It sounds as if the weather gods are pouring endless bags of rice onto my roof. It’s raining tonight in Ho Chi Minh City, and raining hard. Vietnam’s tropical climate makes casually intense showers like this a thing to be expected. One minute it’s hot and humid, the next you need to go back inside and change into some dry clothes. Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain. I see thunder clap from behind my curtains. Flashes of white bangs in this dimly lit, air-conditioned bedroom. The material of the roof really accentuates the noise these raindrops make. It’s a loud, consistent crashing dotted with thunderous bangs. I like it.
This rain is cooling, refreshing, life giving. It lifts the smells of the earth into the air.
…well, in the right places.
Here in the urban jungle of Ho Chi Minh it’s a chance to wash the streets clean of all the dust and dirt that collects over time. And by gosh, when it rains it RAINS. Get caught outside when the heavens open and it’s like a scene out of Jumanji (sans Robin Williams). Motorbike drivers swiftly pull over, take out their ponchos, and carry on at full speed (regardless of the roads being wet and thus harder to brake on!). Everyone immediately seeks shelter. As a pedestrian on a mission, you’re doomed to a watery trail. You will have a battle just crossing the street, trying to sheild your eyes from the incessant raindrops whilst finding gaps to safely cross-over. Where the road meets the curb it dips slightly, creating temporary streams of water that rush past in the hectic weather. You try to make big steps or jump over them to avoid getting your feet wet. Your feet will get wet, though. And you will end up ankle-high in some pulsating puddle. Just the other day, caught in the middle of a rainstorm, my friend stepped in such a stream. A second later he saw a dead rat float past in the torrents as if it were driftwood. Squeaky clean.
The rains, however intense, are necessary to HCMC’s urban ecology in more ways than one. It can smell here, and the rains help to wash away the pong.
I’m referring mostly to the smells hovering around the city’s many meat, seafood and fruit stalls which make up part of the many indoor and outdoor markets. What with the lack of long-term preservation methods, the merciless heat of the sun and exposure to the elements (and their friends the flies), this food can begin to get pretty pungent pretty quick. There have been a number of occasions where I’ve walked past these colourful, clamorous stalls and felt the need to cover my mouth and nose with my t-shirt. Only a few steps Andy-boy, and you’re home free. Please don’t throw up, please don’t throw up.
How to describe this smell? Ok, so take some rotting meat and over-ripe bananas and chuck them into a blender. Add a sprinkle of sewage water and a little essence of durian. Leave to bake in a trash can in the middle of the day, being sure to top it up with the occasional squid that’s way past it’s sell-by-date. After a few hours remove the lid and there you have it; the passing smells of a Vietnam street market and the Saigon River. Bon apetit!
Regardless of these small moments, there are also beautiful, beautiful smells of all sorts of food being cooked on the street. Food-carts are essentially four-wheeled metal chariots of a family’s livelihood. And to make a livelihood, your food better sell. And to sell, you create smell. Whilst walking down the street in most populated areas of Saigon you will undoubtedly encounter a sun-kissed man or woman stationed under a tree or shady ledge, offering their wares for the consumption of passers-by. Chances are you won’t only see them, but smell them from some distance away. Beefy smells (one of the most prominent whiffs, usually associated with the preparation of the beef stocked soup part of phở), bakery smells (Bánh mì is the most common cart-fare, and Vietnam’s love affair with baked goods means bakeries are a plenty), sizzling pork (unbelievably delicious – you just smell this bbq’d, sweet but meaty scent that wafts around the surrounding area in excitable plumes of smoke, as the chef fans the meat sizzling on a coal-lit grill) and sweet smells (waffles. Just wafting deliciously in the breeze) – these smells are in-your-face advertisments that lull you into future food comas.
So there’s good smells and bad smells. Curious smells and smells you don’t even want to know the source of. Like any country really. But this is Vietnam. And well, it comes with the package and adds to the charm. Whilst travelling you will have your ups; your “omg this is just like the Lonely Planet Guide said” moments of wonder and glee. But you will also face reality; the poverty, the underdevelopment, unsavoury characters. That’s life. So when you’re faced with these realities you’ve got to take them on the chin and do as the Vietnamese do – power through.