Morning on Bui Vein

Breakfast is on a plant-covered balcony, awash in the brrrr and beeps of motorbikes below. There’s smog this morning and a little lizard runs past my shoulder. Ho Chi Minh is entrepreneurial and busy and alive and gentle and warm.

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Banh Xeo

The first hours in ho chi minh city were a daze of jet lag and the vague queasiness of being plunged suddenly into shirt-soaking humidity. Breakfast on the balcony of my backpacker style hotel was eggs and ramen noodles and a banana. Libby, the 27 year old from Virginia, told me that the fact that I’m still traveling alone gives her hope that she’ll be able to do that when she’s my age. I decided to appreciate that.

I put on my flowiest, cottony-est clothes and started to walk. I had a map and a vague notion of where the Museum of War Remnants (formerly the museum of American War Crimes) was. First thoughts: ATMs that work with my bank card are harder to find than I expected; traveling alone with no agenda, even looking for an ATM is a pleasant adventure; HCMC is oddly gridlike and hard to get lost in, and the streets are well signed; the American war left huge wounds but this country is very much alive.

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Huge shoals of scooters and motorbikes flood every intersection like pilot fish, signalling subtly, indiscernibly. I couldn’t even see the traffic lights in most places, but there is a rhythm, the last of one shoal skimming through the intersection as the cross-street swarms across, gentle weaving and perfect avoidance. I found the rhythm without thinking about it, inserting myself into the flow, skipping abruptly faster only a few times.

When I went to Myanmar, the guide I had on my first day said “people want to help, just ask them.” The people in Ho Chi Minh wear that maxim on their faces. I was offered many rides on motorbikes as I (unwisely) covered 15 grimy kilometers in my blister-making flipflops, but mostly people just spotted the map and asked if I needed help. One woman with no english saw me looking puzzled on a busy corner and came out, mimed prayer, waited for me to confirm that I was looking for the Jade Pagoda, and perfectly signalled the crossing and two turns I would need.

I was bone weary from the long flight, the trip to Florida that preceded it, the dental stuff, the work. I felt vaguely nauseated, as I always do when jet lagged and dropped into heat. But HCMC is an alive city, and I felt my soul perk up.

After a splayed out nap in the worst of the day’s heat, I wanted to find a street cafe that specialized in Banh Xeo, greasy veggie and prawn stuffed pancakes. I started to walk, and when I hit the night market 20 minutes later, looked at the map and realized I’d miscalculated and it was another 3 km or so away. My blister was pulsing and I had that moment of quailing –just eat at the place right in front of me, or go on this little quest? I turned to the nearest guy lounging on a motorbike in front of a cafe, eating some sort of crispy sweet. I mimed driving, showed him the name of the place in the guidebook. He mimed eating, consulted someone, gave me a grimy helmet. I got on and found that flight through the lights and people of a strange city from the back of a motorbike that is the essence of me, alive.

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Signaling without words, laughing when my guy flipped up onto the sidewalk, pointing and laughing at the cars he was leaving behind, passing on the left. The me I found first on the back of Walter’s bike in Uganda, then all over the world. The me that only really surfaces when I travel alone.

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My guy waited for me, and then instructed me in how to pronounce Banh Xeo as he drove me home. I took a seat in the front of the open air cafe next to my hotel and drank a Tiger while I watched the street. Whole. Here.

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