Saigon. December 2019.
We flew to Saigon to start our three-month sojourn in Vietnam.
My sister asked what it was like. The answer came tumbling out of me, so many impressions threatened sensory overload. Our first days passed in the stupor of jet-lag. The heat was suffocating. We’d gone from 9 to 30+ degrees. It was a sticky heat that made me wilt. Jim loved it.
The traffic blew my mind. The number of motorbikes was staggering. Cars were engulfed in a swarthy sea of the two-wheeled devils. They came at us from every direction and carried everything from the dog to stepladders; kids (a whole family could fit on one bike) to shopping bags, sacks of ice to small forests of green plants. You name it, it went on a bike. Crossing the road was tricky but not as bad as we’d feared –the traffic did stop at lights. (Mostly). Tourists always held hands to do it like small children.
Mopeds are a sign of status. Everyone has one. Men sleep on them. Sit cross-legged on them. One morning one zoomed in front of us and the passenger on the back was holding a fag in one hand and his mobile in the other. Holding on is for sissies!
The Vietnamese don’t walk. (See above). Pavements are not for pedestrians – they’re for motorbike parking, and riding (drivers use the pavement as extra road space). Food vendors sell from mobile carts, bicycles, and chicken wire baskets. Diners sit at plastic tables and chairs. There are hot grills, bar-b-ques, sunshades and cool-boxes One-ring burners with frying pans, sizzling pork for banh mi sandwiches. Food blenders producing tropical milkshakes.
As if these were not obstacles enough, there was always a loose paving stone, a bit of rubbish or the odd tree root waiting to trip us up.
It was barmy but glorious. We tried to take it easy, but that wasn’t easy. We sat at pavement cafes and watched the street. There was a constant hum of noise; a never-ending procession of salespeople offering fans, lighters, book-marks, hammocks, sunglasses, massages. The best offer was a telescopic back-scratcher. It was good-natured. We laughed, they laughed. They always asked. We always said no.
Our first few days passed in this slow, easy way. Watching, enjoying, a little detached. Putting a toe into the water. And then we got sick. Nothing terrible. Sore throats. Hacking coughs that kept us awake at night and drained our energy. We thought we were taking it easy, but realised we weren’t taking it easy enough. Quite prophetic in the light of what was to come.