There’s a 5km loop that encircles our leafy neighbourhood of Thao Dien. I walked it earlier in the week, respite from my recent commitment to the medicinal effects of running.
Endorphins tend to surge me through my days and weeks here at the moment – a daily fix that usually means I can take on most things until the evening drinks are made.
I felt quite different on my walk, with the sun up high, and the pace slowed, from the typically high octane bounding about in the dark to which I’ve become acquainted on my early runs.
In the daylight I see the array of multi-coloured fabrics hung on washing lines, baking in the morning heat. I brush past a huddle of local commuters, their motorbike engines still running, waiting patiently for their Styrofoam containers of sticky rice.
The background blend of passing traffic, workman’s angle grinder and school children, mix with the distinct smell of street- vended food: grilled pork and fried eggs smoking off makeshift bbqs; chicken broth bubbling in deep metal cauldrons.
It’s clear today, but the muggy cloak of the tropics is always there.
Beads of sweat start to appear on my t-shirt and I wonder if, with October looming, we’ll finally enjoy some cooler times. No monsoon downpours each afternoon, the mercury hopefully dipping under 28 degrees, as opposed to creeping up to 38. These months to come are usually the best Saigon has to offer, bookended as they are between the constant swelter of March through to September.
Saigon has all the trappings of a modern city. Its ever accelerating growth, and gravitas as a regional player, something to behold, particularly knowing that, at heart, it remains a charming, country town.
You don’t have to skirt too far from the suburban centre to find rice paddies, and the zig-zag of water buffalos and wooden ploughs scoring lines through the dewy grasslands.
I wonder how Saigon will look a decade from now? Perhaps more like Bangkok, overrun with high rise buildings and chrome plated hotels, but still harbouring the charm and quiet of what went before.
Discreetly nestled down the backstreets and “hems” of Saigon, I’d like to think you’ll still find the lady who sells me sticky rice for my daughter’s breakfast, and who smiles warmly when we stop at her cart on our way to swim practice.
As I walk deeper into the labyrinth of narrow lanes, purposefully avoiding the 4x4s and the buses impatiently flashing past, I know I’m fortunate to feel as comfortable as I do, nodding and waving to some of the same locals whose front doors I’ve run past over these months of lockdown. A small connection is enough, I realise.
There are side streets here I’ll never manage to find and walk down. Inhabitant’s waves I’ll not now receive, let alone stories about their life I’ll never hear. The richness of each anecdote and perspective will always be lost to my foreign ears.
Imagine living through the American-Vietnam war and now, as the city’s sky train construction lurches into its 6th yearly cycle, you watch as your grandchildren travel and explore parts of the world of which you’ve no reference?
I think about Mr Nhi, who has tended to our unruly garden these past 4+ years, and with whom I can exchange just a few words.
At the best of times I’m speechless in his presence, from the sheer magnificence of how he holds himself. A man of little words, of smooth and simple actions, Mr Nhi is one of the most humble and impressive men I’ve ever known. I feel his wisdom just is. His sister passed recently and he barely mentioned it, save to inform us he would switch his days around. He conveys so much in everything he does, in spite of his actions being so subtle and unassuming.
How many other Mr and Mrs Nhi’s lie metres from our home? All too often eclipsed by the blur of frustration and fatigue that I carry around – particularly on those days when I don’t run – pontificating about the future, or wrapping myself in nostalgic memories from the past.
The promise of something new remains a glowing ember, in the fire of Covid. The promise of free movement again. All will come in good time, I am sure.
I stop by the river and watch another boat load of bright orange and blue containers drift by, off on their journey to ports and final destinations thousands of miles away.
At the back of the vessel is the cockpit, and outside this a makeshift washing line sways its black uniforms in the breeze.
In the boat’s wake bundles of lotus stems and driftwood, wrapped up in clumps, bounce along behind.