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Observations of Saigon Street Life

By: Allyson Keane Posted: August-24-2009 in
Cyclo in the rain, De Tham St, Pham Ngu Lao
Allyson Keane

Here’s a little report on my observations of street life in Saigon.... as it is the place where life (and death) seem to centre.

Looking Down
I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my time here looking down - quite practical given the nature of the uneven pavements, if they exist, and the Vietnamese penchant for placing rubbish of all kinds in small piles for collection or burning at some stage. Yesterday as I left my guesthouse I was ambling along watching the gutter as usual, when a Bedford van, highly decorated in what looked like Hindu metal work, blocked my path. As I negotiated the open doors, a large orange funeral casket of the highly lacquered wood favoured here, complete with clear Perspex lid was being unloaded from the back of it. In every town there seems to be a casket maker, ranging from simple wood and stone to quite ornately decorated affairs, highly painted and trimmed with gold.

It crossed my mind that it may have had something to do with blood I have seen (also whilst looking down) spilled on the roads here. Motorbike accidents are common, and apparently about 11,000-15,000 people die in road accidents here each year - needless to say I have taken very few since my arrival and am keen to purchase a good helmet before venturing on them too often! My rationale is that cyclos (pedicabs) are slower and safer, and should I get hit in one, the damage would be less than if I get hit whilst on a bike.

It terrifies me when I see a family of four or five all squashed on to a bike, babies balanced precariously between their parents, or casually asleep across one arm as they scoot within inches of each others' handle bars - no baby capsules or safety precautions here!

Looking down this evening I saw my first (live) rat scuttling brazenly across the front of the silk shop opposite my guesthouse, between parked motorbikes and pedestrians... There have been a number of birds and other small things squished along the way.

Looking Ahead (and Sideways!)
On the odd occasion I actually look up to see where I am going, a couple of things strike me – firstly, it depends on if I am on foot or in/on a vehicle. On foot, most obviously, is the sea of dark haired people over whom I invariably tower - pushing past in crowds on the street or pretty office girls or school girls in the traditional silk ao dai dresses whizzing along on their bikes. Casual young men draped over their machines, smoking cigarettes and looking like they wish they were someplace else. Wiry old cyclo drivers in baseball caps, stained old t-shirts and lists of places to visit, or diaries containing comments of their other satisfied tourist customers to proudly show you; some are happy to pass the time of day, whilst others yell and wave across the street or down half a city block in hopes that you need to go somewhere. Men with carts of dried cuttlefish or other unidentifiable offerings, old ladies doubled over carrying shoulder poles with large baskets of fruit, or their mobile soup or coffee kitchens in search of a bit of pavement to call their own.

Crossing the street, like actually taking part in the traffic flow, is full of dangers and not for the faint hearted - you must literally take a leap of faith, walk slowly, steadily and with purpose directly into the flow of on-coming traffic, and hope fervently that the drivers are watching for you and not chatting to the passengers on the back, into their mobile phones or are otherwise diverted by someone cutting across in front of them!

On bikes and buses I am always torn between staring wide-eyed in unconcealed terror or tightly squeezing my eyes shut, hanging on for dear life and hoping for the best! In Cambodia and rural Vietnam dust is a major factor on the back of bikes so again, the question is do I keep them open and risk losing an eye, or do I grip the C bar and pull my helmet and sunnies over my eyes and place my faith (and my life) in the hands of the driver? My strategy so far is to find a little old man with an even older bike, figuring neither would be in that state without undue care, should I need to take a bike. Buses are a bit easier - they are much better at accelerating than braking, (the horn seems to replace the necessity to use any caution or the brakes!) and playing chicken with lorries. Coming back from Mui Ne on one occasion, I was in the unfortunate position of being placed atop the engine at the back of the bus, starting down the aisle at a lot of people in red plastic chairs (again safety not too much of an issue on post-Tet buses) so I had a bird's eye view of the oncoming trucks and the nifty way they manage to find three lanes on a tarmac built for two!

Looking Up
This is my least favourite activity, mainly due to the concerns listed above - but I am pleased to report it has yet to rain on me... hence the dust problem! Most days it is hot clear and sunny but occasionally we get an overcast afternoon but nothing comes from it apart from the unbearable humidity - and this is the cool, dry season! I am not looking forward to July-August!
Well ,that is a little slice of life from my wanderings about Saigon and surrounds. Please send me some news - I have taken to checking my email 2-3 times a day as I have no cable TV at my guesthouse, and the Vietnamese “Top of the Pops” that I am subjected to every evening is wearing mighty thin!

Written by Allyson Keane approximately 3 months after arriving in Saigon in 2004.


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