It always comes back to the heat. There’s something about it that feels indivisible from the city itself, as if together they create the sultry and manic Ho Chi Minh City.
There are a few hours in the morning and in the evening when the city cools a bit, especially if it has recently rained. Don’t misunderstand however, it’s never cold here. Frankly, I couldn’t ever imagine snow gathering on the steps of the Opera house or skating down Bui Vien in flip flops.
There’s something about pho and banh mi that is intertwined with the sweat and grime of this city, but perhaps I just feel this way because I haven’t ventured far beyond it yet. It is in these early morning hours that I like to walk around the city the most. It isn't just the slightly cooler air but also a feeling of calm that has seemingly swept over everything. As if in the haze of early morning, fresh from sleep, Ho Chi Minh City is its most idyllic.
On Saturday mornings I wake up around 6 a.m. I’ve gotten into the habit of setting three alarms and pulling my shades open within the first five minutes of waking. I’d read somewhere that the sun shining on you helps to wake you up faster. Sometimes it helps, other times nothing but caffeine really does, but luckily it's not very difficult to find good coffee in a city brimming with cafes. I haven’t gone out on a Friday night in ages due to previously having to work until nearly 9 p.m. every Friday so usually getting up early on Saturdays isn’t too difficult having weaned myself of staying up late the night before.
I work at 7:30 a.m. at a government school that’s about a 25 minute walk from my house, Google maps quotes a 20 minute trek but I’m not one for speed-walking in this heat and I have to get there for 7:15 to assemble whatever materials I need for my classes (usually flash cards, paper, and crayons) and besides, I like to enjoy the walk.
Every weekend I take the same route. Once I almost got my bag snatched by a couple of teenage boys on a motorbike while I was trying to cross the street but luckily my strategic across-my-body placement of my bag strap made their attempt fruitless. I’ve almost had my bag snatched twice since I arrived here in March, both times by teenage boys on motorbikes, so I’ve become a bit hyper-vigilant, always having my hands on my bag strap and my bag, holding tighter when people are too close or motorbikes zip by. Ever since the incident I’ve started putting my purse inside of my red leather briefcase (a graduation present from an old boyfriend’s mom) and carrying my cell phone (a cheap, pink Nokia) in my hand or pocket so I can periodically check the time. I always leave at 6:45 but I’m neurotic about not being late because I’ve always had a problem with getting to places on-time, but thus far I’ve been successful.
In the morning the city is already bustling but the slight cool makes the abundance of people more bearable. I like cities, I like the life in them and the access to pretty much whatever you could ever want but that doesn’t mean I love to be around hoards of people 24/7 so the almost tranquil early mornings in Ho Chi Minh City is a welcome contrast to its usual frenzy. The walk to work always feels longer on the way there despite the fact that it’s cooler. I get offered rides by xe oms (moto-taxis) at least a half dozen times and always decline unless I’m running late. Once I tried to take the bus but it never came so I ended up taking a xe om.
It costs about a dollar to get to work by xe om but usually I’d rather save the money (this sounds absurd but you can get quite a bit for a few dollars in Ho Chi Minh City) and get a little exercise in the process. I do a lot more walking about in Ho Chi Minh City than I ever did back in the states. My Dad was always telling me that I should walk more back home so I’m sure he’d be pleased with this recent turn of events.
Whenever I’m walking about in the city I always feel rushed but the city doesn’t ever seem to care if I’m in a hurry because it seems like practically every other person on the street is walking about at a leisurely pace or sitting at sidewalk cafés sipping on café sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) or slurping up pho and I’m jealous. This is not to say that I don’t have downtime but I typically spend it in my air-conditioned room rather than sitting out at a sidewalk café in the blistering heat sweating bullets, but of course, it’s different for the locals who never seem fazed by the heat. When I arrive at school there are hundreds of motorbikes outside, parents dropping off their kids for two to four hours of classes. It’s a bit of an art getting through this sea of flesh and metal but thus far I’ve gotten through without another Saigon kiss (motorbike burn) or getting my foot run over by a motorbike.
I am able to reach the “Kiddy Office” quickly as it’s on the first floor, but there are a dozen other teachers in the office picking up their materials as well. Luckily, my first class is a teenage class so they don’t really have a need for flash cards which means that I only really need to find the materials for my second class, a rowdy bunch of 8-10 year olds. The minutes fly by and before I know it I’m in my basement classroom pulling up my Powerpoint for the lecture. My teenage students are half-asleep but pleasant and the class is enjoyable to teach. We are given a few breaks throughout the morning and I like to spend them in the air-conditioned teacher's lounge with my new friends. My second class is a bit more trying as the kids have some issues with listening but with every class there are challenging and enjoyable elements.
I'm lucky that I have such helpful Teaching Assistants who make the classes a lot better as they understand more about the Vietnamese culture than I do and speak the language fluently. Before I know it the clock will strike 11:45 and it will be time to shuffle home. Even in the often stifling afternoon heat I always prefer to walk home unless it's raining, it's nice to be able to get home by foot if I want to, unlike back home in the suburbs. Being able to easily get to most places by foot is one of my favorite parts of living in the city. It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago I was taking my online class at the International TEFL Academy and now I’m actually teaching. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago.