For Lindsay and I, like Ed Abbey’s love of landscape textures in his Desert Solitaire, architectural surfaces in cities satisfy our wandering curiosities. Since earlier journeys in Europe to this most recent Mekong Meander, walking the gritty streets is our thing. Sure, we’ll take in the occasional museum, but we don’t seek them out; we’ll enjoy the Presidential Palace, but we won’t stay for too long. Before arriving in the big cities of Vietnam, we read the blog of a local expat who berated his followers to sit down at a cafe to enjoy the city sites. Loitering for him, not wandering, proved to be the best method for sightseeing. This did not come easy for us to understand.
While we agreed with him somewhat for Hanoi, we still found ourselves moving briskly through the streets on foot. And in the milder urban temperaments of Hue and Hoi-Ann, we could barely sit still . . . we remained eager to see what was around the next corner. Now in Saigon, where you must check for traffic six different directions or perish, taking refuge at a street corner cafe was a must.
With a large bottle of Tiger Beer in front of us both, we watched the world pass by . . . life in Vietnam does certainly happen in the streets. You can get anything you need and a heck of a lot of stuff that you don’t want, just sitting. As my dad was once told by a river rat in Utah, “the river,” (in this case, the road), “brings all things” . . .
In between the usual cyclos and cyclists, motos and taxis, bi-racial couples of old white men and young Vietnamese women raise eyebrows, kids sell roses, telephone company workers climb a tower to jam another cable into the electric white noise, the government speaker shouts the morning lesson and sings the evening song, trinkets and souvenirs appear beneath woven cloth in vendors’ baskets, ice cream carts and mobile popcorn machines roll boy, a boy with a broken heart stumbles through with tears in his eyes, portable libraries of book stacks nearly three feet high carry every title copied (and if not in the arms of the hawker, you can order it from his notebook), prostitutes and marijuana sneak obviously across the intersection, fresh dumplings ooze onto plates from mobile restaurants held in shoulder baskets, and a man ringing a bell on a bike (signifying that he has something for sale, but no one is really sure what), strolls by, assuming you know for whom his bell tolls.
Finally, the guy on a slow-moving scooter, with a radio blasting the same message over and over again, passes at least four times, just to be sure we got the message. Yes, I got it. It is time to order another beer.