It’s 9 am and I wake up abruptly. Every morning. As if I was late for work. I scramble in my mattress directly on the floor of my bedroom (the landlord had promised a bed base when I visited, but later denied ever saying this, so here we are) to extend my body enough to reach my phone and look at the time.
I only work in the mornings Saturdays and Sundays.
Every single morning I wake up with the horrible feeling that I’m late for something. For years now.
I groggily grab the remote for the AC and turn it off. I then slowly scramble to my feet and head to the bathroom for a much-needed pee. I pee sitting down, because every morning since the very day I turned 30, I wake up with stomach cramps and have to let out a huge fart.
I’ll then climb in the bathtub and take a quick, cold shower then brush my teeth, only dry my private parts and walk downstairs to brew myself a cup of delicious Vietnamese coffee. I can finally drink black coffee and it’s making me feel bad-ass. Like, noir detective badass.
I don’t dry most of my body because when I walk out of my room, it’s hot. We’re talking about 30 degrees Celsius already. The water drying up on me helps me stay cooler for a little while longer.
If I need to break my fast, I’ll jump on my motorbike right away, and drive slowly to the croissants spot of my neighborhood, or get a banh-mi. I live in District 2, a developing part of Ho Chi Minh city. It’s past a bridge that when I go over, I feel like I’m leaving the insanity of the city behind. It’s quieter and more expansive and so has been dubbed by the locals “Foreigner district”.
It’s also built on a swamp I believe. There’s huge cracks in the walls of the opulent French-inspired villas that cost as much here as back home – except when they build houses here they happily mix the concrete with sand and rocks here and again, it’s built on swamp land.
When I come out of my street – barely large enough for a car to drive on and lined with bamboo and trees, and thin, milk cartons 3-story houses – I have to be careful when I merge into the main road, named after the area where I live (Thao Dien) because cars, taxis, trucks and buses drive fast and don’t stop here.
Depending on the time of day, there might be some traffic piled up already. The street is just wide enough for a car and a motorbike to drive on each side, so when a taxi stops to pick up a client or someone parks on the side, the results are chaotic.
Also because the locals are very inconsiderate (The word considerate actually doesn’t exist in their language) there’s a tug-of-war conflict about who will go next down the street. Cars pile up for a mile.
I don’t know who mans the croissants place but they bake stuff twice a day and the Vietnamese girls working there in their little uniforms are super nice, always smiling, and not hard on the eyes. I get 2 croissants for $2 and get back on my bike after an old security guard has opened the door for me.
My motorbike seat is already scolding hot from the sun, even if it’s not even 10 am and it took me 2 minutes to complete my transaction.
I drive back and waste some time on my laptop until lunch. Usually on games.
As I spend most of my time home, I witness a sort of cycle of the city life. A woman on a motorbike loaded with brooms and dusters will slowly drive through our tiny street with a recorded message playing loudly on a radio. All the neighbors’ dogs will start barking or crying about 10 seconds before I can hear her.
I’ve long stopped thinking about the Siberian Huskies next door, living in the absolute worst place for its evolutionary heritage: a tropical climate with absolutely no place to run. It spends its days panting in the tiny front courtyard that all houses here have (I can see it from my bedroom balcony).
A few times a day, a small lady will ride by on a bicycle yelling “Haiiiiiiiiii ba!” repeatedly. I’ve asked several locals what it means. No one has any idea.
Which is pretty much how the whole country runs, it seems. How much for a visa? No idea, it changes every 3 weeks. Can you make a copy of this key? Yes, but I have no idea if it’s going to work. Can you come teach for us? When and where? No idea. Where’s your house? Go Vap district. What’s the main street so I can find it on Google Maps? No idea. Well actually most people don’t – cannot – say “No idea” due to some very mysterious concept of losing face. They’ll say yes to your question, or give you the wrong answer, instead of admitting they don’t know what you want to know.
I think you “lose more face” when you tell me the wrong answer, but whatever. I know I’m not going to change a thousand years of societal evolution in my lifetime.
Lunch can be several things, but I usually get the delicious broken rice and BBQ pork for $1 – even if I’ve learned that the rice is full of chemicals and the pork is shot full of hormones – or sometimes I’ll go get a $1 burrito from that super lovely couple that have been slowly improving their “restaurant” called Simple Place, just over the next street.
My afternoons are spent watching movies, lesson planning, running the occasional errand, and occasionally doing a short workout with water bottles and such. I have two fans running non-stop. There’s a shirt laid down behind me on the chair’s backrest because the part of my skin that touches the wood of the chair will sweat instantly.
Sometimes I go for a drive during the day. I’ve started to wear full pants and shoes because the heat is unbearable where it hits my skin directly for more than 10 minutes, any time from 9 am to 4 pm. I also stopped wearing tank tops outside, my shoulders thank me for it. I drive wearing a small tissue mask and every time I put it on the smell on the inside reminds me of going skiing with my parents. I also got goggles that look like snowboard gear because I got fucking sick and tired of getting sand and dust and rocks in my eyes and staring at sexy legs while I’m driving on already ridiculously and unnecessarily dangerous streets.
While I drive around I have to be on the lookout for other drivers cutting me off and braking in front of me for no discernible reason, for trucks and taxis and buses who drive way too fast and hard, don’t slow and honk non-stop, for shit laying in the middle of the road (sometimes I see a scandal or parts of a helmet and plastic glass from the motorbikes’ lights, telling me there was an accident here earlier).
Depending on the area where I am, I also have to watch out for people driving the wrong way, kids, dogs, cats and holes. And assholes.
And foreigners like me, who sometimes have not quite grasped how to cross a street.
Two days ago I went to a bookstore to get a new sketching pad. I was served by a lovely girl dressed in a pale pink Ao Dai, their classy/sexy traditional dress. You pronounce it Ao Yay in the South. There’s two D in their alphabet and “Đ” is the one that makes the same sound as ours. The other “D” is a Z in the North, and Y in the South. The clerk helped me with prices and she is literally the woman that smelled the best that I have met in my whole life.
A funny thing about customer service here is that a lot of the times we foreigners are served in a nicer way than the locals. Opposite of my hometown where if you don’t speak French you’ll get shit service. Here people are (outside of touristy areas) extra patient, extra polite, extra smiling, give you extra rice.
But all these niceties are ruined by the fact that you have to watch your money 100% of the time. All the time. Every day. You have to ask for the price. You have to triple-check before you buy something. You have to count your change. It’s fucking annoying, it’s really insulting, and it’s ruining many of my days.
Lastly, the concept of personal space is non-existent here. I know, Asia, duh, but still after a total of 3 years wandering around the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China and Vietnam I still experience strange and unique random encounters.
Here’s my favorite one.
My customer service buddy and good friend David was coming to visit. I said I would pick him up at the airport. I drive there, pick a spot at the right terminal and wait for him. I’m just standing there, a little bit away from the crowd of families waiting for their loved ones.
All of a sudden, a man of about 70 years comes and stands to my right. But like, right to my right. Our shoulders touched. I stared at him and without looking tried to take a step to the left – only to find another person standing there. His wife, it seemed. Immediate reflex: hands in pockets. I waited there a few seconds because I was literally stunned. Am I invisible? Then another family member, a lady in their 50s, came to stand between them, right in front of me. Our toes actually touched for a brief moment.
In a state of total disbelief I just stared incredulously at them, one by one. I thought: “Am I a campfire?” and then, the family started talking to each other. Only, I’m in the middle of everyone! They can’t even see each other but they just talk to each other like I’m not even there! Did I phase out of existence? Did I die on the way here?
I said hi to the man and waved my hand at him, at which point he blinked but continued talking.
I took a step backwards. Then another. Then another.
They just kept talking, like I never actually stood there.
One of the strangest moments of my life.