A force of a city to be reckoned with. We walked out yesterday, to meet a friend of a work colleague of Jean’s for lunch. We’ll wander the streets a bit we think, stroll and see some sights along the way to meet them. The onslaught is immediate and intense: noise from cars and motor scooters, blaring horns, persistent beeping, a flow of constant traffic on the roads, on the “sidewalks”, anywhere that is paved. The wide boulevards created by French designers several hundred years ago have been transformed.
In some cases, the roadways have become one-way for cars down the center, and the margins of the former paths for strolling pedestrians have been sliced off on each side, creating motor-scooter slalom courses. In other locations some former sidewalks have been subsumed as parking lots for scooters; jammed in like sardines, you pay by the day and someone watches over your steed while you work or shop. In between are the women grilling food on clay burners with live flames, keeping pots of broth hot to pour over noodles and paper- thin sliced raw beef or shredded chicken, to which sliced scallions, red-hot peppers and copious fresh herbs are added. Pho, the delicious ubiquitous noodle soup: for breakfast, for a perfect late-night dinner when eating times throughout the day found us not hungry at a typical “supper time”. We are overwhelmed by the traffic; we learned how to cross a busy street in Hanoi, but here the stakes seem higher, the drivers less forgiving, their use of horns more instinctive, and the grace and delight we felt in watching the flow in Hanoi is replaced by fear and lack of confidence in their willingness to avoid striking us. We arrive at lunch realizing we’ve taken a very long route to get to our destination. It is over 90 degrees and 85% humidity. We are grateful to arrive enough ahead of time to wash our faces and cool down before we meet this husband and wife for the first time. After a delightful lunch where our conversation ranged from urban planning, to working with groups of people, to the implications of leaving the Communist Party, to the rapidly changing economic climate of this country, to the traditional and current role of women here (strongly correlated to economic status, of course, as it is across the globe), to eco-tourism, we launch back into the pandemonium to walk back to our hotel. We arrive back exhausted, drained and not sure how we feel about this City.
This morning we start earlier, it’s cooler and we begin along the Saigon river. It’s at full flow: parts of the forests from places upstream float by consistently. We move a little slower, we’re more confident crossing the boulevards and we realize that holding hands not only makes us a larger target to avoid, but it also eliminates the opportunity for one of us to stop mid-stride while the other one keeps going, thereby forcing a driver to have to make rapid adjustments to his assumption of our trajectory. We notice that every single person we make eye contact with and greet and smile at, returns a warm, welcoming grin in response. If we are thoughtful enough to be present and engage, they are happy to acknowledge us with real warmth.
We learn to stay on the shaded sides of the streets. We choose which intersections might be better for attempting to cross. We are better are remembering bits of street names so that we take out our maps less frequently. We find the obscure pagoda located off our map, and sit in the shaded courtyard in front of it to watch the faithful enter in a constant stream, calmer and less frantic than our “arrival” the day before. We work our way back to our hotel slowly…stopping in one of the many large beautiful forested parks within the city. Surrounded by high-school students who help the proprietor understand we want ICED black coffee.
We sit on elfin plastic chairs and enjoy the babble around us and we are grateful for the French Imperialists who laid out these parks and green ways centuries ago. We make our way back slowly, stoping for more iced coffee. We drink blended fresh lime slurpee-like drinks that give us brain freezes and quench our thirst. We learn how to negotiate and navigate this city on its terms and we arrive back here tired, but in a very different way. Today we like Saigon a whole lot better than yesterday!! The city does have distinct charms: there are these wide old tree-lined boulevards and great open green parks left by the French. And the people are warm and friendly for the most part. And the food, ah the food….more on that to come.