There was a certain haziness over the city as I flew in that reminded me of Texas, dry and dusty, but I knew this couldn’t be quite right. Upon exiting the air conditioning of the airport, my suspicions were confirmed: it wasn’t dusty but polluted, and not dry but extremely humid. And hot. Not like the hot and humid of Barcelona—some sort of different beast whose perfect adjective is still lingering on the tip of my tongue. I’ll give it a week.
Girls in the airport wore heals, short skirts, and tights. Girls in the city wore pretty sun dresses. Two girls on a scooter wore shorts. Everyone else seemed to wear a uniform. I thought the prevalent blue uniforms were for police officers, until I realized that it was for motorbike and store security and/or parking attendants. Priorities, perhaps?
The ebb and flow of traffic was fascinating, horrific, and hilarious. I re-learned how to cross a street every single time I crossed a street, and doubted myself every single time. One car pulled a u-turn in the middle of the street, and everyone simply honked and went around.
The honking was constant. Not mean honking, but present-demanding honking. The streets were a chorus of bikes, all humming and beeping in perfect dissonance. They moved together like a swarm of bees, forcing the right of way with numbers. The bikes went into space, not lanes, and the roads were up to interpretation. Some major intersections had traffic lights, but most did not. A break in traffic usually meant that it was the other direction’s turn to go, but that was open to interpretation as well. One man sat behind another man carrying orchids, and the purple flowers waved down the street. Entire families fit on the bikes: brother perched on front, ducking his head under dad, and little sister sandwiched in front of mom. Most of the time people wore helmets, but sometimes they seemed to get in the way. The bikes doubled as an excellent place for an afternoon nap, with the handles as a headrest and the back tire to prop up one’s feet. The bikes also took up most of the sidewalk, which like the roads, was open to interpretation.
There were always people sitting outside, eating or preparing food. The tables were low and the chairs were little. Inside shops, the owners simply sat on the floor, which was kept clean by everyone removing their shoes at the door. The street smelled like motorbike oil and whatever food stand was on the corner: sometimes a curry-like smell, sometimes the umami of slow boiled beef broth, sometimes the sharpness and sweetness of fish sauce, and sometimes the char of grilled meat.
On a block, you could easily find a sleek skyscraper, a French colonial villa, a multi-storey apartment with green plants billowing outside of the balcony, skinny buildings that reminded me of postcards from Amsterdam, austere and blockish Soviet buildings, and a bright yellow storefront. The elementary schools seemed to try to cram as many colors as possible onto their walls. Electricity poles had contests to see which one could hold the most cables. There seemed to be no method to the madness, other than that most of the shops were on the main street and residences were tucked behind little alleys. Disappearing down these streets were nice, even though I got some strange looks. I wasn’t lost but curious; I suspected that beaming blue-eyed tourists didn’t walk down those quiet streets very often.
Sometimes roads and traffic gave way to little pockets of green. I liked the parks because they felt like a floral oasis. The flowers perfumed the entire park, and couples and families sat on benches. I could see remnants of the Lunar New Year festivities: posters, streamers, and signs wished “Chúc mừng năm mới!” Some streets were lined with Vietnamese flags. These colors disappeared at night but gave way to flashing signs and colorful lights.
One day I’m going to figure out this city. But not on day one.