By Marcus D. Niski
A South East Asian city …
Bui Vien Street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Morning: 7.30 AM: I arise, groggy having slept off-and-on in the humid atmosphere of my narrow-walled room. Wiping my face with a moist towel, I turn on the TV for my morning dose of satellite news. Deutsche Welle news flashes on as Gerhard Schroeder visits Kenya promising assuredly there will be more German aid money for Kenya.
Out on the street the throng of motorcycles, taxis, cyclos and pedestrians begins to intensify as a new day of toil begins.
Making my way down the Minihotel’s three flights of narrow stairs, I pour myself onto the street still in a fog of disorientation as I make first contact with the street and the shape of the outside world.
Backpackers queue to catch their morning buses, tourists leisurely eat along the sidewalks cafes, cyclo drivers mill about casting a wary eye for a first passenger, shopkeepers tidy their wares in preparation for the days’ trading, and old men play cards squatting in shopfront doorways.
Later, uptown, I meet my driver the gentle Mr Tay who will skilfully guide me through the miasma of city streets, all the while instructing me as to the secret history lying beneath each and every cultural treasure. The Revolutionary Museum and so-called War Remnants Museum are the first two important destinations to trawl before the day becomes unbearably hot.
The traffic – that ever present thick automotive syrup – wends its way through narrow passes and out into the city’s wide boulevards as we speed towards the sights.
Two sweaty hours on the job and its time for a break and cool bottled water. I head for the street corner stall across the road hoping to avoid a dozen of so more offers to take ‘motobike’ downtown at good price. Drawing breath, I succumb and haggle for a decent deal. Later I’ll be back to soak up the atmosphere and make a plan to catch the sights I’ve missed.
Afternoon 4.30 pm: a city of contrasts is suddenly still. High above, a bright red ball sun glows through the thick haze of smog and clouds. There’s a hush as the city breathes in and prepares for night.
Dogs piss, old men hawk and spit, women lay sprawled out on their shop-floors and foreigners amble along the narrow streets. I make my way uptown for a lime tea and a Heineken with Uncle Ho.
My favourite outdoor café lies but stones throw from the bronze statue of Uncle Ho – Bach Ho – that sits in a small park across the way from the famous Hotel De Ville along the wide and impressive Le Loi Boulevard.
At the café, situated in an immaculate square garden manicured within an inch of its life, I can sit, relax, drink lime tea and soak up the atmosphere of the city. The waiters mill around joking, kidding and play tag with each other like a bunch of bored schoolchildren.
High above where the city skyline hovers over the gardens, starlings swirl in the late afternoon sky, while around the edges of the square traffic squirms and swarms as the hours draw nearer to the celebration of Tet night.
Afternoon is a time for reflection, gathering ones thoughts and making sense of the day. Afternoon seems easy where morning was hard, a time of day where one may feel in synch with the city rather than moving against it.
Night: I take a motorcycle taxi to the outdoor restaurants at the Ben Thanh Market. Seas of hungry faces devour rich offerings. The night air is warm and pleasant. Behind me the market is a thronging hive of activity. Police and government officials control the thoroughfare along where the main eating area is situated so as to block rogue motorcycles from passing through and causing chaos. The food is fresh, cheap and exquisitely tasty.
Still, I feel like the solo foreigner, the only western face in the crowd of locals all gazing inquisitively, politely, inquiring, quizzical, and yet not intrusive.
Night… weaves its magical air through the city as the noise of a hundred thousand motorcycles waiting at the one tiny red light howl as that light changes to green. On the street a throng of local traders ply their wares, stallholders accost potential customers and weary beggars thrust their conical hats.
Night is where this city lives, commits its sins and rises to its famous reputation. Night is where colour and movement are most intense and the people are at their most gregarious.
Tet is but a day away now and the air of expectancy continues to build. A carnival atmosphere surrounds the city and its uptown boulevards. Fairy lights don the tree-lined streets along part of Dong Khoi and thoroughfares are blocked with potted flowers where pedestrians may roam free from the fear of hindrance by mad motorcyclists. Shops buzz with activity as the tourists clamour. Couples saunter and make their way back to their hotels edging their way through the crowds of locals gathered to jostle and talk.
Later, Minihotel Downtown, Bui Vien: One AM and I’m having trouble sleeping. Overwhelmed, my room fan struggles to puff out its meagre stream of air. The temperature moves towards an ever more unbearable state. Outside a sudden shattering of glass a motorcycle rider loses his load and a couple of dozen 7 Up bottles hit the pavement. A momentary hive of activity and chaos erupts as the locals discuss the scene before resuming their chit-chat and housekeeping duties. From high above on the third floor I am able to leap up to my window and gaze down to observe the action.
Startled at first by the harsh sounds of shattering glass, I am relieved to see that no real harm has come to the rider, although the crates of lemonade bottles lie in a sadly irretrievable state.
Uptown, in the small hours of the morning, street urchins wander, cyclo drivers gain their fitful rest and bars pump until a new day dawns.
Tonight will be Tet night when the city explodes in a shower of flamboyance amongst the fireworks and hoopla that the New Year celebration promises to bring.
Meanwhile, I manage to catch some sleep amidst this anticipation and the noises that invariably invade the thin walls of my room
Life along Bui Vien swirls amongst an endless stream of comings and goings, a sea of human transactions in the ordered chaos that is Vietnam.
Written in my notebooks, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), January 2004.
© Marcus D. Niski 2004-2017
My original ambition for this piece of writing was to embark upon a form of structured observational exercise [à la Georges Perec] whereby I would go to a fixed location at each point of the day – morning, noon, and night – and make my observations as the principal departure point for the piece.
My impressions were immediate: I was completely captivated by the challenge of attempting to reconstruct street scenes in a narrative way that would accurately reflect the street life taking place all around me – while at the same time trying to avoid any aspect of confabulation as to what would become the ‘storyline’ (or linear narrative) that would hold the piece together. Indeed, this attempt at using some of the key techniques of Creative Non Fiction was a most satisfying and rewarding exercise and one that all writers can learn a lot from in terms of improving their powers of observation, understanding the mechanics of storyline and ‘times shifts’, as well as learning to carefully ‘tune in’ to the environment that they are writing about. All writing is a learning process and I really learnt a great deal from attempting this piece.
Originally written in 2004, I later returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 2015 to find a dramatically changed place: one far less welcoming, far more aggressive, and frankly, very disappointing in that its charm and character seemed sadly degenerated in the wake of rapid gentrification, urban population pressure, and rampantly exploitative traders and restaurateurs. What came out of this was an interesting and salutatory lesson about place: it reinforced the fact that we can never assume that our memories of a place will be validated in the same way once we return to it – they may be reinforced, be elevated by positive new change, or destroyed by new impressions in the face of change that we find unacceptable in our subjective view of the world. At times, we all have a romantic or naive expectation that a place will remain relatively unchanged over time – but that assumption is a dangerously ill-conceived in a world that is changing so rapidly and major cities are facing ever greater destructive incursions into the fabric of their built environment and history.
[MN] Salzburg, Austria, October 2017
PPS: If any readers are interested, I would be happy to put together a reading guide to some excellent Creative Non Fiction writing resources on style, technique and related issues. [MN]