Landing in Saigon is like stepping off of a plane onto a bucking bronco. This was evident right from the start when one of our friends was immediately deported. A man down, we emerged into the sweltering night and the taxi that took us into the heart of the city required us to push it to a roll and then jump in before it would start. You don’t tame the bronco, you learn to ride.
Saigon – known internationally as Ho Chi Minh City, but locally by its original name – is a visceral jolt. It felt like someone had suddenly unmuted my life. There was the overpowering scent of fish sauce and gasoline. The impossibly dense air, charged with the kinetic energy of some nine million people. Not to mention the traffic. Crossing the street in Saigon, we found, was like playing Human Frogger. Motos clogged the streets and in many cases the sidewalk, zipping forward in an impatient stampede of buzzing machinery. As soon as it looked like one was about to end your existence, it would swerve, allowing you to take a step forward and become a target for the next moto. My friend Michael called crossing the street the most frustrating way to commit suicide.
I went to Saigon with Michael and two other friends to combat post-college ennui. We knew little about the city, except that there were English teaching jobs that paid a good wage. I was vaguely interested in America’s history there, but primarily interested in my own history, the one I planned to invent in the coming future, the one in which I’d teach and write and experience, the latter in italics because, as my early journals reveal, I was quite aware that travel required facing life head on in a way I rarely had before.
We spent the first several weeks of our time in Saigon searching for jobs and an apartment while living in the heart of the tourist district. On the plane ride to Saigon, I noted with amusement a Vietnamese proverb quoted in the guidebook: “A man without alcohol is like a flag with no wind.” In the cramped quarters of the Mai Phai Hotel, where we lived for a long and hazy month, we coped by becoming very windy flags. In the midst of that boozy malaise, I discovered one of the great secrets of travel: ambiguity is often more comforting than clarity.
Travelers go forth for many reasons, and many of them face their fears on the road. But many, I suspect, like me at twenty-two, travel to evade, to fall into the cracks. We encountered plenty of Westerners in Saigon who had done just that. Some ended up with families and full lives abroad, flourishing as expatriates. Others ended up crusty and drunk and bitter, teaching English by day and bellowing karaoke in seedy joints at night. I wasn’t yet sure how we would end up, but not knowing was in many ways more comfortable than knowing.
And yet it was unsustainable. Our money was draining and we began to wonder if we’d make it in Saigon after all. Tucking our tails between our legs and returning home was more frightening than the prospect of actually settling down, so it wasn’t long before I found myself standing in front of a classroom of Vietnamese children peppering me with questions like “How old are you?”…”Where are you from?”…”Do you have girlfriend?” all before I could even begin to take attendance.
The feeling of finding our own jobs and apartments, of escaping the spell of the bars in District 1, of securing a life for ourselves in a foreign land, was immensely gratifying. Travel not as escape but as accomplishment. And though the following months were trying in other ways, a great hurdle had been surmounted, and the self-respect of a life earned, I realized, was far more fulfilling than the mystery and absurdity I had attempted to flee to. I think they call that “growing up.”
I’d never lived in a city before. As I began to attain a level of comfort with the people, the food, and the language, I also began to connect the physical dots between the places I frequented. I began to know the city. I knew that down this alleyway was the finest Indian food in District 1, and that hidden by the riverside was the finest blue cheese burger, well, anywhere. The urban sprawl that had seemed impenetrable and daunting on arrival began to take shape, like a puzzle slowly achieving a recognizable form.
We began to venture out and even became regulars at our local beer hall, mysteriously called Euro Beer, where we perfected the “Point and Pray” ordering technique. Thus we’d often end up with mystery meat, or perhaps an order of fried chicken feet, washed down with bia hoi, fresh beer, that cost a quarter a glass. The bathrooms at Euro Beer were protected by dive-bombing cockroaches, the trough was always overflowing, and rats roamed the rafters, but it was our beer hall, and we felt at home there, raising our mugs to the regulars and shouting, “Tram phan tram!” – “One hundred percent!” before finishing our beer and slamming our mugs down.
Much of our venturing occurred via moto. I’d entered Vietnam certain I would never take to the road on my own moped. But after realizing that a taxi to my school, 9.5 miles away, took an hour and twenty minutes in the clogged city streets, it was time to face another fear. My first moto excursions resulted in close calls and quaking limbs. But soon I was zipping around the city confidently, weaving in and out of traffic, and sensing that there was, actually, order to the chaos. The traffic bottlenecks that seemed like low-speed games of chicken actually had a rhythm to them, and once you figured it out, you became a seamless part of the stampede. With that acclimation came confidence, and my commute, like most things in Saigon, became a complex mesh of joy, frustration, and sweat. My Honda Wave 125 was my lifeline, and as I honked the horn and darted past a stunned-looking Westerner in a taxi, I did so with a little extra flair.
Teaching, too, provided a sense of belonging. I’d been a student all my life, and now suddenly I was on the other side of the desk. But the children lifted me up and gave meaning to what otherwise would’ve been an incredibly selfish period of my life. I learned how to say “crazy” and “liar” and “oh my god” in Vietnamese, because teasing the students and showing you had a sense of humor was the quickest way into their good graces. They teased back. One girl, Thao Linh, wrote me frequent letters in which she would say things like, “I think you: 1) Funny but not pretty. hi hi. 2) Lovely but crazy. ha ha.” She also wrote what still remains the greatest professional compliment I’ve ever received: “Although I want tell you ‘Hi, teacher’ I don’t want tell ‘bye teacher.’”
Three months after arriving in Vietnam, I wrote in my journal, “On the ride after work last night I realized that teaching had been the best part of my day.” Twelve years later, I’m back home, and though the subject is no longer English, I’m still a teacher.
I fell in love with reading in Saigon. Behind our apartment on Nguyen Cuu Van, was my favorite ca phe sua da stand. Ca phe sua da is Vietnamese iced coffee, a terrific concoction of intensely strong diesel fuel poured over sweet condensed milk on ice, resulting in what tasted like melted coffee ice cream. “Coffee lady”, as I called her, had a little street stall under a green awning on a rare, quiet back street. I took Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five there in the afternoons (I taught mostly at night), sat on the small plastic chairs that sprouted by every food and drink stall, and marveled that a book so entertaining and hilarious could also be so profound and beautiful. I took Bukowski’s Women there and marveled that someone could so succinctly describe human desire and suffering without ever mentioning human desire and suffering.
I fell in love with writing in Saigon. I sat down in the mornings and attempted to write the great India novel, based on my experiences there as a student a few years earlier. What I wrote was entirely self-absorbed, and mostly awful, and occasionally, kind of decent. I’d never before attempted to write on such a grand scope. Like with teaching and riding my moto, I discovered that I could do it. Maybe I wasn’t great at it, but I could sit down and I could turn a phrase, and one after that, and I could link them together, and many, many thousands of words later a story would emerge that was at least meaningful to me.
And I suppose I fell in love with Saigon. Though, like all first loves, I didn’t really know it at the time. To call it love is somewhat reductive; that designation doesn’t quite cover the complexity of emotion I felt at stepping out into the Great Unknown and actually hacking it; at arriving across the world in a foreign city and coming to know it, to understand it and appreciate it. Like all first loves it set the tone for what was to follow, revealing the characteristics I would come to look for and cherish in my later relationships with cities. In that urban kiln many of the values I’ve carried into adulthood – teaching, reading, writing, and riding bikes – were cemented. They have become the backbone of the future I invented in Cambridge while attempting to construct a past in Saigon.
When I think back on Saigon, I think of sitting on the rooftop of our apartment with my friends and recounting work stories while watching our neighbor’s laundry wave in the evening breeze. I think of sweating over a bowl of street-side pho, Vietnamese noodle soup, in triple-digit heat. I think of the people, kind and energetic and proud, their faces lighting up when learning that we were American. But most of all, what I think is best expressed by the words of Thao Linh: it was funny but not necessarily pretty, hi hi, and lovely but crazy, ha ha.
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