Motorbikes, Saigon, Shopping and Me

Saigon continues to amaze me. I’m still surprised when I see a Buddhist monk on a motorbike. And last weekend I saw a man with an entire, full-size, three-door wardrobe on his motorbike. And no one bats an eyelid. Last week I got a delivery from my online supermarket – 72 two-litre bottles of water. They were so heavy that when the delivery man arrived he apologised for breaking the lift. Over a week later and the lift still isn’t fixed. The weight of the water was enough to break a lift, but he had brought it all on the back of his motorbike. Bonkers.

On a street corner on the way to work every day there’s a man who lets his cock roam free. Most of the rooster-owners of Dien Bien Phu keep their birds in cages or tied to a tree or motorbike, but one man lets his wander on and off the street among the motorbikes. And he feeds him the most amazing stuff. Every morning when I pass him, this rooster is chowing down on a bit of watermelon, or papaya, or dragonfruit. So. Exotic. ‘Tis far from papaya-fed poultry I was reared.

The other day, as I was walking along, I stepped on a stone and kicked it away. Except it wasn’t a stone. It was actually a bone. There aren’t any bones lying around on the streets of Ballincollig. And don’t even get me started on the number of rats I’ve seen running around the streets in the last month. And I’m told Saigon is famous for not having many rats, in comparison to Hanoi. And when I think of all the people walking around in flip flops and flimsy little sandals and rats scampering around their feet it makes me sick. Incidentally, if you have a foot fetish, then Vietnam is the place for you. I’ve seen more feet in the last month than I did in the previous 33 years of my life. Everyone wears flip flops. And I often see people in the bars and restaurants on the street slipping off their flip flops and giving themselves a foot rub. A foot-lovers paradise.

I’m better at avoiding eye contact with potential motorbike-lift-givers and so my walking the streets of Saigon is slightly less prone to interruption than it was, but I’m still a curiosity and people point, stare, laugh and greet me regularly. One day an old shoeless man in a military uniform stood in front of me and saluted and no matter what way I walked he stepped in front of me, puffed out his chest and saluted, not letting me move on. It is really sad to see the numbers of elderly on the streets who clearly need care. Another day, I saw a shoeless old woman trying to climb up a wall when a group of local kids got her back down. It all really makes me wonder whether I’m doing the Vietnamese any good by being here. I need to find a way to contribute.

I’m certainly contributing to the good humour of the people of Saigon. When it rains here, it really rains – vertically, horizontally, very, very heavily. I’m trying to get my work permit sorted and I had to go to the UK consulate during my lunch hour to get my British qualifications certified. I got caught out in the rain. I still haven’t seen a wet Vietnamese person. They seem to repel water. Or else they take shelter better than me. I had an umbrella, but it didn’t stop me getting absolutely soaked. As I stood in front of the UK embassy, dripping harder than I’ve ever dripped before , a young man spotted me and started laughing. Before too long, a group of about 12 or 15 Vietnamese people were gathered around me laughing and taking photographs of me. One of them said “Wet! Wet!” and they all laughed harder and chanted “Wet!” at me. I suspect a photo of me, dripping wet and looking completely puzzled went viral on Vietnamese social media that day.

Of course, this was nothing compared to the sweeping brush. Vietnamese shops continue to puzzle me. They are mainly very, very small and very specific. Most of the shops near me sell either bathroom ceramics, cushions or metal fittings like door knobs and towel rails. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are at least 25 shops within a ten-minute walk of my flat that sell towel rails. There is also a row of shops that sell nothing but little Buddhist altars that light up in many colours with little fairy lights. I have completely fallen in love with them and want to buy one and put a picture of Shirtless Zac Efron in it, but I’m worried that might be culturally insensitive.

So there are all kinds of things I can buy easily, but I still haven’t found a supermarket nearby. In my first month in Vietnam, two products eluded me completely. The first thing I needed was salt. I couldn’t find it anywhere, and the sweaty weather was making my new nipple piercing angry and I wanted to make a  saline bath for it. Even McDonalds didn’t have salt. The other thing I needed was a dustpan and brush. There were still shards of glass on the bathroom floor from when I had broken into the bathroom. It doesn’t matter how many you pick up – more are always lying in wait to pierce your foot and make their way up your veins until they eventually puncture your heart.

So on Saturday, I went on a trip to the city centre and its markets to find salt, a brush and a dustpan. Oh my God, the central tourist market. I have seen the “hard sell” before. I’ve been in Turkish bazaars and I’ve seen about eight series of the Apprentice, so I know what in-your-face selling is like, but the touristy market in Saigon is nuts. The market traders shout at you, and wave their products in your face and that I can handle, but what was new for me was the way they follow you around the market and the way they hold on to you. At one stage, I was walking along, with two Vietnamese women hanging off my arms, refusing to let go, trying to sell me t-shirts.

It didn’t take me long to find salt. It was in a shop next to a fruit and vegetable shop. A fruit and vegetable shop where a little puppy was running around on the piles of fresh produce. The owner of the shop wasn’t trying to chase the dog away. In fact, I think the owner of the shop also owned the puppy and so was presumably encouraging the puppy to play in the vegetables. As far as I know, puppies have weak bladder control. I’m never eating a salad again.

After the salt, it took me a lot longer to find a shop where I could buy a brush and dustpan. Eventually, I found some. The old lady working in the shop knew one English word – “fifty”.  I have a feeling that whatever she sold would cost 50,000 dong, which is good as that’s less than €2, which is a fine price for a brush and dustpan.

I have never, ever, ever in my life received more attention that I did when I was walking down the street with the new sweeping brush. Crowds of people came up to me, laughing, pointing at me and pointing at the brush. I think I could have been naked and got less attention. It was difficult to make my way along the street because so many people were stopping me, crowding around me and looking in wonder and amusement at me and my brush. I have a number of reasons why I think this might be. I think it might be the case that the idea of a white man doing his own cleaning is funny. It was still wrapped in plastic, so it was a new brush. I think that the idea of walking along with your shopping is also foreign to people here. Where was my motorbike? Had I gone shopping without it? Crazy white man! When I got back to my apartment building, one of the security guards came out, doubled over in laughter and took the brush from me. He brought it back to the other guards, who all had a good laugh, looking at me and then at the brush, passing it around and guffawing. It really is disconcerting being at the centre of attention and not being sure why. I can’t really complain about this guard. He may be laughing at me and my brush, but he also saw me crossing the street one day and he ran over to me, held my hand and helped me cross. Vietnamese people seem to be very kind like this. The lanes and lanes of motorbikes are so terrifying that it’s not uncommon for me to stand rooted to the spot when trying to cross, and eventually a Vietnamese person will come, and will take my hand or will push me along and will get me across the road. I’ve seen them doing the same for other foreigners. They must think we’re ridiculous.

I know that they think I’m ridiculously fat. I’m still not used to the amount of laughter and mockery my body inspires in the people of Saigon. There is one woman who I pass every evening on the way home. She cooks on a barbecue all evening and serves skewered meat to people in her restaurant, but when she sees me, she always puts down her cooking implements and starts shouting at me. She’ll make a big belly mime with her hands and then starts doing the sumo wrestler waddle behind me, shouting all the time. Occasionally, when I pass her, she has her back to the street while she’s working. On those days, I go past her more quickly than is healthy in this heat.

There’s another street food vendor I pass on my way to work every morning. He always makes the big belly mime at me when I pass and he shouts, “So big! So big!” at me while laughing and encouraging his customers to point and laugh too. One morning, there was a Westerner sitting on one of this vendor’s plastic stools eating his beef noodle soup for breakfast. The vendor starting shouting and laughing and doing the fat mimes, encouraging the customer to join in, as he always did. To my shock, the customer did. In my racist way, I presumed the white man would “take my side”, but he didn’t. He too laughed and said “So big!” while slurping at his noodles.

I taught a demonstration lesson to a group of Vietnamese young adults (mainly university students) while my trainee teachers watched. One of the Vietnamese women stopped the class to point out that I was “so fat, even my fingers were chubby”. The whole class agreed and laughed. I think that’s what we would call bullying.

And I know I should be culturally sensitive, and accepting. But I miss political correctness. This evening when I left work, a respectably dressed, sober man in his thirties got up from the seat he was sitting on in a restaurant, came up to me on the street and started poking and prodding and jiggling my belly, laughing hysterically, much to his friends’ amusement.

I guess I did always want to be noticed. Sigh.

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