Is “Saigon” a dirty word? It’s so much less of a mouthful than “Ho Chi Minh City” the official name for this city since 1976. It rolls off the tongue, it’s short and sweet. No disrespect to Ho Chi Minh, but the longer name is often substituted, particularly by foreigners, for the pre 1976 shorter version. I often ask local Vietnamese about using Saigon as an alternative name. One trusted local told me that it’s quite OK to use “Saigon” in informal conversation, but it is always written as “Ho Chi Minh City”. A northerner was not quite as forth coming and expressed his disgust that a certain US Airline continued to use “Saigon” in their schedules until very recently. An expat associate described how to him “Saigon” just meant the downtown area or District 1, that was merged with the surrounding province in 1976 to become the larger “Ho Chi Minh City”. I have adopted a similar approach. Formally I use “Ho Chi Minh City” as one rightfully should, in informal conversation I will often say “Saigon”, and to describe the downtown area I will also use “Saigon”.
Ho Chi Minh presides over his name sake aka SaigonIt was the Sunday before Christmas and I found myself staying in downtown Saigon. As often happens on work related trips I find a Sunday here and there where this nothing practical from the work sense to do. Sunday’s are relatively quiet in the city, but there’s still always something going on. I decided to walk down to the main market at Ben Thanh. On the way the usual hawkers tried their luck selling me T-shirts, sunglasses, drinks and Zippo Lighters made to look like they were just found in the jungle and were left over from the American War. Cyclo drivers tried their luck at persuading me to take a ride with them. But all in all, being late afternoon on a Sunday things were pretty quiet. I traversed the main market pretty quickly, all in all it was a typical quiet Sunday.
a Cyclo driver lazily touts for business at the central market, Ho Chi Minh City
Zippos lighters, complete with American War type engravings all made to look like they were just found lying in the jungle
Make sure you check out the butchers in the main market, mmmm meat
Leaving the market and moving away from the city centre, I passed one of the many street side bar-come-cafes. Doesn’t matter where in the world you are these kinds of places are exactly what you need to experience the local food and more importantly meet the local people. One of the problems for me in Vietnam is these sidewalk cafe setups use tiny plastic chairs, and being the BIG guy that I am these tiny chairs usually disintegrate when I sit on them. I was passing by a table of ten or so local men, all happily drinking beer when I noticed there was one empty chair at the head of the table. As a joke I pretended to sit at the table and take one of their beers from their stash on the table as if I was one of them. This caused the table to erupt into riotous laughter and rapid Vietnamese language conversation. As I continued on my way, I was beckoned back to join them, an opportunity hard to pass up. But first I had to explain the small chair issue. This of course brought more riotous laughter, but also brought a large metal-framed chair from inside the cafe! I was IN!
Ben Thanh, the central market area in Ho Chi Minh City, with the giant Bitexco Tower visible to the left
Typical example of the tiny chairs on the sidewalk cafes and bars in Vietnam
Guess which chair is mine?
The guys sitting around the table were all street hawkers, cyclo drivers, or similar. The same guys who try their luck to earn a few bucks on every tourist that walks by. The cyclo drivers amongst them spoke some English, being that they speak at fairly regular intervals with English speaking tourists. They were telling me how hard they work 6 days a week to make whatever they can for their families. But come Sunday it’s their day off, and they all get together to drink beer, not much different to working people anywhere else in the world really. I was handed a beer, called 333 or as it’s said ba-ba-ba, a glass of Ice (the beer is not always cold hence the ice) and a choice of boiled or roasted peanuts to snack on. I was introduced around the table, the cyclo drivers with the English skills taking the lead. As I shook all their hands and tried to pronounce their names, I couldn’t help but notice how hard and calloused their hands were. It wasn’t really that long ago when my hands were calloused like that, but now they’re all soft and pudgy and white. When you shake their hand there is a certain integrity in that hard calloused working man’s hand. What does my soft hand say to them? Maybe their calloused skin is just too hard to feel the difference?
Sunday is beer day for the hawkers on the streets of Saigon
It was my turn to shout, my turn to buy the round, it would only be proper, especially considering I’ve just been sitting here hearing how much these guys have to do to make a buck whilst drinking their beer. Before committing though, I was going to check the beer price, I don’t mind paying more as a foreigner, but there’s a reason I refer to these guys as the Saigon Street Mafia. I don’t mean they are out right criminals but they are going to do whatever they can to make a few dollars, what people call “making mafia”, that’s just the way it is. So before I buy the round I want to see exactly how much “mafia” is going on. The bar owner confirmed the price on his small hand held calculator with a large smile, the price was kosher, no “mafia”, less than a dollar a beer! The boys asked me if I’d like to eat, having just finished lunch and only two hours away from a dinner meeting, I declined. The charged up street workers weren’t taking no for an answer, they were ordering food. This wasn’t the first time I had ended up in a street bar in Vietnam drinking with the locals. The last time was with a group of long distance truck drivers outside of Da Nang and some of the food that came out that day was amazing even if unidentifiable. I wondered what kind of food was about to appear………..
Two years earlier in Da Nang I had a similar experience with truck drivers drinking whiskey
That day in Da Nang, all kinds of delicious yet unidentifiable food was produced
Food is abundant on the streets of Saigon, if not also mostly unidentifiable to mere “Westerners”.
Cheese. A round of individually wrapped, processed European cheese. Not at all what I was expecting. The cheese was passed around the table with each person grabbing an individually wrapped segment – and then promptly dropping it in their beer! The cyclo driver closest to me, named Thanh, did his best to explain. It would seem this processed cheese was not meant for these tropical climates and was essentially the texture of a thick cream cheese in the heat. But a few seconds in the beer glass (filled with ice as noted above) and it went from runny to solid making it easier to handle and consume. The irony of this is that I declined the ice for my beer, not knowing the integrity of the water and all. So my beer was not cold enough to reset the cheese, which resulted in cream cheese all over me as I unwrapped my not-cold-enough segment of cheese, to the instant and ongoing amusement of the Street Mafia.
Cheese and beer, Saigon style
The guys were as curious about my life as I was about theirs. It’s difficult enough to explain my job to educated westerners let alone the street hawkers of Saigon. It seemed all they could work out was that I get paid to travel around the world. Their next move was to try and suggest “mafia” scams we could team up for! The more beer that was consumed, the more propositions came forth. Their favourite offer was to use them as middle men for whatever services were required in Vietnam. They would issue an inflated invoice, I would organise my company to pay, and they would take their cut, everybody wins right? In many ways is this any different to how many business deals are done?? I can’t blame them, you can’t blame them. They have to “make mafia” to survive. It’s the way of the streets. They look at me, so big I don’t fit in a local Vietnamese chair, with baby soft hands, and incapable of eating cheese without making a mess of myself. Yet I get paid to travel the world. You can’t blame them, can you?
the Local Brewery rep dropped by to top up supplies
It was getting late. Several of the guys were excusing themselves and heading off into the streets. I thought I’d do the same and asked for my bill from the smiling bar keep who had hovered around the table constantly since I arrived, offering serviettes when I covered myself in melted cheese, fresh beer coasters when the condensation destroyed the existing one, and waiting for the signal from me when it was my shout again. There were some extra charges on the bill, nothing much but a few extras that I wasn’t expecting. It turned out to be the cheese. Only made sense that I pay for the cheese. These guys don’t earn enough to splurge out on cheese normally. Even melted processed cheese. They enquired as to which hotel I was staying. And then of course wanted to know how much it cost to stay per night. I had to answer that I honestly didn’t know as “the company pays”. But it didn’t take much for me to estimate from what they just told me it would be at least a months earnings or more for these hawkers and drivers to equal one night’s charge in my hotel.
the smiling bar keep
Christmas had come and gone, and I had been from one end of Vietnam to the other and I was back where I started, walking the streets of Saigon. My flight out to Manila was late in the afternoon that day, It was now relatively early on a Monday morning. Not fussed at waiting it out in the hotel room, I hit the streets with no plans and no intentions. As I got closer to the central markets, and started to be approached by hawkers, I though about my “mafia” mates. Wouldn’t it have been great to be here yesterday, a Sunday, and drop into the street bar to surprise them. A cyclo pulled up beside me. “Hello, mister, where you go, I take you, get in”. No thanks, I decline, as I had no plans where could he take me? “Hang on a minute” I said. “Don’t I know you?”. It had only been two weeks, but I do believe, in a city of millions, I had ended beside Thanh, my English speaking, beer drinking, cyclo driving comrade. His face lit up as it dawned on us both. He yelled out in Vietnamese to the other cyclo drivers whilst pointing at me. He explains to me that he is telling them that I am the guy who bought him beers a few weeks ago. He insisted I get in, how could I refuse. I now had a destination - the street bar where we drank beer previously. At 0900 on a Monday morning no less.
In a city of millions I find myself next to my drinking comrade, Thanh
Sitting “exposed”, as it feels, right out in the front of the tricycle as you weave through Saigon’s manic traffic must be experienced by all visitors to the city. (Hey you may as well ask around for Thanh !). A late model European sports car zooms past us, the high pitch scream of the turbo gives away the presence of a high performance engine. I joke with Thanh that it must be his car. His reply was to suggest that I must have at least two of them back in my garage at home. He was only partly joking. But I doubt I will EVER have two Ferraris or Porsches or just about anything else European in my driveway, but Thanh was having none of that, I could buy all the cheese I wanted, I must be rich enough for two Ferraris as well. Still 20 metres off the sidewalk, coasting smoothly through the traffic, Thanh started yelling out to the bar keep. The bar keep’s face broke into a giant grin and he raced inside to produce the large metal framed chair once again. The big guy who can drink lots of beer but can’t eat cheese is back.
Riding a Cyclo in Saigon
Traffic on the city’s streets often borders on insane
Two years earlier, a shot showing the disproportion when I take a cyclo
I didn’t have to check the prices this time. Besides it was only the two of us now. Without uttering a word two cans of 333 appeared and of course a round of processed cheese! This time with a separate glass of ice for my cheese since my beer was still iceless. Hah! I can now prove I am quite capable of eating cheese without making a mess! A street hawker selling copied Lonely Planet guides approached us. Thanh looked at her in disgust, dismissing her with words I did not understand yet at the same time somehow understood their intention. As she left, he made strange smoking like gestures and saying “heroin”. Thanh spoke of many heroin users on the streets. Chasing the Dragon. Two thirds of the world’s heroin users smoke the drug to “chase the dragon”, describing the motion made whilst smoking the heroin, chasing the bubbling drug around the aluminium foil holding it, the same motion in the gesture that Thanh had made. It shouldn’t have surprised me that the streets of Saigon were no different to any other large global city when it comes to this sort of thing.
Early morning beer with Thanh during Round 2
So next time you’re on the streets of Saigon and the hawkers pounce on you, can you blame them? They’re just doing what they have to to get by.
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