The Mean Streets of Saigon

My first morning in Ho Chi Minh City, I was woken by actual cockcrow. I later found out that the streets around where my hotel is are full of chickens and roosters in cages. Everyone seems to have one. I don’t know what they do with them, but I imagine it involves killing and eating them. I don’t like reality.

I sat in my hotel room, working up the courage to leave it and face my new life and my new country.

At about 10:20, I eventually summoned up my courage and left my room. I was greeted at the bottom of the stairs by five women, five women who had clearly been waiting for me. Apparently, they normally didn’t serve breakfast after 10:00. I hadn’t been told this by the teenage boys who checked me in the previous night and the women were all clearly put out. I was quite happy to go out without breakfast, but the women wouldn’t hear of it. I was the guest. I was told to sit down.

I’ve never been in a restaurant like it. I’m sure my description won’t do it justice. It wasn’t in a room of its own, but in a kind of corridor area at the bottom of the stairs. The room was about the size of an average Irish sitting room. On one side of the room, the staff’s motorbikes were parked. In the middle was a large pink plastic Buddhist altar, with incense burning and two little smiling Buddhas. And then there was the “restaurant area” – one faux-marble table and a line of leatherette poufs to sit on.

I was brought my breakfast – a glass of warm water, a banana on a saucer and a large bowl of beef noodle soup (pho). The soup, if unbreakfasty, was lovely. I picked up the banana gingerly. After last night’s grapefruit that tasted like a pear, what would this be like? As it turns out, it was exactly like a banana.

I ventured out onto the streets of Saigon. The first place I went was my school. It would be my workplace for a year. The district where my hotel was and where my apartment and workplace are is a central one, but it’s not the centre, and it’s not particularly westernised.

On the short walk to work, I saw two shops full of promise. They both sold large plaster cast statues. One had four giant plaster cast lions wearing jewels. Vietnam knows how to do gay interiors. The other shop had massive (at least twice as big as me) Buddhas. I really, really want to buy them all. And it will be a struggle not to buy a life-size blinged-up Buddha for my flat.

The streets of Ho Chi Minh City are the most exciting, noisiest, most chaotic, busiest, craziest place I have ever been. The traffic is noisy and never ever lets up. There are motorbikes, usually about eight abreast, driving past constantly, all honking at each other. All the time.

Everyone in Ho Chi Minh City travels by motorbike. No one walks. Except me. It’s not an easy place to walk, but we’ll get to that. I have now seen all of the following: girls in high heels driving motorbikes, people of all ages barefoot and in flip flops driving motorbikes, people carrying their weekly shopping between their legs while driving a motorbike, five people on one motorbike, a man with two toddlers between his legs on a motorbike, lots of people with babies and children (usually not wearing helmets) on motorbikes, one woman with her daughter between her legs “driving” with pink fluffy handlebars (or whatever they call the handlebars of a motorbike) while her mother operated the actual handlebars, people carrying live poultry on motorbikes, lots of people with empty laundry baskets on motorbikes, but none with full laundry baskets, a man with an entire cooker on his motorbike, a woman keeping on driving while boyfriend/husband vomited onto the side of the street from behind her on the moving bike, people putting rubbish in bins on the side of the street without stopping their bikes, people changing lane without looking left or right, a man hopping off his motorbike to piss off a bridge while his wife and daughter sat on the bike looking bored, lots of people talking on their mobiles while on their motorbikes (how can they hear over the non-stop beeping and vrooming?), people on motorbikes having chats to the people on bikes behind and in front and next to them like they were out for a day in the Phoenix Park instead of speeding through the crazed accident-ready streets of Saigon, a woman stopping suddenly and causing motorbikes around her to go skidding in all directions because her flip flop fell off.

The sheer volume of motorbikes and the lack of pedestrian crossings, means that crossing the street in Saigon is one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. There are a few places with red lights, where it’s kind of safe to cross, even though, no matter what the lights say, it is always legal for a motorbike to turn right here. However, most of the time, you have no lights to help you. The motorbikes are coming at you, eight abreast (at least), on both sides of the road. There are also cars and trucks and buses and old ladies pushing carts and bicycles and people don’t always drive on the right side of the road. There is pretty much always one line of motorbikes driving on the wrong side of the street. And the motorbikes don’t stop. There is only one way to cross. You have to walk out in front of the motorbikes speeding at you. You just step out, like Jesus walking on the water. You don’t stop, you don’t slow down suddenly, you don’t speed up suddenly, you don’t run. You walk at a slow, steady, confident pace and the motorbikes drive around you. It’s like drinking death. In my first weekend here, I literally spent over an hour on both Saturday and Sunday crossing the street. I wonder if I’ll ever really be used to it.

And crossing the street isn’t the only thing that’s hard about walking in Saigon. There is no real footpath or area for pedestrians, or sidewalk or pavement as we would understand it. There are wide paved areas on either side of the road, but these aren’t really for walking. These are business places. Vietnam is famous for “street food”. People have carts with gas cookers on them and they set up tiny plastic tables and chairs and people sit outside all day eating and drinking. It’s meant to be the Vietnamese cultural experience. I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet, and anyway, I don’t think I could. The little plastic stools really are tiny. People kind of squat on them. Even if me sitting on one didn’t break them (which it would), I have no idea how I’d get out of them once I was done. Coupled with all these street food restaurants, all kinds of commerce take place on the side of the street. A man will stand with a chair and a pair of scissors waiting to cut people’s hair. People will sell things clearly retrieved from bins. Dogs, cats and some rats and lizards run about. It’s one massive shopping centre. And all this commerce means there is nowhere to walk and as often as not, you end up walking on the street with all the motorbikes skidding around you. And it’s not as if the motorbikes restrict themselves to the street anyway. They often end up driving around through the street cafes and all over the footpaths.

As well as this, the intensely humid heat makes walking a difficult experience. I sweat all the time. I take at least two cold showers a day and spend an awful lot of my time sitting under air conditioning units. In the morning, I have a cold shower and then get dressed while standing under the aircon, but I’m still sweating throughout the process. My walk to work is about 20 minutes and by the time I get there, my clothes look like I showered in them. There aren’t sweat patches. It’s all sweat. I could wring them out. Paper in my pockets disintegrates as if I’ve put it through the washing machine and if I sit down I start sliding off my chair. As a result, people wear very few clothes here. I would say that at any one time, only about sixty-five per cent of the men in Ho Chi Minh City have a top on. There’s a police station I pass where you often see all the police officers sitting around a table with no shirts on while playing cards. (Imagine the same in Ireland. LOL) I don’t linger though. I know what’s good for me.

I expected not to interact much with Vietnamese people as I walked the streets. I had this picture in my mind of a stony stoic people. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My walk to and from work (or anywhere else) is a constant conversation. First of all, there are the constant offers of motorbike rides. Apparently, giving tourists lifts on the back of your motorbike is a common way of making money in Ho Chi Minh City. There are times when I’m turning down offers of lifts on motorbikes about once a minute, which can get tiring on a half-hour walk. People will drive off the road and park their motorbikes in front of me to offer me a lift, or they’ll drive up alongside me, or they’ll jump off their bikes and follow me. Or they’ll call out from wherever they’re standing, sitting or driving – “Moto?” “You want ride?” I hear it all the time, and they don’t really believe me when I say “no”, a bit like an Irish mother offering you a cup of tea. You have to keep on refusing. And it’s not always people who are already on motorbikes offering the lifts. I’ve passed cafes and shops where members of staff have come out and offered me a lift on their motorbikes and it’s not only men – I’ve had two different teenage girls pull over offering me a lift on the back of their motorbikes. I’m not going to take one. I can’t even cycle. I have no sense of balance. And I remember a character in the History Boys died when his passenger didn’t know which way to lean on the motorbike when turning a corner. I don’t want to die.

My interactions with the Vietnamese on the street are not limited to people offering me motorbike rides. People are always trying to sell me stuff, usually food, but sometimes what look like lottery tickets and once someone tried to get me to buy a motorbike from him. Actual taxis will also pull over when they see me and offer me lifts. Walking is genuinely weird here. It might be different in the centre, but in the depths of the Binh Thanh district where I live, no one walks. Of course being white is also weird. Small children call out “hello” to me and wave adorably. Older children sometimes run after me asking me questions in Vietnamese. And twice children have run after me into traffic asking me questions. So far, no casualties. People nudge each other and point at me. Everyone stares. There’s one old woman who I pass every day who gets hysterically upset every time she sees me. She starts screaming and roaring at me in real anger. And it’s hard, although you can only imagine what white people have done to her generation.

I don’t look anything like people here. As well as being white, no one here is really overweight. At least once a day, a middle-aged man will start following me, holding his arms out around his imaginary belly doing a sumo wrestler waddle/walk, while his friends laugh. It’s not nice. I’m used to this treatment from drunks and from teenage boys, but not from older people in the middle of the day. And twice already I’ve had people come up to me and slap my belly. I have no idea why. For luck?

I’ve never been on streets that felt so foreign. It’s amazing. I pass businesses and I don’t know what they are. There’s a little corrugated iron shed I often walk past that I presumed was for storing car parts or something that on closer inspection actually had a sign saying “Café WiFi” outside it. There are an awful lot of shops that deal in things made of brightly coloured plastic goods, which I love, obviously, and there are motorbike parts shops everywhere. There are garages where old ladies lie and get massaged. There are many, many places that I look in the door of and have no idea what they sell. It might be a shop, or a restaurant or someone’s house. It really isn’t clear. There might be a glass-fronted fridge, a table with a row of vases and a man asleep on a mattress. What is it? I don’t know. My first night in my flat, I walked along streets, all full of shops, looking for somewhere I could buy toilet roll and bottled water. It took me an hour to find somewhere. If I’d wanted to buy window blinds or an iPad, I would have found somewhere in ten seconds. I don’t know where Vietnamese people do their shopping. I’ve found an online supermarket to deliver things like toilet paper to my door, like the worst kind of post-colonial overlord ever. Incidentally, if you’d like an iPhone, Vietnam is the place to come. They have all types of iPhones you’ve never heard of. You can get an iPhone 3320, or an iPhone Mini, or a Samsung iPhone, or lots of other iPhones that don’t exist.

I had been given the email address of an estate agent by the person who had my job before me. Twenty-four hours after I arrived, I was viewing flats. My estate agent didn’t look like an estate agent. He looks about 19 years old and he was wearing shorts and flip flops. I asked to look at two-bedroom flats, but he only showed me one-bedroom ones. My rampant Western greed didn’t make any sense to him. Why would a single man rent a flat with two bedrooms? (Vietnamese people seem to find it a little disturbing that I am 33 years old and single.)

I love the flat I chose. It’s big, the walls have lots of empty space for my to Connorify them. I’m so excited to have a washing machine to myself for the first time since I moved out of my cottage in February 2011. And there’s cable TV included. There are few channels in English, one of which seems to show nothing but America’s Next Top Model Season 21 (Season TWENTY ONE? When they write histories of twenty-first century America, will Tyra Banks be given the same importance as Rasputin is in histories of early twentieth century Russia?) and MasterChef Junior USA, which is gaymazing. Watching the campest eleven year olds ever be bitingly passive aggressive while using phrases like “pan-seared” warms my heart.

Of course, the big boast about my apartment is that there’s a swimming pool on the roof. What better way is there to be re-born than in a place with constant access to a pool? I’ve been showing off to everyone that I have a pool. And of course, karma comes to bite you in the ass. On the first day I was in my flat, I realised the pool (I’m on the top floor) was leaking into my bedroom. Of course it was. The pool was closed for most of the week while they fixed it. When I eventually made it up to the pool last night, (I’m not going to sit in a pool on a roof in 30 degree sunshine – I’d burn to a crisp.) I had a lovely time splashing and floating and looking out over the skyscrapers of Saigon. It was truly amazing and I was filled with that wonderful feeling of renewal and rebirth and then it came time to get out of the pool. Luckily, I was alone. I didn’t have the strength to haul myself out of the pool with my arms. I pulled and I pulled but I couldn’t get out. Oh no! It was nearly midnight. Would I have to spend the night in the pool? Eventually, I managed to swing my knee over the side of the pool, roll my bum on top of it and drag myself over, rolling on my belly. I looked less than graceful.

The building I live in is a “Western-style” 12-storey apartment block. Most of the people who live here are rich Vietnamese, but there seem to be quite a few Westerners too, although it’s quite far from where most foreigners in Ho Chi Minh City live. The ground floor belongs to the “Dragon Chemical Corporation”, which sounds like a front for a villain on Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

On Sunday night, I paid my deposit and signed my lease. I had to find 22.5 million Vietnamese dong to pay my deposit and first month’s rent. One euro is about 26,000 dong, so I’m getting better at my twenty-six thousand times tables. ATMs here will only allow you to withdraw 2 million dongs each, so I was going from ATM to ATM withdrawing as much as I could and trying my luck. I was getting nowhere. Bank of Ireland started sending me panicky texts saying that they had detected unusual activity on my bank card. I tried ringing the bank to stop them from cutting off my card, but I couldn’t get through to Ireland, so I was desperately tweeting Bank of Ireland (who are helpful, but frumpy, on Twitter) begging them not to cut me off. In the end, I Western Unioned the entire contents of my bank account to myself and was able to pay my deposit.

I signed the lease in the building manager’s office, with the manager (a man in shorts and flip flops, and my estate agent, also in shorts and flip flops, and a little vest top). While the building manager painstakingly typed out the lease in English and in Vietnamese, my estate agent talked to me, using all the English he had. We found out how many brothers and sisters each other had, what our favourite colours were and what hobbies we had. The manager’s office was hilarious. A big picture of Ho Chi Minh himself, surrounded by all the communist logos and flags of Vietnam looked down on a pile of old TVs and malfunctioning air-conditioning units and a penguin shaped rubbish bin that took up the centre of the room, while we all sat around the edges.

Work is good. It’s nice to be in charge and to make decisions, but it’s hard to be responsible for finances for a whole department. Six months of the year I’ll be in an office and six months I’ll be training teachers. I can’t wait for the first month-long course to start in a week’s time. I was not designed for sitting in an office. I get twitchy by around 11:30 am.

As Vietnam is my new beginning, I decided to go by a new name here. I always wondered what it would be like. I kind of know. I was Muzz, and only Muzz, for the six years I was in secondary school, so I know what it’s like not to be Connor, and for a long time I talked about trying out one of my favourite names (Johnny, Tommy, Jack or Fred) for a few months. However, feeling outrageous, and bubbling over with confidence, I went with CoCo. I have been emailing my colleagues as CoCo for months now, and I was greeted, on Monday morning, with a cry of “Hi CoCo!” from my very enthusiastic administrative assistant. I love it. But it’s weird on a Monday morning. Also, I keep forgetting it. I was introduced to two Irish people at work, and I accidentally called myself “Connor”. This new name could all blow up in my face, but it’s an awful lot of fun.

I haven’t socialised with work people yet, but I will. I will also, once I’ve got paid, start going to things in town and joining the many, many social activities that Saigon offers. The other obvious avenue for a social life is men from the internet. Vietnamese Grindr is funny. All the Asian boys want to know if I have a massive Caucasian member like they’ve heard about. It’s sad to disappoint. Vietnamese gays who I’ve talked to online seem very similar to a lot of the Middle Eastern and Indian men I’ve talked to online. They “court” you. It’s weird – you exchange two photos and discuss what each other’s jobs are and all of a sudden it’s “My heart burns with a desire to meet you my darling” and “I love you so much my sweetheart” and “My body needs you CoCo”. It’s a shock to the system after Ireland, where the last man I chatted to on Grindr asked if I would fart on his face. There seems to be a lot of drugs and crime in the gay scene here – the obvious consequences of ostracising homosexuals and it’s all quite sad so far. I’ll find a way though. I was talking to an Australian on Scruff who is very eager to meet me. He’s sick of “needy and hairless” Vietnamese guys.

I’m still at the start of this adventure. Vietnam is not a place for someone who is tired. It’s a place for someone who is ready for a bit of crazy. This time last year, I would have turned around and come home. But I’m ready for the crazy. Bring it on!

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