Saigon Street Stories: Through the Wall

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

“When people talk to us about being writers… they don’t understand the neurosis and the angst that goes into this kind of stuff.”

“It’s almost a requirement. You have to have that as part of you.”

–Betsy and Warren Talbot on the Married With Luggage podcast

Bui Vien Sign tmbI’ve been back in Saigon for the last ten days, doing more work on my new book about Bui Vien Street in the city’s backpacker quarter. At the moment, my book is a gangly mess. It’s intimidating the hell out of me.

I am trying to keep in mind: This is par for the course.

I knew when I came back to Saigon this time, I’d be getting into some touchier, trickier research than my trip last May. On that earlier trip, I was just getting started – outlining the tales of my past visits, making a list of people to interview, exploring the neighborhood differently from the way I have in the past – being proactive and approaching local residents, asking them to tell me their stories (with the help of a friend who could translate). I had a long list of things to do, and working through that list was easy. I could always do whatever was convenient.

My late-afternoon, temporary office on a balcony over Bui Vien Street. (The beer beside my laptop means I've achieved my word-count goal for the day.)

My late-afternoon, temporary office on a balcony over Bui Vien Street. (The beer beside my laptop means I achieved my word-count goal for the day.)

Now, my to-do list is shorter, and the convenient items are mostly done. What’s left is the tougher issues – the interviews that don’t leap out at me while I sit in cafés and wait for street vendors to come to me, the things in the neighborhood people don’t want to talk about, the fact-checking on stories that right now are merely tough-to-confirm rumors.

I’ve written before about an allegedly haunted bar. I’ve heard stories from people who… ahem… say they’ve heard of people who say they’ve seen or felt a ghost in there. But I have yet to find someone who can tell me of a first-hand encounter — and so far, I’ve had no such ghost encounters myself.

I’m looking into a mystery about a British fortune teller who used to work in the area. The more I dig into her story, the more hearsay I uncover. Lots of rumors. Not enough solid info.

There’s illegal activity in the hood that’s not safe to snoop into. Rule number one to publishing a book: Don’t get your throat slit trying to write it. I can’t gloss over these issues, but I can’t write about them based on assumptions either.

And the more time I spend seeking out specific stories, the more random tales jump out at me. Which ones do I include? Which ones do I let go of? New ones come to me almost daily. Their stream is infinite When do I decide I have enough of them to package up and publish? When do I know it’s time to stop searching for more?

Watching this guy do his late-night ice delivery job reminds me to appreciate my career as a writer.

Watching this guy do his late-night ice delivery job reminds me to appreciate my career as a writer.

Despite the challenges, some interviews I thought would be difficult have come easily. The sweet, rotund lady who approaches me every evening at streetside restaurants, and asks with an endearing, sun-shiny smile if I would like to purchase any cigarettes or marijuana, was happy to sit down and tell me her story in exchange for a can of Coke. She told me all about why she made a career change two years ago from food stall owner to smokeable substance vendor. (Slightly larger profit margin and a more stable inventory; if she’s having a slow day, tobacco and pot won’t go bad overnight like food will.)

I set out two nights ago with two goals in mind: To glean more info on the allegedly haunted bar, and to interview one of the kids who works the streets at night as a fire swallower. I got none of the information I wanted – so I keep trying.

This neighborhood screams with stories, happy and horrible. New ones happen, and old ones expose themselves to me for the first time, on a daily basis. How do they all fit together? How do the funny anecdotes (I’ll have one for you on tomorrow) weave together with the tragedies? How do so many tangents get finessed into a common thread?

I knew when I started working on this project that at some point, I’d hit a wall of self-doubt. I hit that wall a couple of days ago. I’ve spent the past 48 hours pushing through it. I know this insecurity is normal. Writing about it here is part of my way of getting past it — and hopefully this will serve as a reminder to others wrestling with stalled projects.

I’m starting to get the inevitable question: When will your book be finished?

My answer: I don’t know. I have a timeline I’m trying to stick to, but announcing what it is feels like a recipe for failure. For now, it’s a secret.

So my research here continues. I keep reminding myself the self-doubt is normal, it’s healthy, and ultimately, it helps create a more honest tale.


Have you ever taken on a big project and hit a wall of self-doubt partway through? How did you deal with it? Or are you still wrestling with it? If you’ve got advice, if you need advice, if you have a success story about pushing through these moments, or if you’re stalled and need a push from someone else, share your experiences in the comments section below. 

Published on Thursday, October 10, 2013

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