“DVDs, cigarettes, books… marijuana, opium, cocaine?”
A seedy-looking man wearing a suit jacket and shorts, sitting on a motorcycle, tries to entice us to buy some of his offerings. He mutters the last three items under his breath. We shake our heads as we quickly pass him by.
Yes, strange dude off the street, we would love to buy illicit drugs from you, with the police station just around the corner. What’s that? They’re in a plastic bag in your fake designer suit pocket? Even better.
It’s our first night in Ho Chi Minh City, better known by its former name of Saigon. Ashleigh and I have just exited our hostel onto a narrow, food stall-lined alley and joined the throng packed all along Pham Ngu Lao, the main backpackers’ drag.
Red and blue plastic chairs line the sidewalks and spill out into the streets. In them, both Vietnamese and ex-pats are seated, drinking Saigon beers and enjoying Styrofoam plates of noodles and unidentifiable deep-fried goods. The colour of the chairs separates the different establishments, and vendors from various street stalls are calling out to us, trying to lure us to the comfort of their particular section of hard plastic chairs.
We choose the one closest to us, and are seated by a teenage boy with the efficiency of an overworked wedding planner.
“Hello, ma’ams. Would you like something to eat or drink?” He drops two laminated menus with egregious spelling errors in front of us.
I’m mildly offended at the fact that we’ve both been ma’amed by this adolescent server, but we still order two bottles of Saigon Lager, the cheapest beer on the menu at 7,000 dong (about US$0.33). Our waiter grabs the menus from us and immediately disappears into the mass of humans behind us.
As we wait for our beers, we take in our surroundings. Motorcycles pack what is left of the street in front of us, wildly swerving around slower vehicles and not leaving an inch of space unfilled. Food vendors, with trolleys attached to motorbikes, drive by at a glacial place, trying to entice drunk backpackers and groups of young Vietnamese with their offerings: fried squid, corn on the cobs, and sweet sticky rice.
Children pause at each table, selling flowers and popular English-language books, painstakingly photocopied page for page, bound together with glue, and covered in plastic wrap. I refuse the offers, partly because of my inclination to not encourage child labour, but also because I don’t want a black-and-white photocopied version of 50 Shades of Gray.
Our beers arrive, and we gulp them down, relishing the cold liquid even though it’s not that hot outside.
Suddenly, we hear shouts and whistles being blown. Instantly, the staff from each street establishment is yelling at the patrons to get up. With startling efficiency, they pull chairs off the street and pack them away behind us. We happen to be seated on the sidewalk, so we are left to drink our beers and watch the bewildering scene in front of us.
An older English guy behind us sees our confusion.
“They do this about once a week. Vendors aren’t allowed to seat people on the street, so the cops come by and make sure that the streets are clear. They usually give them some warning, though – for a fee. Then, as soon as they leave, the chairs go back out.”
“What’s the point, then?”
“Well, it’s a win-win situation. The police are doing their job, ensuring street safety while making a buck or two on the side. And the vendors are allowed to operate their businesses on the street without a license. Everybody’s happy.”
Sure enough, several police vehicles go by, slowing down just enough to see whether or not everyone is off the street. Satisfied, they move on. Less than thirty seconds later, the hyper-efficient wait staff has all the plastic chairs back out on the street and their patrons happily re-seated.
It’s March 1st. It’s our first day of travelling, and our first night out in Saigon. I’m sitting in a broken red plastic chair meant for an eight-year-old that is leaving striations on my butt, drinking 33-cent beer on a cool tropical night. And I have six more months of travelling to go. Life is good.
To see more photos from southern Vietnam, please click here and check out my album on flickr!