Saigon sleeps, for now

Saigon is asleep. Or rather, it is resting. Unlike most global cities in lockdown, only bars, cafes, restaurants and the big markets and malls have been closed since 1 April. We still move around freely, with people scooting to and from God-knows-where on ancient motorbikes potentially far more dangerous than a dose of Covid-19. For some, at least.

Still, it’s enough to wrench the heart and soul out of the city. A supremely social place, to see Saigon’s streetside cafes – normally open and full until midnight – boarded up and empty is sad. More so the beer hơi joints and outdoor Ốc Ghẹ (snails) eateries that are usually teeming with drunkards, screaming women and feral children (I say this with love).

I have become very familiar with three streets that take me from my house to the main strip of the city: Nguyễn Huệ (main picture, and below). Also known as walking street, it is the only pedestrianised area of the city; a place walkers can amble without fear of being taken out by a motorcyclist mounting the pavement to shave a second off her journey time.

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As such, Nguyễn Huệ is usually teeming with people and street sellers. Not so now, though. On reaching walking street, rather than an eager vendor shoving some sort of flashing object in your face, you are instead faced with a blissfully empty 500m stretch of pavement reaching seamlessly from the city’s beloved statue of Uncle Ho all the way down to the river. It is a JOY to behold.

My daily stroll begins around 5pm, when the heat of the day has receded enough to make walking a pleasurable, rather then prickly, experience. Heading onto Mac Dinh Chi, I usually enjoy poking my head into a an art studio inside a building with an exterior styled like a Disney Princess castle, in which shirtless men labour over renaissance reproductions. This, along with the crystal-ware shop and florist selling glittered faux roses wrapped in ‘Chanel’ ribbons, is a Saigon essential service.

The security guard in front of one of the banks is my next stop, his arrangement of potted multicoloured straws coming along beautifully. This man never fails to nod at me, his smile evident in the creases that collect in the corners of his eyes as his mouth – like mine – is covered in a fabric mask. This has been a regular balm in a time when foreigners have become pariahs, our skin not letting on whether we live here, or are fresh off the boat.

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Around six men, a mixture of guards and staff, are normally playing a game of đá cầu outside of one of the larger offices (this is hacky sack with a shuttlecock for the Yanks and Badminton with just feet for the Brits). A national obsession, this is played every evening in public spaces throughout Vietnam. One day I may get the courage to give it a go, but having seen numerous other người ngoài make twats of themselves trying it, it’s not likely.

A stroll past the US and British consulates – the British being the most conspicuous of the two (everything in Britain is GREAT, says the 35 posters adorning the exterior), I swing a-right past the children’s hospital. Usually teeming with people, it has been almost empty since the shutdown began, which makes me wonder whether less children are sick; they were faking it all along; or if the government has restricted services. I hope one of the former, rather than the latter.

This takes me to the cathedral – Saigon’s mini Notre Dame – which has been closed for renovations since at least early 2017 when I arrived. I suspect its Parisian mother will be rebuilt twice before it opens again. This is not unlike the Saigon Metro, which has equally been at the same level of construction for three years. Not that anyone will get on the damn thing if it does ever open. Saigonese will be wrenched from their motorbikes when their hands are cold and dead.

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Despite the cathedral’s closure, though, worshippers gather outside on the lawn, momentarily dismounting from their motorbikes to stare at the statue of Mary with clasped hands. A friend that works in the cafe opposite says more people than usual attend these days. This has encouraged a few opportunistic coconut jelly vendors who call with particular ferocity at increasingly rare white-folk like me.

Perhaps the most ghostly part of the walk takes me past Vincom Centre and Đồng Khởi, just before hitting Nguyễn Huệ. This is the consumer heart of the city, with destinations from Zara to Louis Vuitton catering to middle-class and luxury shoppers in Vietnam’s burgeoning commercial capital. Today, though, the rats hold dominion over the mega-mall’s grassy lawn, while only the odd security guard drained of the will to live loiters outside the shuttered five star hotels and diamond boutiques.

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This is all the better for me. Normally, this is not a walk any sane person would attempt, with pedestrians (that in itself a bizzare concept here) likely to end up roadkill faster than the rats. Now, though, as I sidle lazily toward walking street I find myself noticing buildings and signs I hadn’t before, particularly faded French colonial lettering etched in stone that has not yet been fully obscured by neon; or peering down verdant alleyways normally obscured by food-carts and smog.

Saigon is, in-fact, a beautiful ghost town, and in some ways I will be sad to see it come to life again. In many others, though, I wont. I look forward to sipping a coffee in my favourite cafe; to scooting across town for an event at Saigon Outcast or Soma; or buying innumerable snacks from vendors on Turtle Roundabout. And even, perhaps, to the interminable neon plastic nightmares whizzing over my head on Nguyễn Huệ.

 

Author: Rebecca E Jones

Journalist, nomad, cultural magpie. An inveterate Londoner, in 2016 I embarked on a year of travel through South Africa, India and South East Asia that changed the way I see the world and its inhabitants - especially myself. Here I share what I learned - and continue to learn - through my journey.

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