Wanderlust Wendy

Saigon Chronicle – Week 1: Traffic. Noise. Heat.

After a year of globetrotting, we gathered our belongings, added a couple more bags, and headed for Saigon. By now, moving across the world has become rather habitual. My first big global move was from Taiwan to St. Louis at age 12. That was seriously major. Moving to Cameroon with the Peace Corps was a rather big deal as well, so was traversing the globe to Shanghai after grad school, without a plan. 

Minimal Living & Global Relocation

Yet, after minimizing our lives and a year of travel, heading to Saigon from our last destination in Paris simply felt like another flight to another destination. We own so few things that we did not even take advantage of the extra 30kg luggage benefit offered by Xav’s company. I joked about filling up an entire bag full of paté, foie gras, and Nutella, but the effort was simply not worthwhile. Our final lugguage count was 80kg.

This move to Saigon has been by far the least stressful of my international moves, and I attribute it largely to the benefit of living simply. In prior moves, the most source of stress is deciding what to pack. The process to select which items fit into the limited luggage allowance was tiresome. Weighing each bag repeatedly to ensure they are under the limit was exhausting. This move? None of that. Instead, we devoted the energy to feeling excited about the new adventure. 

Relocation is a huge industry due to people’s attachment to things. I have never moved with a relocation company, but I see people fret over packing and storing things they can’t bring, and upon arrival, concern over when their belongs will arrive; settling all of their things into a new space is never an easy feat. This trend is true both for moving within the U.S. and internationally. I currently don’t own many nice things, and fortunately, this state of being has eliminated all the usual moving anxieties. 

Temporary Housing in Saigon

Owning few things has also opened up options for our housing choices. We are currently staying in a lovely hotel in Phu Nhuan District, bordering District 3, along a lovely canal. Xav’s company gave us two weeks to find an apartment. That felt stressful. We know nothing about the lay of the land; how would we choose so quickly? Instead, we decided to survey the plethora of short-term serviced apartments targeting foreigners. These spaces are fully furnished, and comes with cleaning services. This will buy us time while we get a feel for different neighborhoods around town. 

I hopped on a few housing Facebook groups in Saigon and browsed listings. Messaged a couple of agents who were all albe to communite in English, and provided our requirements. Within a day, we had several viewings lined up. We went around visiting the offerings, and decided on a place within 2 days. Since we only plan to stay in this place for two months, the pressure is low, and the decision was easy to make! 

If you are going through the process, I suggest these following Facebook groups/pages:

First Impression of Saigon

Traffic & Noise

Humans are incredibly adaptable. We had spent the spring in suburbia St. Louis, where traffic is mostly limited to highways. Before boarding the flight in Paris, we spent a few weeks in the French Countryside, where we didn’t encounter much traffic at all. I had the foresight to book two days in Paris to acclimate back into city life, and even then we found the noise level to be rather high. And then, we landed in Saigon. 

We had visited HCMC and the Mekong Delta a few years ago while still living in Shanghai. Back then, I found Saigon’s motorbike traffic amusing, but nothing too out of ordinary. Yet, after a year being away from Asia, I landed and was rather culture shocked. 

The first day, I found myself walking around the city, trying to take it all in. The noise is constant; the cacophony has a funny rhythm to it. I call it the Saigon Symphony. The sidewalks in our neighborhoods are uneven and often filled with motorbikes. Walking requires watching every step. An easy stroll doesn’t exist in the same way, especially not while crossing streets. 

After a few days, I begin to get the hang of the street-crossing art form: Move like water. Go with the flow. No sudden movements. Hold my arm out to signal I need a little space. Other than a few major intersections, most crossroads don’t have traffic lights, and crossing streets with oncoming traffic is not for the faint of heart. Yet somehow, it works. Scooters swerve around me. Cars slow down to let me pass. I move slowly but surely across the street, reaching the other side. Organized chaos never ceases to amaze. 

Heat & Humidity

Saigon’s crazy traffic is partly because it is so hot and humid most of the time. We often find ourselves to be the only people walking the streets, while everyone else is scooting around on motorbikes. Prior to arrival, we had been monitoring the weather and nervous about the humidity level reaching over 90%! As with most things in life, living the reality is entirely different than what we could have expected.

I am quite happy for the excuse to be in tank-top and shorts all day, but also adjusting to the sweating sensation and the art of eating soup in 100-degree weather. Street foods, so far, are the best tasting with the greatest value. We would then retreat to an air-conditioned café, paying the same amount as our meal for coffee or tea to cool off. The heat is certainly the tradeoff and adjustment we must make for Southeast Asia living! 

Gritty Charm

The strolls thus far have been very entertaining. Saigon reminds me of Taiwan when I was a kid. So much happening, all of the time. My favorite is walking through little alleys to break from traffic noise. Many buildings are typical narrowed shop houses that extend multiple floors. Due to the heat, families spread out on the cool tile floors with doors open. Walking through them provides a hint of true Saigon Living. 

In the early evenings, food vendors come out of the woodworks, and every few blocks we can find tables and low stools neatly lined up for customers. One can never go hungry here. There is always good; so good that sanitary issues never cross my mind as we sit in these roadside tables chowing down delicious delights. 

The energy is vibrant, and everyone is hustling. I missed this type of vibe towards the end of my time in Shanghai, where life was becoming more Westernized, and unfortunately sterile. Street food stands had turned into food courts in shopping malls, and vendors on pushcarts were chased away from the streets. Saigon still has all the entrepreneurial grit, and I find it utterly charming. 

Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

One of the reasons I wanted to leave Shanghai was because life was too comfortable. I recognize this is an incredibly privilege statement, as most people work very hard to achieve a comfortable life. But I wanted a bit of a challenge. I wanted to walk down the streets and have no idea what is being said or know what food I am ordering at food stands. The gamble to see what arrives on my plate is somehow thrilling. 

I like finding the local laundromat, and communicates via pointing at signs and hoping for the best. And then later, pleasantly surprised to find that for US$1.50, this nice lady does our 3kg laundry and hands the pile back to me neatly folded. Other times, the surprise is not knowing how much food costs, and at the end of the meal realizing we didn’t bring enough cash. I then sat on the low stool for 20 minutes, while sending Xav back to our room to retrieve more cash. 

I am sure in no time, we will find our routine, and adjust to the way things work here. But for now, I relish in living every day slightly on edge, and never quite knowing what is happening. 

8 thoughts on “Saigon Chronicle – Week 1: Traffic. Noise. Heat.”

  1. I remember Saigon being busy, and bustling city 10 years ago when I was there. I have heard it has gotten more crowded. It sounds like Taipei, but at least Taipei has some good public transportation. I remember that with food you should ask someone beside you for the price. They can sometimes charge foreigners a bit more. Like I said, that was ten years ago. Things have changed.

    • Saigon feels like Taipei maybe 30 years ago? I feel an odd sense of comfort here that reminds me of childhood in Taiwan. As for food, since we don’t yet speak the language, we have no other option than to pay that “foreigner tax”. Motivation to learn quickly! But yes, it’s a fast-changing place from what I have heard!

  2. This is so exciting! For some reason I had a very easy time adjusting to the city too, despite the fact that it’s so chaotic. Out of all the foreign cities I’ve lived in this has been the easiest. But that’s not to say there haven’t been a lot of challenges (noise: honking, hammering, drilling!). Yay, I’m excited to follow along on your journey and if you have any questions feel free to reach out. I’m not an expert but I’ve learned a thing or two. Also, there seem to be a few expats that have lived in China. We’ve found a couple of good Chinese restaurants that we go to often 🙂

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