He’s taking me on his motorbike to show me the city. I’m getting kicked in the face by Ho Chi Minh City. When I first arrive in a new country, there’s always at least a little bit of cultural shock. I’m trying to grab the meaning, the direction, the movement of lives, of people. It’s not as much of a surprise because I read about Vietnam. I’ve seen so many pictures and movies.
But right now, on Alessio’s motorcycle, that’s a whole different story: I’m experimenting Vietnam through a complex range of sensations.
I’m struggling to try reading the signs, the smell of the cooked rice is tickling my nostrils, my palms are sweating from me grabbing Alessio’s shirt. It’s hot in Ho Chi Minh. I’m mostly hearing honks. The traffic is pretty awful here, it makes my head spin. The night’s breeze is more than welcome on my damp skin. Almost imperceptible, the scent of frangipani flowers is in the air. The streets are colourful of fruits stalls, of flashing signs, of lights hung up in the trees. I’m trying my best to assimilate this overflow of sensations, mostly what I’m seeing: the river, the narrow houses, the pretty coffee shops.
The streets are spitting scooters like an enraged Vesuvio. From time to time, Alessio’s pointing at a building or a street, suggesting places worth visiting. But the motorcycle is going too fast, one building is hiding another, the streets are flitting past, looking alike, blending in my overexcited mind’s fog. My brain is processing too many pieces of a puzzle without knowing the big picture. It has trouble adjusting, focusing. District 1, District 5, I’m not grasping the difference yet: it’s just a succession of streets and lights, from which the meaning is still blurry.
I’m catching a glimpse of some remains of the French occupation, mostly cathedrals. I thought they might clash with the surroundings, but their height is coping well with the dampness, with the crazy pace of scooters. The riverside is more romantic, locals are there walking their dogs, jogging and chilling in the numerous coffee shops and bars around. Life close by the water always seems more breathable.
As Alessio’s motorbike is sweeping along, I’m recalling my other first impressions and I realize how much they are always so fast-moving. From the bus, the taxi, the subway’s windows, those first images are always landscapes flitting past. Too fast. I’m always trying to grasp some details: the architecture of the houses, the shape of trees, people’s faces. At night, it’s often only looking like a cluster of lights, some unfathomable Starry Nights in three dimensions. The first few hours in a new country always feels like being in a strange haze. Not fully comprehending where you are, the money, the language, the way the streets layout. The first strolls are seldom successful. You must keep your mind open, alert for a while before allowing yourself to any judgement.
I don’t know it yet, but Ho Chi Minh won’t make my heart skip a beat. Too big, too noisy, too messy, too stressed out. The former capital will look like a traveller’s nightmare to me: it’s hard to just stroll around, nose up in the air, without getting hit by a car or a scooter. Its touristic sights are minor. I have before my eyes a buzzing city, an economic and social pole that lacks beauty. I would look for some quiet space in churches and temples, finding the walk way too gruelling. I’m definitely not a city girl anymore.
The same question is always seizing the traveller when arriving a new place: is this place made for me? We’re apprehending new places like we would with a Tinder date: would it be nice to spend the night, and if so, could we hope a more intense adventure? Not even talking about love (yet), we’re looking for affinities, we’re comparing with our previous experiences. Seeking for those pounders in our stomach, of the desire to continue the adventure, or even to press the ‘pause’ button to explore what’s under our nose. Sometimes, the first impressions are prevailing: the connexion is obvious, sensitive. However, it also happens that time is needed to tame each other, slowly, dancing around each other and disclose some hidden surprises.
This very night, I was trying my best to comprehend this ex-Saigon from all its pores. My eyes wide open, my eyes closed, my feelings surely open to any new possibilities.
There’s so much freedom in this eagerness for discovery. And you never know. It’s said that I fall in love every 4 mornings.