Saigon memories

I used to claim that even the hardest traveller only needed a minimum of four weeks to get used to (a new) culture shock and a new world. Of course a life is really needed for that, but a month or so will usually suffice to get you by and it was certainly that way when I moved from Australia to Hong Kong in 2000 where I quickly got used to the convenience and ease of shops and transport, the closeness of friends, the mobility a car affords, a semi-English speaking environment, the diversity of country parks and beaches and the cityscape.

That all changed when I moved to Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City in 2012  and I have to admit it took me a bit longer than the blasé four week mentioned earlier but I did get used to a new way of life here, albeit slowly. Saigon was certainly a different world to everything I had experienced before.  Everything seemed strange and either ludicrous or just plain crazy.  Traffic, for instance, was no doubt governed by laws, but what those  were remained unfathomable to me. 

One-way streets, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings appeared to be the merest suggestions without any serious compliance expected.  Crossing any street was as fraught with as much excitement and danger as playing a computer game like Call of Duty as attackers” (motorbikes) could come at you from any direction and at any time without any warning whatsoever while lumbering buses and trucks made no allowance for either motorbikes or pedestrians. Pavements and sidewalks were fair game for motorbikes and the rule appeared to be that if you could stop your bike sideways on the pavement or in the middle of your living room, or even the road, why then, it is perfectly parked!  

Shortly after I arrived, it was much bruited among the ex-pat community here that the Saigonese police were about to initiate one of their regular crackdowns but this certainly would not involve stopping bikes rushing through red lights or going the wrong way up a one-way street or driving on the pavement; instead, it would be more of a crackdown on pedestrians in that if a pedestrian were involved in an accident, it must be the pedestrian’s fault!.  Similarly when driving at night, why run the risk of running your battery down when you can simply turn off your headlights at night and drive just as well in the dark.

Notwithstanding all that, my partner decided that, despite neither of us having any experience whatsoever with motorbikes, we had better get into the spirit of things and rent our own personal motorbike and for reasons best known to others, it was decided to rent a motorbike on the far side of the city to where we actually lived.  I made the rather tentative suggestion that we rent a scooter with automatic transmission – having spent at least a total time of less than one minute “practicing” on a Honda Airblade in Cambodia.  This would obviate the need to change cumbersome gears with the feet while attempting to maintain eyes forward, sideways and backwards and at the same time weave with the fluidity of a dust mote in a beam of sunlight, through the woof and weft of roundabout traffic.  This suggestion was quickly rebuffed as it is a well known motorbikes with automatic transmission are too powerful and have a tendency to “run away” with you if you twist the handlebar throttle too much!  Instead we settled on a Honda 110cc with manual gears because then “you can start it up in 2nd gear and it won’t run away on you”.

All well and good and the one-eyed tout renting the bikes appeared to have no qualms about renting a bike to a pair such as us who blatantly had no knowledge of where to even put the ignition key or whether to use the left or the right foot for the necessary gear changes.  A one-minute tutorial in Vietnamese (unexplained to me) and a 5 minute practice ride in, through and around the flower beds in a nearby public park sufficed and the keys were quickly handed over for a million dong  or so (about $65 Australian).

The immediate problem that presented us was two-fold; neither my partner nor I felt sufficiently confident to give the other a back pillion ride and, even if we were, neither of us had the slightest of idea how to circumnavigate the city to get to our far-flung district.  

Bit of an impasse, until a malleable plastic 50,000 dong note (about $3.5 Australian!) was slipped to the assistant of the one-eyed man and he drove my partner home, using the bike as a XÊ HỐM  ̣motorbike “taxi” or literally “hug machine” as the passenger is often obliged to hug the driver to avoid being jolted off the back as the rider careens over kerbs, potholes and the occasional bricks casually tossed onto the road.  I then spent the rest of the afternoon hunting for a bus which would go within reasonable distance of where we actually lived.

By the time I got back home, of course it was too dark to warrant venturing out onto the tangle of streets surrounding us so all we had to do was pay the gate-keeper where we lived another small fortune in well used plastic bank notes to allow us to park the bike under his supercillious nose.

The next morning, after the apparent ritual of handing over another bunch of crumpled plastic bank notes to the new gatekeeper which allowed him to  retrieve our bike from wherever his colleague had hidden it the previous night – we took it in turns – “remember to start the bike in 2nd gear” – to cruise cautiously up and down our local street, rented helmets with greasy, sweat-stained linings slipping down over our eyes, our arms extended stiffly on the handlebars, eyes flickering nervously down to our feet and then belatedly up to scan the street for the unwary chickens which patrol it haphazardly, tentatively trying out the horn (an absolute must for any aspiring driver here) and the indicators and stalling the bike in our attempts to bring it to a graceful stop actually in front of the street cafe rather than on top of one of its small tables.

Suffice it to say, after a week or so, the bike remained safely parked in the basement bowels of our building, our helmets mouldered in a cupboard, and, since our arrival at this address, the local taxi mafia set up a permanent taxi-rank outside our front door.  Enough said about traffic and bikes, I feel, although there was some talk that we might return the bike and exchange it for an automatic one as, apparently, they are easier to drive!  Hmm, said I, non-commitedly.

Noise is a constant factor with motorbikes, buses, trucks and an increasing number of private cars having carte blanche to blast their klaxon-like horns constantly, mingling with the incessant noise of daily life on the streets – people crouched on tiny stools over  rickety tin tables, sucking down noodle soup at all hours of the days or night while small “cafes” simply appropriated the space before a closed shop or office and set up their stools and tables there.  Along with eating on the street, there are all the concomitant activities that go with it – obviously, cooking over an open charcoal fire on the pavement is perfectly normal, as are washing the dishes in a tub of greasy lather while it is perfectly acceptable to sprawl on the pillion seat of a motorbike with your bare feet propped on the handlebars while a foot massage or pedicure is administered. 

Why stop there, of course?  The street is a perfect place for a barber to attach a chipped mirror to the railing and set up a barber’s chair, and while you are at it, you might as well bathe the naked children on the main street as well.  Need a toilet, well there is a perfectly good tree that you can hug and pee away to your heart’s delight.   Feel like a nap? Just stretch out on any semi level piece of ground and snooze away.

  Shopping was another new experience.  Supermarkets were few and far between and the ones that do cater to western tastes – i.e. selling such delicacies as Kiwi shoe polish, Cornflakes, baked beans in tomato sauce, long-life UHT milk imported from new Zealand and Australia, pasta and P.G. Tips tea bags – are few and far between as well as being outrageously expensive. 

Instead, Vietnamese life centers around the market – usually a maze of narrow alleyways where fruit, veg, fish, meat and live poultry are haggled over down to the last dong.  Don’t feel the need to have an actual stall? 

Fine, just spread a torn sheet of plastic on the muddy ground and pile your veg there.  Want a nice pig’s tongue or a bucket of toads, or a basin of slippery eels? No problem, just scoop them up into the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag and slaughter away in the convenience of your own home.  

Nothing pressing to do today?  Well then, sprawl in a plastic garden chair and drink syrupy black coffee with ice, or, for a real taste buster, load up the glass – cups are rarely used – with sweetened, condensed milk, top up with a thick syrupy coffee and then dilute the dregs with the complimentary glass of iced jasmine tea, flicking your cigarette butts (Craven A – pronounced CARavan A) at pedestrians’ feet as they stumble past on the cracked and uneven pavements between the parked and zooming motorbikes, while fending off the legion of cripples and maimed selling lottery tickets, sunglasses, feather dusters, zippo lighters and manicure kits from a sandwich board contraption they sling over their deformed shoulders.

Ah, yes, different to HK, as I say. 

However, it WAS an experience and I coped quite well, I think. I enrolled in a Vietnamese language school and signed up for an elementary class with other would-be aspirants, but I was the only student and had the undivided attention of a pretty, charming, superbly fluent and patient 24 year old teacher.  

I signed up for 35 hours at the monstrous price of 4,000, 000 dong (yep, 4 million!) and have already completed 12 hours, most of which has been spent grappling with the tonal aspect of the language as well as learning to write using the correct tonal signals along with the assorted diacritics that the Vietnamese alphabet of 29 letters uses.  

A “D” not surprisingly, is not, of course, pronounced “Duh” but instead sounds a bit like a “Yuh” while the (new to me) letters such as Ă, Â, Ê, Ô, Đ, Ư and Ơ still retain that aura of mystique.  Add the tones then on top of those letters and it becomes even more baffling as in Ầ or Ẩ or Ẫ while a simple and important word like “wine” becomes unrecognisable in RƯƠỤ – notice the all important dot under the final U!

However, having whinged about all that, to my rather modest surprise, I appeared to pick up some of the language fairly quickly.  My class was from 10:00 – 11:30 (but then again it might just be from 10:30 – 12:00 noon) three mornings a week so after the lesson I used to wander around and get lost in this sprawling city and finally, in a sweating, red-faced, sodden mess, I would attempt to squeeze my bum into a plastic chair clearly made for kindergarten kids and slurp coffee – (Cà phê) – while mumbling such phrases as I believe I had mastered only to later discover that I had just told the waitress that “her mother is a beautiful grave”!.  

Then the wearisome search for a bus home would begin.  Saigon is a maze of one way  streets and while this is blithely ignored by motorbikes and small utility trucks powered by oily, smoke-belching, ancient motorbikes engines, buses here do tend to follow the standard traffic direction.  So, getting off the bus and carefully noting the stop – all bus stops are conveniently identified with XÊ BỨYT stencilled in faded letters on the road itself – is all to no avail as the street apparently is a one-way street and the return bus would not just simply chug along on a parallel street but perhaps take a more tortuous route several blocks away.  My several attempts at asking directions in my newly fluent Vietnamese had one gentleman hawk a gob of spit at my feet while a rather prim lady blushed and pulled her paisley-patterned surgical-type mask firmly over her face and stalked off without a word.

Apparently, it is not just the beach that can make a lady’s skin dark.  It is, rather, the mundane situation of being anywhere outdoors between dawn and dusk.  Here in Saigon, of course is the added problem of “the dust” which necessitates every single female between the ages of 11teen and 90 wearing a plain or haute-couture designed face mask, much like the style favoured by bank-robbing cowboys.  

 Those particularly concerned with the “whiteness” of their features would additionally opt for the more comprehensive cover of a gorget or wimple. Along with the face mask, covering everything from below the eyes, a floppy hat is also de rigeur.  Add to that, elbow length evening style gloves, similar to those worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and, finally, as a finishing touch, wear fish-belly grey knee length stockings with a convenient cleft between the big and first toe, all the more suitable for slipping your foot into the ineveitable thongs / flip-flops that many ladies here seem to favour.

However, to make up for everything, we had a rather nice apartment in the Bình Thạnh District (notice the dot under the “a” again!).  It is bright, clean, airy and spacious – much larger than our former apartments In HK.  We have two large bedrooms, two loos and two balconies with a reasonable view of the city and a glimpse of the snaking Saigon river.  By motorbike taxi, less than 20 minutes into the city centre, perhaps 30 minutes by public bus, so all in all, not too bad.

I mentioned the figure of 4 million Dong – the Vietnamese currency – recently for my Vietnamese lessons and while I was vaguely familiar with large amounts – I remember once my peculiar joy at being both a millionaire and simultaneously broke while living in Italy in the late 70’s – but it is the excess of the numbers here  that put the heart sideways in me– I just couldn’t get used to dealing in millions for relatively simple purchases.  The first time I ever came to Vietnam, back in 1996, I needed a plastic shopping bag to carry the cruddy paper bank notes around.  Now, a semblance of sense exists and the notes are all the new, shiny, plastic bank notes, originating, I think from Australia.  The largest note is a 500,000 dong note, followed by a 200,000 and then a 100,000,  and then down the scale at 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, and the rather lowly paper notes of 5,000 2,000, 1,000 and finally the rather pitiful 500 dong note (approx. $0.02 Australian or Euro cents !) How easy it was to confuse a zero here or there and (usually) end up being massively overcharged.