I’ve been meaning for over a month now to write about Vietnam, but every time I sit down to do so the words slip away. Maybe I need time to digest, I told myself. The trip needs to coalesce, to firm up.
But it never did. When I think on Vietnam, all I see are fragments, moments.
Maybe that’s because of the force of nature that is Saigon. Ho Chi Minh City—a never-stopping sea of people and scooters and red flags and little plastic stools on sidewalks. The smell of herbs and frying pork and sugar, of exhaust and day-old rain and heat.
Oh, the heat. Walking out of the airport close to midnight, I thought, This isn’t too bad. Yes, it was heat you walked into, a dampness you could feel wrapping around your skin. But it felt like Maui, like Florida, like any other tropical climate. It felt manageable.
The next day we walked out into the city… and there was the heat. Inescapable. A weight slowing you down. By the end of the first day, after a long walk back to our apartment, sweat dripped down every trail of my body. It was like I had stepped out of an hour-long hot yoga class. (According to locals, this was nice weather. Not too hot, not too muggy. Of course.)
The afternoon rain storms did nothing to break the heat. Neither did the thunder, waking us one morning by shaking our entire apartment, the metal patio door rattling.
The metal patio door, kept closed, keeping the heat out and the AC in. But through it every morning you could still hear the swish swish swish of the woman outside, sweeping the sidewalk with her twig-tied broom. As the morning wore on, honking scooters and lottery ticket vendors added their cries to the mix. Still, over those sounds, that broom. Swish swish swish.
These are what stick in my mind—the sounds, the smells, the sensations. No distinct moments, no momentous events. Daily life in Saigon was about the little things. Sitting on plastic stools in an alley, drinking iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Watching the neighbors come and go, greeting each other. A restaurant owner instructing us how to mix our vegetables into our broth. Watching the city go by from the back of a scooter, wind hitting my cheeks.
The more time passes, the more Vietnam seems like a dream seeping into my consciousness. Less memory and more of a feeling, a longing—for slowly dripping coffee, for complex, confounding, astonishing food. The rows of tamarind trees, high above the streets. Even the heat. All a hauntingly written story; once you’ve read it, you can’t ever really get it out of your mind.