In our neighborhood, there aren’t many supermarkets. Even that’s an overstatement; there actually isn’t a single supermarket anywhere near us. So we’ve had to become familiar the local market, or “chợ”. And the market’s vendors have had to become familiar with us. Trust is a two-way street, people… and Saigon’s markets are worlds unto themselves.
Every city worth its salt has a Chinatown, but the award for World’s Largest Chinatown (at least in terms of area) goes to Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City. This district was actually its own city for a long time, until eventually being swallowed up by its bigger neighbor to the east. We spent a day navigating its busy streets and visiting its markets.
Saigon is a city of crazy traffic, constant noise and unbroken swaths of concrete. But there exists a section of the city which is totally different. We spent the day walking around Phường 28: an island that has been almost completely overlooked by Saigon’s insatiable appetite for urbanization.
For the uninitiated, the chaos of Saigon’s streets can be intimidating to the point of paralysis. The first time I had to cross the road, I stood still on the curb for minutes, with my hands held in front of me like a mime hitting a glass wall. I’m not even sure I blinked. My mind was stuck in a panicked loop of “Now! No… now! No… now! No…” but my body (instinctively wiser) refused to obey its orders.
For about a week, hundreds of boats from the Mekong Delta line up along the Ben Binh Wharf to sell the flowers and small fruit trees with which Vietnamese families decorate their homes during the holiday of Tet. Visiting this floating flower market was among the first things we did in Saigon, and the scene made a huge impression on us.
For better or worse, Jürgen and I arrived in Saigon just as the country was preparing for Tet – the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. This is by far the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar; regular life grinds to a halt, while families gather from near and far for a week of flowers, feasts and celebrations.
Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, will be our home for the next three months. This sprawling and rapidly-developing metropolis has a population of eight million people, making it the largest city in Vietnam. For 91 days, Jürgen and I will be seeing its sights, eating its street food, meeting its locals, and immersing ourselves in its culture. And although we can’t wait to get going on all of that, first we’ll have to figure out how to cross its streets.