Friday, November 18, 2011
How Saigon Feels
Saigon feels like an old movie song - the kind that hums loudly, often obnoxiously, in the background, but makes its absence sorely felt during the rare silences.
It starts sort off sort of clumsily - mostly percussion and pipes attempting to begin with a bang - when the city drops you into an ocean of familiarity with its heat, its dust, its traffic and its absurd electrical lines and telephone poles running all over the city in all sorts of directions, constantly getting in the way of any possible view of any possible skyline. It doesn't just look like Asia - it feels comfortingly like Asia.
A high-pitched melody takes over - nauseating at first with its shrillness, but stubborn in its refusal to waver in pitch. Its notes, warbling undramatically, tease you into the city's underbelly - matchbox apartments, gorgeous colonial villas, roadside barbecues and pretty French cafes, all on the same stretch, entirely unaware, or perhaps uncaring, of the incongruity they are bathed in. The melody slows down - pitch unchanged, although you're used to its intensity by this point - to allow you to take it all in, but only long enough for you to take it all in.
Before you're ready, the pipes begin to blare incessantly, and you are jolted into the honking of city traffic. You find yourself surrounded by scooters and motorbikes - they come at you from all directions, each helmet more colourful than the last, and swerve graciously to avoid contact with you, helmets bobbing in acknowledgement of your mostly insignificant presence in their lives. As you wonder at how everything around you appears constantly to be on the move, you are jostled on to the pavement, where the elderly Vietnamese have drawn up red plastic chairs right outside their houses to sit and watch the world go by. There is no newspaper or paperback in their hands that redeems their voyeurism. They are as unabashedly curious about the tourists that go by as the tourists are about this odd, odd city.
As the pipes end in a sudden, orchestrated moment of silence, an acoustic guitar takes over, but it sounds distant, as though something important is happening elsewhere and you haven't been invited. But you follow the sounds anyway. As you do, you walk past shirtless men, lying in cat-like comfort upon motorbikes, raising their eyebrows at you, asking if you need a ride somewhere, teenagers playing badminton adeptly with their feet instead of their hands, tiny all-purpose trolleys that sell cigarettes, noodle soup and rice wine and backpackers from all over the world, smiling at you because they're about as overwhelmed as you are.
Although you keep walking, you don't seem to be getting any closer to the music. But you can tell that it is at its loudest near the little French bistro in the park. Taking that as a sign, you pop in for reprieve from the relentless heat, a crepe and your first-ever taste of Vietnamese iced coffee. The coolness and the crepes are momentary - it is the coffee that takes over and entirely alters your understanding of Vietnam. It explodes in your mouth, literally bittersweet and just slightly chocolatey, and the music transforms quickly into a seductive harmony of jazz and soft rock. You can't hear the guitar at all anymore, but the sheer romance of having heard it has not left you, and it may never leave you.
You are carried away by the winds of the jazz and the chocolate, and you walk into the bustling market, where fifteen arms latch on to your shoulder to drag you away into fifteen different stalls. The only remnant of the jazz piece is a rumbling oboe that you suspect might just be inside your head. All else is drowned out by the heavy metal noise of the street and the colours that riot their way right into the palms of your hands.
The metal turns melancholy when you walk into the war museum: there is no melody, but the clanging drums sound sorrowful and the bass guitar jars painfully in memory. The museum is detailed and painstaking and will neither let you walk through it, nor let you leave. When you step out, alongside the crowd, your head filled with blurry images from inside, the crowd is with you and it is empathetic. It knows what you just walked through and it sways to the pan flute that fills these moments.
It is the Saigon River that finally gives you peace. The waters are eerily dark, but brimming with goodness and austerity. At the river, Saigon suddenly feels like a tall, august woman whose back is to you. She is singing, softly at first, then clearly and magnificently. You don't really understand the words, but the song seems to be filled with forgiveness and kindness. This is the music that Saigon wanted you to hear all along.
By Manasi Subramaniam