Planned to stay in Saigon in a day, but then Saigon attracted David Vann, an American writer stayed here in six months with ‘unforgettable experience’.
US Traveler Six Months Fell In Love With Saigon
Leaving Saigon, David Vann has no posts shared on Britain’s Guardian newspaper as following:
I wanted to escape the Beijing winter. The air so thick with pollution I couldn’t see four skyscrapers away. Like London during the industrial revolution or a world of ash after a nuclear holocaust. Post-apocalyptic movies can be filmed here without any special effects. Sidewalks broken to rubble, dark bundled figures emerging from what look like demolition sites, all the apartment complexes that are never finished and always grey unpainted concrete. No birds, no animals, no air or water but only cold and survival and speakers everywhere blasting triumph.
Bright lights, big city: Ho Chi Minh’s bustling Bui Vien Street. Photograph: Alamy
There’s something I love about communist/socialist countries, though, so I didn’t go to Thailand or the Philippines. I went to Saigon, known now as Ho Chi Minh City. I planned to spend only one night and then go to the beach, Mui Ne beach, about five hours away by bus, to kitesurf and watch sunsets over the water.
But I stayed in Saigon for about six months, even though I generally don’t like cities, and here’s why.
My first week I was up until 4am or 5am every night, dancing for hours in clubs. The only similar experience I’ve ever had was the Turkish coast in summer in the late 90s; the outrageous outdoor clubs then with their dance shows and dry ice, warm air and lit-up crusader castles and views over the Aegean. Saigon is better, though, because there’s no attitude. Absolutely everyone is friendly and wants to dance and share a drink. And they don’t care about age. I’m 48, and it didn’t matter if the crowd was in their 40s or 30s or 20s. It also didn’t matter how far I went in the dancing. I could crawl on the floor or hang from railings or hump a table, and they’d only laugh and join in. So much less worry about looking cool, and also no worry about gender. I danced with as many men as women, and there was this oddly innocent and pure sense of joy. I haven’t felt joy like that in years. It was like being a child again.
The update since childhood, though, was a bit too much alcohol. They drink beer with enormous hunks of ice, very watered down, but one night I somehow had bought a table with a fruit platter and a bottle of Smirnoff Green Apple. I’m not much of a drinker, so pretty soon I felt like Superman and tried pole dancing upside down, kicking my legs up, and fell on my shoulder so hard that my collarbone slammed into my sternum and is still trying to heal two months later. Now I’m a one-armed dancer trying not to pop my chest to “Uptown Funk”, but it’s still fun.
I danced with as many men as women. I haven’t felt joy like that in years. It was like being a child again.
What has surprised me has been the friendliness. I somehow thought that after we Americans carpet-bombed almost their entire country, poisoned them with Agent Orange, and committed unnumbered atrocities, all on vague ideological grounds, they might hold a grudge. And I was here for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of when they defeated us, an enormous citywide festival with dancing and music and flowers and martial broadcasts, but even then I walked around alone and everyone smiled at me.
A bar on Bui Vien Street.
Nearly everyone here has a difficult life without enough money. They’re living in a post-colonial economy which undervalues their labour, earning about a dollar an hour, and they also have a corrupt government that diverts resources. And, of course, I’m a walking cash machine and, like any anthropologist, I can never see the culture clearly because my presence changes everything. But I can tell they don’t complain and pity themselves the way Americans do, and they give away a huge percentage of their nothing earnings to support parents or a sibling, held together by intense family values that we’ve also lost in America. The term “family values” in America is only code for right-wing dickheads to cover some new way of screwing everyone, but here it is lived, and self-reliance and hard work and not complaining are lived, and the dream is more concrete than the American one we mention but can’t describe.
Everyone smiled at me’: the traditional face of Vietnam’s biggest city.
I’m not saying all is positive. I was run over by a motorbike and my leg burned, which was more painful than you’d imagine unless you’ve experienced it yourself. I’ve been invited to several weddings and death anniversaries, and they drink too much and it’s kind of boring with bad karaoke and trucks rumbling by kicking up dust. There are always attempts to force-feed me hunks of congealed blood or pork fat or eggs with baby ducks in them, feathers and beaks and all, but they give me a bedroom of my own even though I insist the living-room floor is fine, and overall it’s probably the best food I’ve ever had in my life: home-cured smoked fish and sausages, drinks from leaves and berries I’ve never heard of, fish and shrimp pastes and sauces and grilled pork and regional foods of remarkable variety, and I feel loved.
That’s the bottom line. I’ve been alone here for six months and never felt lonely. On the escalator in the mall, I point at someone’s calf and then point to mine and they laugh as we bond over our burn scars. There’s a generosity of spirit here that you have to experience to believe.
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