Our second day in Saigon (a name still used interchangeably with Ho Chi Minh City) began early, basically as the sun rose. For my complimentary breakfast I opted for sweet and delicious banana pancakes, and even more delicious iced coffee. The Vietnamese drink their coffee rather sweet, with a generous amount of sugar and milk. Yet the end result is not overwhelmingly saccharine and the distinct notes of a robust coffee bean still come through pleasantly. I must have exclaimed “This is so good!” at least a dozen times during breakfast. Without exaggeration, it was probably the best cup of coffee I can remember.
The idea to walk to the park we had passed through on our way to the market had occurred to me the day before – not only was I enchanted with the idea of people-watching the groups of locals dancing and playing badminton, but I also wanted a chance to catch up on my journaling on one of the many park benches sheltered by the shade of towering trees. I convinced our friend from Northern Ireland, Daniel, to accompany me on the short stroll, and we set off around ten AM. Almost the moment we walked into the park, two young locals began to approach us. Jaded from our previous day’s experience of being harassed in the market, my guard went up immediately. I was already preparing to give the hand signal for no (an open palm held horizontally and quickly rocked back and forth…quite similar to the American gesture for so-so), when Daniel quietly informed me that they were students hoping to practice English and that he had seen this before in Thailand. He was correct. Reading from a handwritten script in a small spiral notebook, they asked in heavily accented English if we were willing to help improve their pronunciation of two short sentences: “Everything is ready” and “Practice makes perfect.” We spent several minutes going over these phrases with them, during which they improved remarkably. At the beginning of our informal tutoring session, one of the students had been nearly incomprehensible, but after only a short while with us he sounded as if he had been studying English for years. Afterwards, they asked for our signatures and to take a photo with us to prove that they really had completed the assignment.
Proof that they had truly practiced English does not seem all that necessary – the youth of the city are eager to learn and practice the language. I did not even get a chance to open my notebook once we had found a bench we found agreeable before we were approached by another group of students in under a minute. This group was larger, between seven to eight students, and rather than asking to work on simple sentences, they wanted to have a more natural conversation. Although they occasionally struggled to find the word they were looking for and often broke off mid-sentence to confer quietly in Vietnamese, they asked an impressive array of questions such as where I am from, what I thought of Vietnam and its people, differences in our education systems, and what I had planned for my future. As we spoke, other locals walking by stopped to join us, either to simply observe or to jump into the conversation. At one point we had nearly fifteen people standing around us as we sat and answered questions on our park bench…I felt like a celebrity!
We spoke with our new friends for nearly an hour and a half, then headed back to the hostel around noon when the heat began to become unbearable. I am still not yet used to the ridiculous flow and speed of scooter traffic. As someone who is frequently left behind when my friends make a dash across an American road, I practically break out in a cold sweat whenever I have to cross a street here. Daniel remedied my hesitation by literally dragging me by the hand and commanding “Steady pace! Steady pace!” To be fair, the drivers of Ho Chi Minh City are incredibly skilled. Despite lanes and stop lights seeming to be more of suggestions than actual rules of the road, the chaotic scene remains inexplicably organized. While scooter drivers weave in and out wherever a space becomes available in the choked road, taxi drivers honk to warn of their presence, and pedestrians walk with a trusting knowledge that they will be avoided. I have yet to see a single accident, whereas in America everyone would be maimed and mangled within seconds of starting.
Once back at the hostel, I finally got a chance to work on our beloved blog and after a short nap (okay, after a three hour nap), I was ready for the obligatory happy hour. Time passes quickly when in the company of such a variety of interesting guests as can be found at the Long Hostel, and before I knew it the clock struck midnight and we were shooed from the lobby to continue our socializing outside. Lanza and I set off in search of food and when we had ventured a mere two streets southeast we discovered a bustling bar district. Every demographic was represented: drunk tourists, drunk locals, small children running after one another, old men slurping noodles, vendors hawking various wares. Competing bass lines blared from bars with tables full of patrons spilling into the streets, neon lights flashed from every angle, and attractive Vietnamese girls in teensy outfits tempted those walking by to come inside with flirtatious waves and smiles. Halloween is celebrated here, to my surprise, and several nights before the actual holiday both tourists and locals alike sport face make up, masks, and devil horns. After eating a bowl of pho (obviously), we fought our way down the length of the street. If the streets are typically an organized chaos, here the chaos is raw and pure, brash and unapologetically selfish. Taxi drivers and scooters dare you to flinch as you do your best to avoid both them and the bleary-eyed Draculas and sexy cats holding beers in the street. Before setting off in search of food, I had been growing sleepy and had not even contemplated seeing what the night life of the city had to offer. But walking through the din of the crowd, I soaked up the neon energy like a sponge and was ready to party. I found a small crowd outside the hostel and managed to lure one away with the promise of a good time. We found a bar where the music level was tolerable (all American pop songs from the early 2000’s…I was in heaven!) and even though the beer was nearly five times more expensive than back at the hostel, we had such a good time talking amongst ourselves and locals who invited us to their tables that we hardly realized how much time had passed until the sun started to peek over the horizon. Time flies when you’re having fun, but it flies even faster when there is no last call!