See that woman in the photo staring at the camera? She certainly saw me.
It was the middle of rush hour in District 3, Saigon. At these peak times of day the roads start to beckon in the great migration. From the paved sidewalks where xeom drivers sprawl over their alloyed steeds and blue-shirted security guards gaze into the great nothingness of boredom, it starts to get louder. The small, consistent revs of engines grow greater in number. You hear a growling as the wheeled beasts draw nearer. The city turns up the volume. The hum grows louder and louder as motorcycles upon motorcycles start to rock up against the traffic lights. The growl becomes a roar. Like wheeled-dominoes they slot in amongst the chaos. The light is still red, starting from 50 seconds, then 49, then 48, 47, 46… Face-masked drivers push into empty spaces, no matter how ridiculously tight or who they cut off. All are battling for first place at the the white line’s edge. The sun is a harsh observer. It’s crazy hot. People are antsy but prepared. They wear hoodies to cool themselves down; strange right? The extra clothing actually provides protection from the sun’s rays. The mob of H&M donned, sunglass touting, masked riders wear this uniform of the road on the road. 31, 30, 29, 28… Pedestrians sheepishly stick out one foot, as if testing the temperature of the road. Who can blame them, for the traffic-light gods mean nothing to some bold motorbike-souls. But once it’s certain that it is in fact safe to cross the road (and to not have to involuntarily play a game of death-dodgems) people stick close together and begin the treacherous journey across the street. 15,14,13,12,11… I’m part of the pack moving across the road. We move in numbers and synchronisation. Like a horizontal Beatles crossing an oriental Abbey Road we step and step in an unspoken pact of safety. I can hear the roars of the engines breathing down my side as I walk past; hot bursts of air from the black and red throats of the Atilas and Nouvos raring to go. They glint in the heat of the sun. 5,4,3,2,1… Whizz, Honk, RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR go the motos behind me as I reach the pavement. Another successful road crossing. We live to sweat another day.
I can see the great migration from a safe distance once more. A sea of metal whirrs by on the street, each driver and passenger nonchalantly determined to get home, take a shower and enjoy the evening. Rush hour. At this time of day, street vendors opportunely flash their wares on the side of the road, to tempt passing commuters into buying an appetiser. There’s literally a line of them stationed along the sidewalk facing the road. One woman and her cart are standing directly in front of me. Her cart is bundled full of spices and indiscriminate things that I couldn’t even begin to list. She’s selling rice paper pancakes to go with those indiscriminate things. She dresses for comfort. This image, I think to myself, describes Saigon: opportunism, casual wear, food. I reach for my camera. I press the ‘on’ button. It makes an unnecessary jingle to tell me it’s on. Why, Nikon? Why? I hear it. She hears it. I click shoot. She turns around – I get caught.
So much for discretion. So much for capturing ‘the essence’ of Ho Chi Minh City. Oh yes, I thought, people will look through the lens of this ex-pat’s camera and feel like they are there, entering my mind’s eye and amalgamating into this wondrous new environment full of hustle and bustle. Nope. I just ended up looking like a twat. After being caught objectifying street vendors, I embarassedly hurried off into the nearby park to take pictures of trees and statues. You can’t embarass yourself in front of trees and statues.
From then on I made a point to ask before hitting the shutter. People here appreciate a little familiarity before you add them to your Westerner’s catalogue of ‘exotic sights’. This is their country and their way of life; before you can take a little bit away with you you must say hello, ask some questions, maybe even buy something. Allow them to you allow you into their circle. Otherwise you’re just another foreigner in Saigon.