Sài Gòn and Sensory Overload

Sài Gòn — It is overwhelming  It is exhilarating.  It is life.  And I am loving every moment.

I’m sitting in my room only 72 hours after landing in Sài Gòn.  (Hồ Chí Minh city is the official name but most people we have run into refer to it with the name that I grew up with in newscasts).  It has been a whirlwind.

We hit the ground running despite spending 25 hours in transit.  After our plane landed around 11am local time, we took a couple hours to drop off our bags and shower before heading off on two motorbikes with local guides for a tour of street food in four of Sài Gòn’s districts.  Tony and I will both be blogging on that later but it was the perfect immersion.  We got FAR from typical tourist haunts, tried a wide variety of Vietnamese delicacies and got a real sense of the city.

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It is literally too much to take in – of course nagging exhaustion, tropical heat and jet lag doesn’t help.  For me, however, it is easy to sum up my experience in Sài Gòn – sensory overload.  This is an exceptionally vibrant city filled with contradictions at every turn.  I posted a few images on Instagram of dilapidated housing apartment complexes dating from 1968 and immediately realized that many of the viewers would assume that defines this city.  While I found those scenes of street life stirring, they do not define the city.   No single image and no portrait I try to paint with this blog could.  Just contrast that scene with the vibrant vista of tall modern buildings dazzlingly lit at night.

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I am daunted by trying to convey my experiences.  I am seeing these scenes through a tourist’s eyes that will only have a handful of days to digest and make sense of what we are experiencing.  We go from learning the tricks of making bánh kớt, to talking to a war veteran in a park, to riding on a sắm pan in the Mekong delta to simply walking and walking and walking the streets of this vibrant city.

It is a wonderful cacophony.  The streets are filled with motorbikes and cars that weave and speed through intersections at a pace and with a determination that takes my breath away.  Walking across a street takes willpower, blind faith and a steady pace so that drivers can anticipate your moves and weave around you.

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Life is literally lived on the streets.  “Street food” is typically cooked right on the sidewalk.  You simply pull up a small plastic chair and wait for a piece of culinary heaven as people step around you.  Ground floor apartments and small shops (often they are the same thing) are open to the road and your eyes are inevitably drawn to peer into the small homes and shops where children are playing, grandma is sleeping, and a craftsman is at work.  Privacy is not a concern and many conversations are carried out at a noise level that astounds me.

Right now, I’m sitting in my hotel room at 8am in the morning and music is blaring despite the fact that I’m 10 floors above the street.  Last night the air was filled with the sounds of a major soccer tournament playing on mega-screens in a park, crowds gathered to eat, argue and laugh, and the unveiling of a new movie with excited teens waiting for the stars to make an appearance.   All within ten blocks of our hotel.

It is overwhelming.  It is exhilarating.  It is life.  And I am loving every moment.

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