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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

A rainbow of painted houses and a private golf course were my first images of Ho Chi Minh City.  Regardless, I ditched the “city of contrasts” vocabulary as soon as it formed in my mind.  In Asia, many cities are contrasts of wealth against poverty, modern versus traditional.  It’s too trite, too dismissive to describe the wealth disparity as “contrast” as if it were a feature of architecture or history.  I went looking for other narratives, something that closer to the soul of the erstwhile Saigon.  It took a while to find, and the route was nearly circular, as I stumbled on the secret to Saigon’s soul a few short minutes after I stepped off the plane and stood in queue for my visa.

“The secret,” he said, “is to make ’em laugh here.”  His Azzurri kit, wide frame and remnants of a twang lost after years overseas identified exactly what part of the United States he was from.  If I hadn’t guessed, he was happy to confirm, proud to confirm, of course, that he was a Texan.  He was offering advice to any he talked to, myself included, especially after learning it was my first time in Vietnam.  But he was right.  When I first met my fellow American in that visa line, I chuckled silently and walked away amused, my mind on stereotypes of our most famous of regional personalities.

It just took me a while to realize how right he was.  I’ve read a few times that the Vietnamese have a lust for life that’s not easily matched.  I don’t know if that’s true all over, but it certainly is in Saigon.  Laughter, fun, good food, emotions really of any kind, seem to be treasured there.

My neighbor, Dan, whose meetings with me in the dog park tend to be impromptu sessions on travel notes as we cross paths between trips around the region, mentioned that I might not enjoy Ho Chi Minh as much, considering how little I enjoyed Bangkok.  To his credit, there are a lot of similarities.  Both are sprawling cities, Saigon could easily be its own province, the city spreads so wide; both are known for an active nightlife where certain activities, lie in the dimly lit areas of the night, barely illuminated by the light of law.  The markets of each city are filled with shrewd hawkers, lying in wait to gouge tourists with unholy markup percentages that still manage to be decently priced.

But the difference for me was the attitude.  Everyone in Saigon had a smile on their face and an aura of “who gives a fuck?” permeating around them.  And why would they give a fuck?  Every other sign post is decorated with the infamous hammer and sickle of the Communist Party, even in front of the Carl’s Jr. and Starbucks.  Why not laugh and move on with your life?  As an American, the narrative of Vietnam has been such a potent cocktail of national anguish, shame, rage, and misery, especially as a member of Generation X whose first exposures to the country were found in Platoon and Apocalypse Now.  I couldn’t even begin to comment on Saigon, 1968; Ho Chi Minh City, 2015, however, bears little resemblance, and while everyone I spoke to there still referred to the city as “Saigon”, I couldn’t really get a bearing on what they thought of the national regime.  And after about 30 minutes in town, I stopped trying; or caring.

Driving around Saigon is a lesson in letting go of your fears.  The streets are chaos, a cacophony of horns and moped motors, as motorbikes dart in and out of traffic, over lanes and even sidewalks, should the need arise.  To cross the street in Vietnam is a true communal experience.  Each driver trusts you to move at a singular pace.  You trust each driver not to kill you.  What better way to build community?

Car horns are constant.  In Vietnam, your car horn is not a signal of last minute distress, or a way to vent your rage, but rather an integral part of your signaling arsenal.  The car horn there is a beacon, it’s sonar, and I imagine that Saigon sounds much like the world might to an owl or a bat, a constant song of signals.  “Here I am, both predator and prey.”

The nightlife didn’t disappoint.  Beverly’s coworkers were in town for Friday night, due to leave on a 05:30 flight.  Their plan simply became not to go to sleep, for surely, they had plenty of time to convalesce on the 20+ hour trip back to Oregon.  So we went big time at an American smokehouse, of all things, loading up on bacon, ribs, pork shoulder and belly.  Beverly nearly danced on the table when she saw cornbread on the menu.  We ate our fill and then some, sucking down amazing local brew, IPAs and pales, and spoke with the owner of the restaurant, a surly Chicagoan who seated us out of spite to a Chinese group who had the gall to argue that his busy restaurant had too long of a wait.

“I fucking told you it’d be an hour, and it hasn’t been a fucking hour, has it?”  Words you’ll never hear in Singapore, that’s for sure.

We were joined in our battle against the piles of bacon by Jeff’s friend, “Gator,” an American teacher living overseas for the last few years.  Jeff & Gator had met in Shanghai, which gave me amazing hope for the friends I’ve met thus far here in Singapore.  Gator was a big dude, like myself, and much like me, had the gift of gab and a unique flair for words.

“You gotta get a bidet, man.  Once you have one, you’ll wonder how you went without.”  The conversation actually went a bit1okay, a lot downhill from there, but you get the general idea of the level of humor here, I think.

Leaving the restaurant, I thanked our surly Chicagoan innkeeper and told him we too were all Americans.  When I told the man we were from Portland, Oregon, he replied, “Yeah, man, great coffee.  Great beer!”

Yeah, rub it in, buddy.  I miss the beer something fierce.

I made up for my feeling of loss that night for sure though.  I downed enough Tiger for four people, and the best thing was, it probably cost me $20, US.  That’s likely why I ordered mug after mug.  Where else was I going to be able to find beer for something close to $1 per at a bar?

The bars themselves were something I had missed dearly from the US – dive bars.  One of them had a theme, the “ER”, complete with naughty nurse outfits and shots served in syringes.  The first bar we went to, we were joining Gator’s friends for a birthday party.  The taxi without Gator and Jeff got there first, making for a strange and awkward situation, this group of sober2ish Nike people and a growing louder by the second group of American & Canadian expats getting ready to toast their friend into oblivion for his birthday.  I managed to read the group right when I talked up one of the revelers saying that we had a “tour guide” who took us here.  Guessing correctly that I was about to play a joke on one of Gator’s friends, Dave3I think, my sense of timing proved perfect, as I saw Gator and Jeff walking in through the door.

With a laugh, Dave asked, “What fucking tour guide brought you here?”

I shrugged, “I don’t know, big, bald guy, looks a lot like that guy there.”  I pointed at Gator.  Dave nearly split his gut laughing.

Looking back at that moment, I sensed this was the moment when I started to figure things out.  Or maybe it was just the booze.  Seeing the laughter, I think, the servers at the bar, all young, pretty Vietnamese girls, got a bit more flirty.  Nothing over the line, mind you, just the good natured type of fun one has when the drinks are flowing and you can toss a little decorum out the door.  We’re talking about a pinched cheek and flirty smiles here, nothing naughty, but with an abandonment of cares and a genuine need for some good old fashioned drunken revery.

Now, if you’re reading this and expecting something else on mention of the mostly female crews working the bars in Saigon, don’t be too disappointed.  It was after midnight when I, quite drunk and ready for some sleep, was approached by a “working girl.”  The look on Beverly’s face was priceless as Jeff explained to her the situation.  By this point, I was too drunk to be anything but polite, so I kept my end of the conversation until it was clear that I wasn’t in need of her services for the night.  But when I made the joke that of course she was working, with a face like mine, no woman would hit on me in a bar, well, it was time to leave.

So ended Day 1.

Our second day in town was marked with most of the usual tourist fare.  We hit the markets, got gouged on some table runners, got groped and accosted by women a third my size, grabbing at my arms to implore me to try on their shirts.  One woman yelled after me, “Sir!  We have your size!  I have 4X!”

Okay, we’re done here, lady.

We walked around town, built up a good sweat, and did what everyone says you should do in Vietnam – got a massage.  Beverly & her coworkers had found a good, quiet place where “happy endings” were not on the menu, so we went there, and paid $20 US for an hour-long full body massage.  My masseuse, again, a third my size, I think took sadistic pleasure in stepping on and kneeing my back, all the time answering my grunts of surprise and mild pain with “Sir, are you okay?”


“Sir, are you okay?”

Knee to the shoulder.

“Sir, you’re okay, yes?”

You get the picture.

The final moment, a move I can only give the highest ratings for degree of difficulty, involved placing her knees on my back as I sat up, then holding my arms back and rocking me backwards so that I lay sprawled on her knees, all 128 kilograms of me.  I saw her compatriot do the same to Beverly next to me, and I immediately thought that this woman was crazy.  Regardless, she got me up on her knees, for about a second before I tapped out.  I thought I was going to break the poor girl, but she smiled and laughed as we all did, the absurdity of the situation making for more relaxation than a small Vietnamese woman’s elbow on my shoulders.

Relaxation was complete with some lunch next door to the massage parlor, standard Vietnamese fare with a glass of Pinot from France.  We lingered over lunch and then walked back to hotel to nap up and read a little.  Our next outing promised to be epic.

I now know what it feels like to be in a bike gang.  The simultaneous roar of 20 engines revving up, the communal departure of your group, the matching helmets the only beacon in a sea of humanity and automotive madness.  So, the bikes were more mopeds, and we were all riding pillion to a young Vietnamese woman dressed in the traditional Ao Dai, shouting out highlights of the city as we weaved around the infamous Saigon traffic.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite like being in a biker gang.

The host for the evening certainly had a few good gang jokes, though, referring to his company, Xo Tours, as the mafia that ruled TripAdvisor with an iron first.  Having made a Breaking Bad joke just a few moments before, I had to ask him;

“Are you then the ‘one that types?'”

The tour was a four-hour drive around Saigon, stopping at a few select places to sample the local street food.  Our individual hostesses were, as mentioned, college-aged Vietnamese women dressed in the traditional Ao Dai, the iconic garb of Vietnam.  Most of the women were interested in tourism, press or communication industries, and I imagine this job was quite the good one to have, especially for my driver, who moved from a small country town in the North, and fell in love with her new city.

I can relate.

We pose in front of Binh Tay market in Chinatown

We pose in front of Binh Tay market in Chinatown

I never got her name though.  I mean, I did, but through the noise of the streets, my terrible hearing, and of course, my unfamiliarity with the accent and the sounds of Vietnamese, I never learned it.  She told me that her name meant “Money”, so I had to joke if she wanted me to call her “Money” all night.  I settled on calling her “Speed Racer” after she ran a few red lights at a point when we trailed the main group.

“I have to focus on catching your wife, Josh!” she yelled.  With her high pitch voice, it was one of the most adorable things I’ve heard in my life.

Riding around HCMC on a scooter gave new perspective to the city.  My normal mode of speaking, so very Italian with hand gestures and wide expressions, is not good on the back of a bike, where a wild hand could easily whack a nearby rider.  Being on the street level, you see so much more, the family of four riding on a Honda motor scooter, the delivery man with an impossible load strapped high to the back of his bike, fashionable ladies riding English as their men drove through town.  We drove through street markets in Chinatown, live produce and poultry freely walking around, or in one case of a flock of ducks, sitting in a circle, facing each other, as if in a prayer circle.

Oh yeah, they knew they were soon to be served with rice.

Grilled prawns with one of our tourmates from California.

Grilled prawns with one of our tourmates from California.

The food was amazing.  Beef noodle soup, not pho, but quy nhon4think; grilled meat, beef, lamb, goat and yes, frog.  Grilled okra and prawns.  Scallops, pepper crab, even balut5Marinated boiled egg with the embryo.  It was fucking disgusting to see, but the sauce for the egg was good.  Still.  Fuck no. The flavors are all so rich and the sauces thick and spicy.  I’m sure that many nationalities will be disappointed with this next sentence, but the truth must be told.  Vietnamese food is the king of this region.  Nothing else matches it.  Nothing.

Our hostesses were amazing.  Engaging, fun, flirty to the point of just being friendly, they made the night truly special.  Beverly’s driver commented that my Vietnamese was “terrible”, an accurate assessment.  But she did so with a smile and a glint in her eye that I’ve used a thousand times.  I couldn’t help but laugh.  They played tricks with the dessert, daring people to look inside hollowed out coconuts before yelling and thrusting them at people, delighting in the panicked reactions.  They had fun with teasing the prudish Americans about a park that’s set aside for “private time”, a necessity in a city where you often live with four generations of family.

Driving back to the hotel after our final stop, I realized why Speed Racer had worn a mask.  My mouth was dry and dusty from the drive around town, my throat sore from the exhaust of busses and SUVs.  We thanked our hosts profusely, and headed up to our room in food-induced daze.

Such was Saigon.

The secret really is to laugh.  Vietnam’s been through a lot, and there’s much that just doesn’t work there.  The alternating banners of the Vietnamese star and the hammer & sickle are victory flags, but a victory that rings a bit hollow and dated these days.  Vietnam is still Communist, but capitalist policies and an opening of their economy has brought the country back from the brink, such as they were in the 90s.  The Transpacific trade act is about to be finalized, bringing opportunity and a bit of nervousness to Vietnam.  The economic policy of that country is tied to the giant monster looming to the north, and for Vietnam to gain an economic advantage over their former Imperial masters is a huge deal.  But it swings both ways, allowing unfettered access to international goods from the Americas to enter the country.  It’s an exciting time, I think, to be Vietnamese, to be on a new battle ground, the economic one.

But more importantly, I think, it’s about enjoying life.  Vietnam is a beautiful country, truly stunning, and its cities look nothing like their neighbors.  The French influence in Vietnam is still present, and in Saigon, it makes for wide avenues and open park space, street front bistros and cafes.

I landed in Singapore right after the rains came through.  The brief moment of coolness was welcome, but what really hit me was the calm and relatively unpopulated roads coming out of Changi.  Of course I laughed, it was only a few hours earlier when I was clinging to the door handle of a falling apart SUV weaving around police barriers being erected to allow a train passage through town.

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