Finally, for the time being, we stop moving from one place to another, our suitcases are temporarily undone, the clothes hang in the cupboard and folded on the shelves. We found first favorite places to eat and to have a sunset cocktail and the place which bakes good French baguettes.
Now I can sit down, collect my notes and try to describe my first impressions of Saigon. So, here I go.
In Saigon, the contrast is very present. You see opposite things everywhere. Expensive restaurants and street vendors, squatted next to their stalls, communist billboards and Buddhist temples, neat gardens and narrowest dirty alleys, old and new, traditional and modern, Еast and West. Elegant young people, dressed for business and seasoned elderly Vietnamese in traditional conical hats, pushing their carts along the streets. On one bank of the Saigon River meandering through the entire city – constructions of super luxe apartment blocks, on the opposite side – overgrown ramshackle huts with rusty corrugated iron roofs. The river – wide, muddy, ochre-colored, navigable, with watercourses and canals sometimes as narrow and sleepy as countryside creek. All day the river is busy with slowly moving Mekong barges and floating islands of water plants.
On the streets, there is a thick mass of motorbikes and scooters mixed with taxis, bicycles, dusty buses and cars with tinted windows. Everything moves and honks, but rather gentle, without the hatred. It’s a constant dance, a crazy one, but it looks like it follows its own unwritten rules. Motorbikes come so close to cars, that when I am inside of one, I can see imperfections on the riders’ faces and my reflection in riders’ pupils.
Vietnamese are very resourceful. They carry all sorts of things on the back of their bicycles and motorbikes: piled up live pigs, cages with birds, boxes, metal rails, attached or held by hands, passengers hugging mirrors and ladders, baskets with flowers and huge pots with entire trees. From last observations: 1) A family of four – the father is driving, the mother is breastfeeding, one child in front, one child behind, and the smallest baby is dangling in a bucket. 2) A full-size fridge on a passenger seat attached by stripes to the driver’s forehead. 3) A door kept upright only by hands of the passenger.
The daytime heat is strong, but life is bubbling. It only slows down after lunch for a Vietnamese siesta. Locals have this amazing quality to fall asleep almost exactly where they stand, often stretching out on the bare asphalt or bare floor. Full relaxation. Everywhere, where is possible to fasten them, – stretched hammocks bearing locals resting with their soles up in the air.
Vietnamese people are friendly and serious at the same time. They look at you intensely and when you smile at them and they smile back (most of the time), their faces lit up and change dramatically.
The inability to speak the language is the real handicap here. I feel helpless because I cannot explain myself or ask the simplest question. And I won’t even mention, how the prices of fruits and vegetables at the markets double for us, non-speakers. I cannot read signs and street names. All the letters are familiar, but it is not possible to understand anything. All words look alike but sound different. I am trying hard to remember them, but they just don’t stick. And even when they do stick and I produce them in front of Vietnamese, they just softly chuckle. The tonal differences are so subtle, that my ear refuse to conceive and remember them.
I love this dynamic life of a big tropical city, but for now, to make the transition smoother, we installed ourselves in District 2, in Thảo Điền, sort of a nice suburb, a paradise for expatriates. It has everything that expat may need in his or her daily life: restaurants with Western and fusion cuisine, spas, good supermarkets selling imported foods, outdoor lounges with murmuring water features, buddhas and rattan furniture with big soft pillows. The streets here are narrower, the air is cleaner and the prices are higher.
But I can already see that most of the excitement is happening in District 1 and 3, in the heart of Saigon, noisy, crowded, full of little cafes and local places with delicious and inexpensive local food. The Opera House and the Conservatory, the rooftop bars with astonishing sunsets, and hundreds, if not thousands of coffee houses – it’s all there.
Vietnamese love their coffee. It is a national and most popular drink here. Any time of the day. They take it black, with sweet condensed milk, hot or iced, with egg yolks, with frozen yogurt, with coconut milk… even from a nasty concentrate in bottles with the label that clearly state “Not for human consumption” (you have to stay away from those).
French colonization left behind beautiful architecture, coffee, French words, and some food like croissants, flan, and bread, which became the famous Bánh mì, the sort of French baguette, but softer and slightly sweeter in taste.
I also came across a few Russian touches – soviet motorbikes, an old Russian Algebra textbook in one of the local cafes, a samovar in another, hammers and sickles on billboards and holiday decorations, and occasionally middle-aged Vietnamese, speaking Russian.
Saigon is an authentic, beautiful, dynamic city, and so far there are only two things I don’t like about it: the taste of Cameleon leaf, the herb served with some dishes, and the fact, that it is too hot to wear my favorite thing: scarves.