The Crazy, the Vibrant, the Beautiful Saigon

Written by Stephanie Jamilla (George Washington University) Student Correspondent CET Vietnam, Fall 2017

The pungent smell of motorbike exhaust. The blaring heat and brilliance of the mid-morning sun. The muggy blanket of humidity immediately entrapping my whole body. None of my planning for study abroad had prepared me for the sensory overload I experienced when I first stepped out of Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport and into Saigon. I felt a surge of adrenaline rushing through me. I’m here! I’m finally here! And, strangely, I felt like I was home. Which is good since, well, this will be home for the next four months. (Some context: My family is originally from Southeast Asia, and that was part of my motivation to study abroad in Vietnam. I’ve visited the Philippines a handful of times, so the atmosphere likely reminded me of that. “It’s the climate of my ancestors!” I texted my parents.)

Within 24 hours of being in Saigon, I had devoured two bowls of phở, wandered down all possible roads close to the guesthouse, window shopped at each store front, took note of all surrounding cool-looking coffee shops, and enviously eyed locals who bought colorful fruit from street carts. I think my main motivation to learn Vietnamese is being able to order food accurately. Ah, I’m just joking! But only a little.

Some early morning traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

It was as if my energy levels mirrored the zooming motorbikes that filled Saigon’s streets to their brim. I wanted to run to each stall and store and peek into every cranny of this new, yet familiar, city. During rush hour, it’s rather common for motorcyclists to ditch the road and drive on sidewalks. Like them, I weaved in and out of groups of pedestrians and impatiently stared at the backs of those who walked to slow for my pace. I was determined to not waste any time in Ho Chi Minh City! Pfft, who needed to do important chores such as unpacking my almost overweight luggage or figuring out how the air conditioner in my room works? I wanted to fully and unapologetically plunge myself into Saigon. I would say that I did a good job doing so until it hit 8 pm, and the only plunging I did was into bed. (By the way, Ho Chi Minh City is the same as Saigon—though really, everyone calls it by the latter.)

The CET Vietnam team did a great job in organizing activities so that us program participants could get our fill of the city. The next few days of orientation were exhausting though exhilarating. We were thrust into a scavenger hunt around District 1, the center of the city, and put in teams of two: one American student and one Vietnamese roommate. When I was paired with my roommate, Linh, another Vietnamese girl jokingly commented to me, “You’ve got a crazy one there.” I smiled at Linh in response, knowing that we would get along splendidly. And sure enough, we do!

One of the tasks for the scavenger hunt was to take a picture of us in front of Saigon’s Central Post Office, a popular tourist attraction. The building is colored a slightly faded, yet still vibrant yellow. Saigon seems to be a fan of bright colors, I mean, look at that pink of Tân Định Church! In any case, after bombarding a tourist with the request to take our photo, we situated ourselves right in the middle of the steps in front of the grand building. Extra points were given to pairs who posed “creatively,” so Linh told me to put my arms up like “this” and promptly dabbed. My introverted self felt absolutely mortified at the idea of dabbing in front of the growing crowd, but my determination to win the scavenger hunt coupled with Linh’s readiness convinced me to play along. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but hey, the picture turned out pretty cute! Though perhaps a silly story, I think it’s indicative of how my time abroad will continue to challenge my introversion.

Although I love the fast-paced rhythm of Saigon, I’ve come to most value the quiet moments here. Last Saturday, Linh and I went to Hello Weekend Market, close to our guesthouse, to check out the various vendors. It was popular for its cheap prices and quality goods, hence it was also incredibly crowded. People shoved each other trying while trying to get by, and more than once I thought I had lost Linh in the sea of shoppers. Usually I’m able to draw off the energy others, but this market left me pooped. After looking around, we grabbed food from some stalls and sat down on the edge of the soccer field, adjacent to the market. We were finally able to take a breather, and we shared a huge glass of peach iced tea while watching the dusk sky fade into shades of pink and orange and purple. There was a rare breeze blowing, and both of us ate in comfortable silence. Linh popped a piece of sushi in her mouth and after awhile said, “You know, we should enjoy times like these.” She gestured in front of her, likely trying to emphasize the calm ambiance. “They don’t happen often.” And in that moment, I realized she was right. Riding on the back of a motorbike as we drove along the canal and admired the reflection of city lights on the water. Sitting on the floor of my Linh’s aunt’s house as she served us dinner and chided Linh for not feeding me more. Enjoying the cooler night temperatures while sitting on a bench outside the guesthouse and soaking in the sounds of the city. These experiences have become those that I’ve cherished the most since coming to Vietnam. Four months may seem like a long time, but I 100% believe everyone who tells me that it’ll pass by in an instant. I want to savor every moment I’m here and learn from each adventure I have. Xin chào, Saigon, and thank you for having me.