I have just arrived in Southeast Asia for the second time this year, and I am happy to be giving it another shot. The first time I felt slightly culture-shocked, senses overwhelmed and disengaged; I left after only three months. Seven months later, I have left the comforts of the predictability of the West, and I finally feel better prepared for this chaos. Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) is pure pandemonium. Well, at least at street level. It’s an obstacle course walking down a sidewalk. There are street vendors selling food and trinkets, men and children sleeping on scooters like cats, people eating and drinking at the low tables thrown haphazardly in front of storefronts, and the occasional cockroach bumping into objects here and there. Once, you’ve made it through the sidewalk (at least there is one here, unlike in Thailand) the biggest challenge approaches: the intersection of the roadways. Crossing the street is like a game of Frogger. This city has one of the highest motorbike to people ratio in the world (3.5 million of motorbikes, an overall human population within the city of 9 million). There are hundreds on the street at one time, driving every which way, at different speeds, sometimes with a whole family on board, sometimes texting and driving, and you just have to suck in your gut and begin walking to get across to your destination. It’s terrifying at first, but you must do it fearlessly. They do stop for you. Well. Most of them.
Photo by Ngô Trung via Creative Commons
This time around though, I really do appreciate Southeast Asia much more than the first time. Especially after seven months of bureaucracy, cold weather, rigid structure, and the mass tourism of Europe.
So what’s the allure of modern Saigon? There are these little gems of places in hidden alleyways and narrow streets, off the chaotic thoroughfares; cafes, artisan boutiques, coffee shops selling real good coffee, hip vegetarian restaurants, organic juice bars selling freshly-blended juice for a buck fifty, amazing non-erotic massage spas, and multitudinous affordable co-working offices. Once you’re inside these spaces, it’s a different world: tranquility, delightful food, pleasant ambiance, warm people. And I really feel there is magic in this paradox.
Yesterday we ended our evening at a nice cafe dining on contemporary Vietnamese cuisine and fresh coconut juice out of a real coconut, and that’s after an hour long massage that consisted of an oil rub, cucumber facial, hot stone massage and stretching. All for thirty bucks.
This time, even in the midst of dried fish smells, motorbike traffic, random garbage juice flowing from the edges of run-down buildings, getting duck pate & pork banh-mi sandwiches when I ask for vegetarian banh-mi, I am not running back to the West; I’m looking forward to my next few months of adventure in Southeast Asia.
By Zahra Ali