Now this feels like Southeast Asia …
Motorbikes with babies pressed between a dad up front and a mom who’s riding sidesaddle on the back with a flip-flopped foot resting tenuously on the tailpipe … Taximen and cyclists dodging fearless pedestrians, all flowing forward en masse with few traffic lights at the intersections and no traffic laws whatsoever anywhere to slow them down … Buses that don’t stop to pick up passengers but merely slow down a bit with their doors open … Men squatting along the roadside playing cards and smoking cigarettes … Ancient women hawking lukewarm drinks and coal-cooked meals from the backs of bicycles … Giant Communist propaganda posters touting 60 years of Hồ Chí Minh, and red-and-gold hammer-and-sickle banners flying over a crumbling government building with a sleeping guard … The dust flying up from the broom of an errant trashman dodged by several schoolchildren in teddy bear surgical masks … A sluggish muddy river slinking slowly through it all, carrying barges and tugs and junks and great green clumps of river plant and styrofoam, and stalling in canals that run between buildings strung round with laundry lines … And no day in Southeast Asia is complete without an afternoon or early evening deluge to tamp down the dust and cleanse the streets.
Japan seems a world away now. Its crazily pulsating yet still orderly streets and its polite throngs of well-heeled sararīman and ōeru are as out of place in Southeast Asia as the cool breezes and pine trees of Hakone. Here in Vietnam, though, it’s pure, wonderful chaos, palm trees, and a tropical heat that will have you sweating your balls off the second you step off the plane. And Saigon itself? Well, I think Misou put it best as we were walking up the Lê Văn Sỹ toward the Cựu Kim Sơn (San Francisco) Hotel: “It’s like Shinjuku … only on motorbikes.”
Our visit here, too, has been very different from our quick stop-off in Japan. In a sense, things have slowed down for us. We’re not in a rush to see all the sights we can in just five days (we’re here for a month after all), and we have lots of family and friends to visit. In the week since we arrived, we’ve been very well taken care of by Má Vân, the wife of Misou’s uncle Bi. [Note: Here in Vietnam, my name is Bi Mỹ, “American Bi.” This is to distinguish me from Cậu Bi (aka Bi Lớn, “Big Bi”) and Misou’s cousin Bi Mập (“Fat Bi”).]
Like all of the women in Misou’s family, Má Vân and Bê (Misou’s cousin, the bride-to-be) are đẹp gái (pretty). In fact, Má Vân is strikingly beautiful, with deep brown eyes that must have been the heartbreak of many a schoolboy when she was young. Her goal during our stay here is apparently to stuff us so full of delicious food that we pop. From the moment we arrived, she has not stopped feeding us. When we first walked through the gate to her house, we found her waiting with steaming bowls of phở. (Hemingway had it wrong, by the way… The real moveable feast is Saigon. After all, here it’s strapped to the back of a bicycle.)
On our first full day here, after a gigantic breakfast of course, Má Vân took us into central Saigon. (No one here calls it Hồ Chí Minh City.) Misou is quite familiar with the city, having lived here as a girl, but she’s a little rusty and it was nice to have someone to hold our hands (literally) as we crossed the street. First, we went to the Bến Thành market so that Misou could pick out some silk fabric for the áo dài (the traditional Vietnamese long shirt and pants) she will wear at cousin Bê’s wedding. Má Vân is friends with one of the wholesalers (there are hundreds of them in the crowded stalls, and as you work your way through the maze, you might see a middle-aged woman asleep in a cubby under a huge pile of fabric rolls).
Once we’d picked out a pink pattern for Misou and another for her sister, Sylvie, who will be joining us here on the tenth, we headed over to the food area for lunch.
That evening we returned to Má Vân’s house. While Misou, Má Vân, and Bê discussed wedding details, I had a French-English-Vietnamese conversation with Misou’s 81-year-old bà ngoại (maternal grandmother). It was either this night or another that bà ngoại started showing me her tai chi moves (she’s very spry for her age), and she explained how she enjoys playing Four Colors (a Vietnamese card game at which I also excel—having once famously beaten Misou and her mother nine times in a row, a triumph for white boyfriends of Asian girls everywhere). Like me, she enjoys winning, and so several times a week she walks a few blocks through the mad streets of Saigon to play with her sister and a few octogenarian friends, and beats the pants off them every time.
I must admit that the first day here was a bit strange for me. Aside from feeling a little jarred by the constant din of horns and the visual distraction of a million motorbikes whizzing around us at all times, Saigon seemed to me a little too reminiscent of my last trip to Southeast Asia. (Those who know me well will recall that this other trip did not turn out so well for me.) Also, coming off five days of “extreme tourism” in Japan had drained my batteries a bit, and I felt somewhat out of sorts. Lucky for me, my woman knows just what I need, even when I do not …
“We need a shampoo,” says Misou, after we’ve yet again stuffed ourselves to bursting with Vietnamese cuisine.
We’d realized the night before that we’d left our bottle at Má Vân’s. “No, we’ve got it now,” I told her. “I put it in the bag to take back to the hotel.”
“No, no,” Misou explains, “we have to go get a shampoo…”
What followed was a harrowing journey through the neon-lit streets of Saigon, Bi Mỹ desperately clutching the midsection of Bi Mập as we swerved headlong between motos and taxicabs. (I would say we were driving on the wrong side of the street, but the Vietnamese don’t appear to have come to a consensus on which is the right side.) Minutes later—turns out it only takes a couple of minutes to see your life flash before your eyes—we screech to halt outside a small beauty shop, where Bê and Bi Mập leave us. For about $1.50 each, Misou and I get a shampoo and head and facial massage. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve never had your head shampooed and massaged by a small-handed Asian woman, you should by all means come to Saigon. I can honestly say it’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to my face. After nearly falling asleep, I got up feeling completely refreshed (not to mention pleasant-smelling), and I’d sloughed off whatever mood I’d been in earlier. I suddenly realized that we are in a new and exciting place, and that we have a great journey ahead of us—a wedding and a trip from Saigon up to Hue then on to Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay.
Then, as if on cue, there came a sudden brief but violent downpour to cool us off and clear the streets for our walk home.