Bright Lights, Big City

I felt a bit giddy stumbling onto the little chocolate shop near the Ben Thanh Market in central Ho Chi Minh City. The tiny shop is lined with dozens of brightly packaged bars of varying choco-intensity and flavor, all sourced from a single farm in the Mekong Delta. “This one is my favorite,” says the young woman assisting me finding my own favorites. Using a pair of small tongs, she grabs a small chocolate chunk from the box of chocolate flavors displayed in front of me and drops it into my palm. I pop it into my mouth and feel the cinnamon sting my tongue. “It’s right here,” she points to the bar of cinnamon chocolate on the shelf behind me and I take one and add it to the other bars I was buying.

Bright lights in central Ho Chi Minh City.

“For how long are you in Vietnam?” she asks in her perfect English. I tell her I’m going to live and work in Dalat for the next five months. Her eyes light up, “Oh – I love Dalat! It’s so beautiful! So many flowers – and the pine forests!” She sighs remembering her time there, and I suddenly feel excited and a little less tired than I’ve been.

In some ways, Ho Chi Minh feels a bit like New York – you often risk stepping into someone’s photo shoot.

I think that settling into a new country for what might be considered ‘the long haul’ – a few months compared to the average vacation of 2-3 weeks – requires such a different mindset than what I need on my shorter travels. I’m trying to keep this in mind. Knowing that I will be working and living my day-to-day life, and that I don’t have to go down the checklist of attractions in a new place. Knowing that I can watch what happens in the same place over a significant chunk of a year, means that I needed to approach my initial weeks here a bit differently than I would if I were a tourist. I can’t neglect the things that sustain me daily in my normal life. I need to touch the familiar with some frequency as I expand into a world that is so different from the life I’ve been living for the past few years, especially the life I’ve had since the start of the pandemic.

A busy Sunday for Tet family photos along the path that runs beside the Saigon River.

And so: artisan chocolate. My go-to sustenance for life.

Also, if you’ve followed my blog before, you know I’m not a city person. Cities wear me down fairly quickly. I’ve learned to pace myself on city visits. I know how much city stimulus I can handle in one day before the overwhelm makes it hard for me to think or move or feel anything. So for my first few days in Ho Chi Minh City I gave myself a rough plan each day: a morning outing, afternoons in my hotel room with AC cranked up, computer in my lap, and a few snacks by my side, then late afternoon or early evening I go on another outing, with food foremost on my mind.

This week was all about getting to know Ho Chi Minh City and meeting fellow Fulbrighters at our orientation. I flew to Dalat yesterday (it’s only about 180 miles from the city – but that amounts to a 6-8 hour bus ride. Flying took 30 minutes).

I’ll write more about our orientation and about Dalat later. For now, I just wanted to share some impressions. Given the newness of the culture, a language in which I am totally illiterate, the humid heat (after the sub-zero Christmas temperatures I experienced), I’ve really needed to pace myself and pay attention to the things that continue to require conscious adjustment. Chocolate definitely helps.

Here are a few things that have required adjustment:

Weather: This is the cool season in Ho Chi Minh City. High temperatures range from 82-92 F, lows are in the low 70’s. For the first couple of days I was there, the temperature hovered around 80F, and it felt perfect. Then it got a little hotter, and I became really happy that I’m going to be living in the mountains for most of the time while I’m here. Coming from a Colorado winter, it’s a bit of a shock to my system. One afternoon it rained hard for about 90 minutes. It was a glimpse of what the city can do much of the time, I think.

Air: You see people wearing masks in the street and on the scooters in my photos. Nearly everyone on the street, outside, is wearing a mask. You might be thinking “Wow – these people are really COVID-conscious, or the government is really cracking down on COVID.” As it turns out, the masks on the street have almost nothing to do with COVID. They are all about protecting your lungs from particulate matter, barbecue smoke, dust from construction material, and whatever else might be floating through the air. I thought it was too hot to wear a mask outside when I first got here, but after a couple of walks along the major boulevards, I changed my mind.

Air pollution is hardly a problem unique to Vietnam (hey, Colorado, I’m lookin’ at you!). Vietnam also receives pollution from other southeast Asian countries at certain times of the years, so it is not simply about the number of motorbikes on the road (which, I think, when it comes to air pollution, are way less problematic than the coal-rollers back home who intentionally like to spew black smoke from their tailpipes). This is truly a global environmental problem exacerbated in some places by the peculiarities of regional meteorology. At least, here, no one looks at you funny when you wear a mask. And it turns out, Many Vietnamese are quite COVID-conscious – or, at least, socially considerate.

Traffic: And, since I mentioned the motorbikes, let’s talk about the traffic: It does not stop, slow down, or ever let up (not a total exaggeration). To get to the walkway along the Saigon River which borders the central financial district, I had to cross an extraordinarily busy street. This required working up a strategy, which I have now used on several occasions. I hover near a crosswalk (which doesn’t actually provide any protection or right of way) until I see a family approach to cross the street, preferably with several young kids and responsible-looking adults. Just before they step off the curb, I attach myself to them. As the parents clutch their kids, I’m practically clutching the parents’ shirttails.

This has proven to be very successful on several occasions. Sometimes the parents notice me, and we all have a good laugh together once we’ve safely crossed to the other side. I’ve come to realize that while the Vietnamese may look cool and confident walking into traffic that roars by with the strength of a raging river, they also get nervous. Because, as I said, the traffic DOES NOT STOP. It just swerves around you. The key to survival is to move SLOWLY and predictably. No sudden stops or starts. No running to get out of the way. If you’re predictable, they will (supposedly) just move around you. That still doesn’t assure me that I won’t get run over.

Food: So many people, when I mentioned I was going to Vietnam, responded with two words: THE. FOOD. Vietnam is known for its cuisine. And I’m eager to jump into it. But I’m taking it easy during these first weeks. Just as my mind has a basic need for stillness and silence each day, my stomach has a certain rhythm to it, and is easily disturbed. I know some of you foodies might be highly disappointed in me: I ate pizza for dinner one night. (Does it help that it was wood-fired pizza, as tasty as anything I ate in Italy?) But remember: I’m here for five months. There is time to let the microbes in my gut adjust so they can enjoy it more later on. Chocolate helps with that too, supposedly.

My time here has not been without ANY sightseeing. I made a visit to the Saigon Post Office and, even more exciting for me, the famous ‘Book Street’ next to the post office. This is a shady, tree-lined street filled with nothing but bookshops and small cafes. Both the Book Street and the Post Office are right across the street from the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is completely enshrouded in scaffolding as it undergoes renovations.

I also took a trip up the Bitexco Financial Tower. The Tower stands at 68 floors, but they only let you go up to the 49th floor where they have a 360 degree viewing deck. It was worth the ~$9 to go. I love getting the birds-eye view. But it also gave me a real sense of just how big this city is. There are about 9 million people in the city. For reference, there are only about 5.8 million people in the state of Colorado. From the 49th floor, you can’t even see the entire city.

There were very few other people up there when I went, so I took my time and did two circuits around the viewing platform. Not only did it give me a sense of the city, but it also felt like a clear reminder of how big this world is, and how far away things are, how far I traveled in, really, such a short time to get here. If I think about it too much, I start to feel a bit disoriented. Our brains did not evolve to truly conceptualize things like jet lag and layovers and cities of 9 million people. Fortunately, chocolate helps.

The energy for me to write this blog post was brought to you by Alluvia, Vietnam’s only 100% Vietnamese-owned, single-source, bean-to-bar chocolate from the Mekong Delta.

3 thoughts on “Bright Lights, Big City

  1. I am so excited for you! I also am easily overstimulated when I get to a new place and have learned to pace myself, I’m starting to recognize when I get anxious although sometimes I’m already there by the time I realize it. During our Hanoi food tour our guide said that trick to crossing streets is to walk slowly and steadily and to make eye contact with the scooters coming your way. In my experience, Vietnamese traffic is like a giant school of fish. Everyone reacts individually but the whole body has a continuous smooth flow. The situational awareness is astounding! The pics of Ho Chi Minh City are wonderful. I’ve been lukewarm on visiting there but you are changing my mind. 🙂

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    • Yes – I’m starting to get a sense of that flow…Since I arrived in Dalat, my student helper has been shuttling me around town on her scooter – so I can feel like a part of that flow. Still don’t enjoy it when the scooters and cars pass inches from my toes, though, when trying to cross the street. I’ve been learning my way around town and finding that I gravitate toward routes that take me longer, but avoid big street crossings. And it’s not quite as bad here as in Ho Chi Minh.

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