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.
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.
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.
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.