Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Saigon effect

Most shops in Saigon shut down by nine, but in the streets around Ben Thanh market, that’s when they start up. The night market vendors begin setting up around 7pm, placing poles, tarpaulin and merchandise, in precision order. Every night is carnival night, a wholehearted outpouring of light and sound and colour. I don’t know when they actually close – but when I've returned at 2:30 am from the occasional party, they’re doing this in the reverse order. These streets are never empty. When I’m going for my walk in the morning they’re serving noodles for breakfast on the pavements. When I return from work in the evening, they’re selling grilled shrimp.

Some vendors recognise me now. The cigarette lady knows not to charge me the tourist price because I simply won’t buy. In return, I wait politely until the tourists have finished congratulating themselves on how cheap it is, not knowing they’re paying two and a half times what they should be.
The fruit sellers have learnt that bent old beggars might get money out of me, but I take a firm stand on extortionate custard apples. The ones with cut fruit will only hail me if they have properly ripened jackfruit (they learnt very early on that I know what jackfruit is supposed to taste like). The phone card man knows I want to be let inside his shop to use the card rather than on the street where someone on a bike can snatch my phone. The shoe sellers know their shoes are too big for me, but I won’t be able to resist the neon platforms they’re waving, so I will come in hopefully anyway. The clothes people ignore me entirely because everything’s too small. The bag sellers know I won’t buy but something sufficiently colourful will bring me in. And then I will complain about weak seams and zips. Most of them are just amused by this, but one old man looked thoughtfully at my battered Hidesign sling bag and nodded in comprehension – and then said with a twinkle that I could get 10 of his bags for what I paid for that. I promptly asked him if that was his price and he said only if I was buying 10 – and we both laughed and went our cheery ways.

The souvenir shops stopped calling out to me two months ago. I went in today though, to buy a fridge magnet for my Dad, and the coconut seller outside asked me if I was leaving. The first time I bought from him, he wanted to know if my nose stud was diamonds. I prudently said no. He laughed and told me he used to be a goldsmith. I grinned back noncommittally, but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to pursue the interesting story of why a goldsmith was selling coconuts.

I nodded to him and continued on, picking my way through the clockwork bicycles and paper snakes skittering about on the pavement, skirting the pushcarts selling ice cream, dried fish or gooseberries, nodding to the old lady with the rambutans, the scooter mechanic and the cheerful beggar without a leg, smiling at the ever-optimistic cyclo guy and hammock man. When I reached the back entrance of my hotel, the doormen sprang to hold the door for me, looked thoughtfully at the fridge magnet in my hand and asked me if I was leaving.

As I added it to the pile of gifts that needed to somehow magically not add up to excess baggage, I suddenly realised I’d bought very little for myself, though I’d been living on the doorstep of Saigon’s most popular tourist market.

I looked down from my window at this city that I’d wandered for three months, not a tourist or a resident, neither expat nor local. And I know I’m taking with me a heart and mind stuffed as full to bursting as my bags – unexpected friendships like I haven’t known since much younger days in Dubai and Muscat, equally unexpected sense of not just success (which I never really doubted), but appreciation, the sweetness of partnership at work, a reawakening of hope and ambition, a moving on from the baffling injustices of recent years, the return of the laughter and energy I’d feared were gone for good.

In the exhilarating chaos of life here, I’d got myself back. Merci, Saigon. Whatever happens next, that's one souvenir I will display with pride and pleasure.

PS: Most of the photos here are not mine but I don't know whose they are so cannot acknowledge.

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