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Living on Vietnam Time

By Dave Fox
On a flight from Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City
July 21, 2015

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Saigon rush hour happens 24 hours a day.

Kattina looks at my watch as we wait for our connecting flight to Saigon. We’ve just flown overnight from Seattle to Taipei. It’s five a.m. but my watch says six.

“It’s on Vietnam time,” I tell her.

“You’ve been on Vietnam time for the last month, haven’t you?” she says.

I smile. “I’ve been on Vietnam time for the last seven years.”

*     *     *

On our first trip to Vietnam in 2008, I felt nervous. Growing up, I’d had Vietnamese and Laotian friends who were refugees. In the 1980s, I had written an article for my high school newspaper about refugee resettlement. Some of the stories people told me during our interviews were so horrific, they gave me nightmares.

The same year as I wrote that article, the US government reinstated mandatory selective service registration for all American males when they turned 18. I was 17 at the time.

So my greatest fear as a teenager was that the conflicts that had ravaged Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in previous decades would flare up again, and I would be drafted. I knew that emotionally, I could never handle it. Being sent to Vietnam would mean the end of my life.

Back then, I never would have believed that nearly three decades later, I’d be moving to Ho Chi Minh City (as Saigon is officially known) – not just voluntarily, but gleefully.

*     *     *

My first trip to Vietnam in 2008 happened almost by accident. I had a lot of frequent flier miles. I wanted to go to Samoa.

I’d had a few cruise ship speaking gigs. My favorite route had stopped in New Caledona, Fiji, and Samoa. The South Pacific had fascinated me, and the one-day ports of call had frustrated me. They weren’t long enough. I wanted to go back and see more.

Kattina was a middle school science teacher, however, with a one-week spring break. She needed to travel on specific dates. My miles couldn’t get us anywhere in South Pacific on those dates.

Bui Vien Street is sometimes referred to as Saigon's "budget travelers' ghetto," but beneath the surface, the neighborhood is bursting with stories.

Bui Vien Street is sometimes referred to as Saigon’s “budget travelers’ ghetto,” but beneath the surface, the neighborhood is bursting with stories.

So I called my airline and asked: Where, other than Europe, could we go with my miles on the days we needed to travel? The reservation agent offered three options: Beijing, Tokyo, or Saigon. I let Kattina decide. She chose Vietnam.

A few months later, as our flight circled the airport at half past midnight, I tried to hide my nervousness. I was a professional traveler. I was supposed to know how to handle new places. But Vietnam was putting me on edge.

We landed and caught a taxi to our hotel. Up in our room, I stared out the window at the land I had once had nightmares about visiting.

*     *     *

I awoke at sunrise to a cacophony of horns and motorbikes, a dizzying swirl of traffic in the street below. I had no idea the next hour would change my life.

Bui Vien's archtectural style: "20th  Century Ramshackle."

Bui Vien’s archtectural style: “20th Century Ramshackle.”

As we stepped from the air-conditioned chill of our hotel lobby into a steamy morning, I was mesmerised. Bùi Viện Street, at the heart of Saigon’s backpacker ghetto, was loud, chaotic, and colorful.

The motorbikes were like schools of fish, carreening around each other, never stopping at intersections, yet never crashing either. As we walked down the street, electric wires overhead tangled together in unfathomable snarls. The architecture seemed haphazard. Buildings stood, side by side, at disjointed heights, resembling precarious houses of cards.

Vendors in iconic, conical hats, waded through traffic, pushing carts of psychedelic-looking fruits. Cuts of raw meat sat in the sun, waiting to be sold. Street vendors approached us with postcards, sunglasses, snacks, and cigarettes. Their sales pitches were gentle. My “no thanks” were met with smiles.

The city was a kaleidoscope of humanity, and we couldn’t stop gazing. In less than an hour, my lifelong fear of Vietnam was replaced with a sense of awe.

Our first night in Saigon in 2008: An impromptu English lesson sparked lasting friendships.

Our first night in Saigon in 2008: An impromptu English lesson sparked lasting friendships.

We walked all day until our feet screamed for mercy. Then, we walked some more. That night, around 9 p.m., we manouvered our way across Pham Ngu Lao Street, a wide boulevard with a relentless stream of traffic. Across the road, everything was different.

The side of the street our hotel was on was a neighborhood filled with foreigners. On the other side was a park, packed with people. Everyone in the park was Vietnamese.

We sat on a ledge to people-watch. Within minutes, we found ourselves teaching an impromptu language lesson. Around 15 people, from late teens to late 20s, gathered around us, sitting cross-legged on the concrete, wanting to practice their English. That night sparked close friendships, which continue to this day.

2008: Kayaking in the Mekong Delta. (Photo: Tran Phuc)

2008: Kayaking in the Mekong Delta. (Photo: Tran Phuc)

We left Saigon the next morning for a three-day kayaking and bicycling trip through the Mekong Delta. That adventure is a story for another time. Suffice it to say, for now, that by the end of our second day in Vietnam, I was so intoxicated by the scenery and the people (and perhaps delirious from exhaustion) that on a whim, I decided to ask Kattina to marry me.

She was exhausted too though. She fell asleep before I could ask. I awoke the next day, relieved I hadn’t done anything brash.

A week later, we returned to America, where I spent the next several months lamenting to myself about how cool it would have been to have gotten engaged in Vietnam.

So the next year, I shelled out more frequent flier miles and we went back. On our second trip, I proposed. She said yes. Two years later, we were living in Asia.

*     *     *

In 2011, Kattina took a job at an American school in Singapore. In Singapore, we never felt grounded. The business-focused city-state just wasn’t our speed. Our philosophies for life and happiness didn’t click with the prevailing emphasis on materialism.

In the Mekong Delta, "local transportation" takes on a whole new meaning.

In the Mekong Delta, “local transportation” takes on a whole new meaning.

Vietnam was now an easy two-hour flight away though. We went often to visit friends. I began work on a book about life on Bùi Viện Street. The neighborhood is packed with stories – some hilarious, some tragic. The project gave me an excuse to keep going back.

We remained based in Singapore, however. Kattina had a great job there. I was finding new professional opportunities. We had found some cool friends.

We stayed four years in Singapore, and were leaning toward a fifth. But then, a series of events collided and made us reconsider. One of those events was a job opening in Saigon for a middle school science teacher. Kattina applied.

*     *     *

That’s why we’re on this airplane now. After 39 busy days back in the US, today we are moving to Vietnam. We land in our new home city in 30 minutes. I’m about to go live in the country I once dreaded – and I’m thrilled.

I still remember a moment in 2009, on the final night of our second trip there, when we were wrapping up a final stroll around our Saigon neighborhood. We didn’t want to go to bed. We didn’t want to fly home to Seattle in the morning. Kattina said out loud what I was thinking:

“This feels like home.”

That feeling has never waned, and it’s about to become official. The land I once dreaded being sent to has become the place where I feel happiest.

A big new chapter in our lives begins right now – because in 2008, my frequent flier miles couldn’t get me to Samoa.

Published on Monday, July 27, 2015

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