February 10, 2019
My second day in Ho Chi Minh City, my last day in Vietnam, packed with excitement and exploration from dawn till past dusk. It bounces around a little something like this…
Grab is the Vietnamese Uber. To make things more exciting, they have a more popular scooter option. “Hell yes” is what I say to that when my hotel gently floats it as a more affordable, more popular local customs option. My Grab driver pulls up, hands me a helmet and we are off. From the back of a scooter we zip into Saigon traffic. It’s as exhilarating as any amusement park ride I have ever ridden. Breeze on my face, I am treated to Ho Chi Minh City from the back of a scooter. It’s a highlight of my trip. When we race towards a major roundabout, the street is swarmed, scooters and some cars seemingly occupying every inch of drivable space. My driver makes no attempt to slow down. “Well, we’ve had a good run, gotta go sometime”, I think to myself. When we reach the traffic I brace for impact. Instead we slip in seamlessly, like a fish joining a school. I am amazed as scooters bump and jostle, the times my driver extends a hand to stiff arm other would be intruders. As I look around I realize no other scooter passenger is holding on to their driver. Most locals balance absentmindedly on the back of the scooter. My arms are wrapped around my driver in a snug embrace. My manhood challenged, I do my best to ease off. When we do arrive at my destination I’m sad the ride is over. The driver is brilliantly confused why I want to snap a photo. I overtip and bid him adieu. How great was that?! Time to get my prayer on.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda (Ngoc Hoang Pagoda) is Ho Chi Minh’s most famous religious site. A Taoist pagoda, it was erected in 1909 by the Chinese community. It’s immediately striking how the city has grown around it, encasing the temple like a cocoon. It’s cracked and crumbling. “How Buddhist”, I think. Still the first week of Tet, it’s packed with visitors. I make sure to ask if it’s okay to take photos and then snap, snap, snap. Incense invades my nostrils as lanterns frame my sky. I feel the crush of the crowd as I move through the pagoda’s many small rooms that dazzle with ornate wood carvings, statues, shrines and hands rocking back and forth pressed together in prayer. Devotees line up with with bottles of yellow liquid. They whisper their New Years’ invocation into the ears of yellow shirted employees who nod and pour the liquid over fire. No English signs here nor English speakers, so it becomes a game of Simon Says. I remove my shoes for rooms when others do. Bow when others do. Pray when others do. On the roof you can look directly into an apartment next door. Five people crowded hot and sweaty into a small room stare back at me. Back into the Pagoda it’s body to body. I muse how hilarious friends will find that I’m the tallest person in most rooms. I snap more pictures and admire more relics. There’s a turtle pond I sit at outside to collect myself before leaving. Across the street they sell small birds to purchase that you can set free.
My phone estimates a 40 minute walk back to my hotel. Sounds like a good way to get to know the city. Things I see in-between; pigs hanging glazed in windows, meat being butchered and sold on the street, pedestrians missing eyes and other deformities, chicken crossing the street, coffee shops, electronics, outdoor markets, hoards of scooters, . I take a photo of traffic and a young man warns me to be careful, “Many Ali-Babas”. The midday sun attacks. There is violence to it. Men stare at me wherever I go and women never meet my gaze. I love the little old Vietnamese ladies and wrestle with the uncomfortable realization I never see old men in Vietnam. I see two other white people the entire walk. I explore a marketplace and buy Joy thank you pajamas for watching Harlow. The vendor throws his entire body over me when I take out the money. He warns me to be very careful. 4 times I am told to be careful. At no time do I feel any sense of danger. I wonder about the cache of being the kidnapped guy and chuckle at the thought it could make me an Instagram influencer. I find the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, completed by the French in 1880. It’s interesting to see after my last adventure to Paris. The brick replica is under construction, no visitors. Across from Notre Dame is a giant McDonalds and Starbucks. To compete the insult I punch a random child in the face and chant U-S-A. I finally stop for lunch. Restaurants here overwhelm. Vietnam is one of the most gastronomically diverse places in the world. Being here a week, loving food, I feel like I’ve tasted hardly anything, there is just so much.
Bitexco Finacial Tower is the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City. 268 meters high, 68 floors, it’s a proud symbol of Vietnam’s economic growth and modernization. “Shaped as a lotus bud, combines the blossoming of traditional Vietnamese culture with the nations progressive aspirations of today” reads the signage. There is nothing in the city remotely close. It’s not part of the skyline, it is the skyline. When I first enter the observation deck I surprise the young woman taking tickets. She hangs up her phone call and leans forward with the nervous impassioned inquiry, “you don’t understand Vietnamese curse words, right?”. I walk around the deck enjoying the bird’s eye view of Saigon.
When I arrive back in my neck of the woods, it’s time to explore the famous Ben Thanh Market. My second marketplace of the day! A cultural treasure, Ben Thanh is the largest marketplace in Vietnam. Wikepedia tells us “Ben Thanh Market welcomes more than 10,000 visitors per day to shop and visit. The market has nearly 1,500 booths with more than 6,000 small businesses…”. The Market is cavernous, at least four football fields (why are football fields my go to measurement?). It’s divided into sections selling electronics, clothing, fruit, dried goods, food stands, luggage, jewelry, coffee, fresh fish, fresh meats and more and more. Everything is dirt cheap. A Banh Mi sandwich will cost you under $2. Unlike the local market I happened on earlier, they are very aggressive here; shouting, begging, pleading for your business. These days prices are set, erasing the old tradition of haggling. All that energy has been refocused into attracting customers. I buy a Vietnamese iced coffee with milk and turn to people watching. Located in district one, the market has a far more diverse cliental with languages heard from all around the world, with Europeans leading the way. There is no AC or ventilation so it’s an oven. It swarms like an ant colony.
People don’t cover their mouth when they cough. It’s rather disconcerting. Never may be an exaggeration, but it’s striking. Such a fundamental action for most of us, drilled home by Moms from the time you are tiny, “cover your mouth when you cough”. And they cough A LOT. They all smoke and the air quality is simply the worst. I often stifle a scolding “cover your mouth!”. Germaphobes should think long and hard before visiting Vietnam.
Later that night at the Street Food Market I focus on enjoying the breeze. Tonight it sucks to be alone. Up the block from Ben Thanh the Street Food Market is a cluster of picnic tables in front of 40 to 50 stands selling food and drink. It’s inexpensive and mostly the portions are small. It’s built to share with friends, to taste, make new friends and drink more. I ache for a posse. They play American pop music, which I haven’t heard elsewhere. Usually it’s songs I know with a Vietnamese cover or k-pop if it’s rock. A creepy Spanish dude tries to hit on me. What can I say, on the other side of the world, I’m handsome and tall. I start with dumplings and move to fried rice. I go back several times, trying to taste everything I can. Somewhere around my third beer I meet a German man named Gert. His head is a perfect circle. His round, jowly face and bald head are scorched by the sun, burnt and peeling everywhere. He wears a green army shirt halfway undone with tufts of white hair shining through. He lives in Portugal. He’s a chef or was, seems semi-retired from the racket. Still owns two restaurant but mostly works as a food buyer. We have a fun talk about wine and traveling. He sells Portugal hard, increasing my desire to visit. I decide to take it as a sign, Spain and Portugal are at the top of my list for upcoming travel. Currently Gert is in the midst of a 6 month journey with his son, a reward for graduating culinary school. We spend an hour or two pounding beers. I take special delight in his accent. Through his gruff abrasive German-ness he seems a real puppy dog of a man. A bulldog puppy. No man has ever looked more like an actual bulldog then Gert. I certainly don’t get to try as much food as I want but have deep gratitude to make another friend along the way. I’ve made a few traveling in this country. And tonight’s my last night.
The next day at the airport I buy a Burger King Double Whopper for lunch. I can’t even say why, I guess it just felt like time to go back home to America. It’s the most expensive meal I eat in Vietnam. I break my rule about not buying souvenirs. I can’t resist a bottle of Vietnamese wine at the Hanoi airport duty free. So this is how we will say goodbye to Vietnam…. Vang Đà Lạt. Chardonnay grape, light bodied with medium minus acid and hints of lime, Meyer lemon, grass, asparagus, rose water, and wet stones. Till next we meet.