Saigon, Days 3 and 4

Recently my friend Will joined me in Saigon. He is doing a long tour of Asia to check out emerging markets as part of his investment research. I invited him to join me for a study vacation in Saigon: we both have a lot of work to do, and Saigon cafés are an ideal place to do it.

An odd bit of civil engineering: this cross-river water pipe goes straight over a riverside walkway. Pedestrians have to step over it.
One of Saigon’s thin buildings. Thin buildings — two meters wide — are common here. I’ve heard that the government used to tax property based on the width of the street-facing side of the property. The consequence? Many long, thin houses. Incentives in action.
Quite a name for a bar. Perhaps their signature cocktail is an over-large mixture of red wine, whisky, and a low-quality beer. That would do it.

This morning we ate pho at a highly-regarded local restaurant. The decor was unusual. Taxidermied animal heads were mounted at regular intervals on the walls. The framed landscape photographs had a vintage feel. It was a hipster restaurant without the irony.

Goat heads were mounted on the wall. No irony was intended: this is not a hipster joint. Irony and sarcasm are rare in Asia.

We ate. Then a Vietnamese man in a Hawaiian shirt began to shout angrily at the waitress. When the man started shouting, we didn’t pay much mind: Will and I have both lived in Hong Kong, so we’re good at tuning out angry shouting. In Hong Kong, many friendly conversations are carried out at sub-shout volume with astonishing syllabic and tonal violence. For example, one time we were eating at a beef noodle soup shop in HK when our neighbor at the table began to rant at us in Cantonese. I had no idea what he was saying, but whatever it was, it spanned nine tones, three octaves, twenty decibels, and about two minutes. I wondered what we had done to piss the guy off. Another neighbor translated for us: “He says the hot sauce is really hot, so you should watch out.” Oh. Thanks. After a month or two there, Cantonese didn’t sound belligerent to me anymore.

The shouting man stood up and punched the wall hard. That got our attention.

Is shouting at waitstaff and punching the wall normal over here, I wondered? I have had to ask myself hundreds of variants of the question “Is this normal?” during my last three years in Asia. Many things that are normal for the residents are strange for me, so sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out what’s business as usual and what’s an incident. The moment he bashed the wall, conversations stopped and faces showed a half blank concern. The faces of the other patrons gave me my answer: the man was deranged.

“What’s going on?” Will and I asked each other, as if one of us would know more than the other. A helpful man at another table overheard our question. “He’s crazy,” the Vietnamese man said.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“He’s introducing himself.”

“He’s introducing himself.” I love that. The right words can go a long way. He only needed three to nail it.

The waitress smiled and shook her head as the angry man continued to shout at her. His tablemates, probably his family, also smiled and laughed. I got the impression that he’s a regular and this is a pretty normal thing. Nothing to see here, ladies and gentlemen, move along, move along.

Towards dusk people walked on this French promenade. Hundreds crowded around the fountains to enjoy the cooling spray.
We went to a café for a late lunch. A woman in the corner had a baby Vietnamese squirrel with her. She held on to it for hours as she perused her iPad.
A juxtaposition that would have been unimaginable in the late 1980s: AIG, FCUK, DBS, Deutschebank, sickle and hammer, red banners, tanks and victorious proles, all on commercial steel and glass.
Loft cafe. The clock works, but the time is wrong. The minute hand made discrete jumps, instead of doing one continuous turn. It’s curious that the clockface is correct for the people inside the cafe instead of the people on the street. The clock is older than the café: did they reverse the clockface when the clock tower turned into a café? The building was quite old, constructed in a classic French style.

Will and I visited the Saigon Central Post Office. The main doors of the building are bookended by two patriotic statues: one of a pair of Viet Cong soldiers, the other of a Socialist man and woman, leaning forward into the future with Sputnik.

But inside, the building is still thoroughly French.

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