They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from.
Michael Caine, (not Graham Greene) The Quiet American
South must lead Southwards, North must lead Northwards and, inevitably, East must lead Eastwards and, I suppose, that might lend a vague continuity in the move from Moscow to Saigon. In truth, it’s about the only continuity there is.
It’s January and already the heat is suffocating. To move is to sweat. It almost feels that you need to chew the air before swallowing. Everywhere, down every alley and along every road comes the roar of mopeds. I can’t think of a collective noun for mopeds, a stampede seems about right, but the noise and the energy is unremitting. Nothing stops, ever. Saigon just keeps on moving.
In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that’s felt so alive. The whole city buzzes with the sheer energy of life. It’s there, in everything, from the hustlers selling you dope on Bui Vien to the crowds packed tight photographing one another in front of the New Year flower displays at Nguyen Hue.
It can be, it was, it is, overpowering. For a time, I wasn’t even sure if I could last and now, after just a week, I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. This place could never, can never, be home, and I think I need that. Saigon will always belong to the other. I can no more belong here than roses could grow in the Antarctic. Obviously, part of this is physical, I’m unlikely to ever pass as Vietnamese. However, there’s a more significant difference than that, there’s a mental gulf here that I can’t imagine ever crossing. Everything here is alien. That cuts two ways; I am as alien to here as here is to me and that suits me perfectly. For now, I want to remain the visitor. I want to look from the out and see the in.
Let’s go back – way, way back – to windows and the magical. I wrote something about this in Poland. I think, I could check, but I’m too lazy, it was something about hearing swing music through a window and some children playing. Fast forward nearly two years; those sounds are now the sounds of an anonymous vietnamese crooner singing what to me sounds like a traditional song, whilst a group of Vietnamese chat amiably in a language that manages to be both guttural and musical at the same time. I have to remind myself that this is my life now. That now, at least for a year, this is my new reality. And this brings me back to The Amazing, (and back to capitalizing it). It’s alive here. Christ, this already feels like it’s home address. It lives here. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m a million miles away from right, but I can’t imagine this ever being home. Saigon, Vietnam, all of it, I can’t imagine this being anything other than amazing.