Day 180 (Half Way Mark!): First Impressions of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I just walked through my first Vietnamese market, a pleasant and intriguing experience at first with all the buzzing exchange of undecipherable market banter, colorful spikey fruits and aromatic veggies. That is, until the smells quickly morph into something that can only be described as animal blood, sweat and tears mixed with the dense morning humidity that has quickly impregnated the air. Despite all the competing visuals and sounds, my presence is fully commanded by the limping frogs in the silver tray of their moratorium, as they lay flat on their backs trying to break free from the imminent death that soon awaits them. The lady in the market is hard at work ripping some crazy looking intestines out of the frog’s body while from the other corner of my eye, I spot (and almost trip on) a giant slippery grey fish desperately slithering away from its market master. As I absorb the trauma of my finned friends, I catch a quick break of color therapy as my eye grazes the fruit stands of dragon fruit, coconut, pineapple, strawberry and guava, with some nearby unidentifiable whiffs of what can only be raw meat. The contrast of smells is vibrant, yet out of control. And such is the everyday reality of Ho Chi Minh’s market only a few feet away from home, Khoi Hostel.
On to more uplifting topics, though the experience of being in Ho Chi Minh is just that – uplifting in all its buzzy stimulation of color, sounds, and sights, and in the next moment, gruesome and intense for other specific reasons I’ll get to later. The “line” between beauty and decay is a thing here.
Motorbikes! As you make the journey to cross any street in Ho Chi Minh, there’s a whole journey of emotion to confront as you make your way over. Think Frogger:
First, the anxiety – anxiety of holy shit, the motorbikes are coming all at once and there seems to be no end in sight. Imagine one lane that has somehow transformed into multiple streams of vehicles crisscrossing each other in no particular pattern, and somehow, you’re supposed to insert yourself into this big hot mess. Now how am I supposed to cross the street?
Second, the acceptance of it is what it is, and the only way forward is to just put one foot in front of the other despite the crippling fear of getting run over. You are not alone. At some point, traffic will just somehow flow or bend around you. It comes with practice.
Third, the determination – once you go, you must commit. No matter how scary it gets out there when you’re all alone, just keep on trucking with confidence, and the vehicles will respect you for that. Ho Chi Minh j-walking is not for the faint of heart, so wo(man) UP.
Remember to breathe and bring the yoga into the walk. Just flow through the movements and remember that unlike the more organized roads of the world where cars slow down for YOU, this one requires YOU to make the first move. In other words, step and you shall receive.
And finally, VICTORY – you did it! You just crossed the street, and you’re ALIVE. Time to take one long inhalation. Do a little victory dance, or just simply shake it out. This is no small victory.
Repeat: You are probably going to have to cross the street again soon, so brace yourself. Take some deep breaths. OR, if you happen to be staying at Luci’s House as we were the first two days, you can take a much longer breather as you stroll through one of the city’s parks. As the inner and outer chaos begins to settle, you might notice that the park is equally as alive with all its badminton-playing and tai chi-loving Vietnamese locals looking to fit a game or two of healthy competition and fun into their day. On a few lucky occasions, you may even spot kids kicking it old school with a game of hackysack, and secretly want to join in. Just across the way, a sea of tiny plastic chairs and tables are filled with locals devouring large hot bowls of beef pho and freshly homemade banh mihs. Even the most devout vegetarian would question their status (…yes, I did).
The uplifting moment comes when you start to feel the initial paralysis of fear slowly fade away. Remember, I have just come from peaceful, traditional, jungle-filled Bali, where there’s much more of a tangible method to all the motorbike madness and urban chaos (the rats are massive here and the cockroaches, super feisty) – not to mention, the presence of Balinese Hinduism whose devotional and sensory quality helps you feel much more in tune with your surroundings. The geckos are swarming about and the birds are chirping, always. Ho Chi Minh, while an initial shock to the system if you haven’t been exposed to hardcore city life (which in my case is nearing six months), does grow to become an acquired taste as it reveals its own special charm (imagine French-inspired architecture and coffee shops on every corner) along with powerful relics of history. Cue: The War Remnants Museum.
I’m still trying to make sense of what I saw in the museum, not to mention coming to terms with the framing: “American War” as opposed to the “Vietnam War.” The three-story exhibit showed the perspective of the war as seen by the Vietnamese, with zero filter. We’re talking weapons and battle tanks, photos of worldwide rallies against America’s involvement in the war, and the most gruesome photos of every kind: killings, massacres and Agent Orange chemical warfare. Photos of children who are forever brain dead or deformed. The infamous “Napalm Girl” pales in comparison to the carnage on display.
It’s hard to find peace with it all, especially when you consider that this war and its aftermath dates only back 40 years. Not to mention that of the 3 million killed in Vietnam, TWO million were civilians. Agent Orange has affected so many as recently as 2003. That’s insanity.
If you ever make it out to Ho Chi Minh, go see this. Give yourself a full day and take time to absorb it all. Witness the guilt and strangeness that may come up, and let it go.
How to reconcile and re-integrate? That seems to be duality of travel whatever you choose to make of it – sometimes it is about taking a break, and other times, it’s about tapping into an uncomfortable collective past of pain, fear and unspeakable atrocity. Since you’re in Vietnam, make sure to find yourself some homemade comforting pho post-museum visit to let it all soak in.
And if you're still caught up in a daze the following morning, you can also always head to The Note to do some Morning Pages and enjoy the smiles of locals as they serve up the creamiest of cappuccinos with a side of inspiration.