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Image: Sai Gon
 Photo: Grover Reidi
Image: Sai Gon
 Photo: Grover Reidi

Sai Gon: Beginner’s Vietnamese
By Grover Reidi

I had moved to Sai Gon, at the beginning of monsoon season, to write a book. I stepped off the plane in early June to a hot, humid, but clear day. The second I disembarked, the moisture in the air hit me like a fist, along with the tropical smells of dirt, life, and decomposition.

From Tan Son Nhut airport, I rode a taxi to my guesthouse. We drove along a wide boulevard with palms along the median. The houses were all tall, thin structures made of cement and tile. Motorbikes surrounded the cab, skirting quickly between each other to gain position, like minnows. Most motorbikes carried two, three, even four people. A group of three oil-covered men in tattered jumpsuits rode by, squeezed onto a brown and tan motorbike, a timeless Russian hand-me-down.

The boulevard ended, and the cab turned along narrower roads, more crowded with bicycles and motorbikes. On the boulevard, the median had divided traffic clearly. In the city, however, rules no longer applied. Motorbikes weaved over the yellow lines into oncoming traffic in order to overtake drivers ahead of them. Others turned from alleys onto the street and drove against traffic along the curb until they reached an intersection, where they’d cut across to the other side.

Girls in long, white ao dai rode behind boys wearing slacks and collared shirts, the girls chastely clasping the bar behind them or sometimes only lightly touching the boys’ hips. I noticed only a handful of traffic lights, which seemed largely ignored. The only traffic lights I saw showed up when the taxi reached District One, the central district of Sai Gon that housed all the tourists. Traffic moved at a red light as often as at a green one.

I stayed in a room in a guesthouse called Tao Nhi, a fluorescent-lit room for ten dollars a night with a large bed, a television, and a fan in the corner.

Changing times zones is a tricky business. I arrived in the morning. I understood that I had to remain awake until nighttime or else it would take weeks for me to adjust. So I brought my bag up to my room, changed my clothes and fell dead asleep.

I woke up at night to the sound of rain dumping down on aluminum roofs. I lolled around my room until the rain abated and groggily left Tao Nhi. I began to walk around Pham Ngu Lao, the backpackers’ quarter in District One filled with cheap guesthouses like mine and bars open late. I couldn’t walk easily on the sidewalks; they overflowed with beggars, vendors, residents and tourists.

Everywhere I walked, people hollered at me, selling food or trinkets. Xe om (motorbike drivers) clapped, snapped and waved at me to hire them; but I insisted on walking. One xe om, however, persisted more than the others. He followed me while asking questions. He went through what I now recognize as the standard inquisition: how am I, where am I from, where am I going, what’s my name, etc. He seemed nice, and I felt hungry; so I asked him to take me somewhere to eat.

We sat on a sidewalk in District Four on child-sized plastic stools eating rice noodles with squid and pork, and drinking Sai Gon Green beer. Life in Sai Gon spills out into the streets: people buy, sell, eat, and sleep in the street. I watched the stream of bicycles, motorbikes, cyclos, pushcarts and general chaos as the sun set and the night cooled. I asked Tuan, my xe om, questions about Vietnamese culture and history as well as how to say basic Vietnamese words. He always changed the subject, however, to beautiful women passing by. He would point to a woman and say “nice chest” or “big island.” A few women received “bad island” and a very small part of me was curious how he knew. If a pair of women passed, he would laugh and assign one to each of us: “your girlfriend and your girlfriend.” That’s when I learned how difficult possessive pronouns are for Vietnamese people.

I continued to pester him for some basic words like ‘xin chau’ or ‘xin loi,’ but he only taught me ‘anh diu em.’ Great – I couldn’t say ‘hello’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ but I could say ‘I love you.’ I imagined the in-depth conversations I could now have with Vietnamese women I met.

But the food was delicious and the company, although a bit distracted, was interesting. I fell in love with Sai Gon that night, sitting in the street watching an entire world I’ve never seen before. I wanted to meet everyone who peddled by and ask them questions. I wanted to eat every strange food that I didn’t recognize — spiked fruits, puffed rice, and steaming platters of I didn’t know what.

Tuan suggested that after dinner “we go to local bar for happy hour.” I thought, “Sure, happy hour. Cheap drinks, local bar – sounds like fun.” Most people who aren’t as dumb as cardboard realize the difference one article can make: happy hour = cheap drinks at a bar; a happy hour = something else entirely.

Unfortunately, I fell into the dumb as cardboard category; so I let him take me to the edge of the city. When Tuan said, “Beautiful girls there,” I thought, “Of course, dummy, it’s a bar.” I imagined a Vietnamese version of Cheers: replace the bar with a Styrofoam ice box from the eighties; switch the bar stools with wobbly plastic chairs; and trade Ted Danson for an elderly Vietnamese man with a hairy mole, and voila!

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