Crackdown

For nearly two months, the sidewalks of Bui Vien were lined at night with revelers forced to enjoy food and drink sitting picnic-style on the ground. Word on the street was that Saigon’s new head of police (rumored to be from the we-don’t-take-no-shit North) had taken a tour of Bui Vien and couldn’t believe how clogged the street became during peak hours.

And he perhaps had a point: previous to the seating ban, overflow tables and chairs from competing restaurants would stretch so far out into the street that no traffic could reasonably hope to pass; though a sight to behold at times, it could also be described as beyond cluttered — but not much worse than the scene seen above. Many restaurant and bar owners I spoke with were convinced that the police would simply never allow tables or chairs on the sidewalks again, that this was now the way things were. But a few weeks after I snapped this photo, the police lifted the seating ban and things returned to normal — whatever that means in Saigon.

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Saigon is not the sound of silence. It is the dull hum of constant traffic; the rise and fall of playing children’s screams; the banter of old women squatting in their market stalls; the clatter and sizzle of clams and snails as they hit their hot oiled pans; the monotone drone of monks chanting into patchy PA systems; the lazy bark of motorbike, pedicab and taxi drivers — “Moto? Taxi? Excuse me sir, where you go?” — the recorded enticements of banh mi and nuoc mia carts; the honking of car and motorbike horns; the low warning of trains traveling across busy thoroughfares; the crackle of mosquitoes caught in the repeated swipes of electrified swatters; the poppy thump of the latest Top 40 track blasting from the corner stereo store; the jingle of passing ice cream carts; the banging, sawing and bolting of countless minor construction projects; and the high distant whine of worn brake pads fetching for purchase on 10 million tiny tires.

Sounds of Saigon

View With a Room

From the fifth-floor roof of my apartment building one can see in every direction, though downtown Saigon is not quite visible through the distance and the haze of pollution. After the sun goes down, the neighborhood becomes lively for a few hours — chatter from the street, shouting from the soccer match down the block, motorbikes coming in from the day and going out for the night, planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport, the erratic crackle of the neighbor’s bug zapper — and then it goes quiet. The tranquility that drifts up to the roof after 10 p.m. is both soothing and dissonant — dissonant that somewhere in this cacophonous city of millions one can still find some peace and quiet.

5 QUESTIONS THIS POST MAY POSE

Where do you live?

I live in Go Vap, a suburb of Saigon, north of the city proper and about 10 minutes from the airport. Across the alley from my building is a restaurant that serves better-than-average pho for about $1. Along said alley there are sundry shops, laundry services, hair salons, cafes, and motorbike repair shops. On the main road, just a quick jaunt down the alley, there are grocery stores; more cafes; great restaurants; banks; banh mi and bun bo carts; fruit stalls; cell phone, stereo, and laptop shops; fashion boutiques; and plenty of local flavor. A public swimming pool is visible from the roof just a few blocks away, but due to the maze-like nature of the surrounding alleys and sub-alleys, no one in the house knows how to get there.

Who do you live with?

I live with 16 other expats, plus the owner of the house and his Vietnamese wife. The nationalities of the expats include Irish, English, Belgians, French, Americans, Australians and Canadians — and everyone is an English teacher. The house is called the Saigon Workers Resort and it acts as a staging base for foreigners trying to make a go at living in Vietnam.

What’s the weather like?

Slightly muggy, a bit breezy, 75 to 90 degrees (F) during the day, cool at night. The sky is clear some days, but for the most part there is a constant overcast of smog. There has been only the occasional rain storm so far, but the wet season will be gearing up in a couple of months, at which point I’m told the whole city simply resigns to being in a constant state of damp-to-drenched.

What’s it like teaching English?

Not like what I expected. I work for an agency that contracts me out to private schools around the city. Right now I teach at a primary school, working with first through fourth graders, and I will soon be picking up two high school classes. My schedule is set, but it’s not 9-to-5, and I work about 17 hours a week (most teachers don’t push more than 25 hours a week). The commutes can be challenging, depending on the time of day, but being stuck in traffic provides more than enough eye candy to break up the monotony of being stuck in traffic. I am probably grossly overpaid considering my qualifications, but Saigon is desperate for English teachers and because I’m a native speaker a premium is paid merely for my classroom presence (more on teaching later).

What’s your favorite day-off activity?

Getting lost. There is nothing more exciting than jumping on my motorbike, picking a direction, and heading out into the streets of Saigon to discover new neighborhoods and the ever-elusive better cup of cafe sua da. Of course, without a smartphone equipped with GPS and Google Maps, this undertaking would be madness, so perhaps the phrase “getting lost” is a bit of an exaggeration.

Buddha’s House No. 7

Saigon Nights

Saigon is an insane, fascinating, dirty, beautiful, noisy, intimidating, non-stop, anything-can-happen kind of city. It’s more than a sprawl of urban bustle: it’s a frame of mind, a point of reference, a lens through which to view Vietnam.

After our return from Con Dao, Arron and I had less than two days to explore the city before he left back for the States. We holed up in a better-than-decent hotel in District 1, hit up a spa for amazing massages, ate a few solid meals, made a couple friends, learned how to cross the street (tip: don’t stop), and regularly looked around in awe at this one-of-a-kind, intoxicating metropolis.