Looking Back On A Typical Day In Saigon


It’s 5:30AM. I drift slowly up toward consciousness as my iPhone alarm pushes gently through the sleep-heavy haze. The A/C and ceiling fan are purring. I clutch the sheet and pull it tight hoping to catch another minute of sleep before easing out of bed. Even at 70°F it feels chilly as I peel the sheet back and step onto the cool tile floor. In four years I’ve never seen the outside temperature fall below 75°. Saigon is hot. There are two seasons – hot and dry/hot and wet – both heavy with humidity.

As I turn the bedroom A/C off and open the door that separates the bedroom from the rest of the flat I am met with a rush of stored heat from the living room and the faint but distinct aroma of Indian spices and muffled strident voices. My wife and I look at each other. Curry and cumin at 5:30am? I pad out to the kitchen in my bare feet, get our yoghurt and two small Asian bananas, and take them back to the cool bedroom. Soon we’re too busy getting dressed and organizing the day to be bothered by the curry and cumin.

We’re out the door at 5:45 on our way to the gym but as we step onto the landing we get hit with even hotter air, stronger Indian aromas and rising cigarette smoke. We look at each other again and point down the stairway. We walk down instead of taking the elevator. Two floors below, the apartment door stands open. Suspicions confirmed. The Indian family on the second floor doesn’t use the A/C. They manage the heat and noise by leaving their front door and all the windows open. They’ve spent their entire lives on the sub-continent in temperatures like these. Are strident voices part of the same experience? I remember now that they are an arranged marriage. They were a commercial contract. It wasn’t mutual attraction. It was a business deal between families. Still, they don’t seem to dislike each other though their voices give that impression. As we descend to the ground floor, Mr. Vinh, the house-man, in a ribbed undershirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops puts his cigarette down to summon a taxi for us. We step out the gate to avoid the smoke and wait for the cab.

Mrs. Van, the landlady at 95D Nguyen Van Thu Street, likes expatriates. She especially likes the wire transfer of US dollars into her bank account. She accepts only dollars or euros – no Vietnam Dong. She is a woman of a certain age, overweight for a Vietnamese, and always dressed in black. She lives next door in another one of her properties but is often seated on a chair in the entrance area of our building where she can watch her cash flow come and go while supervising and gossiping with Mr. Vinh.

The building is typical Vietnamese – tall and narrow. Six floors, six apartments stacked vertically above the entrance level. All are occupied by expats. In addition to the Indians there is a non-descript Belgian couple, a sexy, middle-aged French woman whose taste in men runs to good looking Vietnamese guys with motorbikes who regularly deliver her to the front door at 5am, an Australian who gets sideways with the security man when he brings Vietnamese girls in for a sleepover, and two Australian pilots who use the apartment as a short layover spot between flights.

At 5:45, with dawn beginning to break, the temp is a comfortable 81°, but it will rise to 95° later on. This is rainy season and we will watch the cumulus build all morning before it unloads in the afternoon. Saigon downpours are legendary. Buckets – complete with high winds and clogged drains. Power failure is likely, and near the river the streets will be ankle deep in an hour because downtown Saigon is below sea level. Thankfully, most of these thunderstorms are brief – an hour or two – and then the plastic rain capes go back in the motorbike seat compartments and the sky clears.

Saigon is all-day, all-night chaos. Six million motorbikes and ten to twelve million people, most of whom eat out. The men, especially the men, drink tea or coffee in the morning, beer in the afternoon, more beer in the evening, and after dinner there is always karaoke.

In many respects my wife and I are not too different from the locals; after our workout at the Rex Hotel we walk to Coffee Bean and Tea Company’s café across the square from the Notre Dame Cathedral. Notre Dame is one of the great French colonial structures left standing in the old city. Coffee Bean has the best people-watching terrace in town. Between 7 and 8:30 AM, with a latte in a tall milkshake-like glass, there is no better place to catch the morning scene. Shoe shine boys bargain to shine my flip-flops. Old women roam the terrace selling lottery tickets. Nike employees lean against the terrace wall waiting for the van that takes them to their plant in Bien Hoa. A balloon man sits on the curb and it’s easy to imagine his clutch of balloons carrying him quietly away while the rest of us watch other parts of the circus. Saigon brides in rented dresses arrive with entourages to have their pictures taken against the cathedral backdrop. The weddings themselves are months away but this is their photo ritual, and we see as an overlay to the parade of business people ducking into Coffee Bean for their take-out lattes.

Modern Saigon dresses up for work. Even with daytime temperatures in the 90’s the Saigonese dress professionally – coats and dress shirts for the men (sometimes a tie but not usually required), jackets and skirts and very high heels for the women. No business casual or casual Fridays here. I like it. It looks business-like – something we see less and less in the US.

My work with a large US-based NGO (non-governmental organization) takes me out of the office much of the day. I’m trying to raise money and awareness in order to build schools, hospitals, and water systems for underserved communities. These should be government responsibilities, but Vietnamese leaders are very clever. If they let NGO’s do the heavy lifting in healthcare and education, they can waste the country’s money on other things. Corruption siphons off huge amounts and bureaucratic waste disposes of a lot of the rest. Eventually the government will take over. The country is on the verge of success but the leaders are relatively new at it and lining their own pockets as more and more business moves in that direction. At the moment global players and NGO’s like ours are making up for pauses in government focus and attention, especially in poor rural areas. While urban Vietnam is booming the rural areas are not.

I imagine Vietnam, like China, will sort out its development problems. It may take a generation but it will happen. The bigger lurking crisis and the one that is not getting the attention it deserves is climate change. In the four years that I have been in-country there has been a ripple of awareness that global warming and climate change are going to be a challenge, perhaps even greater than increasing rice production or capturing more of the global manufacturing pie. “The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) estimates that the combined effects of ice melting and seawater expansion from ocean warming will cause the global mean sea level to rise by between 0.1 and 0.9 meters between 1990 and 2100.” If mean sea level rises 1 meter, as much as 30% of Vietnam will be underwater and that 30% is the rice growing area of the country. Vietnam’s adaptation challenge is daunting, but at the moment the Vietnamese are trying to catch up with the rest of the world. They will deal with climate change when they have to. For now it’s about achieving the dream.

Meanwhile, Western NGO’s continue to work for the benefit of the poor while they themselves are in a unique and enviable situation. The citizens of developed countries have come to expect work/play balance. The poor Vietnamese (and poor throughout the world don’t have that luxury. They are in their paddies or their boats from before dawn until long after dark. They are hard working, determined, cheerful people who for the most part live collectively. In the West we honor individualism, but in the East it is about family and the collective. We are much more inclined to sacrifice others for our own individual good, while in the East the sacrifice is for the family or the collective.

As the day draws to a close, and after the last meeting with a client or donor ends my wife and I head for The Refinery, an old opium refinery cum watering hole that serves Western fare and Carlsberg draft. We share our day in a tented outdoor area as the Saigon heat dissipates. It’s wind down time and very collegial. The expat community is small and close knit. It’s refreshingly egalitarian and communal. I doubt that expats in Frankfurt enjoy the same small town pleasures, but Old Saigon is relatively small. Eventually, faces become familiar and there are nods of acknowledged commonality even if the names are unknown.

On the ride home we sit back and relax in the air-conditioned comfort of the cab. Mr. Vinh greets us as we get out at 95D. We hardly notice the locked gate and barbed wire over it as he slips the latch to let us in. As we enter Mr. Vinh’s downstairs space we catch a familiar whiff of cigarette smoke – followed closely by the smell of Indian spices drifting down the adjacent stairway. We’re back in the cozy, familiar warmth of our Saigon space. It’s 10pm. Tomorrow will be similar. It’s a great adventure and now we are beginning to understand why so many of our friends have chosen to stay here in spite of the noise and smells, sticky heat and inconvenient power failures. Will the country overcome its obstacles – corruption, a cumbersome inefficient bureaucracy, hesitant foreign investors, and a bankrupt banking system? I’m optimistic. The Vietnamese are strong, energetic and determined. Remember the “American War?”

As I lie in bed in the stifling Saigon night I am listening to NPR streaming news about Hurricane Sandy. Climate change is real, Bill O’Reilly. With some luck and good planning the country may succeed in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. I hope it does. The West exploited Vietnam for almost 200 years. Now the danger is from within. Will the Vietnamese leaders have the foresight to sacrifice personal gain for the sake of their people? It’s an ironic twist of fate that so many of these leaders have lost their way in pursuit of personal and family wealth.

I finished working in Saigon in April of 2012, but went back in April of 2013 to follow up with contacts. I miss the place and the people, but like all adventures it had a beginning and an end. I wish all the best to my Vietnamese friends and the expats and co-workers that were a part of the adventure.

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