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Up All Night in Ho Chi Minh City

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
April 7, 2009

It’s 2 a.m here in Saigon. I’m sitting on my hotel balcony, sipping a final Tiger Beer before I leave for the airport in two hours to fly home to Seattle, and savoring all of my senses.

What I see: A street full of people – tourists drinking at streetside tables, a cyclo driver sleeping on his bike, kids playing a dice game on the sidewalk, specially designed bicycles with built-in mini barbecues… their riders are selling dried squid to late-night revelers. Neon floods my pupils. Muted moonlight is slipping through a crack in the clouds.

What I hear: The honking horns and motorbike motors that never stop here, happy voices in Vietnamese, English, and other languages, the rattles of late-night masseurs who bicycle through the streets advertising their services, a squabble at a bar across the road that has been going on for a good 45 minutes now. Every so often, there is breaking glass, and an angry, apparently drunk woman throws a chair or a small table. But this is not the norm. I feel blissfully peaceful in this frenetic city.

What I smell: Muggy air and my own sweat. The scent of grilled, dried squid does not make it up to my third floor balcony, but I know it’s down there. And something sweet – either the hibiscus flower in the pot by my feet, or the sticky, empty can of Xaxi – a Vietnamese soft drink that tastes like licorice-laced root beer.

What I taste: sour remnants of Vietnamese rum, from a drink a couple of hours ago at a bar across the street. The aftertaste is sour, but in the moment it’s consumed, it is the most delicious rum I have ever drunk, with strong hints of vanilla. I have two bottles in my backpack, wrapped in dirty laundry, hoping they won’t break on the journey home. Cost per bottle: 25,000 Vietnamese dong, or roughly US $1.50

What I feel: Humid air and sticky skin, a pinched nerve in my back from motorbiking through the Mekong Delta last week, a pinched nerve in my foot from too much walking in flip-flops, a strain in my lower back from the 12-inch-tall foot stool on which I’m sitting as I type this, and a reminder from my bladder that it should be emptied soon,

It happened here again, just like last year. I came to Vietnam with limited expectations and a hint of nervousness. I came with a plan, and things did not go as planned. They went better. I’m not exactly sure what it is about this place, but it’s magical here.  I don’t want to leave. I want to stay. Ho Chi Minh City, still casually referred to as Saigon, feels like home — in some ways more than home feels like home. After two short trips, I have good friends here.

Ten things I’ve done these last two weeks:

  1. Been massaged by a blind person
  2. Spent 15 hours in two days on the back of a motorcycle
  3. Watched the sun rise over the South China Sea
  4. Eaten chicken penis and coagulated duck blood
  5. Watched the streets fill with water during a pounding thunderstorm
  6. Lost my day bag and moneybelt
  7. Had my foot stung multiple times by pissed-off fire ants
  8. Chased a purse snatcher
  9. Left tourist neighborhoods for three-dollar meals of fresh shrimp and beer at roadside barbecues
  10. A few other things we’ll get to later.

The clouds have now cleared. The moon is peeking at me over the top of a hotel across the intersection. I have the hiccups. I don’t want to leave.

Airplanes mess with our sense of reality. In the next 24 hours or so, I will fly from Saigon to Hong Kong to Vancouver to Seattle. I will arrive home Tuesday night, sleep as much as I can, and teach a travel journaling class Thursday night. Then I will sleep some more. Then I will blog through the week with elaborations on the above.

Published on Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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