HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rhythms of daily life

As a country, Vietnam constantly bombards your senses with all sorts of stimulation. The bright markets and buzzing streets are always a sight to see, and the food provides flavors that can be sweet or sour, bitter or savory, sweet or salty, and everything in between. Unfortunately my almost complete lack of a sense of smell deprives me of the aromatic aspect of the streets here, but there isn't really anything I can do about that. I can, however, appreciate the sonic rhythms of life here; those sounds that you get used to hearing day in and day out. So, without further ado, a semi-chronological description of what life here sounds like.

My neighborhood wakes up very early. When I wake up for work at 6:30 a.m. on the weekends I can already hear people walking or driving down the alley we live on. The birds are already chirping as well, which is a very pleasant sound to hear in the urban jungle that is Saigon. Many of these birds are kept in cages on people's balconies. I'm not sure why; perhaps they are there just so people can hear their peaceful chirps. Whatever the reason, I definitely enjoy it. 

Another common noise - which took some getting used to - is the unique call vendors use to get the attention of the people of the area. This is kind of hard to describe in words, so here is a video that I took from the balcony outside of my room that allows you to hear two different vendors, as well as the birds.

Several of these vendors, both men and women, regularly make their way down the narrow alleys, alerting the residents to whatever service it is they offer. Since they obviously use Vietnamese, I have no idea what each call means. However, I do know that some ride bikes with baskets of fruit hanging off of them, others seem to collect recyclables, and others I've yet to figure out. These nasal vocalizations are actually quite melodic, at least to my ear, and I often stop what I'm doing to listen until the person passes beyond hearing range. I'm not sure if this is something unique to Vietnam, but I certainly find it fascinating. Except for when they call out at 7 in the morning during the week. 

Around lunchtime you can expect to hear the squeaking of wheels and clanking of stainless steel as the food cart vendors that set up for breakfast take their carts back to wherever they came from. Then, by afternoon, the storm clouds often appear. One thing I've noticed here is that no one can agree on when the rainy season ends. Some say September, others November. The truth seems to be that no one actually knows. What I do know is that it still rains more days than it doesn't in a week, even now in late November. Along with the storms comes the sound of raindrops pounding on the plastic cover that closes over our skylight. This can be soothing at times, but when it really starts to come down the noise can be so loud that watching TV in the living room becomes difficult.
Sometimes thunderstorms come through, usually at night, with huge bolts of lightning ripping electric holes through the sky and illuminating the night while the subsequent rolling thunder shakes the house and reminds your ears that they are in the tropics.

Throughout the whole day motorbikes regularly pass our house with various levels of engine noise. Around 6 pm, however, the alley turns into a highway as drivers use it as a shortcut to avoid the clogged rush hour on the major streets. Honks accompany the firing pistons to alert pedestrians that bikes have taken over the walkway.

You can also tell when school has just let out thanks to the sound of kids of various ages noisily running down the alley, as kids around the world are wont to do. It is easy to hear the conversations of many of the people that walk down the alley, since the default conversational volume for many people here SEEMS TO BE SOMETHING LIKE THIS. Not that I can understand what they are saying, but if I did speak Vietnamese eavesdropping would be child's play.

One of my favorite rhythms occurs every Wednesday and Thursday night, when I work at my school's District 5 campus. Mr. Tuong, who runs the campus, is a classical guitarist. Most nights he will bust out his guitar and start playing in the teacher's lounge. He is very good, and the music always leaves me relaxed and loose as I go into class. Even better is when the teacher that plays harmonica is around, since they will often play duets. Thanks to this, I really look forward to going into work on those two nights.

There is a lot more to hear in Saigon, but these are the sounds I hear most often when I'm at home. Well, except for the classical guitar. It helps me keep a bit of a schedule, since I can guess what time of day it is simply by listening. It's just another example of the interesting differences between life here and life in the U.S.

Finally, speaking of the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving to all of you in America! I hope you have a wonderful day full of eating, drinking, football and family. Allison, Andee and I hosted a potluck Thanksgiving meal at our house, and it was a great success. (That should be read in a Borat voice.) It definitely made me miss home less than I normally would have, especially since this was my first major holiday abroad. We ordered an amazing turkey from one of the hotels here, and all of the food was delicious, although our British friends were slightly confused by it all. I'm still disgustingly full. Also, Vietnamese refrigerators are definitely NOT designed with leftovers from an American holiday in mind. To finish, some pictures of the food we had:
When in Vietnam you must have spring rolls.

More spring rolls, fruit, mashed potatoes, rolls, salad, and sweet potatoes.

Delicious green bean casserole.

The turkey! He may have been delivered late, but the wait was worth it.

Now that the turkey is done, time for some dessert: pumpkin pie and whatever that other cake is sounds good to me.


  1. I've just discovered your blog. I really like it and I will follow it in the future. Thank you for the information you post here. I hope you have a great time. I wish I was there too.
    Cheers from California

  2. Thank you! I hope it continues to interest you in the future.