I didn’t expect to fall in love with this city, but I guess love has a way of sneaking up on you like that. (May ganon?) Ho Chi Minh, a.k.a. Saigon, wasn’t even on my list of places to visit—I just booked a flight on a whim, while my brother was still working there (free accommodations + foodie tour guide = why not?). We landed at past midnight, so I didn’t get a good view of the city as we headed to District 2 (very Hunger Games), where my brother is currently staying.
A few hours later, as the sun came up and I still lay in bed, my brother walked in and asked, "Have you looked outside?" I stood up, pulled back the blackout drapes, and looked out of the 13th-floor window: On the highway were hundreds and hundreds of people on motorcycles. "Parang mga langgam!" remarked my tita. Being from Manila, I thought about how hellish it would be to drive amid all those motorbikes, but I've discovered that people here are much more disciplined riders, and I'm told that there's hardly ever an accident. There's a rhythm to the way the motorbikes move here (in fact, when you're crossing the street, you're not supposed to stop, and it's second nature to them to avoid you), and entire families of four pile onto one motorbike, so you have to trust that safety is foremost in their minds.
We flagged down a cab—something that's remarkably easy to do in Ho Chi Minh—which took us to District 1. We stopped at what looked like an alley lined with knock-off Van Goghs and other paintings, and came upon a decrepit (but clean) building bearing a sign: “L’Usine.”
We made our way upstairs, and found ourselves outside the most charming-cool café—black and white tiles, slate gray walls, sunlight streaming through picture windows. I was smitten; if HCM had little gems like this hidden all around the city, then I was in for a treat.
As the day progressed, I found many other things to delight in: My mom and my tita said that the tree-lined streets and quaint shops reminded them of old Manila. (Never mind that one of these “quaint shops” was actually a Louboutin store.) I didn’t tire of seeing the French colonial architecture, and I appreciated how the chipping paint and worn facades gave buildings so much character.
And the food! A few days before my trip, a nutritionist told me that carnivore me had to watch my red meat intake as my uric acid was higher than average. Vietnamese food was just what the doctor ordered—fresh spring rolls, steaming bowls of pho, and lots and lots of vegetables.
Even with all these things, I still had a hard time determining why the city seemed to have such a strong pull. After some reflection, I realized it was because it offered the less frenetic pace that I’ve been looking for. Even while in Ho Chi Minh, I was perpetually answering text messages and email from work, and sitting in front of a laptop every chance I got. I’ve been working so much—leaving early, going home just to have dinner with my son and give him a bath, then going back to the office to work til 11 or 1 or 2; working on weekends—that my psychosomatic stress symptoms (hives, for one) have again begun to manifest. My life was (is) just all kinds of crazy, and Manila reflected that—the never-ending to-do list, the demands, the traffic. Being in Saigon reminded me of the kind of life that I crave.
I want a life where I get to eat at cute little restaurants tucked away in old buildings...
...where I get to have an amaretto sour and oysters at sunset, while laughing with family...
...where I get to meet interesting new people, and hang out at a bar and just have good conversations...
And I have to stop myself from getting carried away and plotting a move to Saigon, and just appreciate the lesson it’s taught me: I can find these things back home. I just need to make time to do so and bring some balance back into my life. It’s not the city that needs to change—it’s me.