Sometimes I feel we are all genetically programmed to see the grass as greener on the other side (in another country). A day doesn’t pass that I don’t hear a young person tell me about their plans to leave Serbia. In most cases, to be honest, these are people who have never been anywhere but Serbia, so they are not fully aware of how life works outside of the Balkans. As much as I like to think highly of myself, I am no different than others. Yes, I am sure whenever I go and come back, I grow, but sometimes we get conceited and think that we have reached the top when we have barely stepped on the ladder. So we pack our bags and go to Vietnam and the first truth hits me (and there are many to come) – fear is a terrible thing. When we stopped everything and left for Vietnam, apparently, I was not prepared for the Vietnam portion of the plan.
We arrive. Now what?
We are standing in front of the airport, waiting for the driver. “The humidity is not bad,” we lie to each other. The driver picks us up, and it’s ok. We enter the city. It’s ok. “We are in Vietnam, we are in Vietnam, we are in Vietnam,” we try reminding ourselves, trying to convince each other all of this is normal, in Vietnam. The car makes its way through a sea of bikes, people and then more people. Unending streets of horror, all around us. No traffic lights, no marked road crossings, no rules of traffic. An accident on the left, an accident to our right, and our driver cannot find 3rd gear, if he had a gun to his head. Nemanja is livid, cos the car is suffering. I am shit scared, as the horror hits me, FUCK, WE ARE IN VIETNAM! WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK ARE WE DOING HERE??
We get to District 1, which it turned out meant the number 1 place for seeing sunburnt Aussies, Scandinavians and Brits, and barely any Vietnamese people. We step out of the car into a tiny, claustrophobic, shitty street with scattered roadworks and no sidewalk. The air keeps suffocating me. The smells are, well, everything you would expect. We take our shoes off and walk barefoot over the greasy hostel floor.
As soon as we closed the room door behind us, I could finally cry out in agony. I wanted to go home that very moment. As much as I prepared myself and arrogantly thought that nothing could surprise me because “I read stuff on the internet and saw photos”, the shock of that ride to the hostel, killed me. The hostel itself put me 6 feet under. The first few hours spent in panic left us dreaming of home. Get me a tunnel, Dr Strange’s ringy thing, a black hole, teleportation device, or even a freaking time-turner, because nothing mattered, not the problems we left at home, not the desire to be far away, not the money spent/thrown away, I needed to feel safe again. I needed Serbia. I went online looking for return tickets. What a fucking hypocrite I was! Home was too familiar and Vietnam was too unfamiliar. Was there a place in the world just right for me?
After we survived the first night, with Nemanja being as shit scared as me, but faking composure much better, we managed to leave our room in the morning. We go downstairs (to the basement) for the breakfast and try to ignore tiny bugs crawling over the tables. We are in Vietnam. You eat, and you don’t ask questions. These are the things you get used to first.
There was, however, a beacon of hope in that land of our personal horror. We had the luck of having friends in Vietnam. When I say friends, I mean not so close friend of a girl who is a friend of our best friend’s wife, whom we met for 2 days in Turkey….we were besties! The first night we met Kaitlan and her girlfriend Leah. They introduced us to Julia and Kayla (not a couple) who later introduced us with Kiersa and Emma (a couple). After a month of the harsh environment, struggle to cross the street or avoid being harassed to buy poorly made items just because we were white, I could finally breathe. When I say a month, I mean 2 full days, as that’s how long it felt.
What’s it like living in Saigon?
As we moved out of the hostel and rented a room in Kiersa’s apartment in District 3, we finally felt like we could get settled. However, the high ceiling room filled with natural light was just a bit fancier and cleaner prison than the one in District 1. We spent days on end living, but not really living. Time did not pass, days did not change. We fenced ourselves in. We barely exchanged words. The first week was 2 months long.
It was horrible. Ho Chi Minh City, once known as Saigon, was the largest city in Vietnam. It was home to 10 of the 90 miliion Vietnamese people. Unlike the more traditional capital of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City was younthful, openminded and foreigner central. Yes, there were great rooftop bars, and restaurants of every cuisine in the world. Yes, a whole district, district 2 was the perfect rich Expat corner. There were tall fancy business centers and overpriced attractions. But, the day to day reality was a harsh wake up call. The air, the humidity, the bikers driving on the sidewalks, the unsafe for drinking water that makes your hair fall out were unbearable.
I cannot even speak of the chaos. Whatever I wrote, I could not prepare you for the shock. What would you think if I told you that Kaitlan had to hold my hand the first time I left the hostel? Or that Nemanja and I dedicated one whole day to learning how to cross a street? Where the first advice was, “do not stop, just walk and they will drive around you.” The second, “whatever you do, do not get badly hurt as the ambulance will never reach you, they can’t drive through the chaos.” Near our apartment in Cach Mang Tang there was a roundabout our friends jokingly called “the circle of death”. What about the rain showers that come down in a matter of seconds, but you don’t even notice as you are already completely soaked from the humidity? Then you walk into a shop or café where they still haven’t figured out that the thermostat can work in the opposite direction, so the temperature is the Siberian average of 45 bellow zero. After you drink your ice coffee, as it’s the only one they serve, or get your green tea (literally green), filled with ice and gummy bears, and get yourself a pneumonia, you can walk home, in a row, one behind the other on the almost non-existing sidewalk. Cross the street, like in the game Crossy Road, only watch out, cos in real life you don’t get 3 attempts. Pretend not to see the guy sitting by the road and peeing though his shorts, and when you reach the building in which you are paying 250 usd to rent a single room, make sure to step over the rats who live on the ground floor. Or the cockroaches,…they’re easy to mix up cos of the similar size. Then wash your hair with the technically unsafe water, wait for all of it to fall out and then, when bold, sit in your room in which the aircon can’t get the temperature below 30 degrees Celsius. Sit on the bed, next to the open window, hoping that you will feel a breeze (though you never will), watch as the beautiful sunset melts the sky, as bats fly by. Glance at the still full suitcase in the corner, all the clothes still in it because you don’t want to admit that your whole life is right there, in that suitcase, in that corner, with the souvenir Vietnamese hat on top of it, like a dunce’s hat. And so the suitcase sits, as if punished for talking during class, staring at the dirty wall, thinking why this shitty apartment costs so much and what in God’s name made it pack itself up, go to the airport and fly across those thousands of miles. Cry your eyes out, as every previous day, in silence, so that he doesn’t notice, because he also has his own problems, and demons and suitcases in the corners, and go to bed because tomorrow, again, you need to eat the cheap sandwiches made with the ingredients you don’t want to know about, and jump over rats on the streets. Get a good night’s sleep, because tomorrow will also be a battle…
Part 3 coming soon…