Background, Backpackers and Street Life
Saigon is to Vietnam what New York is to America -- atypical. Historically, culturally, economically, architecturally, and every other which way you can think of, Saigon is different. I hadn't been there in six years and wondered if I too was different.
The trip was nearly over and the curse of le rentree was approaching; coughing and wheezing its way towards me; pointing its bony finger towards the world of work and grindstones in need of put-upon noses. I was looking for lessons, an occupational hazard in all teachers, who feel the need to impose order on chaos; and I was looking for beauty too, since nothing is more ugly than an unpublished writer.
A real writer can weave beauty into nothingness; a would-be writer merely clicks knitting needles together; and when I woke up, on the day before the day before the last day, I wondered if I had wasted a large part of the holiday clack clack clacking in the tap tap tapping; affecting a talent that was not there; creating the delusion of beauty that only I could see, like Blanch Dubois in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman's charm is 50% illusion.
And let me turn now to the greatest illusion of them all: history, the nightmare from which we are all trying to escape, and few more so than Saigon.
Only four hundred years ago, it was not a Vietnamese city at all, but a Khmer one, called Prey Nokor. Its name changed again to Gia Dinh and then to Saigon, under the French; and finally to Ho Chi Minh City, under the communists, who wished to remind Saigon that she was a fallen woman whose ballroom days were over.
However, in the city itself, only the apparatchiks use the official name, which can hardly be said to roll off the tongue. Saigon is still Saigon to everyone else; or rather Sai Gon, the Vietnamese language preferring monosyllabic words -- like modern publishers.
Even the landscape of the delta around the city has changed beyond recognition. In Cambodian, Prey Nokor means 'Jungle City', and most of what Saigon now stands on was then swampland or near uninhabitable forest. Indeed, it was only under the French that the Mekong Delta marshes were drained, allowing farming and the population explosion that made the Mekong Delta fertile; and today, it is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, at 800 inhabitants per square kilometre -- four times the national average, but only two thirds as populated as Bangladesh. The world in general, by the way, even excluding Antarctica, only has 50 people per kilometre. There is still a lot of empty space out there -- it's just mostly uninhabitable. That's why it's empty.
Remnants of the French colonial presence are still evident in Saigon, such as the Opera House and Notre Dame, but its days as 'the Paris of the East' are most definitely a thing of the past. I suspect that even in the past they were a thing of the past -- nowhere is the anywhere of anywhere else. We'll always have Paris ... but it will always be in France.
However, having said that, in 1929, ten percent of the city's population of 124,000 were French; and although the departed emigres are long since gone, if you find yourself in the right quartier, at sunset, you can sense their ghosts, wandering and wondering, gasping at the skyscraped neon metropolis of this new city of light, searching vainly for their 'Pearl of the Orient'.
Saigon only became a capital in 1949, when Emperor Bao Dai, then just Chief of State Bao Dai, decided, in as much as he decided anything, that Hue, the former capital, was now far too near the border with North Vietnam and was besides a puny provincial town next to Saigon City. It lost its capital city status in 1975, with the victory of Hanoi, but even today, it has that ineffable brashness and arrogance of le capitole.
It is still the financial hub of Vietnam and the vibrancy and commercial aptitude of the city's nine million inhabitants mean it is likely to stay that way. Its GDP per head, surely the best indicator of real wealth, is three times the national average. Admittedly, Vietnam's average is only a thousand dollars per head per annum, and even three thousand a year sounds like a paltry sum to any westerner, but everything is relative; and it was the deep musty aroma of money that I smelt as I approached the city, in the endless outskirts of this megapolis of many names.
Only the slowly increasing height of the buildings let me know that I was approaching the centre, but the anonymity of the faceless suburbs changes abruptly when you cross the Saigon River, a part of the mighty Mekong. All around the silted oozing artery of commerce, new skyscrapers rise up at breakneck speed, jutting through the smog of progress.
I felt something there, at that moment, in the space-time continuum -- man and metropolis touched each other. Flesh and concrete fused for an instant, or even less than an instant; an instant of an instant. The flesh form was aging and about to decline: the city was centuries-old but rejuvenated and about to incline. One was destined for dotage and sepulcher: the other was for greatness and grandeur.
'Take me with you' I thought, willing flesh to melt thaw and resolve itself into a smoggy dew, but no sooner had the thought formed than the mind that spawned it coalesced back into its cranial prison, and man and city were slammed back once more into their respective universes; locked back in place were these prisoners of form by the unbreakable laws of physics. I fought the law and the law won.
I shook my head, like a confused dog, and looked out of the window for some new distraction. That is the beauty of this modern world of ours -- there is always some distraction out there. You need only stop looking inwards and start looking outwards.
The bus crawled through the city proper, passing boulevards 50-motorbikes wide, and I felt an electricity here that I had not encountered anywhere else in Vietnam, not even in the capital. Hanoi may glow, but Saigon burns.
After checking in, we went out. We were staying in Pham Ngu Lao, the city's 'Backpacker Ghetto'. A curious appellation, this 'backpacker ghetto' tag, and one I have never felt comfortable using. A ghetto is defined, by the Urban Dictionary, for example, as "an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city, usually troubled by a disproportionately large amount of crime."
So the two words simply don't mix -- 'ghetto' and 'backpacker'. 'Ghetto' conjures up images of Jewish ghettos in Eastern Europe and of centuries of state-sponsored discrimination; or the slums of apartheid South Africa; or the drug-infested alleys of Chicago's Projects. The word 'backpacker' brings to mind scraggly students trying to look like Kurt Colbain but actually looking more like Shaggy from Scoobie Doo. Ce n'est pas la même chose!
While backpackers' dress tends towards the casual, in uniformed expressions of individuality, affecting a poverty they have never and will never experience, they cannot rightfully be considered to be denizens of any ghetto. They are the sons and daughters of middle class suburbanites who could no more survive in a real ghetto than a hooded council estate smackhead could saunter unnoticed through a cocktail party.
Backpackers are 'slumming it' in ghettos, and not even that, since they deprive themselves of no significant luxury. They are fed and watered and housed most respectably. Indeed, a hospitality industry seems to appear from nowhere wherever backpackers congregate, feeding off them as they feed off it; in a symbiosis wallowing in hard currency.
These 'backpacker ghettos' can be found in every city of note in South East Asia, if not the world; and as tourism grows, so do the ghettoes. They are characterized by 'budget' accommodation, ranging from ten to fifty dollars a night, and a profusion of bars and restaurants catering to Westerners' needs and tastes. You can find pizza, pasta and hamburgers; you can drink in bars with other backpackers and be served by inhabitants of the country you are visiting. You can travel and have all the comforts of home. You can have it all.
Except, of course, you can't. You are not traveling; you have just transferred your life to a different location; imported your culture and your sub-culture -- slurping it all down with the Heinies that fail to dissolve the warm burgers.
I realised this, for the millionth time, in a bar opposite my hotel. It was called 'Le Pub' and looked a bit like a student bar in everywhereville.
To our left, two American males tried to impress two New Zealand females with tales of their wild and wacky adventures, in which they were 'like, hey, like totally smashed on Cuervo, man, in Mexico'; and behind them, another American, who may have reached the age of twenty, impressed her pale friend by publicly denigrating the waitress, who had kept her waiting for all of two minutes; and all around us, people who did not smoke pretended to, because they were being crazy in Saigon, laying the bedrock for Facebook fantasies and other stories of the night to impress their more staid friends back home. Oh what a brave new world, with such crazy backpackers in it.
Although every city may have a backpacker area, not all of them are the same. Hanoi's 'ghetto', for example, is a great deal more genteel than Saigon's. As we walked through the latter, dazed by the glare of sin, dubious characters offered to sell me dubious substances and ladies of ill-repute sat perched, like satin-clad praying mantises, in neon bars with names like 'Crazy Girls'.
After Saigon fell, the sleaze for which it had become notorious was cleansed and scrubbed with communist fervor and the city became a rather staid place in the eighties, with food rationing and five-year-plans the order of the day, but now the Party in HCMC seems to have chosen to turn a blind eye to the open hedonism that would not be tolerated up north.
Things had changed. Even in the six years since my first visit to Saigon, it felt as though everything had changed. I looked out from a Reunification Palace balcony at a skyline I could barely remember, marveling at a change that could be so rapid.
But one thing that had not changed was the traffic. If anything, it had got worse. There were more cars and there were definitely more motorbikes. It is said that Saigon currently boasts three million motorbikes, and I suspect that's an understatement.
At times it feels like everyone one of them is conspiring to prevent you from crossing the road, turning it into a piranha-infested river that you can never enter. Even when they are not moving, bikes seem to bear a grudge against pedestrians and clog the pavements jealously, meaning that you have no real alternative but to walk on the road, nowhere more so than in the frenetic old towns of Hanoi and Saigon.
Six years ago I had stood on a Saigon road and waited for a break in the traffic; waited for a break that never came. I still remember it clearly: I was standing on the pavement, melting in the near-noon sun, waiting for that patch of empty road; waiting waiting evermore for nevermore.
Monkey see: monkey do. I watched others cross the road and sought to learn from them. The Green Cross Code of my childhood was of no use whatsoever -- I was stuck on Stage 1, unable even to find a safe place, nevermind the 'stop, listen, look and wait'. Instead I studied the wily Saigonese, those nimble creatures, nymphs and sylphs all, who know no fear. Some people say that the Mohawk can feel no fear of heights, that they are born that way; and the Saigonese, it seems to me, have no fear of being run over. Atropelladophobiaabsentia Saigonesis.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. People simply walked in front of oncoming vehicles, slowly and purposefully, like Clint Eastwood in some western showdown. They walked step by step across the road and the motorbikes swerved around them, like water moves around the swimmer; and on and on they went, swimming in only a fraction of a minute what I had already spent ten minutes unsuccessfully trying to traverse.
Either I had to do likewise or else I would spend a week in Saigon walking round and round my block, like the chicken which didn't make it to the proverb. And there wasn't that much to see, around my block, I already knew, having walked around it looking for a traffic light or some other aid to the pedestrian.
And so my wife and I took the plunge and dove into the mechanized abyss, but not without reinforcements, in the form of an impossibly old woman, selected for her assumed lack of mobility. We shadowed her every movement, in the face of the two-wheeled tsunami; and lo and behold, we performed the same miracle. We had broken the catechism of the Red Cross Code and lived to tell the tale. I had not parted the Red Sea, but I had crossed my first Saigon street. It was a coming of age; a rite of passage.
It would not be my last street, but even at the end of the week, I was still waiting for natives to shadow and still fighting back the desire to run rather than crawl. And that, by the way, is the key to survival: never run. If you succumb to the panic inside you, the bikers may not have time to serve to avoid you, but if you are relatively stable, a slow-moving obstacle, they can veer right or left; or in extremis, slow down.
And the moped Mohawks, of course, not only have you and all the other pedestrians to contend with, but there are also their fellow bikers, jostling to the right and left; all weaving their way through the melee.
There are westerners who ride the snake too, but I confined myself to country roads. A friend of mine actually rode a bike for four years in Saigon. He said it helped to imagine being a part of a living force; the modus operandi for which is never stated, but implicitly understood by those who have mastered the force. I tried to press him into telling me more, in order to avoid becoming one of Vietnam's 13,000 road fatalities a year, but his eyes took on a mystical air and he would not be drawn further.
But now it was six years later, and I was crossing roads in Saigon again -- older, greyer, fatter but still scared stiff. Hanoi is no easy city to traverse, and even the smaller towns like Haiphong and Hue are not lightly crossed, but Saigon is a world apart.
And with that sentence I return full circle to the beginning of the essay -- Saigon is a world apart. And now that I had learned to cross the road, it was a world I was very keen to explore.