First Encounters: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The dark clouds of a threatening monsoon loom in the evening sky. It’s only 6:30pm yet the day has already given way to night. Cooked meats crackle and burn as locals sit down on low lying tables and chairs – red, blue, green – facing outward toward the street in a cafe style the speaks to a bygone French influence. We sit down as fragrant smells of fish oil, smoke and incense tickle our noses.
We ask for cold beer, though here that means warm beer with a large chunk of ice. Moments later plates heaped with fresh basil, mint and lettuce are placed in front of us. We watch as children peer at the ill-fated fish in the tanks that line the wall. Across the street, a lone barber shaves his customer in a make-shift salon.
The street is bustling with local vendors. Shirtless mechanics hammer away on frail scooters as others lounge, sipping iced coffee as they stare off in the distance. They are seemingly unaware of the constant honking of bikes and cawing of roosters as they walk aimlessly amongst the busy sidewalks.
From our covered sidewalk vantage point, the buildings seem to topple onto each other clamouring for space, similar to a flower reaching for sunlight in a garden full of weeds. Under the glow of shop lighting, they appear colourful, while also weathered and stained from the constant humidity. I imagine if I were an architect, what kind of inspiration might come from such a place?
A wizened local woman offers a warm smile as they pass by. Most are fixated, with intense stares, on the road in front of them. How does this chaos function? It reminds of me of what the inner working of my body must be like. Thousands of moving cells, each darting off in a million different directions, all with agendas of their own. Though somehow, the seem to live in unison, like a harmonious dance that has no end or beginning.
Everything is new and different, yet strangely, I find a measure of comfort here. An unbound sense of place. Sweat drips from my brow and suddenly the sky opens up. Thunder and lightning crack so ferociously that I can feel it in my bones. Thick rain drops explode on the concrete. No one seems to notice, and those driving scooters are now somehow in ponchos, as if by magic.
Our food is served. We all sip our Tiger beer. This is Ho Chi Minh City.