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Saigon: Love at first sight

Anya Weimann is having a love affair with Mr Minh.

It is not like me to fall in love with a city straight away. Certainly not with large crowded cities that are part of the international trail of tour-groups and backpackers. But when I got to Saigon and met Mr Minh, all my defenses were down. One look and the deal was done, this city would be mine, my one and only, my new number one.

By the time I got to Saigon, I’d already spent a while in Cambodia and I was in a state of Stendhal-syndrome shock from the saturated colours, the extraordinary sounds, the intense odours. Not to mention the fact that, in the days immediately before my Saigon arrival, I’d experienced a very intense flush of culture shock, including all these familiar symptoms like massive mood swings, approximately 11 power cuts per day in the village I was staying and some flash floods caused by monsoon season. Until then I thought I’d taken it all pretty calmly: no tantrums, no tears, only a few curses sent off via email or text message when the heat got too intense or the internet connection crashed yet again. But then I arrived in Saigon – a great square monolith, smooth and serenely geometric, buzzing vibrantly and promoting a flair française – I realised not only how much I needed a break from it all but also how much I needed a city in SE Asia I could call mine.

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While I lived quite simply over the past few months in Cambodia, I found myself overly excited about actually staying (or even lodging!)  in a real hotel. Upon arrival, the foyer is filled with several people but nobody seems to expect me to prove anything: no passport production, no elaborate explanations of how I have booked the room (which I hadn’t). I am simply ushered through the cool, quiet lobby, eased into an elevator and delivered to my room. On inspection I bewonder the bathroom that comes with a vintage-looking tube, the king-size bed, the flat-screen TV and the matching interior design, all in shades of grey, beige and brown, like stones from a riverbed. For some reason I have to think of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…” Once deprived, ordinary things can turn into extraordinary items and I am no exception to that, getting all excited over the interior design of a standard room. I step on the corridor and stare outside the window, taking in Saigon’s breath-taking skyline and the picture perfect sunset cast over Vietnam’s largest city. Watching the 10 million little lights of Dĩ An, Biên Hòa and Thủ Dầu Một district glitter in the dark, I have no doubts that Saigon is indeed the most populous metropolitan area in the country.

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Back inside I treat myself to a bubble bath; I drink chilled Sauv Blanc and eat Kinderchocolate I discovered in the corner shop close by. And read a few pages of Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ the book – my bible – I spotted in the little bookshop downstairs. I do all these trivial things that I haven’t done in a long, long time. Another sign that this city is mine! Some time later I run my hands over the artisan rugs and the soft leather furniture and the pure cotton sheets, some meaningless activities that end up putting me to sleep. And during that 1st night, I’m ashamed to say, I fall in love – with Saigon.

Another day. At dawn I pull myself together and venture out to put my new love to the test. I am on a mission to navigate through the city without using a map, just letting my gut instinct and the endless cable cords along the streets guide me … right into the arms of Mr Minh. Mr Minh is the friendliest moto driver I’ve met to that day. Having pity with someone looking as lost as me, Mr Minh steps forward and offers his moto service. Even though he seems quite nice and extraordinarily polite for a moto driver, I decline as I prefer to discover Saigon by foot and not a set of wheels. Surprisingly he understands, confessing that he prefers his “set of feet over a set of heels.” That expression makes me smile and breaks the ice. I stop for a while and we chat about our lives and all else. In the end Mr Minh pulls out some photographs of his family. There is Mrs Minh, smiling as she holds baby Minh. Then there’s family Minh at Christmas. And another one with baby Minh taking its 1st steps. In the end he delivers me safely across the chaotic intersection on top of September Park, handing me his business card and wishing me ”luck and happiness for life.”

A little later a monsoon literally sweeps me into Warda Lounge, a Moroccan style restaurant hidden in the very corner of Mac Thi Buoi, a small alley sheltered away from the main street. Entering the gateway feels like slipping into another world – welcome to 1001 nights! The atmosphere is intriguing, the food is amazing and the waiters are very attentive. Once the pouring rain has stopped I feel safe enough to leave the lounge and venture back out into the real world. As soon as I reach the river side of Saigon, another monsoon sets in. Within seconds I am soaked and seek some shelter in a self-made tent, consisting of several plastic rugs tied together. As it turns out the tent belongs to a modern-day Samaritan called Bao and his baby boy who not only offer me a smile but also a raincoat to, “Keep warm, Miss.” I take the coat and look around the tent – it seems that the raincoat is the man’s only possession – apart from the tent, little Hien and the chair he sits on. As the rain stops pouring I thank Bao for his generosity and venture out to continue my discovery-tour of Saigon, not only holding on to the raincoat but also to that humble experience.

That night I find myself pondering the day that was. More than once have I been moved by the kindness of strangers. After watching yet another sun set over Saigon, I’m prepared to believe anything. On my last day I have a massage at a spa centre further downtown, being kicked and beaten for money performed by a tiny therapist with hands and feet of velvet steel. I sample the cinnamon rolls and banana shakes at SOZO Café, a café that trains underprivileged Vietnamese kids for employment in the hospitality industry, helping them a little to break the cycle of poverty. And I check out the famous Bui Tran Markets and the Municipal Theatre (Nhà hát thành ph, also known as the Opera House). At the end of the day I am so tired that I skip the history route and leave the CÚ Chi Tunnels – an impressive network of underground tunnels used for several military campaigns during the Vietnam War – for my next visit as I am sure I’ll be back in Saigon in the near future.

As all good things have to come to an end, I find myself on the bus back to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. As we navigate smoothly through the insane traffic and bustling chaos, I realise the true secret of Saigon: all these quiet hidey-holes across the city can make the rest of the world disappear. And when the rest of the world is as intense and insistent as SE Asia, that’s a feat even more amazing than love. It’s a miracle.

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