I can think of reasons not to like the place: chaos, noise, pushy hawkers, crooked people (see hawkers), total traffic nightmare and no subway, Skytrain or other such manner to rise above (or below) it all. These are things that make me dislike a lot of places, but for some reason, here they don’t bug me so much. And in the case of the traffic, it is even rather fascinating.
The traffic is primarily motorbikes, like an advancing army of ants, like the bizarre en masse motion of little things — the scarab beetles in The Mummy? — just overwhelming the place. Coming to a red light and suddenly spilling up onto the sidewalk, wherever they can get through, relentless. Passing through each other magically at intersections. And yet if I want to walk through them, I just look to the other side of the street and step with conviction at a slow but never varying pace, and the whole lot of them somehow manages to flow around me. Fish in a river are unlikely to swim right into your legs despite the current. Just don’t make any sudden moves or redirections or you’ll be making a very different blog post or perhaps none at all.
Yes, I suppose it’s the energy of the place. Life is low to the ground; pushcarts, cyclos (bicycle rikshaws), vendors wearing non la (conical hats) and surgical masks to keep back the dust and exhaust, squat with mangos or fresh fish gathered in baskets that they carry through the street with a pole across their shoulder like a balance. Families whiz past, five to a motorbike, or the family dog sitting upright on the foot rest as if on the front stoop of a house not a weaving Honda. Men gather around dollhouse tables on plastic footstools to play a form of checkers and drink “fresh beer.” Others sip the earthy Vietnamese coffee, hot or more likely iced and maybe with condensed milk. The high rises are coming but are still few. The city still has the mood of an oversized village. And the whole thing hums and purrs with little sense of urgency, but vital and prescient; sidewalk drinkers don’t face each other, but rather the street as if sensing something is going to happen… eventually.
I have arrived today and changed only enough money for a taxi ride into town (better exchange rates in the streets). I exit the terminal at the main taxi zone where government-approved companies await (or so that was the case last time I was here) and walk past their zone to seek out the two internet-forums-seal-of-approval taxi companies: Mai Linh or Vinasun. They use meters and set you up with a driver’s number and a phone to call if you have trouble or leave something in your ride. It turns out to be the cheapest lift ever to my usual hotel: just under 140,000 dong, about $7 USD.
The driver is a young man with more eagerness than English. At my first query about his language, he begins a 15-minute Vietnamese lesson. Tung helps me remember what words and phrases I learned last time (thank you, hello) and a few new ones (turn left, turn right, sorry). “Yes” and “no” each have two forms, the usage of which he doesn’t succeed in making clear to me. But after a litany of useful benign terms, he says something unclear… was that “white… woman”? Um. He repeats a couple times and it is unmistakable. Memories of tuk-tuk drivers peddling women with the little nudie business cards in Bangkok gave me pause. Surely Tung didn’t just go from polite young man to sex hawker in the middle of a vocab lesson, did he? “Sorry,” he says. “You know, white?”
“Woman?” I squint at him in the rear view mirror. He spells and draws the letter in the air. “Double v.”
“Double v, i, t.”
Yes, OK, white.
He smiles. “Do you white for me a woman? You go inside.” Inside where?
He really has me lost and I have to believe he isn’t trying to bring me to meet sexy fair-skinned women in Saigon. At the next red light he pulls out a pad of paper and writes: “Wait a moment.” He is teaching me to say it in Vietnamese, so I can hold a cab if I need to just stop for something briefly. “Two, three minute. Not one hour,” he says, being sure I understand just how long waiting can be expected. Perhaps we need to work on his accent (or more likely, my hearing in traffic).
He gives me his business card after lugging my suitcase to the curb at my hotel, and I have half a mind of giving him a call for a potential beer-hunting excursion. I already forget how to say Wait a moment.