The streets of Saigon are an unimaginable chaos. Hundreds of scooters weave and turn, whizzing by vendors who wheel fruit and food carts in the middle of traffic. Locals call out to the tourists, “Where you go?” or silently sidle up and whisper, “Marijuana?” Young women hand out flyers for spa, nail and haircare services. Every few steps, another flyer. The inexorable heat follows like a pesky sibling. It’s best to stop, take a few flyers, and buy a cup of sugarcane juice.
In the streets of Saigon, more isn’t enough: more horns blaring, more traffic, more coffee shops, more humidity, more street vendors, more sweaty, bedraggled-looking foreigners, more shops, more stares, more random smiles, more siestas– more chaos. I’ve spent time in many of the world’s busiest cities, so nothing should surprise, right? Wrong. Saigon is a world of its own. While half the city sleeps, the other half, raucously and unabashedly forges ahead.
It’s been ten days since I landed here, and I haven’t written anything until now, because the only thing on my mind for the first three days was getting out. On a loop, my thoughts were: “How do I get out of here?” “Why did I choose Saigon?” and “What were the chain of events that led me here?”
In a desperate haste to leave, I applied to, accepted and declined jobs in China and the Middle East. It was impossible to sleep with all the thoughts of an exit. After Portugal– the calm, the ocean, the cuisine, the gentle familarity, the cleanliness of Cascais– Saigon felt like a pushy, aggressive friend that I had chosen, then, regrettably despised.
My biggest phobia–rats– were seen daily, as there is food and food trash absolutely everywhere in my neighborhood of District 1. The first two times they scurried past me, I screamed; today, my heart didn’t stop, and I didn’t scream, though I held my hand to my chest. I can’t even watch animated rats, aka Mickey Mouse and that Ratatouille film, and here there were in my path. The jet lag, humidity, the all day/all night chatter, the rodents, all felt like a sucker punch that had laid me flat. When asked about Saigon, all I could say was, “It’s not for me.”
Then, things started to shift. Yes, I feel this experience is a test, but it is more than that. There is much to appreciate: dear Phuong and Hai, who spent so much of their time taking me to wonderful restaurants and cafes, showing me a different side of the city; the diversity of the cuisine, (almost) every country’s food on offer; the kindness of strangers (they physically take you (for free) or guide you to where you need to go); the mellowing of the heat in the evenings; the exotic and tropical fruit in abundance (had the most delicious, green June plum juice); the affordability of everything; the familiar Japanese supermarkets and convenience stores; the loved fruit of Jamaica and Indonesia; the reassuring fast-food of the U.S; the comfortable place I moved into, and my wonderful landlady.
Vietnam is an Asian challenge that Japan and Indonesia weren’t, because the people are much more forward, more direct, more open to engagement in some ways. Thankfully, my inner chaos quieted when I recognized that this life and I chose each other. I’m not in love with this city, but am slowly slipping “in like” with it. It demands a lot, and I’m learning to appreciate that and become grateful for the growth it will undoubtedly allow.