Smiling from the customs “line” to the baggage claim, I meet my taxi driver in the sweltering Saigon air as I read his sign declaring my name. Vietnam was meant for me. We walk to his car and spe\ed off, my smile becoming increasingly massive. Everything is so familiarly unfamiliarly. I am home.
I let the heated wind fan my face as I soak up this new city. Ho Chi Minh is what would occur if Dar-es-Salaam and Tokyo had a love child. An Asian developing metropolis. The 5 story buildings are miniature compared to Tanzanian apartments but they still escalate in the same way – hastily built with minimal building codes. The written language is the Arabic of Asia – absolutely beautiful. I haven’t bothered to learn any Vietnamese for two reasons 1) Our last anatomy exam was the day before I flew out and 2) I can’t be bothered anymore. One week will leave me with the chance to know so little, I’d rather embrace my ignorance than wallow in it.
Elated to be abroad, I stay up till 2 am in my bed chatting with my hostel-mates, messaging everyone who loves me to give them my “safe in Vietnam” text, and reading. Reading is one of the things I miss most during medical school. Not only do I not have the time, I lack the mental stamina and focus to comprehend the written word when I climb into bed at 11pm. My reading habits have gone to shit and I hold medical school accountable. For that reason, I brought exactly 1 Amazon Kindle and 3 actual books on this trip. Needless to say, I’m always over ambitious and seriously over packed. My worn back muscles have learned not to complain.
In the morning, I fight the urge to stay in bed all day after 30 hours of sleep deprivation. I win the battle. After chatting up my British roommate, I inquire as to the best phở place nearby. Boy, it is nearby. I walk a few hundred meters before immersing myself in the bowl of noodles, beef, basil leaves, and bean sprouts. I let the world zip past my eyes and slow it down in my mind. Pikipikis (Swahili for motorcycle) are more than abundant – they dominate the road in the most unobtrusive way. They swoon and sway around all the other bus and cars that could squash them without a scratch. They don’t hesitate when passing through herds of people, foreigners. Helmeted of not, young or old, burdened with 5 bags of vegetables or a child, they make the chaos that is the HCMC look like a game of maze. I have not seen one accident. (Although I don’t doubt that they occur frequently.)
I don’t find the tummy space to sip the remaining broth, instead stealing glances at the Vietnamese couple slurping their phở next to me and trying to determine their style of consumption. They appear less aggressive than the Japanese in their technique. As women walk up to sell gadgets, lottery tickets, hammocks, I bid them away with a smile. I missed this. Across the street, a women with a bike cart full of fruit just pulled up and already she is weighing out bags for local shop owners. I’m tempted to buy a kilo despite having no idea which type of fruit it is. I will soon.
After breakfast/lunch/whatever, I have time to kill before our tour to Cu Chi tunnels. Meandering the hot, bustling streets with a foreign language posted on every billboard and hand written sign, I reminisce about Peace Corps. This is Dar 2.0. I miss being able to speak the language but understanding was a burden at the same time. I take solace in my ignorant bliss. It’s nice to be able to turn off the language comprehension side of your brain. Peace out, Wernicke’s. I think that I grasp more of the sights, sounds and smells this way. And boy does the city smell like a city – sweet fruit, rotting vegetables, frying food, uncooked meat – it bundles together in wafting waves of pungency that I miss when I live in Chicago. This city is alive.