I can’t tell if it’s that I’m American, or I’m squeamish, or spoiled… a little of all three? So far my fears have been realized and I’m not seeing the “beauty” of Vietnam yet. We are in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and today we went to the Ben Thanh market, with our guide, Captain Cook. The heat and humidity are stifling, but hey, I walked New York City in jeans in the middle of a heat wave. I can do this. And by the way – people here are wearing tee shirts. Made out of cotton. So that salesman at REI where we went to get our clothes? “Cotton kills” he said, over and over while we picked out synthetic shirts, synthetic pants, and head coverings. And also- all those people who said “It’s monsoon season over there. Take a poncho.” No rain. And guess what? The tailor made my pants too short, so besides feeling like a stupid American tourist dressed in synthetic clothing that “wicks,” my pant legs are swinging like flags above my ankles, and when I cross my legs, half of my leg shows. (Fred McMurry anyone?) And on top of everything, those synthetic “wick” pants that are too short now, have a mesh inner leg that I just discovered. So basically I can see the whole inner part of my thigh. Oh, the horror. Susan keeps reminding me that no one can see that. Except me. But wait…let’s rewind a little.
But before we do, I won’t even bore you with the details of my massage in the Singapore Changi airport. Ok, a tiny detail. About to get on a plane for 17 hours straight, I didn’t want to wear my Sunday best, so I wore my undies with holes. Which would have been nobody’s business but my own…until the masseuse told me to take off everything except my underwear. Oh, the horror. But didn’t I say I was rewinding?
Ho Chi Minh City hosts ten million people and seven million motorbikes. So those pictures you always see of streets jammed with motorcycles and bikes are really true. Which is leading me to believe in pictures. I remember thinking the same about Tuscany: it really was as beautiful as its pictures; hanging grape vines, azure-blue skies, mottled black and white cows dotting rolling green pastures, thick women in babushkas picking olives and stuffing their aprons, blazing sunsets in glorious hues… that was a pretty good trip. Why couldn’t I have that trip back?
At first, all of the two wheeled vehicles weaving in front of our van reminded me a little of LA at rush hour- people everywhere – except that there are so many more people, and none of them seem to be bothered by each other, and most of these people have their faces covered in masks or bandanas, reminding me that besides not drinking the water, I probably should be not breathing the air (but too late on that one). Literally thousands of bikes and Solexes (remember those?) and motorcycles crowd the streets and sidewalks, some carrying three people; a woman with a tiny shaggy cream colored dog resting on the handle bars (Augie!) as she weaves her way through the jammed intersection; a two-year old boy in a little face mask, nestled in front of his father-also in a face mask; a boyfriend dialing his cell phone with one hand while maneuvering the motorcycle with the other, his girlfriend behind him on the seat. Young, old, rich, poor, male, female- this is the way you roll when you’re not one of the thousands driving a car. I have driven in Manhattan, I have driven in Florence at rush hour, but this is a different animal entirely. It seems as though every moment there’s going to be a tragic accident, and I have found myself scrunching my shoulders with a sharp intake of breath a bunch of times today…and then, miraculously, there’s no scream, no clatter of mangled aluminum or crunching of bloody bone. Not even any road rage here. But you can see where my mind is heading.
The Ben Thanh market is a huge covered market, cement floors, alleys shooting in every direction full of counters and stands, hanging flags, toys, knick-knacks, bottled fruits, women selling baskets of mangostine off of bicycles, a treasure-trove of local food and flavor, once again harkening me back to the colorful, happy, crowded market “La Boqueria” in Barcelona. I have pictures there of candy counters sporting layers of so many different colors and unimaginable configurations of confections, you just want to dive in and eat your way into Nirvana (or sugar shock, but in my world they’re synonymous). That was a pretty good market. Why can’t I have that market again?
No need to remind myself I’m in a third world country. Very crowded, people of all ages, motorbikes “beep” to let you know you’re about to be run over- something that is just part of life here. I do notice that there doesn’t seem to be any sense of personal space being invaded. In LA, if you step in front of someone, or cut them off while driving, you’re treated to some kind of expletive describing members of your family. Here, it’s somehow just part of being. The loud clattering of an ancient ice-crushing machine operates every few minutes, adding to the jangle of sound in the market. A block of ice about three feet long goes in, and shaved ice comes sliding down the trough into a box on the other side. A little boy in shorts and sleeveless shirt helping his mother batter and wok-fry minced tuna patties is quaint and cute. The language, so unfamiliar, my ear not yet acquainted to it, falls harshly and sounds sudden and staccato to me. I notice a series of bats, wings spread, pinned beneath glass the way I’ve seen butterflies mounted. I was preparing myself to see hanging dogs and cats over the butcher counter (something I have not seen…yet). I was not preparing myself to see a platter of huge live grouper fish stacked in rows, mouths desperately gasping for air, or a burlap sack full of live toads (they eat toads?) climbing over each other looking for an escape, or a bowl of frogs skinned alive and headless…still moving and clambering around the bowl. I did say skinned and headless. Right about the headless, skinned frog time I start to think: “I want to go home!”
Images keep flashing before me…more like waves of feeling enveloping my senses… me at seven years old, away at summer camp, feeling lonely, scared, unprotected, surrounded by strangers and trying to make sense of my little world… or later, alone in a tent in the mountains of Mongolia, constantly unwrapping and counting my vitamins in order to see how many days more I would have to endure, surrounded by strangers and trying to make sense of this strange and beautiful world… or awakening from nightmares on a Turkish sailboat, in an unfamiliar place, the language, the smells all unrecognizable. I think in the est Training they call this having a “stack-attack.” I remind myself that it’s only day one. This is par for the course. Things will get better.
Even so, I breathe a huge sigh of relief when we leave the market, get back into the van and head for District 1, where we will be treated to a meal of fried crab (which I don’t eat, but I’d do anything at this point to get away from those frogs). 94 is a brightly lit, white tiled eight-table joint (I know this because the table numbers are painted in red on the wall over each table) bustling with business. The cooking is all done on counters and a raised station in the front of the place, just off the sidewalk. By this time I’ve grown used to the constant barrage of motorcycles going by in never-ending packs. The owner, a young woman named Mai, is in a stained apron, hair pulled back in a pony-tail, and working a three-sided station all by herself. True to the owner’s mind, she keeps looking toward her employees in the back, checking on them and frowning. No doubt they’re not doing enough.
I’m confronted first with a flat pan of small brown crabs, stacked like rows of cookies. I think it’s sort of cool looking till the claws reach up…yes, of course…they’re all alive. Sigh. Well, I can do this. I’ve been to Crustacean in Beverly Hills, for god sakes! If I can get through the live lobster tank, I can do this. But once again, I’m woefully unprepared. Susan orders what she wants, all they serve is crab, so it’s something to be battered and fried in a wok. The young waiter in a turquoise shirt, who I thought only moments ago was so adorable, picks up a crab and begins cutting him to pieces with a little scissors. Alive. The crab definitely feels it and I won’t go into how I know this… I’m five years old and I’m walking home to my grandma’s house from the library. But I’ve clearly made a wrong turn somewhere. Although the streets look right, they all look the same and none of the houses are my grandma’s house. The sick feeling inside that I try to fight down is the rising tide of fear. It’s welling up into the back of my mouth and I want to throw up. Where am I?
Ahh yes. Ho Chi Minh City.
Pictured above: Liz eating breakfast at Cholon Market.