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Woke up at 5:30am to the sounds of the Saigon streets, filled with exhaust, horns, and street vendors. Really, it doesn’t sound any different from NY. Maybe louder, if you can believe that. Went exploring my cousin’s house. It has three floors and lots of balconies, which I absolutely love. And when I say balcony, I mean a full size balcony, not a little ledge that passes for a balcony in NY. The bathroom is one big shower unit with a toilet and sink. The house itself is open air – there are no window screens, so you live with the outside elements, including ants and lizards. We started off the morning by sitting down with my cousin and having coffee, prepared by their nanny. Their nanny is a young cambodian girl and upon seeing her for the first time, my instinct was to introduce myself because I had no idea she was the nanny. She could’ve been another cousin for all I know.
During coffee I got some exciting news from my cousin. He actually made contact with Mrs Hue in Hai Phong and she has agreed to meet with us. We’re just waiting for her to confirm which day we can come visit!
Dad and I headed out to meet mom and my aunt and cousins. They live about 4 miles away from where my Dad and I are staying. Instead of taking a taxi, we decided to walk it, which I’m happy about as I think it’s the best way to get a feel for the city. What I love about Saigon is they have made use of every alleyway and nook. Alleys are just as busy as the main streets and there must be at least a dozen stories going on in each of those places. Alleys have stores and street vendors as well, since motorbikes drive everywhere, there’s always a guarantee of steady foot and bike traffic. Stores are often a combination of commercial/residential. So you’re always guaranteed to find the store owners laying on the floor watching tv while manning their storefront.
Walking the streets of Saigon comes with a few obstacles. First, there are motorbikes EVERYWHERE. They zig and zap and most streets have no lanes. You can even drive a motorbike against traffic if you really want to. Traffic lights are rare, so it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves when crossing the streets. Crossing the street is similar to Indiana Jones having faith in himself to walk across the forced perspective bridge inside the canyon of the crescent moon. As I walked across the street I kept chanting to myself “the penitent man must pass, the penitent must pass.”
The second obstacle is the sidewalks are very narrow and usually taken up by street vendors, so often times you end up sharing the street with the motorbikes. Actually, you are often sharing the sidewalks with motorbikes as well, as they drive on them to circumvent slow traffic.
The third obstacle is the humidity. Enough said about that.
Dad and I pretty much stuck out like a sore thumb because we were walking. You don’t see many people walking. And the ones that do walk more than twenty feet are quickly ambushed by taxi drivers wanting to give you a ride.
Even though we were an hour and a half late to my aunt’s house, what I loved about walking was the people we met on the way. We had a young boy guide us over the bridge to my aunt’s neighborhood. He sells lottery tickets for a living. He reminded me of Short Round from Temple of Doom. Sorry for all the Indiana Jones references. He had a permanent smile on his face. He just seemed happy to help. After we parted ways I told my dad I felt guilty we didn’t give him some money or buy some lottery tickets from him.
We made our way into my aunt’s neighborhood in the Binh Thanh district. It is full of broken roads and all the houses have storefronts. Every twenty feet there’s a Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwhich) vendor or a Internet Cafe where young kids are playing online games. The place is extremely poor. There’s really no such thing as a clean wall. Houses are shack-like. There are little alleyways that lead to shacks behind shacks. I’m soon realizing nearly every house serves
as a storefront for something. The Vietnamese have truly taken advantage of the new capitalism in the country.
When we arrived at my Aunt Mai’s place, the first thing I was shown was the house where I was born. It’s right next to her place. I got to look inside the room where we lived. Nothing much to say about it. It’s pretty much a square room.
I’m amazed at how close all my relatives live from each other. Like, most of them are next door neighbors. Dinner becomes a an informal reunion as cousins and aunts and uncles casually mosey on in for a sit down.
After greeting each cousin or aunt or uncle that stops by, my parents do the typical “he doesn’t speak much Vietnamese.” I think I should just wear a sign on my chest that says “mute” to save my parents from the repetitious excusing of my lack of language skills.
Around 7pm I get super tired and am ready for bed. My cousins decide to take us home on their motorbikes. SWEET. I put a helmet on, hop on the back of a bike and away we go into the super congested Saigon streets. It’s only my first day in Vietnam and already I feel like I’ve seen and done a weeks worth of vacationing. And day two is just right around the corner and it starts off with a 9am Skype session with the Living Newspaper Fundraiser in NY. They want to Skype me into the party and walk me around on a laptop. The miracles of modern technology. Okay, time for bed. Good night Saigon.