#013: A Day in Saigon (HCMC)Tak's dispatch released on 20 January 2015

Ho Chi Minh Juice

You settle comfortably into a chair at Vietnam’s Da Nang International Airport after riding in a small car from Hoi An (110,000VND). Sitting at your gate, the power for the entire airport drops out.

Back in the hustle of Ho Chi Minh, you sit on the #152 city bus halfway back into town. As you look out the left window, you spot a motorbike stopped at an intersection waiting to turn left through traffic. Without obvious reason, a taxi driver behind him, who has also been waiting, steps on the accelerator and jolts the motorbike. The motorbike driver looks back, the taxi driver looks ahead into the distance with an uninterested gaze. Life goes on.

You run through your daily rituals being back at your home base in Vietnam: morning iced coffees laced with sweetened, condensed milk; your fruit shakes for lunch; your laid back afternoons either dodging traffic, dodging invigorated street merchants or reading; your evening dinners at street spots where you procure fresh, crisp fried fish, deeply-layered, flavourful soups or one of many other ingenious dishes; followed by your night adventures.

There is a small nameless business—half-convenience store, half-coffee house—located on a one-way street with lively two-way traffic. You sit here in the mornings and contemplate whatever there is to contemplate as bicycles pass by with their affixed wooden carts heaped high with shubbery or bananas.

“You interested in a motorcycle?” He, a tired-looking Aussie in his low-twenties, is loosely gripping the handlebars, his pants—baggy, dreadful MC-Hammeresque numbers with a black and white elephant print that are for sale across the street—hang on either side of the motorcycle. His shirt—a dirty cream-coloured Henley, one-size too big. A backpack slung loosely over one shoulder and a baseball cap perched backwards on his head. He is chewing nervously on a toothpick.

“How much you looking to get?”

“$250. It’s a great bike and $250 is a great price.”

“Too expensive.” He shakes his head.

“No, it really isn’t, I know this bike. It is in perfect working condition. I’ve put a lot of money into it, it’s a great bike.”

Minutes roll by. The prospective Vietnamese buyer keeps typing furiously on his phone. He shifts his weight between feet and generally seems disinterested in the offer, but he doesn’t walk away.

“It is too expensive.”

“Okay, okay, that is fine. See, the thing is I have time to sell this bike. I have a lot of time so it’s no big deal to me if you don’t want it. I have several people interested and I have time to sell the bike, so it is fine with me. That is okay. Not a problem.”

The Vietnamese man seems bored by the pitch. You figure he and other locals have heard this strategy hundreds of times before. He knows that the bohemian-bike-bro is up against the clock and trying to play it cool.

“How much did you get the bike for,” the prospective buyer asks with a total lack of interest in his voice.

“I got it for $200 but I want $250 for it.”

Sales are perhaps not his finest of talents. You take another swig of the fine iced coffee as a truck rumbles up to the curb. Longer than a pickup and shorter than a full-scale box truck, it has a full size door on the side.

The driver hops out and walks around the truck’s hood until getting to that door which he opens revealing many stacks of ice in colored plastic-mesh sacks. He scrambles into the darkness and turns back, his face illuminated by the morning sun. His sidekick stands below.

One giant bag of ice is placed onto the shoulder of the man standing at street level, followed by a second. The man walks it into the building next door and starts to fill an insulated room. He returns to the truck. After half the truck is unloaded via his shoulder, the engine into action and joins the sea of traffic.

The next street act will assuredly arrive shortly. Just another great day in Saigon.

A Vietnamese man, perhaps in his upper-thirties, is squatting over a plastic tub of milky liquid. His knife and fingers work quickly separating the various chicken parts before dropping them into the tub. A cigarette, lodged between two toes, burns slowly while he works. Every so often, he cuts off a piece of chicken meat and feeds it to one of the two live chickens that drink from the milky liquid in the alleyway.

On the other side of the alley, perched on a small blue plastic stool, are two Vietnamese women, who pass the latest gossip and stories about as they efficiently work de-stemming large plastic bags full of raw greens into usable produce for the day. Next to them, a table sits stacked high with fruit in varying stages of ripeness and quality.

You write your order on a pad and hand it to one of the several employees roaming about. It heads down into a narrow alley at a 90-degree angle from where you stand. Your fruits of choice are being cut up and dropped into whirring blenders while you sit—from your small plastic stool up against the alley wall—watching the chicken eating chicken. Motorbikes speed by.

Big Papi - Saigon Vietnam

Big Papi is often at this juncture in town. His thick bankroll folded over in half while his thumb slides bill by bill past each other. After counting, he tends to count it again, and again. He has impeccable style for an old man, often wearing a striped hat and light-weight, nearly-unbuttoned short-sleeve button-down shirt. His body frame small and so devoid of fat that his clothes hang off him in a very carefree way. His focus and gaze generally very sharp. But today, there is no sign of Big Papi.

Your belongings have swelled, from a mole hill of essentials, to a mountain of custom-tailored, self-designed shirts, suits and jackets, rusty locally-produced scissors, a pile of loose cinnamon bark and so forth. You pull your freshly-purchased $20 suitcase off the belt and drag it out past Sri Lankan customs.

Coming out of the Colombo airport, you turn right and continue towards the departures wing, trying to navigate the cheaply-manufactured beast with its rickety wheels and unbalanced design through the hoards of people congregated outside. The air is thick—it has just finished raining—and hot. There is no breeze.

You find the left luggage window and learn that all luggage must be locked in order to be accepted. You overcome this hurdle, piecing together some wire, cables and locks that you have buried in your bag. Free of the burdensome luggage, you head back into the airport.

“Where are you heading,” she asks as she punches information from your passport into the terminal. She pauses and looks up.

The Maldives.”

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Tak

New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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