Saigon Is For The Swift
Updated: Mar 1
They come out at dusk every evening - hundreds of swifts flying in the reddening sky. At least I think they're swifts - someone in the office told me they're bats. They spiral around in a beautifully choreographed dance, much like the moped drivers who circle madly and gracefully around Saigon.
I've been here for a week and I haven't seen a single accident. I'm proud to say that I've walked 150,000 steps around the city in 10 days and have yet to have been hit by anything. The operating principle, if drivers in Saigon can be said to have one, seems to be that one should act as if the obstacle in front of you doesn't exist, whether it's a reversing dump truck, a Mercedes Maybach, or a granny on a bicycle. A left turn into traffic is an act of faith, across 8-10 lanes of mopeds and bicycles and cars and trucks all giving you exactly the right amount of time, and no more, to pass in front of them. It's beautiful and terrifying, an organic dance of death.
So Saigon moves at the speed of the swift (or the bat). There is no room for indecision: Prufrock would have been killed at the first intersection he tried to cross. Vietnam is a coffee culture, and a hot white will keep you buzzing for the rest of the day (I had one before my first class and didn't stop talking until the 90 minutes were over).
Teddy pointed out that we are exactly 12 hours away from the Eastern Time Zone, which makes us night to America's day, chaos to its order, yin to its yang. Except that here everything is colorful, optimistic, and vibrant, while in the towns of the Eastern Time Zone there is fear and hatred, and the gray anxiety of a European war. There are COVID babies everywhere in Saigon, all less than 2 years old, proudly wheeled around by couples on the move (or seated uncertainly on a moped pillion). And they all want their children to be vaccinated - Vietnam takes this shit seriously. Here are some public service advertisements next to the Cathedral:
The city is building a metro, a university, and a vast marina. In the back alleys of the less touristy districts there are children playing with small dogs, girls getting their nails done, fruit sold by the wagon load, women idly scrolling through their iPhones while preparing dinner, and the ever-present motorcycle repair shop with four young men sitting around a Triumph drinking Tiger beer. There is happiness here.
I didn't recognize it at first, having not generally seen it in Ohio for so long. There is contentment and grace: in the small boy with the heaping pyramid of donuts waiting for the bus who told us how much to pay for a bus ticket, in the woman in the ao dai making sure that I knew which shopping basket was for foreign mail at the Central Post Office, in the man at the bar on the island where we were stranded after the last waterboat left, who told us in precise English that the bus stop was "200 meters straight ahead and then to the right." I, of course, went to the left - some things never change.
One great advantage of living on the other side of the world is that we get to experience things first. Everyone in the US woke up to the shock of 2/22/22 when I had had the feeling all day already. Teddy and I signed a reservation form to use the "BBQ pit" (just a grill and some chairs) and I started back when I saw the date I had printed. The receptionist asked for 1M Dong to reserve the grill but I think my reaction to the date convinced her that I wasn't going to steal it so she let me keep the deposit. That was a good thing, because Teddy had to go through both our wallets to come up with the money (it's about $50 and we were both running low on cash). Barbeques must be a big party thing here - we just wanted to hang and grill chicken and green peppers and Teddy made some amazing rice. He's a very good cook - it was one of the most satisfying meals I've had in a long time.
We bought the two white plates and the chopsticks for about $1 and the bowl was left by other BBQ users in the cupboards under the grill so I appropriated it, much to my own satisfaction. Teddy, good Buddhist that he is, says that we have to pay it back in some way so I left them the scrubber that I cleaned the grill with. The beer (Saigon's finest) is very refreshing and you can see that we are eating greens as well as rice and chicken. After the meal I scrubbed the BBQ down thoroughly (because I told the receptionist I would) and went for a swim with my new goggles (also found in the cupboards under the sink - a treasure trove).
The oven-ready Tupperware is from LocknLock which I affectionately call LocknLoad in the Crescent Mall, a giant uber-American monstrosity of 5 floors with all the shops arranged by theme (electronics in one area for Teddy's computer cord, glasses in one area for my alcohol spray and a cloth, sneakers in one area for my new FILAs). There's a train that goes around the mall for small children and a very good coffee shop on each (!) of the 5 floors. We got the sweet little navy blue oven mitt in the BBQ picture from there too.
The reason the meal was so satisfying was that it was a reward for teaching my first class since Finland (i.e. the first class since the pandemic started). And in some ways it was a mess - the camera for the Zoom people kept swiveling to look at the students instead of the whiteboard, so the Zoomers had to raise their hands via "Reactions" to tell me they couldn't see anything, reactions I only noticed when a student who was actually in the class pointed them out (we eventually taped the camera down - score one for humans over machines). One of the Zoomers lost her internet connection and had to be readmitted only when another student (probably the same one) pointed out that "Admit" was showing up on my Zoom screen. The 360-degree microphone only worked if you actually stayed near the 360-degree microphone, something I wasn't likely to do. The video feed would cut out at random: these are all regular things which ought to have been child's play to someone like me. I've loaded an actual film projector to show a Bergman movie to 400 people while teaching them how to sing "Dona Nobis Pacem" in a three-part round. But I'm rusty and the technology is new to me. Still, the university's very refreshing: here's the entirety of the Administrative Wing (Provost, Provost's Executive Assistant, Dean, Dean's Assistant).
The students are delightful - 9 real ones, all named after flowers and mountains, and 3 virtual ones, who tried diligently to keep up in two cases, and checked out completely in the other. That last one (whose camera was always in shadow) wrote a response on Bong Joon-Ho's Parasite that compared the film to Emily Dickinson's "I Am Nobody, Who Are You?" There is a third-year who wants to take an independent study on "Joyce, Eliot, Pound, an introduction to poetry and the philosophy of literature," which would take me seven lifetimes to teach properly. There is a pianist who wants to know how I came to my musical education, and how I use music in my writing about literature. These are not questions I'm used to getting from students on any day, let alone on the first day.
When the class was over, and I had spoken nonstop, ending with a flourish on invisibility as a function of inequality, the students clapped (I told them never to do that again) and sat without moving for another 10 minutes. I asked them if they were waiting for me to leave or something and one said "we just want to be here - don't worry about us." Me too, Minh Anh. Me too.
Updates: My uncle, who is an avid Falconer, says that they are "DEFINITELY" bats. Minh Anh, bless her, dropped the course because she needed something for her Arts Major. To see more photos of the trip, head over to Saigon Photos.