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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sitting in Saigon


Nothing is normal and yet everything is the same. I am sitting on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. This is the heart of what is known as the tourist area. Across from me is a 7 story white building. It houses Highlands coffee on the corner, Liberty 3 hotel is next door, but the Vietnamese name is Que Huong. Although the hotel and coffee shop share a building, the two businesses are nothing alike (except for their potential clientele. Both businesses have large plate glass windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. Inside the Highlands, you can see the people drinking overpriced coffee; a relic of the western world. While just outside one of the many windows, a cafe vendor has set up shop. She sells Cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk to provide the cream and the sugar that a nice iced coffee requires. Her prices are 15,000 vnd = about $0.75 usd for a tall glass of the chocolaty goodness. While her, and I hesitate to say this, competitor, Highlands, sells and iced coffee for 90,000 vnd (about $4.50 usd).

Under normal circumstances, I would not think twice about the sub $5 dollar cup of joe from the chain store. In fact, I have probably spent of year of my life sitting in or in front of Starbucks. Or waiting in line for that morning caramel macchiato that would fuel my daily jaunt to the offices of Merrill Lynch or AXA.  How times change. I cannot imagine paying that price for a coffee these days. The quality used to be something I craved. But now I find the Cafe Sua Da to be a much more enjoyable and refreshing treat. It helps that at $.75 I could drink 5 of them and still spend less than I used to spend without a blink back in Charlotte.

Yet, Highlands is full of customers. Some are tourist who have just arrived in Vietnam and don't yet have a connection to the Vietnamese coffee tradition (I should mention that Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee beans next to Brazil). Others are Vietnamese professionals who have decided to throw off the yoke of tradition and strive for some western ideal. And then there is the third category of patron. The ones seeking an air-conditioned escape from the heat that persists in Ho Chi Minh City. This city is hot. There is a saying in HCM: We have to seasons, hot and hot and wet. I suppose it is not really a saying and more a statement of fact. There is no spring, the leaves never change colors to usher in the entre of fall, and birds don't migrate here. Everything is the same, year round.  Well, almost the same.

Currently we are in the thick of the rainy season: the hot and wet.  In the morning at around 5 am, the sun emerges from its nightly slumber like venomous snake, lying in wait, pounces on a meandering field mouse. The attack is sudden and deadly. HCMC goes from still night to burning city in a matter of seconds. Just as the year as no cooling off and warming periods, the days are the same. The transition from night to full on sun is as swift as a single breeze in a grove of barren trees. There is nothing to notice except for the faint thought that it could be different.

Looking across at the hotel, I am reminded of the city streets of New York. Fancy furniture is positioned in the windows. The kind of furniture that looks nice, but that probably offers much less comfort than the wall and grassy hill I currently occupy. There is low mood lighting and the staff are dressed in their best unisex fashion. It reminds me that I need to tell you about the Vietnamese love for uniforms. I shall get to that soon, but not now.

The final business in this building is the DONGA Bank. I have no idea what that means, but the name is decidedly not Vietnamese. It is more Korean than anything else. In Korea, Dong means neighborhood or district. And I will let you decide what it means back in the States. But for now, it means "the only blue sign on this city block - another thing I failed to mention is that this building is the width of a small city block. On one side is De Tham Street, and on the other side is a nameless alleyway. It might be 185 Pham Ngu Lao but I don't want to bother to walk across the road to find out. It is like most alleys in HCMC. The road takes on the address of one place. Then each business along the strip is numbered. 185/1, 185/3, 185/5 and so on. If my memory serves me correctly, there are about 30 or so shops, restaurants, and hotels on each side of the alley. And the other side is just as busy.  All of this condensed into 185 Pham Ngu Lao. This is Ho Chi Minh City. Business and commerce thrive at every turn.

Trying to describe this scene makes me feel small. This is a city of over 8 million people and I am looking at one small city block, in one district. I can see 15 Vina Sun taxi minivans, one #3 city bus, the number 50 city bus (which is much bigger and looks a lot nicer tan it's green and white cousin. There are at least 300 people within my vision, maybe 400. And finally I can see no less than 200 motorbikes. Throw in some backpackers, an large orange Thuong Trang Hyundai tourist bus, 10 guys offering xe om -motorbike taxi- rides, 3 cigarette carts, 4 fruit vendors, a woman selling books, a guy with 3 large 5 gallon size water jugs on his scooter, a cyclo driver with a commercial vacuum and attachments in his cart, a pimp in all black with a black suede had on an old blue girl's ten speed bicycle, 40 miles of power lines double and redouble in a one block radius, a puppy, 2 guys selling sunglasses (they carry large particle board displays with 50 pairs of sunglasses attached), a few women in pajamas, a girl of about 4 years old in a ballet outfit, her mother in a dress so tight that I can see what she intends to have for dinner - and on and on.

I am going to pause and see how she manages to get into a taxi without tearing her dress.