The air's warm thickness Always catches me by surprise - An enveloping tropical blanket That I breathe in and feel settling, As I lace up running shoes To the sweep of a broom Outside my gate I’m coaxed up off the perch of my Front door step By the prospect of adventure - In autopilot I saunter up the driveway, My muscles purring at the Inevitability of the kilometres ahead Dawn is still an hour away - The overwhelming morning rays That slow-cook the city Will follow soon after, Baking the uneven pavements And simmering between layers of long-sleeved Crowds, astride their spluttering scooters, As they inch forward in morning traffic, Past sugar cane juice vendors and the Waft of street-food Until the chaos and jostle of life here unfolds I have these streets to myself - With each new stride the pulse of blood and adrenalin Propel me, Numbing the aches and pains that Escorted my lumbering frame down the stairs Moments earlier Allowing a freedom of feeling, An openness and calm, Anchors the rest of me in a Temporary vacuum, Sealed off from the humdrum of the day ahead - Egos and speculations, Emails and negotiations – A freedom of feeling connected to oneself Threading through the darkly lit hems and alleyways - An urban avatar of sorts - I choose my path, Control my outcomes, Primordial, raging instincts pull me faster forward until The stillness is complete Exhausted and gasping, I stare at the giant orange orb Cresting over Saigon bridge.
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.
While You Were Sleeping
Be still, my loves,
Let sweetly dreams of fancy unfurl you
Clicked shut our iron gate and running free
Through Saigon hems,
Weaving versions of past night-time jaunts –
Familiar neon shop signs and
Fragrant food-cart smoke,
Snaking shadows beneath
Sprawling high-wire silhouettes –
Cocooned inside this secret urban labyrinth
– I glide –
The purr and putter of market produce scootering by.
Be still, my loves,
Soft respite gains on moonlit quilt,
As my strides quicken with the breaking dawn and
I reach the water’s edge.
Past horizon further,
Others whisper fond farewells,
Their last small patch of glowing orb ablaze, setting,
To manifest and transfix now in front of me –
Yellow white sparkles dance like needle shards,
Bedazzling in the ferry’s wake.
Be still, my loves, be still some more.
Beyond this turning point,
Backlit with today’s first sunbeam,
I fear only this –
As deep a contour and familiar now as the
Creased faces of street-vendor –
That time is lost.
With fingertip precision,
The keystrokes of our waking hours
Consume and safeguard
Daily beats, to which we all adhere,
And for which our spirit harkens.
Around that corner, over this bridge,
One’s salt-lipped search for answers
Makes for another’s
To a higher stratosphere of meaning –
A life’s trajectory that comes in all forms,
Restless, stirring make-believe.
Be still, my loves.
In the end, there is only this.
This morning I went out running and an unusual thing happened to me whilst I stopped to buy water – a toddler took a leak on my foot.
Unusual, perhaps, as I stop to buy water in Saigon most days whilst running, and in fact at least twice a day I’m likely to buy something from a street vendor, yet not in the 6.5 years since living here, has a toddler peed on me during any of these transactions.
In fact, I’m 99% sure this is the first time anyone has urinated on me in my life.
I was as angry as I was crest-fallen during the experience – albeit an experience which lasted just the few seconds until I noticed what was happening, prompted as I was by another customer astride a scooter pointing it out to me. I was angry at the person selling the water – for it was her toddler. And crestfallen at the incongruity and farcical parameters which framed this, now documented, episode in my life.
To accuse a one year old of a roadside crime is clearly nonsense. Surely, I told myself just 20 metres away after marching off with my drink, this was a fluke coincidence of nature. A toddler needs to relieve himself and there, tree-like, stands a leg and a bright yellow trainer to take the hit.
However, once 50 metres away, I then recalled how, only moments before the act, the young chancer had tugged at the two inner soles I was carrying (my shoes were rubbing in the humidity and I’d removed the inners) but I’d refused him the chance of taking them from me. Perhaps then this was his way of having the last laugh, given I’d curtailed his advances on my tongue shaped slices of rubber?
As I’d marched off from the stall, snatching my change (and utterly losing face in the process, of course) the vendor yelled at the boy and started towards him. I started my run again but sure enough, as this quandary of speculation buzzed about in my head, I briefly turned to see the little guy bawling his eyes out, tottering about and looking just as confused as me about what had taken place.
So naturally I then felt the guilt of even stopping for the stupid bottle of water in the first place. I wished instead that I’d smiled more at both of them, found some empathy, rather than screwing my face up into the all-too-familiar incredulous ex-pat look, which somehow tries to convey, in one eyebrow scrunched-up stare, the words “seriously?!”
I invoke the “seriously” pose a lot in Vietnam – usually at 4×4 vehicles, driven badly or parked inconsiderately, however the pose is very adaptable, and works in restaurants, bars, taxis and generally in most walks of life out here. And each time the pose is deployed, I usually reflect afterwards what a waste of energy it (along with, now and again, some additional fist-pumping and gesticulating) ends up amounting to.
Another frequent “thing” concerns local dogs and their owners. I’ve often tried to take up roadside debates with dog owners here, as their mangy muts come hurtling up to me, yapping and biting at my heels.
Only this weekend, I was sprung upon by four dogs at once during a run, and the dog owner in question wouldn’t even look me in the face whilst I attempted to engage in a discussion about why they weren’t calling their dogs off me. Instead, the owner just swept their door-step. Their tactics and logic, I had to conclude, being that if they didn’t look at me they didn’t need to acknowledge the fact that I was stood there, with one of the snarling hounds attached firmly to my running laces, asking them to discuss their rather obvious lack of interest in disciplining their own dog.
After that encounter, I fantasized about picking up said dog, and hurling it into the canal opposite their owner’s house, only to then again wrestle with the guilt of doing such a thing when clearly, as pets, dogs who lunge at any passing stranger are probably reacting out of fear and might be being “disciplined” daily – in perhaps the same way that the young boy this morning experienced: more corporal punishment, than pastoral care.
What to do about something (whether you might believe I’m rightly or wrongly laying judgement down on these individuals) that is beyond your individual control or influence?
Well, social movements have proven to influence and changes norms, and are usually initiated and inspired by small numbers of people, so one answer to this question is to start a movement against….against what exactly? I am asking parents not to hit their kids and dog owners not to beat their dogs? Well, yes, and….
Cultural and social norms are clearly so pervasive that they remain complex tectonic plates to shift. Unless, perhaps, inside of a respective society there are consensual agreements about some of these topics and behaviours, shared by all. Schools, governments, civil society groups, employers, parents – a united front is required to make certain things really become binding. You’d think. But we know of course that just because a country signs on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child doesn’t translate necessarily into all children NOT having these rights taken away from them.
And me living in a different country, thinking one thing and carrying my own set of values, does not translate very effectively (I’ve learnt) into me and my “way” having any credence or traction with other people living here.
Agree to disagree, move on and let it be? Maybe that is one answer, but it’s not really working for me (says the man who would throw a dog in a canal to win an argument).
At a recent meeting with a local Saigon NGO, a colleague there talked very plainly about growing up in Vietnam.
“I was never allowed an opinion as a child” she explained, “not at home and not at school – kids here aren’t expected to have a view on things, or be listened to by their elders. So, I never did really talk to adults, except to do what they told me to do.”
Funny, how in this “modernising” part of Asia – labelled as such by many because of the region’s accelerated construction projects, bustling coffee chains and fast-food franchises, catapulting the middle classes into new and exciting public spaces, which will empty their wallets and fatten their waistlines – funny, how this changing face of Asia is, at once, scarring the streets of cities like Saigon, with an ugly new frontage of brands and plastic products yet, at the same time, does perhaps modernising bring with it a helpful scythe across the ankles of existing cultural and social norms, which may just be in need of some updating?
I double checked the meaning of Wanderlust – which turns out to be the “strong desire for, or impulse to, wander or travel and explore the world”.
Since running off to Uganda when I was 21 years old, in the absence of having any more concrete a plan for how to handle life after university, I’d say my Wanderlust levels have remained piqued ever since.
No doubt some genetic influence from my parents helped fuel my appetite for getting out and “seeing the world”. In reading Dr Suess poems to my daughters (as well as flying them off to different countries almost every school holiday) I suppose instinctively it feels appropriate to want to pass on that particular piece of DNA, connected to wandering, to them also.
Over the past five years, even without that DNA, the travel I’ve undertaken as part of my job has secured for me a schedule for which any aspiring “Wanderluster” would have been thrilled.
As someone working in international development, I can’t quite settle my mind about how conflated my footprint and actions in the world are. Choosing to direct my career into finding better ways to serve the poor, whilst simultaneously responsible for emitting more carbon in an average month than the output my entire family back in the UK manage in a year (ok, Mum and Dad are relatively guilty on the carbon too, but I wanted the analogy to sound extreme!) Continue reading
Turns out any luddite can make a GoPro video of their weekend at home.
I promise more text in the next post…
It’s 2015. It’s mid January. And spring is here in Saigon.
In what has become my annual celebration of just how pleasant a time of year it is over here, when so many other parts of the world are either sweltering in their own juices, or snow ploughing their way to the office, I can’t resist once more in proclaiming the bleeding obvious: life is so much easier when you have the weather on your side.
Biking into work these days you are struck by the golden light, the intensely perfumed scents of the orchids and bogainvilleas, and the breeze. The fact that there is a breeze is enough to be thankful for, given Saigon’s notorious humidity track record. The New Year marks the lowest temperatures Saigon will experience until next January – somewhere in the mid 20’s – perfection in my mind, although many locals are already donning their puffer jackets and scarves in protest at the chilly starts to their days.
2015 – no resolutions for me, a year instead to appreciate all that comes my way and to embrace the here and now. I am grounded in Saigon until a UK visit next month, hosting as I am a regional workshop here at the end of the month, and enjoying the novelty of “routine” after a fabulous Christmas break, involving some long weekends away, and plenty of indulgent moments of sheer fun with Florence and Martha.
Perhaps a suitable 2015 resolution after two months absence from this blog (I’ve been peppering the sister site – http://www.definitelymaybe.me – with musings on development issues over the past few months instead) would be to post a bit more regularly.
Let me see…
Meantime, a lazy capture of the last quarter of 2014, which saw me travel extensively, can be found below in the form of pictures. I took to instagram last year, so check out @saigonsays on that if you are similarly hooked.
Wishing you all a very prosperous New Year to come.
By popular demand (from both readers) I am endeavouring to spruce up this site with thoughts, images, and anecdotes from the quirky old city of Saigon.
For anyone with real sleeping issues, I started up a more ‘thinky’ blog site in January – www.definitelymaybe.me – which has got off to a slow start, but now that I have recovered from the sobering occasion of being 38 (or, “nearly 40,” as my brother likes to describe it) I’ll step the pace up a bit and actually write something more, well, thinky.
In the meantime, warm (that’d be around 39 degrees today) greetings from Vietnam and lots of cheeky hellos from Team Flo and Martha. More soon…