We're in Ho Chi Minh City now, and I'm sitting at a Gloria Jean's Coffee shop that could be in Cleveland Heights or Plano. That is, until I look out the glass wall of the shop and watch an old woman shield herself from the rain with her conical straw hat and see a skinny guy scoot past in the fast walk people use when they're carrying something too heavy. He's got a single pole slung across one shoulder with an ice chest hanging from one end balanced with a basket of green coconuts. He'll chop them open with a cleaver and sell the cold juice to tourists.
Walking is pretty hazardous in this city, with or without the heavy load. The sidewalks are jumbled with the merchandise coming from all the make-shift stalls on street level; people sitting or squatting and eating, drinking, smoking, and playing cards; and more motorbikes and even cars parked on than you'd think belong on a sidewalk. I temporarily one of these people this morning when I spent about 45 minutes perched on a tiny yellow plastic chair like the one we'd have in preschool in front of a stall that sold SIM chips for cell phones and a wide selection of pirated video and music. I was sort of like the human security deposit while my friend Tom took both our phones and went off on the back of the motorbike with the son of the woman who ran the stall. We still couldn't get the phones to work, but I loved just sitting there and watching Saigon by a startling variety of conveyances.
The traffic here is legendary, and for very good reasons. There seems to be more consensus on what side of the street to drive on than there is in Cambodia, but the first law of driving any vehicle here must be, "do not stop, ever." As a pedestrian you have to cross the street by playing a real-life game of Froggy, plotting and timing a zizagging course between motorbikes, cars, and buses, often getting stuck between "lanes" until another small opening appears. It's hard to concentrate on the task sometimes because the visual display of the moving traffic is so fascinating. To protect themselves from at least some of the dust and dirt, many of the women here wear face-masks while driving their motorbikes. They also tend to wear hats and sunglasses and these very odd-looking gloves that cover almost the entire arm to protect their skin from the sun. You look down the street and see a fleet of them coming and think the city is under siege from an army of 95-pound train-robbing bandits in high-heeled sandals. But my favorite sight of the morning was the woman driving the moto with her baby on her lap. This isn't unusual in itself, but this woman apparently wanted to protect the baby from the dust as well, so she pretty much just put it in a large orange fine-meshed bag, as far as I could tell. Pretty ingenious.
What we've done so far in Saigon: drinks on the roof of the Rex Hotel, where American officials used to gather during the war, a delicious meal at a restaurant where they throw rice across the room, and this morning a tour of the former Presidential palace, instantly recognizable as the building with the gates through with the north Vietnamese forces drove (and got stuck) in April 1975 when they liberated the city. This afternoon it's the War Remnants Museum.
I'll try to get back to this soon and catch-you up on everything that's happened. Okay, well not everything. This coffee shop is now completely packed with locals and visitors escaping the rain, so I'm going to vacate my table.