Rats, cockroaches, and guns

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April 14th 2012
Published: April 14th 2012
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Showered, backpack off, teeth brushed after a 22 hour flight, I sit on my bed, savoring the air-conditioned cool air, and am at a loss for what to do. Simply because I have no idea where to begin.

I can hear the honk of horns and the nasal melodic cries of the old woman pushing her cart through my closed window, like the city's intensity is so strong it beats itself against the glass, trying to get in. I feel excited and overwhelmed all at once and I half want to get in bed, hide under the covers, and wish myself back home and half want to dive right into the mess.

Home not being an option and resting beneath a comforter in 90° heat not advisable, I take the leap.

Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) is an attack upon the senses. I walk through an outdoor market, raised platforms displaying odd looking vegetables, fruits with spines that taste like feet, fish and eel still fluttering vainly in the last half inch of water while their brothers are chopped in two by a meat cleaver. Women dressed in any patterned fabric imaginable, some in combinations that make me blink to clear my vision, call out to one another in harsh words, smiles on their faces. A man sits on a plastic chair, his bare feet resting on his sandals and watches me as I inhale deeply, struck speechless by a smell that is tantalizing just because it's so disgusting. The concrete is thick with slime and I get a glimpse of a rat the size of my arm as it pokes it's nose out of the gutter and darts back inside. Maybe it knows it would be tonight's dinner? I walk by a road stand where piles of raw, red pulsing meat sit in the sun, the mound of chopped liver swimming in its own juice. Small plastic tables and chairs with the occasional leather recliner cluster haphazardly on the sidewalk and women bring out hot bowls of fresh Pho soup to their waiting patrons who eat hunched over their portions like gremlins and slurp up the ghostly white noodles. Street food, its smell curiously making me salavate, consists of everything from seafood and escargot to grilled chicken feet and dried squid. I prefer not to think about how it all gets cleaned as I watch a
People's Committee BuildingPeople's Committee BuildingPeople's Committee Building

Ho Chi Minh Statue Most photographed in HCMC
woman wash out a plastic straw in a bunket of murky water and put it pack in with the other staws.

I get to the street corner and intend to cross, but realize pedestrian safety might be a foreign concept here. Motorbikes zoom by and deftly dodge around the man who just stepped into the street as if he is walking across a deserted field; he starts moving forward, horns blare, reving engines accelerate, and I take a quick gasp of air (tastes like roman noodles) afraid I'm about to witness my first hit and run. But he calmly steps back up onto the curb on the other side and moves on down the street, never once looking back to where he almost just died.

Gulp. My turn.

Look left at the oncoming herd of bikes. Step off the curb and move forward without hesitating. Honking horns warn me if I'm cutting it too close, their drivers never once slowing down. But I can't step back because I'd be the next bloody spot on that lady's wheel and I can't move forward because the guy coming towards me must be more occupied with the six moving boxes he has strapped to his bike than with my immediate survival. They pass, nearly clipping my heel and nose, and I take another step. Halfway there. Now look right at the same stampede coming from the opposite direction, this time with a bus lumbering along like a great island everyone has to navigate around. I move forward and I swear I hear the driver push down on the gas. I quicken my step, a cold sweat on my brow (adding to the incredibly hot sweat already present there), cross in front of the bus, narrowly miss a zooming bike coming down the other side and leap onto the curb like it's the sand box at the end of the long-jump.

No time to catch my breath because now I walk down the street and there is just too much to take in. Restaurants line each side, their tiled interiors offering relative coolness, though I think the sweating bottles of beer do most of the work of drawing in patrons. Street food is also available, carts lining the alley and constricting the road and tempt me to go for a new experience, but I doubt there are many vegetarian options. Peddlers come up to me and offer to sell me anything I might ever need: bracelets, fans, hats, sandals, smokes, guns, weed, sunglasses, even a Vietnamese lotto ticket. Men recline on motorbikes like they're couches and ask if you want a ride as you pass; one dollar for another near death experience.

There are many modes of transportation in the big city and walking I have to say should be the last choice just because it's so hot. But coming from France where transportation ate away at my funds like a termite to wood, I stubbornly refused to be taken in and attempted to go at it on my own. First stop is the Ben Thanh Market which is hundreds of booths cramped into a space reserved for the frozen food section in a Target in the states. Souvenirs have been artfully stacked to the ceiling and the path between stalls is no wider than my hips. People use the old French to catch my attention, "Madame what you looking for?" while they hold out a shirt and gently touch my tattoos like they're sacred markings I need to protect. The air can't circulate and I can feel claustrophobia
View from Reunification PalaceView from Reunification PalaceView from Reunification Palace

North Vietnamese broke down this gate with a tank on April 30, 1975
setting in as more and more hands brush against my hot skin. Getting outside is like breathing swamp air but at least there is room to move and I turn my back to the market, cross the busy traffic circle (with a hint of more confidence), following the street down towards the river. I pass antique shops selling Siddharthas and dragons, coins, jade jewelry, carved dressers and chairs, and old army medallions. Turning the corner I come upon a street market and wind my way in between customers as they cross cross the street going back and forth, voices raised in what I assume is a familiar greeting. Eyes look at me with disdain, telling me I don't belong. Turn right and pass by skyscrapers with windows shining in the sun shading old French mansions, the architecture rudely Art Neaveau that look out on the brown waters of the River Saigon. A boy uses a net to catch snakes in the reeds floating above the water and Westerners snap photos of his dirty bent head.

I hit the rich end of town and street food dwindles where hotels grow larger, former sets for great American movies and war journalists. The pink Opera House looks up a tree-lined avenue that opens to the yellow and white People's Committee Building with a statue of the beloved Ho Chi Minh in front, a child in his arms the two surrounded by purple and red flowers and sparkling fountains. The Notre Dame Cathedral, built with stones imported from Normandy, France seems out of place, its windows empty of color, the people finding no desire to replace them after WWII damage and next door is the over-the-top Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel. I know that name from somewhere...

I take refuge from the sweltering heat beneath the trees of 30/4 Park though there is no escaping the roar of motorbikes and the honking of horns as we all move towards the Reunification Palace, the stark Communist building where the North Vietnamese rode down the gates and took over the South. The year was April 30, 1975 and the inside seems frozen in this moment, its rooms lavish but old and the heavy feel of too much hatred filters through the stuffy rooms. I move down the streets behind the Palace and as the sun begins to set more and more motorbikes appear
Pham Ngu LaoPham Ngu LaoPham Ngu Lao

Backpacker district (District 1) Notice all the Westerners? Only safe place in Saigon, and that's not saying much.
and I find myself gripping my bag with white knuckles, tensed from having to look every direction for an oncoming thief. I think of finding solace behind the walls of the colorful Hindu temple but instead get forced to pay for incense that I didn't want in the first place because I thought it insulting to mock a faith I know nothing about but the woman follows me down the street, crying "You pay! You pay!" There is no peace in this city, no place to breathe.

Are you overwhelmed? I was too and this was only one day! But there is one perk I haven't mentioned: after such a hectic day, battling heat, traffic, the language barrier, and odd noises coming from your culture-shocked stomach you can sit pack and enjoy a 6000vnd beer, which equates to 30¢ a pop, with your fellow travelers. An oasis of English and the young.

But it all starts over tomorrow.


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