Saigon. Oh you slow-burning sultry seductress of an Asian city, how we have come to love you.
Getting the iPhone stolen by a scooter on the first night wasn’t the greatest start to our second visit to Saigon but 18 days later that seems like a long way behind us.
It seems like we’ve been here forever now and it’s starting to feel like home. Away from the epicentre of District 1, our apartment in District 4 was a good choice.
It’s difficult to describe District 4 but for those familiar with London, Whitechapel and the East End of Victorian days might be the best approximation – it’s an area of markets, fishmongers, butchers, noise and smell. Tight spaces with people and stalls, if you can get a child through it then you can get a motorbike through! It’s a Dickensian scene with conical hats and coconuts.
It’s a Dickensian scene with conical hats and coconuts.
The small alleyway that leads to our temporary home looks like a set out of any movie where you’re about to meet an immediate and violent end but, again, the feeling of bonhomie that pervades across Saigon acts like a protective coat.
A couple of years back, before we started touring seriously we took a private course in Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defence method, and they talk about colour zones of alertness from White to Red; even in the narrowest back alleys, we have never yet graduated from Yellow, a state of mild caution.
All a little cooler
But it’s not like Thailand, it’s not smiling faces everywhere you turn, it’s a lot more reticent than that. If Thailand is Essex, then Vietnam is Yorkshire.
If Thailand is Essex, then Vietnam is Yorkshire.
But, like Yorkshire, you just need to find the right key to unlock the laughter that’s not far away.
And there’s age bias. The younger Vietnamese move quicker to engage than the older.
Some of that will be the natural grumpiness that comes with middle age and, we’re guessing, that some will be a deep set mistrust of the Westerner – anyone of our age or above will have personal memories of the late 60s in Vietnam.
I recall people of my grandparents’ generation in the 1970s talking about how, following WW2, you can never trust the Germans or Japanese and it would be very human if similar feelings remained here.
Tourists speaking Vietnamese beyond the basic “Cam On” as thanks is virtually unknown and there seem to be few ex-pats in District 4; so us walking around looking like a 2-man film crew is a curious sight.
And the Vietnamese aren’t shy about staring.
A scowling old crone from a semi-dark doorway is an unfriendly and intimidating sight but just a simple “Chào Chi” – will almost certainly get you a startled look and 9/10 a big smile, if not laughter. Chào Chí carries a degree of implied respect akin to ‘hello Auntie’ and immediately humanises us.
Xin Chào is just a little more formal than just Chào, and when used as Xin Chào Đổng Chí – Greetings Comrade – it has never failed to get peels of laughter. But you gotta pick your audience with that one.
Just a little bit longer…
We were due to leave 5 days ago and extended our stay by a week.
Now we’ve extended it by another 4 days.
Partly because we’re loving it here and partly because the film we’re making about 10 weeks in South East Asia is taking a lot longer than we expected.
A simple “5 Things we love, don’t love and miss in South East Asia” has become a Herculean task, mainly because we’re learning as we go.
Predominantly learning by failure and, repeating, but learning nonetheless.
Maybe we should rename it “10 weeks in the Cutting Room”
And another really curious thing is the reaction to us when they see us walking around or setting up the camera. By virtue of the kit we’re carrying, tripod, shotgun mic, monitor screen and lights, it’s obvious that we’re not casual tourists and people react differently.
Saigon has a second-to-none street food scene, only Bangkok comes a close second, and people like Anthony Bourdain, Luke Nguyen, Sonny Side and Mark Wiens have all put it in the living rooms of the wealthy traveller.
Bánh Xèo 46A, a street stall selling Bánh Xèo, was featured in a Bourdain show over 10 years ago and now has tourists queuing around the block every lunchtime.
Luke Nguyen’s shows are a staple on YouTube and both Sonny Side and Mark Wiens are significant influencers here.
YouTube is gold for tourism and the locals know it.
…as “Serious YouTubers” we’re greeted with warmth and a small degree of reverence.
If we said that we were making a BBC Documentary about whatever then the response would be Meh, but as “Serious YouTubers” we’re greeted with warmth and a small degree of reverence.
Watching the hand-drawn carts pulling the butchers’ blocks into the market in the morning and out again at night, it would be easy to see Vietnam as a hundred years behind Western civilisation and that would be a mistake.
It’s a young and extremely vibrant country, very technologically aware and full of joy and optimism albeit sometimes cloaked in a Yorkshire mac.