Motorbikes zipped through intersections, up onto sidewalks, and down alleyways. Are they honking at me? A friend had warned me about crossing the streets in Vietnam, and within the first 30 seconds of seeing the chaos I understood why. As we dodged, stopped and ran our way from sidewalk to sidewalk, I wondered what else in Vietnam would exceed my expectations.
We were wandering about District 1, the most expensive ward in Ho Chi Minh, when we stumbled upon one of the city’s notable crossings: Ben Thanh Market. There was nothing comfortable about shopping in this fair. People were everywhere, pulling and pushing us to buy trinkets and knickknacks of every variety. The air was hot and unfamiliar smells lingered around every pile of souvenir t-shirts. The bustle was lively, foreigners and local merchants mashed up against each other, shouting prices back and forth in a sticky cloud of noise. The makeshift booths were all so smashed together I could hardly make it through an aisle without my backpack taking down a tower of knock-off sunglasses.
Through the maze of fabrics, jewelry, and wood carvings, we finally came to one side of the building that opened to an outdoor aquarium. The alley smelled of dead fish and other ocean life still swimming in tubs lined up along the walkway. Mud colored fish, squid, and crabs where splashing around as men and woman cut and cleaned unidentifiable parts—washing the guts down onto the floor and into what I assume was a sewer. I saw rats the size of possums ducking in and out of view as I clicked away on my camera. In the adjacent building the same seafood was being prepared in steaming bowls of soup, rolled into rice paper, and layered into fresh baguettes. It was time for lunch.
I’ve always been pretty adventurous when it comes to cuisine, but the adventure in Vietnam surely begins with a lack of sanitation. It doesn’t smell like Lysol and lemon, no one wears gloves, and you feel like an asshole for privately thinking: how can they serve food like this? But they do, and it’s delicious.
We looked through the dingy plastic display cases for something to strike us, and after a few rounds about the different bar top kitchens, we sat and pointed to our lunch. One bite in, and I quickly stopped caring that the woman behind the counter was washing her dirty dishes in a tub on the floor with water that was cold and questionably without soap. I resolved that this would be good for me: I’m training my immune system to withstand third world bacteria. Plus, the earthly sweet spring rolls and peanut sauce were too delicious to stop eating.
For dessert I was immediately drawn to a counter serving what appeared to be hot-pink and acid-green in a glass. What is this? Though found in other Asian countries, Vietnamese Che is known for being particularly sweet—a blend of coconut milk, molasses, yogurt, and a rainbow of exotic fruit. I was feeling bold and asked for the durian, a fruit known for its pungent smell and acquired taste. A woman poured and layered her way to the top of the glass. It was heavenly. The soft fleshy body of the fruit was custard-like, and complimented the crushed pomelo and banana oil chilled with shaved ice. The drink/dessert looks amateur but has an elegant taste and texture—refreshing and fun.
Happy and full from our tour through Ben Thanh Market we decided to take a break in a dark, smoke-filled café with free WiFi. This is perhaps one of my favorite things to do while traveling: people watching and getting high on caffeine. And from the tinted, panoramic window it was a first-rate show.
A young Vietnamese boy was playing with his older brother in front of an electronics store. Used-looking cordless phones, alarm clocks and tape decks were spilling out onto the sidewalk like a 90s plastic flashback. The boy was maybe four or five-years-old and unusually porky. His round cheeks and cherub belly were fun to watch as he ran after his equally porky brother. They threw rocks at each other. Then, the young boy walked to the edge of the sidewalk, lifted up his shirt, pulled out his penis and pissed into the street—fully exposed while his father inside looked on. I couldn’t stop laughing.
I’m sure there comes a time in a young man’s life when this type of display becomes inappropriate, but in this moment I was glad to be in a place where children enjoyed such an unusual freedom.
As evening fell, it was time to move. We headed to a domestic terminal where we had a flight to catch to Hanoi. While waiting to pass through security, a cockroach the size of a mouse ran onto the floor, scaring the waiting people into frenzy. A man with closed-toed shoes kicked it across the terminal.
Our flight to Hanoi was delayed, which again sparked my anxiety into flashing images of me panhandling in rags to replace the passport I had lost after being robbed at gunpoint. After remembering to breath, I decided to count cockroaches while Mike read his book.
About an hour before departure we took seats in the cafeteria and fueled up with some instant noodles. I had my feet up on a chair, hugging my knees and resting up for what I knew would be another long night of traveling. I noticed a man eyeing me from across a few tables. I was sure I looked amazing—fatigue and sweating has that effect on me.
Mike went to the bathroom, and the man approached me.
“You should really get your feet off there,” he said. “It’s incredibly rude, you know. People have to sit there.”
I was shocked. Not because he said it in English, but because he made me feel like a jerk! But shock soon turned into anger. I was pissed. How could someone be angry with me for leaning my feet on a chair when there where monster cockroaches about? How dare I? How dare he!
Even though it’s far from the cleanest or most sanitary country, the Vietnamese have serious respect for cleanliness and social grace, at least, the outward appearance of it.
Mike came back from the bathroom.
“Did you wash your hands?” I quipped.
“No.” he said, “Why would I?”