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Saigon summer

Khoa Pham, Guest Contributor

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“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking…” The announcements went on for a couple of minutes and then faded into the void. And as I turn and take a look around at those strangers on the same flights, their eyes, either fully awake or half-sleep, half-awake, are full with joy for through the plane’s windows, they had seen their hometown.

 

I spent most of the days of my vacation here in Saigon, the city where I was born, grew up, smiled and cried, and fell in love with. But if you look at a map of modern day Vietnam, it’s impossible to find a city named Saigon simply because it isn’t there anymore. Instead, you will see Ho Chi Minh City in its place. Yet, I, and many others, still prefer the name Saigon because of its simply beautiful and free meanings. Saigon means the “Pearl of the East,” and it was given that name during the French Colonial period. But after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it changed to Ho Chi Minh city in honor of the leader of the Communist Party, just like Lafayette is named after a French general. But the name is not as beautiful as “Saigon”. Because just as an oyster seals its wound with its blood and body and transforms that wound into a pearl, Vietnamese people have sealed the bloody war behind to create a cosmopolitan city where everybody can find a spot of themselves.

 

Saigon is not a good travel destination compared to many places in Vietnam or Asia because it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a place to live, work, and fight, so it would be hard to see the beauty of life in Saigon if you aren’t in the flow or are just passing by the city. Saigon is divided into 24 districts; 12 go by number, and the others go by name, and each is like a totally different country of its own. Walking from district to district is an amazing things to do, for you will see how different are the infrastructures, lifestyle and how the people work and associate with each other, yet they’re only 2 miles apart. For example, District 1, the center of the city, has a lot of French-style buildings that are left behind after the war and squares while only a few blocks away, District 3 is filled with trees, small one-way streets and slug-style coffee shops. We do have a bus system that runs all over the city. Moreover, taxi and cab drivers fill the streets like ants surroundings their sweets; so if your legs are tired and needs a chair, just put your hand up in the air and one will come to you in less than 3 minutes.

 

However, don’t think Saigon is small city just because I told you that you will see a lot of changes in the life style, I spent 24 hours just walking around the city and barely finished all the main roads of just 3 districts. Saigon is about 16 times larger than Lafayette in term of area. Yet, two things are always the same here in Saigon no matter which district you’re in, the crazy traffics and the obsession with coffees. When I asked my American friends that I just met what is the first word you think about when you hear the name “Vietnam,” the second most common answer I got, right after “What?” is motorbikes. Saigon has about one-sixth of the number of motorbikes of the entire country, which is around 6 million and growing (Let us refresh our memory and remember that Lafayette has a  car population of 130,000.)  Yet, during traffic hours, that number might seem a little bit less than what’s happening. Vietnamese people develop their culture around these little motorbikes. It’s very easy to see how the motorbikes have become part of the Vietnamese lifestyle. Take a look around and you’ll find drivers sleeping on their motorbikes under the heat of noon, people carrying their stuff to the market to sell or even an entire family of four on a small motorbike, eagerly going to the new park just opened down the street.

 

After inhaling lungs full of gas, get ready for your stomach to be full with coffee. We Vietnamese love our coffee, and coffee lovers from all over the world don’t seem to be disappointed when they come to Saigon (Mr. Duhon?). In the West, coffee has become a necessity on a daily basis for most people; so much so that most of the time, it just seems to flow right into our mouths without our realizing what we’re drinking. That’s not the case in Saigon. No matter how busy their schedules are, a Vietnamese people always seems to find time to sit down, smoke a few bars of cigarettes, chat with their friends, and enjoy their coffee. You cannot exhaust the coffee menu lists here in Saigon. This city has a plethora of coffee shops, and all of them are different from each other. A Starbucks (yes, we do have Starbucks) in a corner of a street can be opposite to a sidewalk coffee shop and right next to a more traditional one. Every corner, every street of this city has scent of coffee wafting through the air; always and always it’s there. It’s hard to find a city that can compete with the intensity of the coffee culture here in Saigon.

 

But what brings the city to life, what makes this place the cosmopolitan city it is today, is the people who live in it. Saigoneers are extremely friendly towards others. If you ask them directions, they’ll eagerly show you the way, and some will offer to take you to the location that you asked, if they know where it is. Of course there are some extremely unpleasant people just like anywhere else on the planet, so don’t take one and judge the rest. Everybody here works, and they work a lot. It might not seem so on the streets, but try walking into a market or a hospital and you’ll feel the adrenaline rushing through your body, even though you’re just standing there and observing. Due to the business of life here in Saigon, Vietnamese have learned to enjoy life while working. In a market, it’s impossible not to see two ladies that are working on different jobs chat with each other for hours. After they meet, they start to “8” with each other and just like the number 8 turned horizontal, once they sit down beside each other in the market and works right next to each other, their conversation seems to have no end. It could start from dawn to midnight and continue the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and into infinity. (8 is slang for chat in Vietnamese). Youth are no exception from the business of life here in Saigon. Studying life here seems to have no end. Most students take extra classes after school that can run till 10 o’clock at night, and summer is not a vacation. To the majority it’s extra classes and testing season. So during summer, it’s not hard to spot college students volunteer in the blue shirts, helping the younger ones with their high school and college entry exams. Life here doesn’t seem to stop, or even chill, but that’s the beauty of Saigon. Saigon would not be the place it is right now without each of its citizens trying their hardest.

 

I did not discuss food in this post, for I think it’d be better if you eat the food yourself and this post have been long enough (for anyone who has read the entire blog, there’s a really good pho restaurant behind Golden Corral on Ambassador Caffery Parkway).There are plenty of blogs writing about Vietnamese cuisine out there that I’d definitely recommend you to check out. Moreover, it’s very easy to find Vietnamese foods right here in Lafayette since the Vietnamese community here is quite large. Just grab a Vietnamese friend or other Asian friends, they all know some good places to get Vietnamese cuisine (I am unavailable until after graduation, please don’t call me.)

 

Saigon is a mess, I’ll admit that, but it’s full of potential to become something beautiful. Two years away from it, and it still give me nostalgia every day. I don’t think I can forgot this city no matter how long I spent in another place. Saigon my hometown, summer 2017.

 

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Saigon summer