A clock hangs on the wall of our room here in Saigon. At first glance, it’s a helpful but unremarkable piece, a rather drab thing clearly picked more for its utility and cheap price than for any inherent style.
A second glance reveals that there is something decidedly off about the clock. Not only is it losing time, but upon closer inspection, we realize the second hand actually jitters in place, like a needle stuck in the groove of a scratched record. The other two hands on the clock move in an approximation—if not with the alacrity—of how they should, but that second hand is perpetually stuck at the 9, seemingly for good.
Any reasonable person would simply conclude the clock was broken or in need of new batteries and ignore it, but I gaze up at it every so often and wonder if it might secretly be more accurate than anyone realizes. It may not be tracking conventional time, but maybe this clock understands what Einstein was talking about with his grand theories of relativity; not one to be bogged down by the limitations of quantum mechanics, perhaps our ugly little clock is tracking how time feels like it’s passing for us here in Vietnam. If that’s the case, then it would seem time has come to a standstill.
Actually, that seems just about right.
It’s incredible to me that we’ve already been in Vietnam for three weeks; it feels like we just arrived days ago. I hesitate to say that we are losing time, though certainly, in some sense, we are. The days pass sluggishly as though at half speed. The chaos and frenetic energy of Ho Chi Minh City swirls just steps from our door, the traffic snarling in the most terrifying of ways, the world moving like someone is holding down the fast-forward button. But in our little cocoon of a room, all is calm, all is quiet, and at times, it feels like in order for the universe to maintain balance and keep from imploding, time has stopped here. Like our poor busted clock, we seem to be outside of time, at least for a little while.
Perhaps this expansion of time is the anticipated side effect of really slowing down, but nevertheless it has sort of crept up on us. Our first week back in Vietnam was as frantic and flustered as any week in the life of long-term traveler, and I was feeling more than a little off-kilter. Tucked away in the heart of the backpacker quarter in District 1, I found it really hard to shake the “traveler” mindset and the frenzy of activity that accompanies it and that encapsulates Vietnam so well. Unable to shift gears, I would sit in our room churning out lists whose lengths were longer than my (admittedly diminutive) body, itemizing all the things I wanted us to see and do while we are here, all the day-trips and weekend-trips we could (would?) take. Three months seemed impossibly long to be in one location, and I wanted to make the most of that time; at that point, this seemed to mean that we had to do ALL THE THINGS and always be busy. I tried to draft out schedules for our days so that we could achieve the maximally optimal work-exploration division of our time and not one drop of our day would be wasted.
Of course, such a plan was always doomed to fail. We had come to Vietnam to explore the country in a different way than we previously had and running around wildly from one tourist attraction to the next wouldn’t really have accomplished that. And if I’m being completely honest, despite my lengthy lists, the idea of it just didn’t really appeal at all, especially since we had already spent some time in Ho Chi Minh City before this, and had visited most of the sites that really appealed to us already. Moreover, when Tony & I were concocting our triumphant return to a country we consider one of our very favorites, I can assure you that the hodgepodge of memories and affection we were drawing upon relied very little on the one week we had spent in Saigon, and certainly hadn’t fixated on its various tourist attractions (unless you consider its food a tourist attraction, in which case, that was at the top of our list…). So, when we arrived in HCMC, a city we quite honestly hadn’t spent all that much time in and were now going to call home, and were forced to reconcile it with the fictitious Vietnam amalgam that we had brewed in our minds, it was a bit of a shock to the system. We felt like we were maybe in just a little over our heads.
But that’s Vietnam for you, and it is probably why this country is so polarizing: even when you’ve already been here before and know what you are getting into, it’s not unlike diving from the frying pan headfirst into the fire. I doubt anyone, not even the most hardened of travelers, has landed in Vietnam and not had his or her mind blown just a little bit. Even in the most Americanized city in the country (which is not really saying so much in Vietnam, a country where there are no McDonald’s… though that may soon change if construction on Pham Ngu Lao is anything to go by) there is more here that is unusual and bizarre than is comforting and familiar. And that’s why I love it here so much. It is a country that confounds expectations and my concept of the world at every turn, which means it is always surprising me. It pushes me out of my comfort zone continuously, which means it allows me to surprise myself just as much as the country does. On most days, something happens or I notice something that is so quintessentially Vietnam—whether it’s the snarling rats nests of wires that dangle like electrified mistletoe on every corner or ladies wandering around in their fancy pajama sets topped with conical hats that make them look like they’ve stepped straight from the pages of a 1950s National Geographic—that I find myself shaking my head and murmuring, “Oh Vietnam… you so crazy…” But I always do so with the biggest grin on my face. The more I wander around HCMC, the more I have those moments and see the glimmers of the weird quirks that hooked me in the first place.
Ever since finding our actual home base in Saigon, it’s really felt like things have clicked into place. For all its perks, Saigon is kind of a sprawling, overwhelming beast of a city, and I’ve found it hard to come up with a plan of attack to tackle it, even if I’ve already bypassed its barriers and am residing within its (metaphorical) walls. So we’ve started small, focusing our energies and explorations on the alleyways around our apartment and all the places we can reach on foot. We are quite literally conquering the city foot by foot. We have slowly been building up a roster of “favorite restaurants” (none of them any further than a five-minute walk away and many of them the loosest possible definition of the term “restaurant” that one can use). We have learned how to count in Vietnamese and to recognize words other than chicken (gà) and beef (bò) on menus; our pronunciation is still abysmal/borderline incomprehensible to locals, but we’re trying our best. (I’d love it if Duolingo would start offering Asian languages…) As promised, we purchased impractical fluffy towels. I am reading books filled with beautiful, if challenging, writing and wonderful stories. We are catching up on all of our favorite TV shows and discovering some new ones too. We are working on a variety of design projects, constantly on the hunt for new clients to work with. And through it all, with each day that has passed, we’ve begun to slowly build a bit of a routine for ourselves. I sincerely doubt whether it’s possible for life in Vietnam to ever be truly boring, but in some ways, our days are taken up with such mundane tasks and missions, it’s as though we’re doing our best impression of it. If I’m being completely honest with you, it’s actually pretty glorious and our happiness has grown exponentially as the pendulum swings from us being in over our heads to head over heels in HCMC. Maybe we lose track of time here because our days tend to resemble each other and consequently blend together; they are more alike than different, but when this means that every day is a good day, that is not such a bad problem to have.
Since arriving back in Ho Chi Minh City, we have seen a grand total of one attraction you might actually find in a guidebook, and we have left the city exactly zero times. Sometimes I feel bad that our intrepid spirit has seemingly been quashed so swiftly and with such ease, but then I remember that I don’t have to run around to the museums and war memorials to entertain or educate myself, because simply stepping out my front door and walking down the street with the biggest spring in my step is an education in and of itself, a schooling in the most fundamental of subjects: this is what it is to live in Vietnam.
Whether the clock on our wall marks it or not, I know that time is steadily ticking by, but we still have lots of time to explore the Mekong and get lost in verdant rice paddies or make it to some of the country’s oft overlooked islands. Now I also know that even if we never set one toe outside of Saigon while we’re here or visit any other guidebook-approved attractions, that’s also a valid choice. When it comes to our time here in the city, I no longer care so much about making the most of it, but making the best of it instead. Only we can decide for ourselves what exactly that means, but I suspect if we continue on as we have, we will not be too far from the mark.
“I’ll live as well, as deeply, as madly as I can—until I die.” ― Anne Lamott