One of the main characteristics of traveling for me, even with someone else, is that I always feel periods of intense loneliness. My mother says that its because I get worn out from all of the sensory overload—the smells, the sounds of new languages, but most especially the visual new-ness of everything. I think she’s right, in part. Last week, I felt a manic joy. This week, after an exhausting burst of absorption, I feel an inability to make decisions, to decide what to do, a general boredom. I think perhaps the ennui is my mind’s way of making me feel at home.
When I was living in Italy in 2003, someone told me that when Japanese tourists go to Florence, they go see so many museums that they end up in the hospital, with seizure deliriums induced by the Uffizi, and the Brunelleschi doors, and the Duomo. Wandering through the streets of Saigon, with all of the colors and life, hasn’t caused me to hallucinate, but it has certainly given me the doldrums, accompanied by strong, heartbreaking dreams.
My biggest fear has always been that I won’t be able to fill a day with enough to keep me happy. It’s ever present, only sometimes less severe. One day, it will manifest itself in reality, the terror, and then there will be an end.
But today, I’ll try to distract myself by writing. So here goes the second part of my three part Vespa Tour guide, brought to you from the sterile coolness of my desk at the Park Hyatt Hotel.
Part II: Mourning the Dead
After the flower stalls, our guide handed us our bike helmets, and we headed, without any sense of direction, down what now seemed to be typical Saigon streets.
I’m going to write a few posts on my Vespa tour through Saigon, because to be totally honest, I don’t have the stamina to do it all at once. If you ever visit the city, I would highly recommend taking a similar one—they’re definitely pricey in comparison to picking up a motorbike on the street (each private tour is $50 per person for a day), but you have much more control over what you see—plus the added benefit of feeling like Stefania Sandrelli, or someone equally timeless and chic.
We used Vietnam Vespa Adventures, but I’m sure there are other options if you do a little research when you get to Saigon.
In any case, here’s the first part of my adventure.
Part I: The Flower Market Marks The Beginning
Caleb and I had big plans to go to Angkor Wat this past weekend, but then we fell asleep at 8pm on Friday night, lulled into a stupor by cheap massages, and on Saturday, we got wrapped up wandering around the city in the heat, stopping to drink soda water and sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, and waiting out the heavy monsoon rains from underneath tarps covering riverside cafes. The array of ponchos—colorful, single-headed, double-headed, all encompassing—on the motorbikes that paraded, undeterred by the storms, were enough to keep us occupied into the evening.
On Sunday, we woke up at 6am, as has become our habit due to jet lag. We flipped through a borrowed Lonely Planet, and determined that there was basically nothing touristy left to do in Saigon because the city isn’t really for sightseeing, it’s for living. It is straining under the weight of almost 20 million people.
There was some talk of going to the Mekong Delta, to essentialize the natives, and take pictures of their lily pads and rice paddies, but Toon already has big plans to take me there on Tuesday. I figured because I’m not working out while I’m over here because there are far too many disgusting European men with their testicles hanging out of their bike shorts in the hotel gym, I might as well spend another four hours on the back of Toon’s motorbike clenching my ass and toning my thigh muscles until I’m internally bleeding so that I don’t fall off the thing. I’m going to Phu Quoc this weekend, so I need my body to be “beach ready.”
Caleb took me for Pho this morning at his favorite local joint. As soon as he sat down at one of the low plastic tables, one of the women serving food came up to him and asked him if he’d like the same thing he ate the last time he was there. Which was also his first time, over a week ago.
It could have been his skin color that made her recognize him, it could have been his beard. It could have been his tattoos, but I’m willing to bet it was his skinny jeans.
(I would highly recommend the place, which served food so fresh that it practically snapped when served, but unfortunately I don’t know the name. It’s on a street corner in District 1, next to the “Intellectual Bookstore.”)
After hours of internally debating with myself whether or not I should let Toon, my unofficial Vietnam tour guide, take me to the Cú Chi tunnels (which had been the site of the Viet Cong’s offensive during the Vietnam War, and is now something of an amusement park for Europeans), I finally decided 3 minutes before our scheduled meeting time that I would trust him with my life.
Afraid that the concierge at the Park Hyatt Saigon—who had admonished me for even considering traveling the 43 miles to the tourist site on the back of a motorbike—would stop me, I hustled out of the hotel like a guilty teenager. Out on the sidewalk, hidden behind a wall, Toon waited for me, a cigarette burning between the fingers of his left hand.
Wordlessly, he handed me a flimsy yellow helmet. Without looking back, I hopped on the back of his motorbike. He revved his engine, and bounced off the sidewalk onto the street.
The wealthy district fell behind us quickly, and soon we were on a main thoroughfare, six lanes wide and lined with street vendors hawking plants, and goldfish, and Pho, the noodle dish that is a staple of Saigon’s cuisine. Toon pointed out the carcasses of ducks, roasting on slow spits in tiny glass boxes. He slowed to show me fresh mangoes, piled three feet high on sidewalk. “Yak yak yak!” he yelled at me, pointing and gesturing as I tried to understand him over the din of traffic. Occasionally, he’d lean back against me, and pull his cell phone out of his pocket. “Yak, yak, yak!” he yelled at whoever was on the line.
Although Toon had seemed relatively mild mannered the day before, he proved himself to be the most aggressive rider on the road on our second excursion. He honked his horn, he swerved in and out of traffic, he sped through yellow lights. At every other intersection, he pulled alongside another motorbike, almost always driven by a woman, her skin covered from head to toe to avoid browning from the sunlight, and slapped the back of the seat. “Yak yak yak!!!” he screamed at her, in fury that she was blocking his manic rush to our destination.