So Long, Saigon

For the last month, every time I have set forth into the busy streets of Saigon, I have felt the keen pangs of grief. The pains are sharpest and most acute when I’m on the back of our motorcycle and we zip through the swirling snarls of traffic; it’s when I feel most alive and I think the city responds in kind.

Saying good-bye to a city is harder than breaking up with a lover. The grief and regret are more piercing because they are more complex and unmixed, changing from corner to corner, with each passing vista, each shift of the light. Breaking up with a city is unclouded by the suspicions that after the affair ends, you’ll learn something about the beloved you wished you never knew. The city is as it will remain: gorgeous, unattainable, going on without you as if you’d never existed. What pain and longing the lover feels as he bids farewell to a tendril of ivy, a flower stall, the local butcher. The charming café where he meant to have coffee but never did.

From Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose

For the last month, every time I have set forth into the busy streets of Saigon, I have felt the keen pangs of grief. The pains are sharpest and most acute when I’m on the back of our motorcycle and we zip through the swirling snarls of traffic; it’s when I feel most alive and I think the city responds in kind. As we whip down its claustrophobic narrow alleyways and emerge onto expansive boulevards, I feel it opening up like a flower greeting the dawn, and my heart clenches with longing. I’m a time traveler—forever flitting between past and future (though rarely am I present)—and it is this proclivity to race ahead and meet our impending departure from here, a city that has so swiftly come to feel like home, that causes me such sorrow. I know the end is nigh and so every ride through the city gives me one more chance to encode the feel of it into my memory, to say good bye to another moment of life here and privately mourn the loss that is to come.

Ho Chi MInh City

It’s almost impossible for me to believe that we have burned through our three months here in Ho Chi Minh City. Cliché though it may be, it seems like just yesterday that we moved into our little room and gratefully disemboweled our bags… all of a sudden, it seems, the time has come to pack them back up again, to dust off our passports, and begin anew.

Mickey, a dog, Saigon
Who could be bored with Mickey around?

When we first arrived here, I worried that I would get bored and feel stifled. I worried that we would never make it to the end of three months before my restlessness took over. I didn’t know if I could be still for so long, if I could truly feel at home anywhere. Whenever we spend prolonged periods in a country (and never for so long as this), no matter how much I have enjoyed our visit, our final week is always characterized by impatient desire to move on to somewhere new. The unknown is always calling to me and I can’t seem to resist it… my heart and my eyes wander, and I can never seem to remain faithful to any one place for very long before I stray and move on.

A hem, Ho Chi MInh City

Maybe Ho Chi Minh City has made an honest woman out of me, because the longer we have stayed here, the more enchanted and enamored with it I have become. This time, as the deadline for our departure has approached, all I’ve wanted is for time to stop or slow down so I could have just a little more time here. I can’t pretend that there’s not more to the world that I want to explore, but in the face of what we already have right here in Saigon, none of it honestly appeals all that much. We never imagined we’d find a place that would make us want to settle down and stop our traveling, and yet that’s kind of what happened. Saigon taught me that there are places in this world where I can be content to just be, where living even something of a mundane existence can still be a joy.

Part of our happiness here has surely come from the fact that we have been throwing ourselves fully at making our design business work, and even though this often means working well beyond the amount we used to, we take legitimate enjoyment in the work and what we are doing and don’t begrudge the (many) hours spent on each project. But beyond simply doing what we love, we’ve also been in a place that just felt right. If not for our non-negotiable return to North America this summer (abut which I promise to write more in a future post), we would probably have extended our visas for another three months, and maybe another three after that.

Would we want to live here forever? Maybe not. All I know is that the three months we had here were filled with a deep sense of satisfaction that came from knowing we were exactly where we were supposed to be. Sometimes we don’t know the places or things that will touch something deep within us and make us come alive, but Vietnam and this city have definitely struck a chord deep within the two of us. I worried that three months here would be too much time, but as these things have a habit of going, they turned out to be not even close to enough.

Songbird café, Ho Chi MInh City
Ho Chi MInh City

Sometimes I wonder if this period in our lives will be one where we look back with something verging on incredulity and say, “Remember that time we lived in Vietnam for 3 months?” It’s hard to think that our life now might some day be distilled into brief snippets of interesting small talk at, say, a wine & cheese party, but I suppose you never know where life will take you and what the future has in store. I can’t believe that all this will soon fade into what once was, a finished chapter, rather than an ongoing one about what currently is, but that is indeed exactly what will happen. It’s time to turn the page and start a new story, and right now all I can hope is that this one gets a sequel some day. Our time here isn’t ending on a cliffhanger, though there is an element of the unresolved about it—even with three months, much of Ho Chi Minh City remains a mystery to us even if we did carve out a tiny pocket of it that felt just like home.

Steph and our friend James Pham (of Fly, Icarus, Fly), Saigon mentor and deal-finding guru
Steph and our friend James Pham (of Fly, Icarus, Fly), Saigon mentor and deal-finding guru
Our favorite sandwich lady
Our favorite sandwich lady

I’m sure some of my sadness in leaving this city—in leaving Vietnam—is tied to my knowledge that soon we will be on a plane that takes us away from Asia, back towards a place we technically call home that actually feels anything but. I’ve spoken candidly about how returning to North America and wrapping up this adventure is not what either Tony or I want, but those are the cards we have been dealt and we’ll play them the best we can. It’s strange to think that we honestly have no idea when we might come back to Vietnam, given how much I feel we belong here, but right now all I can hope is that when we do come back, it won’t have changed too much and will be mostly as we are leaving it.

We ride through the city and I whisper to it “Don’t ever change.” All this time I have thought I have been saying goodbye, but the truth is my words are more like fervent prayers and solemn incantations sent out to the universe. I can’t take Saigon with me, but I know I’ve left little parts of my heart scattered all throughout its streets and districts. They are in the smile of our favorite sandwich lady, the laughter of the schoolchildren whose games we joined while at the park, the crack of our knees as we teetered on wobbly red stools while slurping bowls of soup (oh, the food!), the thick plumes of redolent incense that roll from temple offerings. I don’t know which of these I will miss the most, but I hope that just like fabled breadcrumbs, these bits will lead me back here some day and I’ll know I’ve found home once more.

Tony plays with Vietnamese students, Ho Chi Minh City

Shakespeare’s star-crossed Juliet opined that parting is such sweet sorrow. I feel the weight of those words today, though I admit I am still waiting for the sweetness. Our next stop is Laos, our first new country of 2014, and with it a whole new set of adventures await. To venture into the unknown, we must leave the familiar behind; as travelers, this is what we do and I accept that trade-off.

So, to Saigon, I say: Our time here wasn’t half so long as I would have liked, and I hope it won’t be nearly so long until we meet again. Our love affair is far from over, but for now, so long.

Ho Chi Minh City at sunset
The sunset is a metaphor, which is why it’s at the end of the post…

Tell us: Have you ever fallen in love with a city and found yourself having to move on before you were ready to? Which country do you hope you get the chance to re-visit one day?

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28 comments Leave a comment

  1. Yes yes yes – you capture the sense of “metropolis separation grief” perfectly! (I just made that term up, by the way).

    I have felt this so acutely in certain cities and countries, namely Iran (which took me five years to get over) and Chennai in India, which I’m still getting over. Pakistan, and specifically Lahore, I was just too in love with, so I relocated there, and haven’t looked back since!

    But don’t worry, you’ll move on, and you’ll survive! You can always go back – and try not to leave it too long 🙂

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 5:29 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Wow, Tim! I had no idea you had such a storied past when it came to urban flings! It really is such a tough thing to give your heart to a city and then wrench it away, isn’t it? I 100% know that we will make it back to Saigon again one day, but leaving has still been hard. We’re traveling again which is keeping us busy, but I’m still pining, I admit it!

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:02 am
  2. Doug

    Where would you recommend staying for a multi-month stint in Saigon?
    Woulld want something centrally located with vibrant surrounding activity within
    walking distance but with clean relaxed atmosphere. No way I would be comfortable riding a motorbike in a big city.
    Very brave of you. Very interesting topic regarding good places to settle down for a few
    months. All I really hear about are Chiang Mai and Ubud.
    Guess the key for a big city would be finding a great homey place to stay.
    Curious, why are you heading back to North America? Is this permanent? Thanks Steph.

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 6:11 am
    1. Doug author

      Hi Doug, thanks for all the questions. We’ll actually be writing a post that is a more thorough look at the realities of living in Saigon as an expat where we break down our expenses and talk about quality of life and share tips and all that good stuff, so be sure to follow along and all will be revealed. 🙂

      (But as a quick answer, I’d say you’ll want to base yourself in D1 or D3. These are the most central regions and you can either walk or take a quick taxi/xe om ride wherever you need to go. We rarely strayed outside of these district, except when we were purposefully trying to sightsee or try something new. These are where you’ll find the most restaurants and attractions, and although there are certainly cheaper districts, these are definitely the most convenient.)

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:08 am
  3. It’s incredibly nice you feel like you’ve found a place that you like enough that you might think of stopping and perhaps living there. When we started travelling we always said that if we found somewhere where we feel like you do about Saigon, we would stay and settle down, why not? Unfortunately we didn’t have the same luck you guys had, the only place we could probably give it a go is Berlin really. If you really want to be in Vietnam because is where you are happy and feel more home than anywhere else you should definitely try, take the dogs with you guys and be happy 🙂

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 6:24 am
    1. Franca author

      Oh, if only it were as easy as that, Franca! Alas, as much as we love Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, the reality of getting our dogs over here just don’t make much sense. One of them would certainly have to travel as luggage as she’s too big to be in the cabin, and I don’t think we could justify the stress of getting her overseas that way. We both recognize that inflicting that kind of journey on either of the dogs (or both of them) would really be selfish and cruel of us. Plus, Saigon is many things, but it’s not especially dog-friendly and I don’t think they would have a great quality of life here compared to other places. So, I’m sure we’ll make our way back here again someday, but probably not while we still have our two fur kids to care for!

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:11 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        That’s fair enough and you are perfectly right Steph, it wouldn’t be fair on the dogs to make them travel so far and put them under such stress.

        Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:45 am
  4. What am I to do without my blogger-in-crime? Who will I mock water puppets with? Or NOT eat insects with? Parting IS such sweet sorrow… But it looks like you met some pretty nice people while you were in Saigon. And of course, by “people”, I mean “me” and by “nice”, I mean “devastatingly awesome”.

    Chào tạm biệt!

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 11:43 am
    1. James author

      I want to say that it was your humility that I will miss the most, but how can I miss something that NEVER existed??? 😉

      Seriously, though, we had a blast in HCMC and much of that was in large part thanks to you. We will both sorely miss our shenanigans and look forward to the day we are able to do it again! (I mean, if those chumps from The Hangover got TWO sequels, surely we’ll get at least one, right?)

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:13 am
  5. Paul Kuehn

    I can see why you dont want to leave,it looks like a magical place,but im sure you guys will go back sometime!At least when you come back there wont be any snow,right now its a rotton mix of mud snow and ice!!!!

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 5:24 pm
    1. Paul Kuehn author

      We had such a great time in Saigon, and even though it got really hot at times, that is definitely better than the alternative! 😀

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:14 am
  6. As always, stunning photos.

    It’s scary how time flies. I swear it was just a few weeks ago I was reading about you landing in Ho Chi Minh.

    I’ve liked, even loved almost everywhere we’ve visited, but probably the hardest place to leave was New York. I would not want to live there forever, but I want to return.

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 7:45 pm
    1. eemusings author

      We’ve really liked, maybe even loved, a lot of places that we’ve visited on this trip, but very few are those that I think we’d actually want to live or stay long-term. I feel ya on New York—I think the realities of living there would require sacrifices I’d ultimately come to resent, but for a little while it would be a pretty great place.

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:16 am
  7. So see you when you’re back from North America? 😉

    It’s good to go with the flow and move on from a place but it’s eve better when you fall in love with a place and stay longer. Am sure you will be back soon enough

    Mar. 24 2014 @ 10:10 pm
    1. Jimmy Dau author

      If only our time on this trip were truly indefinite and we didn’t have that clock ticking, counting down our return to Canada. Saigon is definitely one those places where you want to stay a nice long while… I won’t be surprised if you are still there whenever we manage to swing our triumphant return!

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:17 am
  8. I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone – it seems like just a few weeks ago that we were having dinner with you guys in Saigon. I love the quote about breaking up with a city, it reminds me of the pain I felt when we left London. I’m sure you will make it back to Vietnam one day but if you don’t, you’ll always have beautiful memories stored on this blog to remember it by.

    Mar. 25 2014 @ 12:13 am
    1. Amy author

      Yes, it really seems like we were just out to dinner with you and Andrew a few weeks ago, not a few months ago! How does time do this to us?

      I know we love Vietnam way too much for this to be our last visit to it. I can’t say for certain whether we’ll ever get to spend another three months there as we did this time, but we’ll certainly be back again some day! Telling myself this is the only way I can bear to leave it!

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:21 am
  9. I can’t believe your three months there have come and gone already so I can only imagine how it must feel for you. My two years in Shanghai passed in the blink of an eye. It’s hard falling in love with a place and then having to leave. It’s happened to me over and over again, NYC, Shanghai, Bankgkok, Chiang Mai, Budapest… Hopefully we’ll both get to return to the places that stole pieces of our hearts!

    Mar. 25 2014 @ 7:51 pm
    1. Heather author

      Yes, Saigon is certainly not the first place that we have fallen for during this trip (or during this lifetime), but that doesn’t make the leaving any easier. I guess this is just another one of those traveler’s dilemmas—having to leave even though your heart wants to stay!

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:23 am
  10. After spending 6 months in Spain for my study abroad, living with a host family, spending holidays with my extended family, it felt nearly impossible to leave. Although it’s been 9 years since I’ve last been, I still call it one of my homes. I love it there. I know our impending return won’t be the same (I already fooled myself into that once and walked away disappointed), but I know my heart will skip a beat again when I step back into the frantic, yet slow, pace of life again.

    It’s hard for US to believe your 3 months are up since we met you right before you left. I just can’t wrap my head around it.

    Mar. 26 2014 @ 1:26 am
    1. Carmel author

      It’s funny because even though I spent most of my time in Nashville feeling ambivalent about the city, I’ve realized in leaving that it is definitely one of those places I consider “home”. It wasn’t ever going to be a “forever home”, but it’s still home nonetheless. And I have already made my peace with the fact that no matter how much I want HCMC to stay the same, it will be different whenever we make it back. I’ll have to come in with a clean slate as best I can, accepting that I can’t chase the past, but hopefully some of that magic that made me love it so much this time will still remain!

      Seriously, weren’t we just having lunch and beers yesterday? Where has the time GONE?!?

      Mar. 26 2014 @ 2:25 am
  11. Beautiful post, Stephenie! You capture your relationship with Saigon so eloquently. For me – and I know it’s unoriginal – but I feel that way about NYC. I find myself missing the city before I even leave, and I often fantasize about how perfect life would feel if I were lucky enough to live there. One day, maybe!

    Have a safe journey to Laos! 🙂

    Mar. 26 2014 @ 7:05 am
  12. I so get what you mean! I find that any place I’m in long enough to sink my teeth into (say, a month or so) I leave a bit of my heart behind there. I’ve also found that once you know you’re leaving a place, that’s when you suddenly see how little you really know it. All the streets you never walked down, the shops you never went into, there can be a feeling of, “No! Hang on! I wasn’t done yet! Just give me a little more time to explore!”

    I am sure you will be back though. From the passion in this entry I can see you will never get over Vietnam, so I fully expect to see future entries detailing your journey back here.

    Mar. 27 2014 @ 5:51 am
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      Yup, I’ve definitely found that in the best places, no matter how long you’re there for, it’s NEVER ENOUGH time. That’s why the opening quote I chose that talks about the cafes you meant to visit but never did really struck a chord with me… so many places I wanted to visit, so many things I wanted to eat, and now they must all be relegated to “next time”.

      Mar. 27 2014 @ 11:16 pm
  13. I absolutely love the quote that you posted at the top! And this post was brilliant – I am sure you will return back to Vietnam someday! Beautiful photos of a beautiful place.

    Mar. 27 2014 @ 10:08 am
    1. Lauren author

      It’s a great quote, isn’t it? As soon as I read it, I highlighted and mentally flagged it to use in this post. I just couldn’t start it any other way!

      Mar. 27 2014 @ 11:19 pm
  14. What a stunning photo of the city (the first one); and I really, really love that quote. I’d love to visit one day; there are too many cities, too many countries to visit; I fear that I won’t be able to make it to many of them.

    Mar. 29 2014 @ 6:04 pm
    1. Sarah author

      I know there are some travelers out there who have made it to every country on the planet… I’m sure at some point, I considered them with envy because, you’re right, there are so many places out there and one could spend a lifetime without ever seeing them all. For me, I think the real issue is that I now know there are all these awesome pockets of the globe that I may never get the chance to return to! It’s nice to know they exist and are there waiting, but I suppose this is the dilemma: heading to new places means passing up on those we already love… I think I could spend the rest of my life just going back to places I love and my travels would still never end!

      Sep. 1 2014 @ 6:24 pm

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