Coffee and Communism in Saigon

That’s what I would say if anyone asked me what Saigon is like. It is a city of coffee and Communism.

Uncle Ho!

When Cora first told me she was going to Saigon to teach TEFL for a few months, my immediate thought was that I should really make an effort to visit her because she was coming to this part of the world and it had been 3 years since I last saw her during my time in Boston. And then when I realized I would have almost two weeks of vacation time in between jobs, I decided there would be no better time to make a trip to Vietnam to see her.

Aside from being extremely happy to see her again, I spent the entire trip alternating between bemusement and incredulity at the things and people I saw in Saigon. Some of the main things I deduced from the 5 days I spent there are:

Saigon is one big oxymoron in and of itself. Ever since emerging from under the tread of the French and American rule, Vietnam has been trying to regain some form of normalcy, as well as find its footing and distinguish itself as an independent nation. This has resulted in a period of massive restoration. The city is teeming with modern cafés — from local joints to foreign franchises such as the Coffee Bean and Gloria Jean’s — and buzzing with construction projects on many streets, and everyone is trying to make their own money in any way they can, despite the Communist ideal that all men are equal and everything falls under common ownership. It is common to see men and women peddling their wares on the streets and sidewalks, and harassing pedestrians to buy their wares, be they snacks, sunglasses or souvenirs.

The main mode of transportation in Saigon has no more than two wheels. For every car we saw in Saigon, we saw about 20 to 30 motorcycles, ridden by men and women of all ages and walks of life. And because they’re on motorcycles, it’s easy for them to wend their way in between and around cars and pedestrians, which also means they do not feel the need to stop at traffic lights. Crossing the streets became unnecessarily stressful because every crossing felt like my last, but, unlike in Malaysia, the motorcycles and cars don’t speed up to make pedestrians cross the streets faster; they simply swerve to go around anything on foot, which is slightly reassuring but no less hair-raising.

Saigon is kind of like New York City: equally jaded, but much more lawless. It is a city that has embraced public urination — not against walls like in New York City, but out into the middle of the streets — and sleeping, literally, anywhere and anytime they like. When, on the first day there, I pointed out a woman sleeping with her head on the seat of her motorcycle and her feet propped up on the handlebars, Cora quickly reassured me that “that’s just what they do all day, all the live long day!” When I became more aware of this bizarre tendency, I started noticing people sleeping everywhere: security guards slumped over in their chairs, children sprawled out on doorsteps, women curled up on sidewalks. Cora said she even saw a man sleeping in a hammock tied to a tree and a drain pipe on a wall, thus taking up the entire sidewalk and forcing people to either crawl on all fours under the hammock, or walk onto the street to get around him. It is this same jadedness that causes them to be unconcerned by the hopeless tangle of electric cables that run the length of the streets from an electric pole on one corner of a block to another, thus putting all pedestrians and sidewalk-dominating motorcyclists in danger of electrocution. And it is the same lawlessness that enables the rooster fights and underground nightclubs run by the police and Freemasons.

Yes, there are Freemasons in Saigon.

Cinderella would have done her fairy godmother proud. Contrary to New York City, and aside from the afternoon siestas the people insist on observing, Saigon is a city that sleeps extremely early. This is most evident by the number of motorcycles that are seen after 11PM: almost zero. Most of the restaurants, cafés and even bars and clubs close at midnight, with a rare few holding on until 1AM or 2AM — or until the establishments’ employees decide they’re too sleepy to wait for the customers to leave and start ringing up their tabs.

Architecture is Saigon’s redeeming factor. Buildings from the time of the French colonization have been restored to look like new, and are now key landmarks around the city, such as City Hall, the Central Post Office, and the Opera House. It was refreshing to see that a country so steeped in and fought so hard to get out of foreign colonization is still able to recognize that even though the architecture may be a painful reminder of the senseless violence the country endured, it is also an important part of its history and legacy.

When I asked Afham if he would go back for another visit to Saigon, he said, “Maybe after we’ve been everywhere else.” And when I think about it, it’s possible that I would go back there, but only after some years have passed, just to see how far the city has come in its quest to bring itself back up in the eyes of the modern world.

For the full collection of photos, go here.

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