I never had many thoughts about Saigon. Until recently, the name of the city used to evoke nothing else but the picture of a boiling, sunny place that has never tasted the beauty of winter. Yet there’s one good thing I may have attached to the whole picture of this bustling city: the art, specifically music. Remember back in the 90s, there was a trend of booming pop culture in Vietnam that originated from the South. Amongst the leaders of that trend, there was a songwriter who was a phenomenal success named Thanh Tung. Most of his songs were inspired by his beloved wife, who had passed away. One iconic song of his is this beautifully heartbreaking masterpiece Loi Cu Ta Ve (literally means The old path we walked). I just can’t help quoting these poetic, touching lyrics:
“The yellow leaves are blowing in the winds
Do I hear someone strolling along this lonely road?
Somewhere down the road is suffused with our good old memories
Did you forget them all, or did you bring them with you?
Why did you leave me here all alone
In the old path we used to walk along?”
This happened several months ago, when I was all alone in Saigon, strolling down a path inside Tao Dan park. This song suddenly ran through the earphones, and several seconds later I realized my eyes were in full tears. For God knows what. Maybe the nostalgia. Maybe the overwhelming feelings of living far from home and heading nowhere. Maybe the loneliness that at the moment just surprisingly exceeded the loneliness threshold I’d been proud of. This song somehow turned on the Saigon vibe in me – at that very moment, it just struck me lucidly that I was in Saigon. This is Saigon. And I am looking for a home in a place that is over 3,000 kilometers far from home.
Not too far. But far enough.
Anyway, this is the Saigon I know. I had the first exposure to music of Saigon on the very first day I landed here, and I think I dropped my jaws somewhere on my way home. That evening I stumbled into a wedding party. Back in Hanoi, weddings feel like a marathon: the hosts try to fit the wedding into everyone’s schedule, which means the reception often takes place around noon, on a weekday so that the guests can leave work for an one-hour break, have a quick check-in photo with the bride and groom (if they’re lucky actually), then a big lunch, and leave. I never felt too weird with that wedding routine until it dawned on me that in Saigon, they get the party started in the evening, and it’s a real party, with people singing and dancing and boozing. When I was passing that wedding, I paused a little bit. The first thing that caught my eyes was the bride’s violet wedding dress, which I later described on Facebook as a culture shock. Then, that music – the kind of cheeky, flirty songs that are the very signature of this liberal land – is on. A guy was “stealing” the micro, and he was rocking up the whole party. Everyone was a little tipsy, all singing along. It was a little weird to look at, but who cares? Weddings are supposed to be fun, like this.
That wedding was not the only music of Saigon, for sure. Several months ago, I was given a pair of tickets to The Remix show, which starred the hottest pop entertainers. It was a fun night, yet it was nowhere near the authentic musical experience I had in the indie rock live show last month. That Saturday was a farewell hangout to M., an Indian creative director who came to work at my agency for only one week. He was flying the next day, and for the previous week he’d been stuck in District 2, which is pretty isolated from the real life of Saigon, so we met up on a café in District 1 and promised to show him around the area. After dinner one of us suggested a rock live show on the rooftop of an old apartment block on Le Cong Kieu Street. “I love that street!” – my friend exclaimed passionately. Le Cong Kieu is an ancient street that quietly rests in the middle of the lively District 1. Should you get lost inside District 1 and somehow find yourself in this street, you may have the feeling of walking through the time gate and get thrown back to the past. Old houses peacefully stands next to each other, greeting very little traffic day and night; very few people choose to cut way through this street, as if no one wanted to wake this little sleeping beauty from its dreams.
As we got off the taxi, we met a gang of four or five men sitting casually in a ring in front of the building, playing guitar and singing songs. “Oh is this our show?” – I seriously questioned. Just to clarify, I thought it might as well have been a terrific show with these street amateur artists. However, we climbed up a narrow staircase, lit up by new bulbs that pretend to look vintage. The whole building, however, is indeed vintage: big electricity lines run along the walls, and finally are tied up in a tangled bunch in a dark corner; all the walls have just been re-painted white, yet the snow white effect doesn’t help much in covering the wrinkles on the face of this god-knows-how-old block. Interestingly, the older it look, the more beautiful it was to me, and we were more than excited to the show.
It was actually a charity event, where we paid to hear the new-born indie rock bands, and the ticket money will go to underprivileged children. There were no original songs, but the bands did surprisingly decent covers of old rock songs. Throughout the show my heart beats faster, and I could not help jumping up and down at times. Just a little note here: I was on my high-heels, but that did not matter, since I was carried away by the dramatic light, the mosh pits and the crowd-surfers soaring over my head. The last band to play that night was quite legendary. The lead vocal’s voice was phenomenal, but it was the dramas that built up all the tension, and finally blew every one of us away. They started with my favorite, Journey’s Don’t stop believing, which obviously got to me right at the very first notes, then charmed the audience with Forever and One. Everyone just erupted into screams and applauses. “I just got eargasm!” – the guy next to me screamed in his friend’s ear. Yeah baby, this pretty much feels like a gang bang where we’ve all had eargasms together.
But… the old people couldn’t take it. Well, Le Cong Kieu street, as I just told you, is an old street. More than that, it literally is full of old people. By the time that band finished their session and another band was setting up, the noble senior residents of the street sent their representative to talk to the show host “There are senior people around here. We need to take a rest early, and we can’t sleep in this loud noise.” So that was the end of the show. It was the lamest reason ever to cancel a show, yet it was so funny that we all came home happy about the music we enjoyed up to that point, and a fantastic experience.
After one week in Saigon, I started to feel like living in an open house without a roof over my head, since this city is filled with open air spaces: the bridges and rivers embracing every district, the open parks, the walking street, etc. The weather of Saigon is so lovely that it makes you feel it’s OK to just live on the street (not that anyone wants to actually do that). What may bother you while enjoying these open spaces is homeless people taking naps on the bridges, and poor, mostly old people selling lottery. I am not sure about the deal between lottery companies in Saigon with old people, but a great many of these senior citizens have to make their day-to-day living from this, with seemingly no support from family or the authority. I’ve bought quite a bunch of lotteries that way, and have only checked once. Buying lottery tickets is more like doing charity, but sometimes I wonder what if one of my tickets hit the jackpot? I still can’t figure out how to check lotteries results though.
There are more places for entertainment in Saigon than in Hanoi, obviously, while at the same time there seem to be a lot more homeless people. They must have been living in Saigon for quite a long time, and at some point were hopeful they would find home in this chaotic city. Like me. I was lying carelessly on a dirty, frowsty bench on the balcony of my rented house while thinking all this stuff. The spacious starry night was opening up before my eyes, and I could even feel the full moon winking at me. If I had been home then, I would have been watching the same sky. Still, this is not home. I don’t believe I would ever find home here, but as long as this sky runs everywhere I go, not feeling home is not necessarily a bad thing. The real problem, actually, should be not feeling the adventure.
So Saigon is all about adventure. The special thing about this city is that every morning you wake up in sunlight, and you feel adrenaline pumping into the vein, as if Joy (*) is dancing tango inside your head “Up up up! Rise and Shine! It’s a new day!”. It’s just like that. This whole city is, magically, full of positive power that is just imparted into anyone in it. That’s why it is so lively and vibrant, and people look happy all the time.
Yeah, they do “look” happy, all the time.
Still, one can’t be happy all the time. There are such times, when I feel like I’m worthless and heading nowhere. Or when being stuck in a game that I don’t even know the rule. Or when falling for the wrong person, at the very wrong time.
The perk of working in an ad agency is that you could have countless excuses to go outside and “breathe the fresh air” (and by “fresh air” I mean an open space full of heavy smokers getting their treats of the day). There is this windy, exposed balcony right next to the office where I love to chit chat, or just sit there, waiting to catch a smile. Then I had that talk, several days ago. Well, it was such a casual, nothing-serious talk that I threw caution in the wind, until it hit me with one fatal piece of information. We were talking about a guy,…, hum,… ok, my crush. You know the thing when you’re crazy about someone, and you just trash talk them in front of other people to cover the fact that you’re crazy about them? Similar to that, my favorite line is “He must be gay.” (subtext: I have no sexual feelings for him whatsoever) – doesn’t sound suspicious at all, right? Then here goes the conversation:
Me: “Who? Is that his boyfriend?”
Friend: “No, no. God, he’s straight.”
Me: “How can you be so sure?”
Friend: “He’s got a girlfriend.”
Then my eyes are back to the open sky. Five seconds ago, under this blue shiny sky it was a happy place; the winds were dancing to a cheerful song, embracing my face and blowing the leaves off my cascading hair. Five seconds later, it suddenly feels like the winds are just jerking off with me. The spacious, crystal clear sky of freedom now looks awfully blue and empty. Not a single cloud. That blue tone just spreads all over the place to eternity.
Out of the blue, the gracefully sad tune of “The old path we walked” runs through my head; this song has always been a reminder of Saigon to me. Oh, Saigon! I am under the sky of Saigon, breathing the air that the writer of this song used to breathe. He could have been sitting all day long looking out the sky, thinking about his lost wife. He walked the path they used to walk along, immersed in happy moments they had together, now all turned into sad memories. With the news I’ve just got I feel the same way – only that, luckily or not, I don’t even have any sweet memories to cry about. What I have are just these feelings that have gone worthless, and the name of someone that once excited my every heart beat, but, from that moment on, sounds like a glass clashing down the floor, broken.
Yes. This is Saigon. At least, the Saigon I know.
It’s bittersweet. It’s tears and laughter, fears and dares. It’s a flash of happiness, followed by days of sadness and disappointment. What’s so twisted here is that the sun keeps shining, no matter what. This city feels like a countless sunny days that keep shouting to your face “Hey cheer up! Go outside!”. But it’s exhausting, really. Sometimes all you need is just a gloomy rainy day, curling up in a ball like a sob-sack loser, and then someone touches your hand and says “It’s sad. I know you’re not OK.”
No. I’m not OK. But I’ll be just fine.
Hey Saigon, did you know that?
(*) Here refers to one of the main characters in Pixar’s Inside Out (2015)