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An Afternoon in Saigon


A man living on a pedestrian overpass, his thin frame ensconced in a sheet tied to the rails like a cot, everything he owns scattered beneath him, and in the corner the stench of piss. A life simplified, stolen largesse, a poor bugger hiding from the heat of the day he can't afford to spend in air conditioned space. Today dry and hot, the sun a high fire raining down on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City like a gas burner loosed and wild, scorched pavement emitting waves of heat that shunt the body's defenses into overdrive. I sweat and from the grease in the uncut hair of the homeless man and the sheen on his skin, I assume he does too.


I came to the pedestrian overpass to take a picture of the French colonial complex that stretches along the far side of the street, yellow and cream and white, tiled roofs, mansards rising over sleek lines and shutters thrown wide. A broad yard with mature trees, concrete and brick a contrast to the occupier's ability to impose its dominance on a colonized society.



A walk the short distance from NowZone where I sat sipping a chocolate latte and feeling the anxiety that throbbed in my gut ever since my anticipated trip to Bangkok was postponed by the travel agent's aversion to standing in line. She even took a picture of immigration's crowded queue to prove why she didn't deliver my exit visa as promised. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf where I drank my latte and three liters of water in thirty minutes behind me, the uncertainty too much to allow creativity. A mournful failure of productivity that I walked up the street from the homeless man's bedsit to the roundabout where I jagged a few degrees of traffic circle to an ATM that offered slightly higher withdrawal limits so as to ease the unbearable weight of banking fees accumulated from an inadvisable choice in banks.



At the edge of the circle a shirtless mechanic squats low over the rear wheel of a motorbike, switching out the innertube as one of the city's delivery drivers -- an army of green clad men and women who earn pennies per delivery -- watches and surely wonders what expenses he's incurred by piercing the rubber tube on which his livelihood depends.


I cross the street again to a bookstore where the narrow rows of shelves stretch back with the square spines crammed in two deep and sideways on top. I'm looking for old records, the primary sources that chronicled the early years of Dai Viet's expansion to the south. Already I know that the first colonizers who settled in the latitudes near the Delta consisted of Chams, Khmers, Chinese traders, pirates, criminals, and the landlords who financed the whole affair. One of the punishments short of various types of execution under the early Nguyen Dynasty banishment to the outside. Several families remain in the area once called Gia Dinh and now subsumed in the greater metropolis of Saigon who can trace their heritage to the criminals who served out their banishment cutting rice paddy out of the forests and swamps of what is now southern Vietnam.



I spend thirty dollars and walk away with a sack full of books. One a set of five volumes: The Great History of the Culture of Vietnam. I settle down the street at the flagship Paris Baguette, a two level bakery cum cafe with couches and arm chairs and tables overlooking the busy intersection of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Cong Quynh Streets. The anxiety finally lifts and I manage an hour or two of work, editing one project and feeling my way through tentative early pages of a crime novel set in Saigon. They say to write what you know and, though I don't know much about crime, there is nowhere in the world I know quite as well as this one.


Notes from 27 March 2022.

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