MY EXPERIENCES: Saigon Staring

From my research trip in late 2006...

Years ago, while living in Vietnam, my right big toe started oozing some green-colored pus and I had it checked at a local clinic someone recommended. A big warehouse-style government building was on a sidestreet way west of the center, where dozens of people — perhaps hundreds — were milling about awaiting a doctor. Foreigners had to pay inflated prices everywhere in Vietnam back then, but sometimes it came with privileges — like getting ushered to the front of the line. A lone doctor in a white lab coat sat at a desk in a large room. He had me take off my shoe and inspected my bare foot before suggesting I take some sort of antibiotics, which did clear it up. While he was holding my foot, I turned to look back. Perhaps 50 Vietnamese people, some standing on tip-top, others peeking their heads over shoulders, looked on to watch my diagnosis. Good thing I didn’t have anal warts.

Vietnam may possibly be the world’s top people-watching country. And Saigon, its biggest city, is the leading staring city — here, it’s not just an unguarded past-time, but an unofficial right. Every where you go, cafes set out lounge seats a few inches from the curb. Side by side, looking out — out to see. See WHAT PEOPLE ARE DOING. When I used to drive a 1979 scooter around, big guys with blank faces next to me at stoplights would stare as if I were a painting of a cricket attacking a raccoon. This trip, I often stop on the street, making a note in my book — placing a hotel on a map, writing down an address of a noodle shop — and a guy will drag his flip-flops over to my side and peer at each word I write. Sometimes I lean away to get a full view of what I’m writing.

I used to eye table-fulls of Vietnamese dong stacked in huge piles at banks (the biggest note 10 years ago was the 50,000-dong note — worth less than $5 at the time). I wondered how hard it’d be to rob a bank and take a car to Cambodia (where the notes would be worthless). The problem is someone is always looking at you in Vietnam. Unless you’re in your room, curtains closed — you’re being looked at. I’ve taken over 1500 photographs in Vietnam in four weeks, and occasionally I’ll flip through some — there is always someone I hadn’t realized staring at me in it — down the street, behind stacked rice bags, somewhere.

Yesterday sitting at a Trung Nguyen cafe in central Saigon, I watched a busy sandwich-maker on the sidewalk, churning out pate or pork-filled sandwiches at rush hour for workers taking their lunch to work. A dozen or more waited while the five workers churned them out. While waiting they watched closely. Inspecting each pate smear, each bread slice. Behind were dozens of commuters sitting at the traffic light — looking over to see what all this action was about. It wasn’t but a minute that I was hooked too — unabashedly staring.

My favorite five places in Saigon to stare are:

Cho Lon The world’s largest Chinatown, from Binh Tay Market on Thap Muoi Street to Hai Thuong Lan Ong St at rush hour. I stood at a corner, watching hundreds of uniformed kids getting picked up by a parent with a motorbike, and listened to the roar of traffic, as bikes squeezed onto sidewalks to butt in line. A lady selling sugar-cane drinks watched too — kids on the back of bikes, moms with bonnets and masks and arm-length gloves to keep their skins untanned. ‘So many!,’ I said, in broken Vietnamese. She, thinking the same, didn’t hesitate, ‘Yes, many.’

Rat Park, Le Loi Where I used to watch rats skedaddle after hours, you can now sit on scrubbed-clean park benches and watch the traffic after sunset pick up around the corners of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue, or Le Loi and Dong Khoi, in the heart of old Saigon.

Corner of Bui Ven Street & Do Quang Dau It’s not the most imaginative place — amidst the backpacker guesthouses in the Pham Ngu Lao area — but the San Ta cafe occupies an super corner slot that feels like being in the middle of the street. Street sellers scoot sandwich carters with ‘It’s a Small World Afterall’ or ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ playing mercilessly on a loop. Kids sit on a bike’s back fender — closer to the ground — and pedal by. The food’s just OK, the mini shop looks uncleaned for 15 years, but viewing can suck up two hours without effort.