When I arrived at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport at 2 a.m. on Saturday, December 27, 2014, the first thing I noticed was the airport’s plainness compared to my layover in Hong Kong’s, which felt like a futuristic high-end shopping mall. But the airport didn’t matter. When I made my way outside, I feeling the initial relief of stepping into tropical air in the middle of winter, being far away from home and work and winter’s isolation.
Hong Kong’s somewhat weird, high-end airport
Given my excitement to be on vacation, I didn’t even really mind too much that I still had a way to go before I was done traveling. I still had to take a bus to meet my cousin and his wife in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, where they were doing Peace Corps, so for now I was just passing through Ho Chi Minh City. My hope was that I’d be able to catch a bus as soon as I got into the city, so I hadn’t gotten a hotel room.
My plan was to go to a street called Pham Ngu Lao, where, according to the web, buses left from, and find out where bus tickets were sold.
I took a cab from the airport to Ho Chi Minh City. The city was quiet. Most places looked closed. I assumed we were getting to the central part of the city once we began to drive past places that seemed to cater to tourists. Westerners were emptying out of a luxurious looking, light yellow, colonial building with a courtyard.
Nonetheless, the city felt calm. It even reminded me a of a Southern city, with wide streets, sprawl even in the downtown, humidity, and nightlife that ended early. The driver dropped me off at Pham Ngu Lao by a pho place, and I went in.
I said “xin chao” to the staff, embarrassed that it was the only Vietnamese phrase I knew. But they were friendly and pointed me to a table. The only other people in the restaurant were a couple Australian tourists.
I chose the pho based on which seemed to have the most diverse combinations of beef parts. It wasn’t even 3 a.m. I stretched out and realized unlike when I was home, I could take my precious time.
First pho in VIetnam
A Christmas tree made of white tinsel in the front of the restaurant reminded me I had missed Christmas Day, or rather spent it flying tens of thousands of feet over the West until it became the East, above the Laptev Sea and near Siberia, according to the flight progress on the seatback screen in front of me. I thought about how flight distorts our sense of distance because when we travel by air, because we can’t constantly see the distance we are traversing. On a road trip, you get the sense of how far you have traveled because you can continuously see the change in landscape, architecture, climate, and people over the course of your journey. With air travel, you walk through a tube on one side of the world, watch some movies, eat, read, attempt a crossword puzzle, sleep, and exit from another tube, where you find yourself on the other side of the world.
After leaving the restaurant, I was back on Pham Ngu Lao. A man approached me and asked in English if I needed a ride anywhere. No thanks, I said. He suggested I follow him, I hesitated a bit, but didn’t feel in any grave danger and had nowhere else to go. He led me a couple of blocks down Pham Ngu Lao to a convenience store that looked like a Seven Eleven.
Pham Ngu Lao
He motioned me in, and said something in Vietnamese to a small, thin man wearing a security guard uniform. They offered me a stool near the front and said I should wait inside because it was safer in there. I sat down at a stool at the front of the store. The man who had led me to the store was named Hei, and he drove a moto for hire. He scrolled through the contacts in his flip phone, mentioning all of the people he had met from abroad, and showing me the name of a German he had become friends with.
After he went back outside, I bought a snack and drink from the convenience store, figuring it was the least I could do, and settled in to read my guidebook. I looked up intermittently at the guard, impressed that he managed to stay awake and alert when almost no one was coming in.
Around 5 a.m. I went outside and told Hei I was going to walk around a bit. He led me to a street food spot with some plastic tables and chairs. A man drove up in a moto with two giant bags, each full of banh mi sandwich rolls that he dropped off at the restaurant.
Man drops off baguettes
A young guy was sitting near me eating pho. I felt like I should try to talk to him, but didn’t. I ate and kept my eyes on the street, which was fairly busy and becoming busier. Then the guy turned around and started talking. He asked where I was from. He introduced himself as Daniel, said he lived in Germany. His mom was Japanese and his dad was German. He had been traveling for a while around Asia, staying in hostels. He said he was studying business at college and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He told me about visiting Angkor Wat and North Vietnam.
Around us the street life was picking up. Older Vietnamese couples in sneakers and exercise clothing walked toward the park across from Pham Ngu Lao. It was around 6, remarkably early for this many people to be out and active. But I realized the heat (hitting the 90s even in late December) and humidity probably drove people to wake up as the sun was rising, even–or especially–on a Saturday.
After more talking about hostels and traveling alone, I said goodbye and good luck to Daniel. Hei was still around and guided me to the small storefront of a bus company operator. He led me inside. A woman was sitting up in a bed in the back. The business didn’t seem like it was open, technically, yet because of Hei, they let me buy my $15 ticket for a seven hour bus ride.
I followed a man from the company outside and was told to wait by the bus. It was only nearly 7, but the the park was as active as if it were late morning, with people playing badminton, working out on exercise equipment, walking, and doing tai chi.
7 a.m. badminton
When the bus left, as we pulled out and drove down Pham Ngu Lao, a sea of motos drove alongside us. Many of the drivers wore swine flu style face masks, although it occurred to me they were probably to protect against the pollution, not the flu. At one stop, I noticed a woman with a Burberry patterned mask.
Burberry face mask
We drove out farther and farther from the center of Saigon, through sprawl, past businesses with names like Viet Hung Joint Stock Company.
About three weeks later, on the last night of my trip, I was back in Ho Chi Minh City, having spent 10 days in Cambodia and ten more traveling from Hanoi to Hoi An and finally back to Ho Chi Minh City, where I would depart for home. I was staying just off of Bui Vien, which is one street away from Pham Ngu Lao, and is known as the backpackers’ road for its cluster of hostels, hotels, restaurants and bars that serve tourists, many from Western countries.
My last night was just as sleep-deprived as the first. My flight was leaving at 5:55 am, so I spent the late hours of the night before packing and then walked around the district. And then I had an idea: why not go over to Pham Ngu Lao, and see if Hei was still there? I walked down busy Bui VIen, clutching my purse as I weaved through throngs of tourists, some red-faced from the heat and drinking, and turned right. I walked past the convenience store, spying the guard inside.
Me and Hei during my last night in Vietnam
And Hei was standing nearby, in his perch. He recognized me almost right away. I told him I had had a great trip in Vietnam, thanked him for helping me the first night, and then asked if he wanted to take a photo. He took my phone and held it out for some selfies, and then we even got someone else to take another photo.
I headed back to my hotel room, sad that my time in Southeast Asia was evaporating before me but heartened at how I had found community nine thousand miles from home – the distance of just four movies, an attempted crossword puzzle a few hours of sleep, and a couple mediocre airplane meals.