Saigon is a city on heat. District One its smouldering core. Full bore, full on and in your face. It’s high octane, high energy and in the backpacker area often simply high.
Not just a city that never sleeps, this place doesn’t even take a nap. Each day a hustle, every street corner a scam. Crossing the road an exercise in blind faith. Lots of smiles, millions of motorbikes. Drink, drugs, sex, all constantly offered. Personal space non-existent. Sellers, buyers, traders touch and grab. They go through a litany of services searching for your desire.
“You want massage?” No. “You want girl?” No. “You want young girl?” NO. “You want marijuana?” No. “You want sell your shoes”? WHAT! That floored me. Bizzarely it happened three times. I had two offers on my thongs and one on my trainers. I must be a fashion icon in Ho Chi Minh City, as the place is called these days.
There is a tidal wave of people living in the fast lane. Or in District One’s case, the back lanes. A mass of compact alleyways, or hem, crisscross the backpacker area between Pham Ngau Lao and Bui Vien. No more than three paces wide they overflow with everyday living.
Whole families perched on tiny plastic stools eating, while motorbikes weave past. “More fumes on your noodles”? Kids playing, women chatting, men plotting. People fixing cycles, washing plates, making fans, mending bits of plumbing. Through them prowl the hawkers with vertical piles of books and dvds, boards full of fake designer sunglasses.
In these warrens people live life in the open. Homes don’t get shut until late night. Privacy is only an issue to trouble reserved foreigners. The dwellings are mere slithers. Rooms are often tiny. People go vertically up ladders and steps for more space.
As you pass you have a peep show on their lives. Elderly people lying on small beds that fill the rooms. People cleaning, cooking, resting from the oppressive heat and humidity.
The alleys are home to scores of little cafes, backpacker hostels and hotels. At any time of day and night stepping out from your oasis of calm into the hem is like a violent assault on your senses. Eyes, ears and nose instantly thrashed. The city has a vibrancy that is infectious. It’s hard not to be happily swept up in its swirling energy.
Nighttime in Bui Vien is party central. Hundreds of little chairs lined up across the road overflowing with backpackers. At times the two sides almost join, sending the constant blare of motorbike horns into new levels of frenzy. Booze is cheap, food a few cents above free and the commodity of fun is limitless.
Elsewhere in District One it’s a little more sedate. The area around the Opera House is very sophisticated. Uncle Ho’s statue is in a sumptuous setting that could have been transported straight from Paris. It’s a little ironic that the man whose life was dedicated to kicking out the foreign imperialists should find his memorial surrounded by grand French colonial architecture. Elegant buildings, beautiful gardens, international designer shops.
Perhaps the old revolutionary would have liked the joke, especially as he sits in front of the grandest of them all, the old Hotel De Ville, now blandly rebranded as the People’s Committee Hall.
Even here, along with everywhere else in Saigon, there’s no escaping the traffic. Actually, the motorbikes. Two and a half to three million in Saigon, 30 million more in the rest of Vietnam, according to government figures.
But you won’t get out of breath counting private cars. Three huge taxes and seven separate fees price them off the road. A car costing $23,500 in the US would set you back a fraction under $70,000 in Vietnam……that’s 30 times the average annual salary. To misquote George Orwell, in Vietnam, “Two wheels good, four wheels bad.”
Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, six years before unification but North Vietnamese troops used to sing a song:
Bác vẫn cùng chúng cháu hành quân” – translated it means “You are still marching with us, Uncle Ho.” These days, I suspect, he’d be more likely to be with them on a motorbike.