Somebody else will get it later – first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City, aka HCMC, aka Saigon, aka S (though this abbreviation causes confusion with other cities beginning with ‘S’, of which there are many). Either way, it was my first destination.
As my plane began descent, the one-third of passengers who had managed to score a window seat were granted a tiny glimpse into what this city might contain, both literally and symbolically. Literally, because of limited visibility from the pollution of 8 million residents, and symbolically through the mish-mash of structures and neighbourhoods shunted against one another, which I would later see echoed at street level in the variety of shops that apparently made sense to group together.
“Oh I’m just popping out to book a tour, while I’m there I’ll stop in next door to pick up some automotive supplies, and if I have time on the parking meter, I’ll grab an exotic fruit I’ve never heard of from an old woman on the sidewalk.” (Just kidding… there are no parking meters!)
Ho Chi Minh City is a transfixing sort of awful, like ‘Deal Or No Deal’. Nobody wants to see it, but if it’s on, by God are you engrossed to the point of self-loathing until some external saviour tears your away.
It is demanding. A constant swell of hot motorbike fumes embody the true meaning of ‘exhaust’, and impossible sidewalks and crossings slow down your clamber to somewhere you hope will be air-conditioned. In fact, I have so much to say about the roads that it has become a whole separate post. Look forward to that gem of borderline-xenophobia in the coming weeks.
But for now, let’s talk about rubbish. Ho Chi Minh City’s municipal waste management strategy was particularly fascinating. The strategy was this:
Throw things on the ground, somebody else will get it later.
Everywhere you go, there is a light sprinkling of trash in the gutters. Occasionally you will see a local unwrap some over-packaged food item, then open their grasp letting the wrapper float down to the street.
The attitude was very foreign to me (or, more objectively, I was foreign to the attitude.) I hope the Ho Chi Minhions have forgiven my initial scepticism, which was completely overturned many days later when, to my genuine shock, I witnessed the ill-conceived system in action…
On my morning walk (or as I like to sportingly call it: the 200m junk-hurdles) I noticed a particularly disgusting amount of garbage on the ground and a disproportionate amount of old women actively tipping trash onto the street. Minutes later, a truck drove slowly down the street. A swarm of cleaners wearing hazmat suits darted back and forth behind the truck, hurling mounds of trash into the back.
Wow, somebody actually does get it later!
But what’s that I hear you asking? “What happens to the rubbish that blows into the river?” Well, little Timmy, you can be reassured that it just floats downstream to poorer villages. No problems!
“And what about if a widdle birdy eats the rubbish?” Oh tiny Tina, birds are simply automated bins with wings! If we are lucky, they will even fly themselves to the tip to conveniently undergo their slow painful death.
It’s all very effective.
I don’t think I ever got to understand the city properly. There’s not much to ‘see’ as a tourist, but the place is rich in vibe. There is a backpackers strip, with happy hour specials, slightly out-of-date western pop tunes blasting from tacky bars on speakers with the bass turned up way too high, and cheap (but not as cheap as basically anywhere else in the city) massages. But for the size of the city, this area is very small. Stray outside of there and you are immersed in an Asian metropolis, where other tourists are impossible to spot in an ocean of locals.
It is a city for living in, unglamourous yet practical, like a plain housewife from the 18th century. A big one, who likes to cook a lot of noodle soup and meat, and yells at you… Hmm, can I change my analogy halfway through? OK, it is like a clanky, inefficient, manually operated machine, hypnotic and engaging with its movement and sounds, yet at the end of the day: it provides.
Oh yeah, that’s way more poetic. But much less colourful. Let’s use the fat lady metaphor.