Will and Claire had been planning to leave the previous morning just as Juli and I had been, but thanks to a bit of apathy and poor planning, we ended up on the same bus for our five hour journey to Saigon. Claire read her classic female authored English literature, while I read the same damn book I showed up with. Will listened to his broken i-pod and Juli slept soundly in an upright position. One quick stop, half a bag of dried fish and several hours of urban sprawl later, we arrived to a typical greeting of hotel hawkers as we located our bags in the accumulated mass of luggage left on the sidewalk from the baggage compartment.
The bus had conveniently left us near District 1 and the majority of the affordable hotels. We made the mistake of following one of the hotel pushers working on commission. After looking at several over priced hotels with our heavy bags, having Will claimed that they “smelled like dog”, we decided to ditch the man showing us squats that were out of our tiny budget and split from Will and Claire in process. Looking at a few more hotels we had no success until we ran into “Miss Chu”, who offered us a cheap room down a tiny alley with all the amenities the other places were missing.
Miss Chu seemed to me to be a typical middle aged Vietnamese woman hardened by years of Saigon inner city living and most likely the occupation of my country’s military decades prior. The first thing that appeared a bit odd about her was the multitude of photos she had of herself adorning her guest house, but all the rest of her characteristics seemed trustworthy and uniquely charming on first impression. She told us that we could find her at her office around the corner if we needed anything and left us alone in the hotel. The room was basic but seemed secure and even came with breakfast, hot water, AC, Internet and a picture of Jessica Alba in her panties plastered to the bathroom wall. I had no complaints.
Juli had always done an excellent job of organizing our days and evenings. Flipping through the our books and web pages for recommendations on food, we would both pick several things that we wanted to partake in, see or eat then she would jot down the information in our little notebook, mentally situate the locations of said activities on our map, then we would be off. I have to admit that having her around made things just a little too easy for me. So now we had a room and I had my foreign tour guide of sorts, so we hit the streets to see what this world famous city had to offer us.
My favorite way to acclimate to a new place is aimless wandering, or more specifically, wandering with a travel partner who takes interest in studying the map while I do my best not to get hit by oncoming traffic and wearing a stern “no face” while encountering anyone who wants to sell me anything. And so we walked.
The traffic is notoriously bad in Saigon, as many people probably already know. To cross most streets in this city, you might as well just close your eyes and walk steadily into oncoming traffic. Though there is no enforcement of traffic laws (unless you break your leg when a motor bike comes crashing into you on the sidewalk, then the police will surely show up to make sure you reimburse the maniac for the headlight that you so carelessly let smash into your femur) but the drivers do their best to avoid pedestrians in the streets even though they all maintain outright refusal to yield to any of them. Oddly, this chaos that makes the streets of Hanoi look like a coldesack in the Wisconsin suburbs is one of the most fascinating and attractive features of Saigon to outsiders. You can see this evident on postcard stands. At least twenty percent of all the postcards sold there sport pictures of the insanity of rush hour traffic that you can purchase and send home to your friends and family so they can laugh and enjoy the quirks of one of your many destinations without having to inhale the overwhelming amount of exhaust or deal with the enraging stress that comes with actually being there.
We survived until dinner and ate at a restaurant far away from the tourists strips renowned for its pho and clean atmosphere. Sure enough, the food was fantastic. I remember walking back to the hotel and stopping at some German bakery on the way (that was Juli’s idea) and the next five days becomes sort of a consistent blur of consistent drinking, sight seeing and pleasure seeking mixed with a bit of reality all crashing down on me as well. While omitting worthless details, I will do my best to highlight certain parts of my experience by outwardly shining an internal light of personal interest on key features of this city that I experienced over the next five days, though I can guarantee things to be chronologically inconsistent.
Any tourist in Saigon will undoubtedly see a large lit up sign sporting a buffalo at the end of the main tourist drag. This place should viewed by anyone that knows better as a means of orientation and nothing else. Advertising bullshit happy hours that start at midnight and pushing out Western food with prices that will insult your pride and will to live, this shitty excuse for a material occupation of space and time will probably give you diarrhea quicker than injecting a diaper full of rotten cockroach guts directly into your colon. I’m proud to say that I completely avoided eating here, but did get dragged into buying a cocktail with Will and Claire one night while they contemplated their mildly drunk decision to get involved with this well regarded scam during an isolated lapse of judgement that was not typical with their usual wariness of such things.
Anywho, the next two blocks that line up with a view of the “Obese White Buffalo”, or whatever the fuck it’s called, had several bars with sidewalk seating that shucked out thousands of cocktails and large bottles of Bia Saigon for next to nothing. Two or three US dollars was usually enough to get you drunk enough to talk to lady boys. The bar we visited on a nightly basis was always the same simply becasue it was the best of the four on the block and friends from the night before would always know where to find us. The “bartenders” were almost all middle aged Viet women in iridescent pajamas who scanned the crowd looking for orders and were the organizers of night long game of musical chairs. Often when we showed up, Juli would attempt to sit in one tiny plastic chair only to be directed to another that had the same characteristics of comfort and orientation. We never found out the reason for this. When more people approached looking for a seat and some cheap drinks, they would apply the mechanics of a singularity, rotating a mass of drunk tourists towards the more crowded center until everyone that wanted to be seated was accommodated.
There came a point in every night that no more bodies could be stacked on the sidewalk, so the frowning old ladies would grudgingly start to let the crowds with their tiny tables and chairs pour into the street. Every night a police wagon would come racing down middle of the street looking for bars that let their customers sit in the gutter. When this happened, the proprietors would do there best to make anyone who was sitting in the street go stand on the sidewalk temporarily while the police drove past. If they failed to remove all the chairs from the road in time, the punishment was meant to be financially Pavlovian as they would take away any remaining chairs, put them in the back of the truck and drive off with their property. Though the cops usually never managed to snag more than one or two of them at a time from that particular bar, these women were working hard for pennies and left everyone feeling a bit pissed off at the police. One drunk traveller was mad enough to lose his chair one night that he grabbed it out the back of the truck as it pulled away. He was met by applause from the bar and looks of horrified rage from one of our servers. Luckily for the drunk man and the bar owners, the cops saw nothing.
Though the location remained the same night after night, the characters changed. One night Juli and I were invited into a group by an American and a Canadian that I slept next to in the back of a sleeper bus earlier on the trip. Though they were kind enough to invite us into their sleepy group of unmemorable faces, they had as little interest in talking with us as we did them, so I began talking to a balding American man in his early thirties. At first he stunk of boredom and douchey infidelity. It took a whole ten minutes before I was able to figure out why. If my memory serves correct, he lived in Indonesia. Aside from adding shit to septic tanks, he spent his days working for a large American medical insurance company, outsourcing office jobs to the poorest people qualified to work this drudgery in a country that probably didn’t fully understand the implications of their work. This void of character and morality incarnated into chunks of wasted flesh that resembled a human was not just taking jobs out of the US, but maximizing profits for a taboo industry that capitalizes on the wages from the lower and middle classes of both the country he lived in and the country he was from. When I confronted him with the most polite disagreement of his lifestyle that I could muster, he regurgitated some bullshit about the “inevitability” of societies downfall and something even more retarded about getting a “paycheck”. By the time I was literally shaking with rage, Juli spotted some of our friends that we had agreed to meet with earlier in the night and pulled me away from this piece of trash. I took a relieving strafe away from the first man I pondered slaughtering in public in a good long while and felt good to be in the company of decent people.
Of course, most people were not as bad as this. In fact, he was really the only one that I had met in Saigon that left me with a truly negative impression. Of the good people, there were two cousins from Argentina that we spent a couple nights with who I was quite fond of. Both were charming, though stereotypically obsessed with sex and women. One of the two told me he was on an “invictus”. Apparently, he had slept with six different women over the past six days, barely taking time to revel in any of them before moving on to the next. When he met Juli, I told him to go ahead and have a try. After the first night of minimal effort, he described her as “being like a wall” and promised me that he would never try with another German again for as long as he lived. Obviously, he was not used to failure in this arena. The other memorable characters were as follows: Two dutch, a Singaporean, another German girl, an Australian, a few English, a bold Frenchman, and an endangered Icelander, just to name a few. We were definitely in backpacker central.
Every night drew to a close slowly. With the exception of my final evening in town, I spent almost every night staggering back with late night intoxication at the same time as Juli. Seeing to how we only had one key, it was quite the ordeal to leave separately, though one night I did decide to come back out when she got tired before I felt the night was over. Walking the streets of Saigon with a girl that almost every person assumes is either your wife or girlfriend definitely proved to be more advantageous than problematic as I found out the one evening as I made the walk back to the hotel alone. Drunk, white and alone is a good combination of attributes to make a single man look to prostitutes like a fresh stalk of corn must look to locusts; enough said.
Okay more on Saigon next time.