Upon arriving at the Ho Chi Minh International Airport, obtaining my highly valued and well earned “visa on demand”, passing through customs and finally walking out to breathe the Vietnamese air, I was immediately struck by the number of people waiting outside for loved ones or for potential customers. It felt like a full ocean of people. It was also raining hard, what I would call torrential rains, the kind of rain that hits your windshield as if someone had dropped a bucket from overhead. And then there was the music. My taxi driver was playing what I assume was a traditional Vietnamese tune; with a very simple sing song rhythm to it. The scooters also made a lasting impression for they were everywhere. They dodge and dart through this vibrant city like a cat swats at a toy placed above its head.
Now having landed, and as I walk the streets with the sidewalks largely rough and uneven, and the smell of grilled meats wafting here and there, I notice the remarkable human diversity here. There are not too many Americans, nor Europeans. Amongst the Vietnamese people, I saw the affluent in their big cars, the workers zipping around on their scooters, the tourists on foot learning how to negotiate through said scooters, the impoverished, who unabashedly hit me up for money time and again, and the physically deformed. I have never seen so many people with such physical challenges. There was the little girl with no arms, who approached me to buy a lottery ticket, which she held under her chin. There was the very old woman who had a body that looked like a reverse L, bent at a 90-degree angle. There was the older man missing both legs, who walked on his knees, in tennis shoes, with the help of two canes, and wearing a huge smile on his face. The human spirit is remarkable.
It is hot here. Let me say that again, it is hot and humid here. I like to walk. During my first day here, I put in 5 miles, going from restaurant to bar to restaurant and back to my hotel. My Saigon body is always wet. I don’t know if the body adjusts and sweats less over time, but as I felt the drip sliding down my back, or the chilling cold sensation of air conditioning pelting my sweat laden body, I remembered that sweating is an excellent form of purification. Each day out walking about is akin to an ongoing sweat lodge, uncomfortable at times but always worth the trouble.
The food is unique and varied and most often accompanied by some cigarette smoke. Last night, I ate barbeque. Each table had a small gas-burning platter in the center. We ordered some beef, and a variety of fish and shrimp, all brought raw to the table. The platter is then coated in oil, and then without any further adieu, let the barbequing begin. The flame is quite hot, so it does not take long for a piece of filet mignon wrapped in bacon to become an excellent accompaniment to a cold swig of Tiger beer. We also shared a salad and some white rice, and finished off with a nice crepe desert filled with bananas, vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. I have had some of my most memorable soups here (Pho), and a pancake wrap filled with vegetables and duck, and don’t even get me started on the unbelievable fresh sushi and in particular the lightly grilled salmon underbelly special.
But all of this covers up what I most strongly observed. The Vietnamese are a very warm and loving people. They are much more of a social animal than my American brethren. As my local tour guide explained it, people are more interested in sharing coffee before work, and then having drinks after work, then what they do during work. I saw this from the window of my hotel room. I awoke my first night at 4AM. There across the street was a small group of people, sitting on chairs, drinking coffee, talking and preparing items for the coming day. Again in the late afternoon, small tables seemed to appear out of nowhere, and groups of men, families, and old women, all were drinking, laughing, sharing and relating. Interestingly, I did not see many smart phones amongst these socializers. Say what – old school conversation? You can still find it in some places in the world. Vietnam is a place I may soon call home.