In all my travels, but now more so on this latest journey, I have noticed food is the one constant bridging most cultural gaps. We all have to eat and sharing a meal is definitely something to which we can all relate. I may not speak Vietnamese and someone here may not speak much English, but a plate of great food is a language we can all understand.
I know if you have made it this far, we both share a common interest in eating our way through Vietnam one bite at a time. But I got to thinking about our journey that has only begun, and from halfway around the world Vietnam can seem another planet (and trust me, living here I sometimes feel like I’ve landed on Mars). I should paint a picture of life in Saigon though I know everyone is here to see food and not a city. But to understand a little bit of the background is to better appreciate the star of the show which is this country’s rich and varied cuisine.
With the quiet week of Tet now behind us and the Year of the Dragon ahead of us, Ho Chi Minh City, more popularly known as Saigon, has roared back to life with a vengeance. This city lets everyone know who is boss with some full on, in your face energy that permeates every corner. Having the entire city as my backyard is an amazing benefit of living here, and I am trying to soak as much in as possible before I one day return to the US which seems so bland in comparison. Just when you think you’ve seen it all in Vietnam, along comes someone to elevate our shock level to even greater heights. Sometimes all you can do is just mutter in disbelief a “wow” at the guy peeing on the sidewalk or the man driving a motorbike with the slaughtered pig strapped to the back and his wife perched atop the bloody carcass. Just take it in and keep it moving to the next sensory overload. That’s all you can do.
I am trying to collect as many of these “wow” experiences as I can and what better way than on foot. I like to walk. I take three to four hour strolls from my apartment to downtown and back again on most of my days off. The Vietnamese don’t seem to walk much further than a block though and about the only other long distance foot traffic I see is sunburned tourists downtown wandering around with guidebooks and maps in hand. Come on guys, ditch the guides and get lost deep in Saigon. Trust me, you won’t regret it. And I wish my Vietnamese neighbors would get out and explore their very own city to discover places unknown. They have created one of the most exciting cities in the world.
Saigon is not for the faint of heart away from tony District 1. Binh Thanh District sprawling below my highrise apartment reminds me that I live in a bubble most Vietnamese can only dream of affording. The narrow alley beside my building is the portal to the Vietnam people dream of from afar. Just in ten feet we can experience the aroma of raw meat being hacked to pieces atop dirty wood tables, a grill sending white smoke all over the block and then music from a shop a decibel or two too loud blanketing everything else the smoke or smells can’t reach. But don’t get too distracted or you will get hit by one of the motorbikes speeding through these narrow streets with no regard for us slower foot going traffic. This is my backyard.
Maps of Saigon with all their colors, lines and names give such a one dimensional overview of the place and cannot even begin to show how neighborhoods meld into each other. One minute I am wandering between two rows of tiny shophouses forming a pungent narrow alley complete with street vendors selling every cheap product a factory here dares produce. The space between store and sidewalk is a blur as both become one with goods spread out waiting for a new home after a bargaining session. Then the next minute I am strolling down a broad leafy boulevard lined with five star hotels, towering office blocks and the requisite upscale shops straight from Beverly Hills and Michigan Avenue. Sometimes just turning a street corner or crossing a fetid canal can take us on a journey from shock and awe to the comforts of home and back again.
Yes, this is a city of contrasts. Channel, Gucci and Prada shops are stocked full of luxury goods only blocks away from street markets selling knock off Channel, Gucci, and Prada at a massive discount. High end dining experiences perched atop skyscrapers are a world apart from the lady selling Pho from her bicycle cart. The occasional Mercedes rolls down streets packed with mostly motorbikes and taxis. Office workers streaming outdoors at lunch contrast with people barely scratching out a living a neighborhood away. Narrow buildings in need of an overhaul succumb to the forces of gravity, sun, heat and humidity on the same street where skyscrapers rise.
But if anything were to define Saigon in my opinion it would be the noise. And I am not talking background noise. No, this is nonstop noise from motorbikes beeping (and usually for no apparent reason other than the driver likes to press the horn), people chattering in sidewalk restaurants, the sound of what seems like endless construction sites pushing the skyline to new heights, an endless amount of mobile phones used with no regard to etiquette, and music coming from who knows where even into the middle of the night. Even 14 floors up, I hear roosters crowing in the morning, and in the US would chickens cluck around the base of a highrise apartment building? Only in Vietnam… You get the picture. Saigon is not a quiet place and for this colorful palette I am thankful.
District 1 downtown can be a bombardment on our personal space as well since tourism has primed the locals on how to hustle a buck. Anything and everything is for sale and the entrepreneurs downtown will invade your space to let you know it. The most common sales pitch is the motorbike man hoping to become a personal chauffeur. “Motobike, Where you go? Motobike.” Walking away intensifies the offer with an urgent, “Sir, sir, where you go? I help find. Sir, sir, sir…” as he follows you up the block. As soon as you leave motorbike man behind, postcard lady hits you up with “you buy from meeeeeeeeeee?” No, I don’t buy from you so please leave me alone! Perhaps even an offer for “massage and boom boom for you sir” might come forth depending on the time of the day. You just never know what you will catch on a walk downtown.