People of Saigon
Hot, crowded, sprawling, throbbing with hordes of people and scooters in constant motion at all hours of the day: that is Saigon. As though intent on snatching the title of City Who Never Sleeps from New York, Vietnam’s largest city never rests.
Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976,
but it’s still commonly referred to as Saigon. I prefer its original name – for me, it holds a connotation of exotic allure, maybe because I spent a year of my early teens listening to the haunting Miss Saigon soundtrack on a daily basis.
Fast forwarding back to the setting of this story: it was early February 2015, and I was in Vietnam for 48 hours. Of course Vietnam deserves much more than 48 hours … spectacular mountains, lush rice terraces, tranquil beaches, Halong Bay, the list goes on and on. I would have happily spent a month here, or maybe two or three. But I was on the tail end of a two week Asian getaway, spent mostly in Cambodia and constrained by limited vacation days, and I wanted at least a taste of Saigon. Literally, a taste of pho, and spring rolls, and bánh mì, and vermicelli noodles, and Vietnamese coffee. If I did nothing more than eat and drink my way through the city, I would have been perfectly happy. As it turns out, though the food was extraordinary and the coffee delicious, Saigon’s best feature was its people.
They captured by heart little by little. It started with the grandfatherly man who risked his life to save the hat that blew off my head as I was dashing across a downtown crosswalk (the only way to cross a street in downtown Saigon: sprinting at top speed during any rare gap in the fast-paced flow of traffic). I glanced back as my lovely straw hat floated to a rest in the middle of the street and for a brief moment contemplated turning back to rescue it. Faced with the approaching onslaught of a humming pack of scooters, I decided the hat wasn’t worth dying for and continued my sprint to safety on the sidewalk. Yet this gentle man, a complete stranger to me, instantly chose to risk life and limb to rush to the middle of the street as the scooter pack bore down on him, yelling to me and waving the hat in the air with one hand while signaling the scooters to stop with the other. Some drivers braked, some swerved to go around him, narrowly avoiding collision with him and each other. I turned back to gratefully accept the hat from his outstretched hand, yelling thank you in English and Vietnamese over the noise of the traffic and waving goodbye as we each raced back to our respective sides of the street, me happy to be reunited with my hat for the shade it offered against the heavy noon sun, and even happier for the surprising, kind, selflessness of his act.
Next there was the street vendor selling coconuts
for approximately US$1.25 out of a small cooler. Coconuts carved charmingly into ivory-colored ovals, with the tops partially sliced open to allow colorful straws to reach the cool, refreshing liquid inside – an intensely appealing sight after a few hours of city heat. This man could have been just any coconut-selling street vendor, but there was something unique that set him apart from all the rest: his astonishing enthusiasm for the job. I don’t believe any street vendor anywhere in the history of life on this planet has ever been more excited to sell someone something. You would have thought my friend and I had handed him a winning lottery ticket instead of the $2.50 we negotiated for two coconuts. His smile made us smile and when we asked him to pose with us for pictures he happily obliged, with two enthusiastic thumbs up. I wish we had paid him more.
Especially because less than a half hour later, my purse was yanked unceremoniously off my shoulder by a man on a fast-moving scooter who zipped past me on the sidewalk, snatched the bag and was a hundred yards away before I had time to blink. The locals had warned me that purse snatchings were common, but I underestimated how easy it would be for someone to break my grip on the handle, with the elements of surprise and engine-powered momentum on their side.
This was an inconvenient turn of events,
given that all of my credit cards, cash, driver’s license, phone and camera were inside the bag. In this city where petty theft is known to be rampant, not a great plan to be carrying all of this with me. Obviously.
But that experience led me to the next group of lovely people of Saigon: the staff of the Intercontinental Hotel, which happened to be down the street from where my purse and I were separated. My hotel room key along with the sleeve marked with the room number was in my purse, so my creative imagination promptly played the worst case scenario for me on the screen of my mind: the thief taking himself straight to my hotel room where he would proceed to abscond with all of my remaining belongings: suitcase, laptop, passport and all.
Hence, my first priority was to deactivate the card as soon as possible. My hotel was halfway across town, so the Intercontinental and its English-speaking staff beckoned like an oasis in the desert.
When I explained the dire situation to the woman at the front desk, she told me sympathetically “I’m sorry that happened. We are sorry that you come to visit our country and receive such a bad impression.” She promptly called my hotel to alert them to deactivate my card, then graciously showed me the way to the business center so I could use their computers to cancel my credit cards, where they also offered me their phones to make several long distance calls to the credit card companies. All this red carpet treatment knowing I wasn’t a paying guest, just a random American tourist who happened to wander in off the streets.
The caring concern by hospitality staff continued the next morning at my hotel. Apparently word of the purse-napping had spread, because when I installed myself with my laptop at one of the lobby tables, one of the charming front desk employees came over to tell me with a tone of genuine concern “I heard about your accident yesterday, I am really sorry about that. Are you okay?” He then spent half an hour helping me hunt down the one and only Western Union location in Saigon that was not closed for the Lunar New Year – the one at the post office – where I could retrieve the money my boyfriend had wired me.
During my walk from the hotel to the post office, I encountered a man standing next to a parked scooter on the sidewalk where I had to stop and wait for a break in traffic to cross the street. He gave me a big smile and asked if I wanted a ride. Secretly I did, but since I had no money I replied, no thank you. Not taking my no for an answer, he pulled out a black leather-bound book filled with pages and pages of photographs of him posing with happy smiling tourists, flanked by handwritten notes describing the fantastic experiences the tourists had had with him, along with dates and signatures. He had put a lot of care into his production of the book – the photos were good quality and the notes were lengthy, sincere and flattering. I complimented him on the book but explained I was just going to the post office and didn’t have any money because my wallet had been stolen. He took a look at the traffic whizzing past us and seemed to feel that he didn’t want me to walk. He said, the post office less than one kilometer, very close. I take you for free and maybe you call me later.
A free scooter ride sounded too good to pass up, so I hopped on the back of his vehicle and off we went. Minutes later, he deposited me safe and sound in front of the post office. (If you ever happen to need scooter transportation in Saigon, this man’s name is Manh and his cell phone number is (09 36440310.)
Last but not least of the kind-hearted Vietnamese who crossed my path was another hotel employee. This one I found after a taxi dropped me off on Ton That Thiep St. near the alleged location of the Temple Club. I say alleged because after exiting the taxi, I could find no trace of the restaurant. I wandered into the nearest hotel in search of help, which happened to be the Duxton Hotel Saigon. The gentleman at the front desk confirmed that I had the right address and that the Temple Club was in fact still there. Puzzled, I told him “So strange, I didn’t see it.” He replied, “You want me to show you? I show you?” And without hesitation, he deserted his air-conditioned post to escort me out the door and across several scorchingly hot sunny blocks back to where I started, where he pointed out a nearly invisible “Temple Club” sign ten feet or so down a small alleyway that I would never have spotted on my own even if my life or the fate of the world depended on it.
He didn’t have to walk me all the way there. I didn’t expect him to and all he stood to gain from his efforts was the chance to break a sweat in his black suit in the scorching afternoon heat. He wouldn’t even accept the tip I offered him. And thanks to his kindness, I got to enjoy a delicious, beautiful meal at the Temple Club.
As for the stealing of my purse, in the end it was no big deal. I spent the remaining two days of my trip without a phone, which turned out to be a liberating and therapeutic experience. My company replaced the phone as soon as I got home. All of my credit cards were quickly replaced; there were no unauthorized charges. I did have to buy a new camera, but that wasn’t the end of the world.
The stealing of my heart by the many Vietnamese people so willing, ready and happy to help me had a much bigger impact on me. As far as I could see, the common denominator they all shared was simply an innate, natural desire to be kind and help a stranger just because they could. It occurred to me later that this natural human instinct to help is something that connects and bonds together and protects all humanity, stretching under us a like a giant safety net and around us like a warm blanket. Selfless, natural, effortless: just one human being helping another, just because we are both human and we are here together in this mysterious experience we call life.
Sometimes humans do horrible things to each other too. But when humanity shows its good side, it’s really a beautiful thing.
More than the places I saw and the food I tasted, the kindness these people showed me is the part of my trip that stayed with me most vividly, and those are the memories of my 48 hours in Vietnam that will remain painted on my heart forever.