Ho Chi Minh City is pandemonium. Imagine a high-traffic Manhattan block, add 50 motos, eliminate signs, lights, crosswalks, any right-of-way or laws and you have a typical HCM street. The Vietnamese jump into oncoming traffic, speed down sidewalks and run red lights without hesitation. Crossing the street parallels an intense game of Frogger or a suicide attempt.
Relentless honking, blaring techno music, and shouting add to the disorder. The constant motion and cramped space exacerbates
the stench: a mixture of lavender, smoke, coffee and putrid fish. The humidity makes everything worse. I walk outside and I’m immediately drenched in sweat. Within 2 minutes my hair frizzes into a Shakira, Amazon woman mane.
I expected chaos. Asian cities are known for their intensity. But I didn’t anticipate the hospitality of the Vietnamese. If you smile at anyone they smile back. I’m not accustomed to city friendliness. If you smile at someone in New York they might spit on you. And you never ask for directions because a real New Yorker (which I’m not) would never need them. But each time I stopped for directions the Vietnamese patiently guided me.
Some locals simply stopped to chat. One woman wanted to know where I bought my sunglasses, which turned into an hour conversation about her learning English in Singapore. In the city park, a boy sat on my bench. He pinched his cheek, pointed at mine, and said, “You have very nice…” We both laughed and talked about our countries.
During a monsoon rain I ran under an umbrella where two women sat. One woman tapped a stool inviting me to sit. She handed me hot tea, and while I sipped they talked about me in Vietnamese. They laughed as they pointed at my toes and Amazon hair. I let them point at me, their umbrella was my only salvation from the downpour, but I was thankful I couldn’t understand what they said.
In an attempt to escape the madness of the sidewalks I found my first philanthropic adventure. In need of a caffeine fix, I stumbled upon SOZO café.
(A side note: Vietnamese coffee is unique. The beans are fed to cat-like animals and then obtained from their excrement. I’m serious… The coffee is ground and drinks are made the same way. So you can order a cap-poo-ccino (Sorry, I had to!), but it’s going to taste a little “earthy.”)
I ordered coffee and found out SOZO employs street children. Sozo is a Vietnamese verb that means to save, keep safe and sound,
to rescue from danger or destruction. The employees said they loved working there and SOZO was also providing for their education. If you’re ever in HCMC go visit them.
On my final night in HCM I raved about the city. The friendliness of the people, the ornate temples, the fresh food all surprised me. But before I settled into vacation mode I was jolted back to my trip’s purpose. I saw my first brothel.
Sitting outside to eat dinner, I noticed a 60-year-old white man sitting with an Asian girl who looked 18. He whispered in her ear. She didn’t shy away, but she didn’t react like a girlfriend.
I glanced at the bar across the street. It looked like a bar you would find in the States. Five stunning Vietnamese girls sat on stools in dresses that barely covered their butts (keep in mind you scarcely see girls wearing shorts in Vietnam). Then I noticed four middle aged, white males sitting in the bar.
I examined the building. On top of the bar were three one-room levels of cinderblocks. Square holes served as windows and were covered with colored sheets from the inside. The levels above the bar looked like they wouldn’t survive a strong monsoon. They were basic and dingy.
When I realized it was a brothel the back of my eyes started to swell with water. An extreme hot flash began with rage. I couldn’t believe that everyone could eat dinner and ignore it. But then again this a daily sight in a huge city like HCM.
This is the first of many brothels I’ll see in the coming months. It’s an unfortunate, dark reality that consumes most of Southeast Asia. I’ll give more information on prostitution and sex-trafficking in a later post. The numbers will shock you and the stories repulse, but for now I’m not going to let it ruin my days in Vietnam.