Feeling Saigon


            I don’t understand how people wear clothes they don’t love, drive cars they don’t identify with, accessorize with things that they don’t fully relate to. When I get on my bike, it’s an extension of me. I love my suitcase because it’s akin to my haircut. I guess I take my role as consumer seriously – I am my things. So it gives me great pause to behold a motorbike that doesn’t fit my style, even if I’m renting it just for a week. I’m in Phạm Ngũ Lão, Saigon’s backpacker district, comparing scooter options. Nothing’s perfect. Everything is tacky. I stare at this electric green bike – it tries so hard to be cool, like a trapper keeper from the 80s, and I’m trying to contort my ego onto it. I step away, breathe, walk the block, shake this perfectionism out of my head enough to test drive this thing. Looks aside, I’m nervous – the area is super congested. I sit on the seat, put my hands on the throttle and the brake, and take it down the alley. No problem. Then I enter the major street and take it around the block. Immediately it feels awesome. I blend in right away with the masses of other electric bikes, which mostly look as cheesy as mine. This is just this world’s aesthetic. I can accept it. I pull back into the alley, park it, and feel convinced – this will do just fine. I convince the shopkeeper to match the price of another place and hand over my passport. Then I meet Jane for a coffee.

            “450,000₫. How much is that?”

            “Like $20,” Jane says. “Not bad for a weeklong scooter, right?”

            “Yeah, pretty amazing.”

            “Vietnam, man.”

            “I feel so weird giving them my passport. So scary not to have it, you know?”

            “Yeah I feel you. But it’s how it’s done here. Don’t worry about it.”

            We’re at the i.d. Café. I have a smoothie and a sandwich. Jane leaves for the city archives. I should also be productive. I have my laptop with me, take it out of a backpack Jane has lent me. Oh, this is what I’ve forgotten: a daypack for my computer and things. Of course I don’t love this bag I’m borrowing. It’s beige, full of ties and things. But this is what I’m stuck with. I sink into a couch, try to breathe through my silly pickiness. I don’t know why it matters what backpack I use or what bike I ride, but it does. I try to let it go. I am not my things, I tell myself. I’m not convinced though. A tool in your hand is your hand. Your glasses are your eyes. Everyone sees it. I’d go further: the landscape I behold is me as well. I am my environment.

            I open my laptop, sign into the wi-fi, organize my calendar and Instagram a pic.

            What should I be doing? I don’t really know. Nothing is pressing. I have no assignments, no work for hire, no pictures that anyone expects to see. I guess I want to edit video from Iceland – this is the next thing. I open a finder window, find the files, stare at them. I can’t think. Ok, put them through MPG Streamclip, convert everything to ProRes. Easy enough place to start, all this mundane business. Ok, that’s happening. I stare out the window at the green leaves swaying in the warm wind. The sunlight coming into the café is indirect, pleasant. I feel like a cat. I could take a nap. Time passes.

            Eventually I get restless again. I exit.

            I get on my motorbike. Suddenly I feel alive, awakened by speed and the breeze on my face, along with the music. I’m listening to Crystal Castles. I have nowhere to go, no direction, but I suddenly feel liberated, riding. I relax my body & mind into the energy of movement. I throttle, weave, acclimate to the engineering of the bike and into the rhythm of the traffic.

            I, This time, I  Alive, Live, Lie, I I, Arrive, I –  


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                  I am there. I zoom to the front. I explore the streets of Saigon with diminishing caution. I feel the energy of the masses, everyone whirring and whizzing in unison, packing tightly together at stoplights that count down, looking around. My headphones are firmly in my ears, my iPhone in my pocket. I take it out often, carefully, when stopping. I take pictures and video, trying to find the perfect moments to capture, to express this sensation I’m loving. I park at intersections to record the frenzy but I’m never quite satisfied, always searching for a better representation. I yearn to share this, to keep it. The lens just doesn’t encapsulate enough of it. You have to be there, to use peripheral vision, turn your head, be immersed in the experience. I put away my camera, concede that some things simply cannot be captured. I’m invigorated enough as it is, driving without a destination on a dérivé through the city, experiencing the geography psychologically.

            God I’ve missed driving.

            The road is a metaphor for freedom. Driving is a liberating act – it crushes the limitations we grow up with, completely transforms the scales of time & distance. American cities were built for cars, so it’s no wonder that getting a driver’s license is such a rite of passage – the world is simply not accessible until you have wheels. In Europe it’s different – cities with much more history were built on the human scale, could be traversed largely on foot. Driving in the big cities of Europe and America’s East Coast, driving isn’t freedom. It can be a trap – an annoying, cumbersome hindrance. Bicycles are better – their size and mobility match the contemporary scale of big cities. And mass transit.

            Being in Asia feels like a whole other thing. This is new. Saigon is similar in some ways to what I’ve grown accustomed to: a busy metropolis packed with people and tall buildings. But this isn’t a car city like LA or a mass transit city like New York or Berlin. It’s a motorbike city, and it feels so perfect. A scooter blends the unencumbered vision and compactness of a bicycle with a car’s raw speed and engine. A car, while more powerful, confines you, puts you in a box, transforms you into a passive viewer somehow, the world like a movie playing on your windshield. On a bike, motorized or not, the world is right there in front of you, all around you, in your face. A motorized bike is the best of both worlds, really.  And I feel connected to Vietnam now, learning the language of the traffic.

            After some time I end up at Enjoy Massage. I enjoy it.