After 21 hours of travel, I finally arrived in the city of Saigon. (If I want to be punched in the face by Vietnamese veterans in Seattle, I could call it by its official name “Ho Chi Minh City”.) The flight was good, made better by six or seven tiny shots of wine, which I downed in order to cope with the various fellow travelers who regaled me with tales and warnings of crimes in Saigon, people getting their cell phones stolen, necklaces yanked from their necks, etc.
“There was a couple,” said the lady sitting next to me, “in a park. This crook came up to them and demanded their phones at gunpoint. So the girl gave him hers. It was a nice phone. The guy gave her his phone, but it was a cheap phone, so the guy stabbed him for being cheap and said ‘You should try harder to impress your girlfriend.’ So with a nice phone or a cheap phone, you’ll likely get stabbed.”
I got here and was united with my wife, Jameelah, who has been in the country over a month and has managed to charm all the relatives. She can navigate Vietnam better than I can and has been guiding me when we cross the street, pulling and pushing me as needed, since I still freak out when I see five thousand motorcycles carrying people and various things like food, furniture, five dozen ducks, clothing, food for ducks, etc., barreling down the street at me. There are few rules here, and it is not uncommon to see motorcycles going on the wrong side of the street or on sidewalks.
The relatives, meanwhile, are not very impressed with me, which is not good, since Vietnamese people are very blunt. “You got fatter and older,” said an aunt, “but it looks like you still have acne.”
Saigon has changed a lot, usually for the better. Sure, more people have been stabbed and their phones, cameras, or laptops stolen, but the economic growth has been high, and there are fewer beggars on the streets. There still seems to be, however, a seedy night life. On the way to this internet café, a motorcycle pimp rode alongside me and asked if I wanted a “Lady massage. Beautiful girls, very cheap.”
The last couple of days, we have been exploring the city, eating green mango with chili salt, sipping on cold coconuts, and evading giant sewer rats. With monsoon season rolling in, Saigon is surprisingly cool, in the 80’s, making it extremely pleasant to walk around. Except, every few hours, torrential rain hits. Drivers pull over to the street and take out their raincoats, and plastic covers for their ducks. Women pushing carts of fruit or baskets of coconut-flavored waffles take cover under verandas. The rain brings a calm, almost poetic glow to the city.
Yesterday, we braved the rain and found a place that offered “Fish Massage”, where you stick your feet into a pond and hundreds of little fish start nibbling on your dead skin cells. It sounds gross, but when we tried it, it was actually pretty fun. And by fun, I mean creepy and slightly disturbing.
We also were delighted to stumble upon a massage school for the blind. Jameelah and I were put into separate rooms. These were small and sparse, but clean enough, and we wanted to do our part to help a school that provides work for blind people. My massage therapist was a very nice guy who had freakishly soft hands, which he used to give me the weirdest, most unpleasant massage ever.
“So, what systems do you guys learn here,” I asked, “Swedish? Shiatsu? Thai?” He jabbed at me with his thumb a lot, interspersed with volleys of noisy punches. “Oh,” he said, “everyone has their own system.” The one-hour experience cost 3 dollars. I guess I learned a lesson; while things are cheaper in Vietnam, you get what you pay for.
Ooh, I gotta go, Jameelah and I are going to the eye hospital to research Lasik surgery. Apparently, it’s dirt cheap here!
Look, an easy-to-remember website: www.Jaggednoodles.com.