Rivers of Mopeds
At the break of day (and late into the night), rivers of mopeds putter and rev around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. At a small table on the side of the street, I squat on a stool, eat my morning banh mi, and watch the mopeds course by. Individual riders race by. They look like hospital outpatients with their face masks meant to minimize the pollutants from the million spewing moped exhausts. I observe long enough, and the combination of moped riders become increasing more daring and absurd. One passenger riding on the back. A child standing between the handlebar and a driver. Two passengers on the back. Then a standing child, a driver, another child, and a mother on the back for good measure. A rider balancing eight boxes of copier paper—six strapped to the back, two balanced by his feet. Another rider with a welding tank against his back. Then the most audacious rider using his moped to transport a wardrobe that extends well past the seat of his scooter.
Ho Chi Minh Hustle
The entryway to a narrow four-story apartment complex serves not a dual, not a triple, but a quadruple purpose. A variety of garden plants glisten from a morning watering on the cement in front of the building. They are for sale. Behind the collection of plants, there are café tables and a barista making cafe da (Vietnamese iced coffee) from an espresso machine on a pushcart. Behind her, shelves of decorative pots and house plants line the walls. Behind the shelves, the apartment residents park their mopeds next to the elevators for the building. Real estate in the city has become quite expensive, and every square foot needs to be used in order to make a profit.
In the 1990s, when my grandparents made the move to US, my grandfather sold the land to his farm for $30,000. If he (or some enterprising relative remaining in Vietnam) would have held onto that land, it would now be worth millions of dollars.
As I walk the 40 minutes from my Airbnb to the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum, I start to feel woozy. Maybe it’s the tropical climate. Though it is December, the temperature is in the high 80s, and it is humid. I am sweaty, unused to the tropical weather. Or maybe it’s all the air pollution that I have breathed in as I walk next to the busy street heading towards Ho Chi Minh plaza. By noon, a haze of smog descends upon the city obscuring the skyline in the distance. Or maybe it’s from microbes that were trapped in the ice cubes of the cold tea that I was given along with my coffee at the café. My mom warned me not to drink the tap water or any liquid mixed with ice. I arrive at the museum weak, cold, and shaky. Still, I pay for my admission and buy a bottle of water. I inspect the seal closely for tampering, and when finally assuaged of the water’s safety, I sit down on a bench in the shade, drink my water, and wait for enough strength to explore the museum. Eventually, I feel well enough. Later, I take a nap before dining with a cousin. However, before dinner, I order a coffee and am also given a cup of cold tea. I forgot the lesson from earlier in the day and drink the tea and soon I am on the brink of another fever dream.
I weave through the alleys that crisscross around my Airbnb. I walk the busy streets of the neighborhood. I explore the shops and dine at the cafes and restaurants. For most of the day, I observe, I listen, but I am mute. I am a Viet kieu (foreign born Vietnamese) who never learned Vietnamese. I look for the English or Romanized letters around the city to help me with my transactions. I say what I want. If I am not understood, I repeat myself. If that doesn’t work, I point to something. A price is said. I hand the person some money. I am given some change. Though Ho Chi Minh is the city where my mom and her family are from, I am unfamiliar with it as it is unfamiliar with me. We look at each like strangers who notice something familiar about one another, even though we have never met before. The people of the city look like my grandmother and my grandfather, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. We share the same complexion, facial features, except I have a beard and the frame of a soldier that used to patrol the streets back when the city had its old name, Saigon.
I wander the city to lose myself, to look for answers, to discover unspoken truths.