I Was Big in Asia
Call me egotistical. I really don't care, because everyone likes positive attention and every expat knows what I'm talking about. When I walk into a classroom I'm like Taylor Swift at the Teen Choice Awards, or The Trailer Park Boys in Canada. Last week I felt about as attractive as an old sea hag, but a six year old girl petted my head like a cat and told me how beautiful I was for nearly five minutes. The only other person who tells me I'm beautiful that frequently is my mother. Sorry mom, but it just doesn't carry the same weight as when strangers do it.
At this stage in the game hispters catch a lot of flack, but I'm here to tell you that hipsters are alive and well in Saigon. They are even a part of what is likely going to be a big social movement in this country. Young people in the city have the numbers and interest in thinking outside of the box. Music, fashion and interest in outside cultures are booming trends with Saigon's hip, young crowd. One of the coolest things that happens in the city is the Dub Step Dance Battle. It attracts Saigon's budding dance talents to face off on a weekly basis. Plus it's free of charge so anyone can join in on the hype.
Saigon is desperately hot nine months out of the year. The idea of winter here was at first laughable, but now I live for the December seasonal change. Because if you get going fast enough on your moto between 10pm and 8am, it's sweater weather baby.
What do we have in Ho Chi Minh City? A whole lot of rats, roaches, roosters and one seriously bewildered deer. I like the animals of the city and the way they coexist in our daily lives. Chickens, roosters and ducks roam the quieter streets looking for scraps of food. Feral cats lurk in the shadows. Dogs roam around, mostly avoiding humans. The gecko clicking away in my bathroom eats the mosquitoes and wards off roaches. Best of all the rats frolic around the parks like they are actually cute, and in a weird way, they kind of are.
Cause Baby it's Hot Outside
I have really embraced the idea of heating steaming hot soup on steaming hot days. If you sweat enough into your phở you can transport yourself to a transcendental state.
I know what a lot of you (especially my coworkers) are thinking, "Katie, that is not what you said last weekend." That is true, but there is more to it than that. Vietnam, like all countries in the world, has a lot of amazing children. There are also some children that I would perpetually prefer to be out sick. For the most part, I genuinely enjoyed my time getting to know the bright future of Vietnam. They are nutty and wild and have a cold, dead obsession with the Minions. They are also bright and incredibly hardworking.
I also like how much Vietnam loves its children. After living here, I'm not entirely certain that we even like kids back in the States. Think about how so many Americans react to a child making child sounds in a public venue. Do we really think we can silence a child by burning a hole into their parents' heads with our angry eyes? None of that weird social isolation of parents and children exists in Vietnam. If little Phúc wants to run around The Big C shopping center, pretending he is a death lizard sent to destroy the plum fairy race, then he can do that and nobody will ostracize his parents for it.
Who doesn't like a good massage here and there? They range from $2-$15 in Saigon.
Au Park's Goat's Cheese Sandwich and Mashed Potatoes
Man, did I get used to hearing, "Katie, don't worry." This necessity was also one of the most frustrating parts of living in a foreign country on many occasions, but I certainly can't say that it didn't make life more exciting. There was the time that a local acquaintance invited us to lunch with his family who only lived one town over from Dalat. In reality we drove for nearly four hours to get that lunch and we didn't get to see any of our planned sights along the way. On the other hand, the family was amazing. Lunch was delicious. And it's also a great story.
I'm a crude woman, so you know I just eat this shit up. English language centers are a fairly young venture here in Vietnam. As a result, there are a lot of grammatical mistakes on clothing sporting the language. Even more eye catching is the fact that the idea of what is and isn't considered offensive language has completely been lost in translation. Some of the designs that I remember most:
A penguin with a speech bubble that said, "Fuck, it's cold."
"I stay on my bitches," in big, bold letters
"I don't give shit," again, written in bold, block lettering
The Police Don't Give a F**K
I don't mean that Vietnamese cops don't care in the same way that many American police officers seem to not care about basic human rights in their quest for law and order. What I mean is that Vietnamese cops really don't care about anything, except maybe playing Plants vs. Zombies in between accepting traffic bribes. I've evaded many a traffic bribe by either not stopping or just driving away when they aren't looking. They don't care.
Saigon is home to dozens of open air markets. Inside each of them you will find butchers hacking meat right off the bone, live fish and seafood splashing around metal buckets, the fresh fruit and flowers of the day and of course any other basic household needs. The markets are a hot, fragrant assault on the senses from sunup to sundown.
Karaoke Without Consent
It's inevitable. One moment you will be enjoying your dinner and having rousing conversation, when all of a sudden a man with a meter high speaker strapped to his bicycle rolls up. He then proceeds to sing the loudest version of the saddest Vietnamese song ever written.
My boss is awesome and truly one of the things I liked the most about my job. Managing twenty something expat teachers is quite the feat and she has always done so with a great sense of humor and just enough push to get what she needs from us. She is a master of words, and could sell a popsicle to a woman in white gloves on a hot day in Vietnam. She proves this every year by convincing several professional adults to dance in the Teachers' Day pageant.
I don't need Disney World. I just need Teachers' Day. Every year VUS invites the entire teaching staff (there are over 1,000 of us) to partake in Vietnamese pageantry at its finest. We feast on the Narnia of buffets and overindulge on free flow wine all while receiving awards in a fashion that would make you think you won the Nobel prize. Finally, we are entertained by our counterparts who were roped into dressing as sea creatures while performing an interpretive mashup of Katy Perry's, 'Roar' and Shakira's, 'Waka Waka'.
Is everybody angry?
Although I never mastered it, or even scratched the surface, I really like the Vietnamese language. I could sit and watch people speak to each other for hours, and even though I didn't understand a word, I could write a story based solely off of the expressions. Everyone puts so much behind their words, that even a simple conversation can seem of epic proportions to the outside observer. Of course, it always helped me determine context when I heard trời ơi thrown in here and there.
I have to be real. Vietnam does hospitality better than any place that I've been. I'm even from Kentucky, where southern hospitality supposedly reigns supreme, but Vietnam makes southern hospitality look like a swift kick in the ass. It is damn near impossible to eat dinner alone unless you go to a very Western restaurant or lock yourself away in your bedroom. On countless occasions Vietnamese folks have invited me and sometimes friends over to their table to share in revels. They will then proceed to pick up the tab in its entirety regardless of the fit you may throw in retaliation.
My most recent experience with this being on New Years Eve when a family allowed us to join for booze, fried food and some good ole, earsplitting karaoke. Not only did they provide us with an evening of good times, they also threw in beer, whiskey, food, candy and a handful of straight coffee beans to jolt us back to mild coherence. Before we could even offer to chip in for our part, they informed us that they would not be willing to accept anything in return, and that they wanted us to join them in celebrating the Vietnamese new year the following month. Boom.
Not that I have anything against the grandpas in Vietnam. There is just something really special about the grandmas that I've encountered here. They've witnessed a lot in their youth, and even more as they passed into the age of patterned pajama suits and lawn chairs. Think about the massive shift in culture that this country and particularly this city have seen. Saigon has dirt roads forty years ago and now over ten million people live among the skyscrapers.The grandma's have been here through it all, and they now posses a tried and tested aura that commands respect. Just beyond that tough outer layer is a smile that will light up the block. Side note: don't be surprised if they can drink a lot.
No matter what kind of day you are having, your spirits will instantly be lifted when see a small child, donning a pair of Doraemon sunglasses, and nestled between their parents legs and the handle bars of the bike. The same can be said for dogs on motos. A dog on a moto is like a kids in a candy store, or me at a buffet. Every time they go for a ride, it's the moment of their life, until they experience a new thing and then forget all about it.
Mostly I will miss a woman who goes by Sung. She started as a tour guide through Vietnam's most beautiful country side and ended as a life long friend. It was this woman that reignited my love of travel and movement. Her type of courage and toughness is what we need in this world. We clicked. Our hearts were so compatible, but never would have crossed paths if I wasn't fortunate enough to be traveling in Vietnam. That kind of occurrence has and always will always be the only kind of religion that I will ever need.
This is a country wide cultural attribute, but it is no more apparent than in Saigon. If Saigon is Vietnam's beating heart, then it's definitely got a case of hypertension. Powered by coffee and hope, there is always someone in this city awake and working on their future. Whether that future goal is putting food on the table tonight or scoring well on the IELTS exam, someone in Ho Chi Minh is putting in work.
I've been living in a mecca of human activity. I can feel the energy vibrating off of the cement buildings and going straight through me. Mountains and oceans have moved me, but so has this city. It has revealed to me a reality of human capability that was hidden away in my small region of the world. Like a drug it drew me in, convincing me of a superman like immunity to exhaustion, and then spitting me out into a heap once I finally hit my breaking point. Looking back on it, every moment that I was awake to absorb this city was somehow always worth it.
Four Hour Dinners
We just don't have this kind of social gathering in the States. Dinner is another thing for us to accomplish as we power through our daily grinds, complacently switched to autopilot. I want to talk, dammit. I want to share a couple of beers while slowly picking at food and I want to be a part of another person's life. If we can't have that basic time to wind down our days, then what do we have anyways?
Vietnam has perfected the art of social dining. Everything is family style and you only given a small bowl to scoop your food into. Plus with the addition of chopsticks, it has to go slow! In the mean time you just get closer to your friends and family.
After a year on the Vietnamese stuff, nothing in the United States even came close to satisfying my cravings or jet lag. I will forever need my coffees to be topped off with a generous pour of condensed milk and accompanied with a complimentary, endless iced tea. I also fully expect to be able to sit in my cafe chair for the entire afternoon undisturbed, if I so do please.
Getting your bearings in a new country can be very difficult. I left a stellar support system behind at home, and when I first arrived I was anxious to rebuild socially. A lot of people have since drifted in and out of my life, but what I'm now left with is a family. My family in Vietnam hails from four different continents, and has the vivacious personality to match that kind of scattered background. As differently as our lives may have begun we all have one thing in common; the conventional, modern day lifestyle is probably never going to be us. We are adventurers, never satisfied to end with the last one and always thinking about the next one. It's a personality trait that I used to curse myself for possessing, but not when I'm with this family. When I'm here with them, I don't feel the pressures that I feel at home. I just feel like I can be a person and live a life that I'm content with.
Driving in Saigon is hands down the most enthralling activity you can engage in. Plus, it's also one of the most Vietnamese things you can do to acclimate yourself to living here. The traffic only looks like madness from afar. One you are a part of its flow, you understand how it works. You begin to let go of the little things, like getting cut off, and just look ahead of you. You can see life up close and personal from an angle that just isn't achievable from the sidewalks (or lack thereof).
I have grown to be attached to my bike. I know all of it's sad little shortcomings, but I respect the old girl for getting me to and from every destination without any major objections. Aside from getting to and from places, my bike and I spent a lot of time together purposefully lost. On those days that were lacking in adventure or those nights when I couldn't find the refuge of my bed, I simply had to look to my bike and turn down a road in a direction I've never taken. Driving down the long roads of Vietnam was the most genuine sense of freedom and infinite possibly that I have ever had.