Now that we’ve adjusted to Vietnam, it might be too dangerous for us to leave. All the good behaviors our parents instilled in us as children have gone out the window. We keep getting into situations like…
“What the heck is that?”
“I dunno." (Immediately puts in mouth.) "It's crunchy though."
“That guy we don’t know and can’t talk to wants us to get on his motorbike.”
“Where are we going?”
“Beats me. But he gave me some candy.”
But the thing most likely to get us killed is our new relationship with traffic.
Sam’s already given a rough guide to crossing the street in Vietnam. What’s truly scary isn’t the experience of chaos, it’s the normalization. Nowadays I have no reaction to crossing the street. My heart rate doesn’t elevate. My palms are dry and my expression beatific. I hardly notice the wind across my face as a bus brushes past. I am one with the traffic.
This kind of behavior would get a girl killed back in Wisconsin.
Generally speaking, Sam’s even more fearless (or brainless) than me. He’s even stopped kissing me goodbye at uncontrolled intersections. But first thing in the morning, the pandemonium is too much for his delicate constitution. Coffee comes first. Intrepidness second.
I’m slightly different. Morning rush hour is my favorite time of day.
This is possibly because my brain has melted. Saigon is hot. Really hot. It’s 95 degrees right now, and I’m sweaty just from typing. If I want to exercise without heat stroke, I have to leave the house at sunrise. And if I want to exercise without firey vehicular death, I then walk half an hour to the park. I may have adjusted, but even the Vietnamese won’t jog on these roads. (Heck, the Vietnamese rarely even walk on them. What we’d call sidewalks, they call parking lots.)
The early morning chaos is also incredibly scenic. If you can make it across the main road, there’s a bird shop full of brightly colored songbirds and pissed-off roosters. There are always a few wild sparrows hopping around in front of the cages—I assume they’re the inmates’ legal counsel.
There’s a sticky-rice vendor a bit farther on, where a punk in eyeliner slouches behind piles of orange sticky rice. At the gas station, I turn onto a side street. It’s quieter there, a good place for taxi drivers to take a smoke break. They lean against their cabs, cigarettes dangling from their lips and sticks of incense wedged behind their license plates. Across the street, the café tables are full of men—only men—playing board games and chatting lazily. The ice man is usually parked nearby, sawing off wedges for the café’s cooler.
It’s also my social hour. I say hello to the fish seller, who holds up a dead-eyed creature as inducement every time I pass. There are the breadfruit ladies, crouched on the opposite curb, who giggle when I talk to them. I have two other fruit ladies, a grandmotherly charmer who overcharges me on dragon fruit, and a young banana vendor who refuses to let lack of comprehension stand in the way of a good conversation.
Sometimes I sit beside the train tracks to drink coffee with the railway officers. They seem to spend most of their time lounging in the sun, scurrying into position only when an oncoming train trips their alarm.
On the way home, I pass Mr. Bread Without, so named because he waives and yells “Hey! Bánh mì không!” if I pass without ordering any. Bánh mì means bread, but it’s also the name Vietnam’s ubiquitous baguette sandwiches. To get a plain baguette, you have to order bánh mì không, or “bread without.”
If we’re not going out for phở, I bring home breakfast. Despite having a fridge, we mostly kick it old school and shop one meal at a time. This means a stop at the milk store to chat with Lay, who speaks English like a rock star, and possibly a trip to the delightfully named BS Mart.
Today I was distracted and got partly run over while leaving BS Mart. I was returning the hellos of a couple of school kids, when I felt something nuzzle my right side. Turns out it was a motorcycle. After a few seconds of shoving, it gave up trying to go through me and swerved around. The two guys riding nodded as they passed.
“Hey! Hey!” A man who’d witnessed the accident beckoned urgently. I crossed to tell him I was fine, but he spoke first. “Xe ôm? Taxi? Very cheap!”
I laughed and waded back into traffic, undamaged and unchastised. Minor traffic collision—hey, things happen!
But I should probably break that habit before we move someplace with SUVs.