This was my first trip to Vietnam, a country that I had heard a bit about in recent years, first from a friend who spent her Fulbright there and second from a couple in Shanghai who’d visited Saigon last year and had a glorious culinary time. I had also read young adult fiction like Walter Dean Myer’s Fallen Angels (anybody remember that one?) and watched Forrest Gump and Born on the Fourth of July, so I knew basically everything there was to know about Vietnam.
In Saigon, I expected a vibrant city, the hum of a country coming into its own, young, ambitious. I expected motorbikes and condensed milk coffee carts and markets and the faint echo of its colonial past and the fading scars of war.
And vibrant it was. Some of these I took from the passenger end of a scooter, part of an awesome street food tour that Myra and I did our second night in Saigon. Others were from our ambling around Districts 1 and 3. Even though there were some dirtier, crumbling corners of the city, intersections threaded with birdnests of wire, Saigon rarely came across as derelict or dirty (compared to Ulan Bator, or frankly, parts of New York City). It felt more like a city figuring itself out, trying on new clothes, stretching out the seams of its current accoutrements.
Most signs of the city’s storied past were more evident in the daytime, and most signs of its energetic potential came alive in the night. Part of that was self-selected because of our itinerary, but one of our guides explained that the city’s youth, for a lack of space at home where several generations might live together in cramped quarters, venture out on their scooters to find freedom in Saigon’s evening streets. But more simply, in a completely immediate and visceral way, zooming through the nighttime version of Saigon on scooter is a thrilling view of uncorked smells, fluttering lights and tongues, bared bellies and other unexplained oddities one moment so present and in another brief instant gone.