I SPENT SIX MONTHS in Vietnam’s southern metropolis of Saigon teaching English and slurping pho. In that time I joined the expat community, explored the vast labyrinthine matrix that is HCMC, and learned a thing or two.
There is an art to moving in a flock.
Saigon is a city lived on scooters. Virtually every destination is reached on a moto, likely while clutching the back of a speeding bike as a man you met two minutes veers into the swarm of traffic. After 30 days of observing the driving habits of the local citizenry, I felt I had the main principle of navigating HCMC down: You don’t drive, you flock.
Imagine a flock of birds or bats or a school of fish — the coordinated chaos, the group mind of group flight that allows for hundreds or thousands of individuals to move as one. In Vietnam, I learned that flocking isn’t solely the jurisdiction of the animal kingdom. We moped riders can flock with the best of ‘em. At the helm of my moto, I was shoulder to shoulder in a undulating river of small motorbikes. We would lean with each other, sensing trajectory and intention, and kind of ripple to allow for each member of the flock to go where they must. It was a driving style in stark opposition to the you-stay-in-your-lane-I’ll-stay-in-mine mindset I was used to in the States.
Things really got crazy when you threw pedestrians into the mix. Crossing the street on foot in Vietnam intimidates every visitor at first, but watch the locals — see how they step into traffic and walk calmly across the road? They let the motorbikes flock around them. Your job is not to freak out or do anything unpredictable, like running for your life. This will only get you maimed. Walk like you just achieved nirvana and don’t look back. This sort of jaywalking goes against everything you ever learned in ye olde Western culture about avoiding death and obeying traffic signals. And it’s fun. A simple stroll down the street becomes a game of calm forward momentum — I called it Zen Frogger.
Vietnamese coffee is the original Red Bull.
You think a quad mocha gets you goin’? You think Red Bull gives you wings?
You haven’t caffeinated with the big boys until you’ve put down a Vietnamese coffee. This brew is prepared at your table with a little pour-through rig that effectively turns your cup into a coffee pot. The drink is darker than a moonless midnight, and the sugary condensed milk syrup at the bottom will crack a molar and raise your heart rate by 25%. The coffee is best taken sitting in an alley, refreshing the brew with freshets of scalding water, watching the world go by.
After 6 months of Vietnamese coffee, I needed 6 months of poor man’s teeth whitening to not look like I’d been sucking on henna popsicles.
It’s called the “American War” in Vietnam.
Although I was aware of the terrible conflict between the States and Vietnam, I wasn’t aware of any real facts beyond what I’d picked up from various pop culture references as a kid. The first fact to strike a bizarre chord was that our “Vietnam War” was their “American War” — it was at once an obvious and profound revelation. Of course. The American War. What else would they call it?
For a sobering look at the Vietnamese perspective on the American War, pay a visit to the War Remnants Museum. On display are war-era weapons and vehicles, replicas of ‘tiger cages,’ and very graphic photos (not advisable for children or sensitive people). The War Remnants Museum is in the heart of HCMC and can easily be accessed by a visitor staying in District 1.
To dive yet deeper into the American War experience, visit the Cu Chi tunnels. A day trip is easily arranged from Pham Ngu Lao street. A network of subterranean passageways with tiny access portals throughout the jungle, the tunnels of Cu Chi sheltered the Viet Cong from the US artillery barrages that fell regularly. The tunnels also created a secret hive of bases and gave the illusion of the VC literally disappearing into thin air as they dropped into tiny tunnels.
And the tunnels are tiny. The dirt corridors are a tight squeeze even for the most diminutive soldier. The ‘King Size,’ or ‘American Size’ as my guide joked, tunnels that visitors pay to crawl through are nonetheless small, hot, distressing, and claustrophobic.
Holidays can last a month.
I arrived in Vietnam just as the annual New Year (late January / early February) celebration was gearing up. Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tet, as the lunar New Year is referred to, is not a single day of celebrations or even an extended weekend. It is a full month, at least, of merriment with a focus on time spent with family. Many Vietnamese who live overseas fly home for several weeks or several months for Tet. School lets out, and offerings are made to ancestors.
From the outside looking in, I was jealous of the time taken for the various facets of the celebration. I tried to imagine a Thanksgiving celebration that lasted a month and couldn’t. I don’t think my culture would know what to do with itself for a month.
There are over 50 minority tribes / cultures in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government recognizes 53 distinct ethnic groups in addition to the majority Viet, many of which live in the mountains and hills of the country’s north — earning them nicknames like “hill tribes,” “montagnards” (French for “mountain people”), and “highlanders.” Roughly 10% of Vietnam’s population belong to one of these minority groups.
The various tribes practice distinct traditional cultures and, I must admit, the sight of the hill tribe people, especially the often colorful and elaborate dress of the women, arrested my imagination.
I arrived in the White Thai village of Mai Chau as a rainstorm closed in on the mountainous valley. I was passing through in an attempt to find a driver to take me over the mountains into Laos. The White Thai people live in northwestern Vietnam, south of Sapa, in stilted houses that perch over rice fields. I spent my day there following a trail up a mountain face on the outskirts of the village. I didn’t know what I’d find on the trail or how far I’d go, but as I climbed the valley stretched out below me and steamed in the strong late morning sun, and that was reason enough to keep going.
High up the path, after several hours of climbing, as I sat beside the trail resting, the sound of footfall clapped above me. I looked up to see an old woman, maybe the oldest, striding down the near-vertical slope towards me, barefoot and spitting betel nut juice in a jet of dark red ichor. She cocked her head in what could have been a greeting but did not slow her pace. On her back was a pack made entirely of bark and wood woven and braided together. The pack was filled with jutting lengths of firewood. Her load made her look like some sort of errant and ancient spiked turtle.
A moment later she was out of sight, lost to the trail, but the memory of my first real encounter with a montagnard has not diminished in my mind’s eye. I can still see her red, yellow, and white beaded headdress and hear the rough swish of her handwoven garments. I still remember how strong she looked.
English is a commodity.
Everywhere I go there is English, lucky for me. For good or ill the world is hell bent on speaking English, and that was never more obvious to me than it was in Saigon. Without any preparation or forethought, I found myself teaching at five schools to students aged 6-60. My “American English” was a hot commodity. I’d heard (and this was several years before) that there were over 400 English schools in greater HCMC. Indeed, there seemed to be English schools, clubs, academies, and teachers everywhere.
American English was the best, I was told, followed by British and Australian. Lucky me again. I was equipped with a sort of built-in commodity by dint of being from the States and literate. For five minutes, I thought this meant my money woes were gone for good. My English-speaking mouth was an ATM. This was a game changer — I had never really heard of people teaching English abroad. I certainly didn’t realize at the time that it’s a worldwide market that could fund my travels.
Food can and should be eaten outside whenever possible.
I had reveled in the outdoor cafe culture of Italy, but it wasn’t until Southeast Asia that I really got a taste of the great outdoors. Seemingly every few feet there was a new food cart, a new huddle of tiny plastic stools, a new Vietnam food experience. Once I’d settled in Saigon, I made it my business to eat outside as often as possible.
I took my breakfast in the alley behind the guesthouse: french baguettes filled with egg, cilantro, and onion. Pho ladled from a pushcart cauldron at a busy corner for lunch. I often saved my favorite dish for dinner — bbq pork and rice, with a healthy dose of fish sauce. Every day, the same family erected and dismantled their open-air bbq restaurant. The grills belched sweet, meaty smelling smoke, and I sat hunched over plates of rice and meat, shoveling amid the foot traffic.
There’s something satisfying about listening to the thrum of a million scooters as you suck grizzle from the bone. Something about feeding in public, looking up from my plate to see a city pulsing and spinning, that makes me more apart of it all, in it.
As night fell I would grab a seat at my favorite sidewalk bia hoi serving suds from a steel tankard all night long (or until the beer ran out). Drinkers spilled into the street as the sun went down — a liter is less than a dollar and the boiled peanuts are practically free. There’s no reason to go inside anytime soon.