. The first few nights, we hung around the lobby, slugging Tiger beers, playing poker or gin. But slowly, a crew began to accumulate as travelers passed in and out--Geert from Holland, Graeme from England, Pete from Sydney, Charles from Paris. For a span, we'd gain another Dutchman or a Montrealer, a San Franciscan or two more Australians. We'd pack into bars or take over restaurants, our multiglobal conglomerate of disparate accents and biographies. We lingered over rounds of bia hoi, beer in plastic jugs that cost five thousand dong a liter (about thirty cents) and tasted like piss in formaldehyde. We had stupid adventures like ordering a million dong bottle of Johnny Walker at a club that was closing. We also bonded surprisingly tightly, revealing facets of ourselves we'd hidden from friends back home, because we had the luxury of never seeing each other again. Still, when it was time to part, when one by one they wrangled on their hulking backpacks and kicked off for Mui Ne or Phnom Penh or Vientiane or the Mekong, it felt freshly bittersweet.
Near the end of our run, when it was back down to our original duo, my friend Trinh came into town. Living in Hong Kong now and eight months pregnant, she'd returned to have her baby in her hometown. Trinh showed me and Evan around, taking us to the department store where she worked a decade ago, showing us where to get the best sugarcane juice in town (the one with kumquats squeezed in). She imbued streets I'd walked down a hundred times with new meanings, divulged secrets about alleyways and pockets of neighborhood I'd yet to unconver. It was her home, but in her company, I felt like it could've been mine too. After all, unlike the backpackers just piling in on the bus, I already knew about the nightly ten-minute blackouts in Pham Ngu Lao, which stall near Bin Thanh Market had the cheapest bootleg DVDs, just how the euphoric ripple my three daily coffees would impact my energy level, where in the park the old man would sing French ballads and tell you he'd never forget you if you bought one of his postcards. By that point, Saigon had already infiltrated my system too deeply; I wasn't about to forget that senile songster either, along with the thousands of other details I now held close.
* MP3: "Post-War" - M. Ward from Post-War [Buy it]