The worst flooding in Saigon comes in late October to December. Black clouds roll in from the direction of Vung Tau, pushing up river like a gathering horde; the once airy sky turns heavy and dark, auguring unrelenting rains to come. In minutes the streets are overwhelmed. Motorbikes are caught mid journey. Drivers wait it out under cafe awnings, watching the streets turn to streams, streams to rivers, rivers to oceans of disturbed waves, all in a Saigon minute.
For my first few months back in this long term stay in Vietnam, I tried my hand at writing articles and short pieces for whatever places wanted them. Most English media sites about Vietnam were online zines, and the pieces that were in demand told of the country’s developing future. Editors wanted reviews of new restaurants and bars, real estate, life hacks for living in the new Vietnam, interviews with influencers, pieces advocating novel luxuries here or soon to be here.
o a year of writing ends and a new year of teaching (my lucky 13th year) begins, for I’ve taken a position at Saigon South International School teaching I.B. English and 10th grade English. I will be driving every morning for 15 – 20 minutes from district 4 down to Phu My Hung, south of the city, to get to my classroom.
I’ve been making the drive the last few weeks for new teacher orientation, starting around 6:50 or 7, when the city seems already wide awake and buzzing with activity. Let no more assumptions be made that Saigon is a city of idleness, its citizens nostalgic loafers in cafes drinking cafe sua da and complaining of failed relationships all day, for in the morning, I join a legion of motorbike traffic shuttling workers to their places of labor.
ownpours at the start of the rainy season are routine, appearing and departing like the clicks of a clock ticking time. At three, the sky turns moody and darkens. At four, a downpour. By six, all is clear and the diesel thick air gets washed, the clouds hang, dripping pastel prettiness, just in time for visitors to take to sky bars and watch the sun dip into the horizon.
“All Americans are sluts”, said my friend Vu.
“Wait… What?” I exclaimed, assuming this was just misspoken English on Vu’s part, though he is fluent in the language.
“Yeah, Americans are all sluts, man. That’s what most Vietnamese locals think just from watching Hollywood films and shows.”
The group of male friends, all Viet Kieus and Americans, nodded their agreement. Vu was the only local in the group, and he had our attention:
“Everyone is sleeping with everyone else. Different kinds of people all sleeping with each other in different ways. We think Americans are all slutty.”
like to visit 3A Station in the late afternoons, when visitors come to browse its galleries and shops, or take photos next to its graffiti covered walls. The exteriors of old colonial warehouses that used to be here are kept intact, extending to form colourful alleyways. Small trees, industrial art, and painted walls refract the late afternoon light; on most afternoons, a breeze blows directly from the river and cools the alleyway. A bar at the alley’s end, The Great Hornbill, plays soft dixieland jazz or classic 80s tunes from a lone speaker running into the centre of the makeshift square. A gentle, affecting pace contrast the alleyway with the din of Nguyen Van Cu, the busy avenue that leads into it, offering respite from the ubiquitous construction noise that typify the new Saigon.
hen he first visited Saigon in the late 1940s, the writer Norman Lewis made this observation of the sidewalk life he saw here, after a short amble through the city:
“It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the far East are lived in public… The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street” (Lewis, 22)
Halfway on the road from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau you turn from highway 51 onto Hoang Sa road, and the land opens up on both sides. You come upon salt marshes, with their mixture of sky, island clusters, waterways, briny sea and pungent drafts of dried fish. Views here are expansive: tufted grass, mangrove clumps, an occasional boat docked next to makeshift homes, become dots upon a larger canvas of sky and marsh water.
It took two hours to get you here on motorbike. Two hours splitting the road with careless cars, packed buses, delivery trucks loaded twice their heights with wood, metal shutters, construction sand and pebbles that bounce out their useless tarp covering and pelt you and motorbike the entire way there.
n a warm, humid Saturday in February, two American friends and I drove our motorbikes west of the city to visit some Buddhist and Taoist temples in Cho Lon. Cho Lon, or “big market” in Vietnamese, is Ho Chi Minh city’s massive Chinatown, noted as possibly the largest Chinatown in the world, in fact, and has been here for as long as the main section of the city has been. Even before the French made of this slice of Vietnam its Cochinchina, building up Saigon’s most emblematic buildings, Cho Lon was already a separate Chinese township, its homes packed together like any dense section of Hong Kong, existing in its own particular sphere of culture and housing the many immigrants from China living, trading, and setting down roots here.
ong known as the poorer, more dangerous sibling of district 1, district 4 in recent years has been shedding its reputation as repository for thieves, pickpockets, and gangsters of the city, or as a thoroughfare between its more prosperous neighbours, D1 and D7. Now, it has picked up noted prestige as a place to go for the best street foods, to shop in busy markets, a location to find every imaginable necessity sold cheaply and in bulk. District 4 is more true to Saigon’s old pace of living than D1, and its profusion of pastel painted, closely packed low rises reminds visitors of a different city and time, even as high rise behemoths and razed plots of tufted grass and gravel demarcating future apartment complexes appear ever more frequently.