Using “the force” to cross the street and yielding to Yoda in Vietnam

Line up of scooters

Ho Chi Minh City, May 2014

Ever so cautiously, I put a flip-flop anchored toe in the crosswalk, but yanked it out immediately. It wasn’t time. Instead, I stood, watching the motorscooters swerve in tumultuous tentacles, some revving up the wrong side of the street or even up on the sidewalk itself. As the riders whizzed by, I could’ve easily reached out and pulled down the ever-present facemasks that many of the commuters wore to ward off pollution and the sun. They were that close. So, when is the right time to cross the streets in Saigon?

Starbucks on the corner

During my first few jetlagged hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to leave my hotel on a mini expedition to find a cup of coffee — never mind that a Starbucks was just across the street. I saw a few promising mom and pop shops, but like Starbucks, they were located on the other side of the death zone. I knew what I had to do.

And it wasn’t jaywalking. I don’t do it. It doesn’t even happen in the small Colorado mountain town where I live. My lack of daring may stem from being the subject of a Teutonic tirade in East Germany. It was during the Cold War and a crumpled old man in a long wool coat and furry hat berated my college friends and me in angry German for crossing a completely empty intersection against a red light. He even shook his cane at us.

The crazy wiring of HCMC

The crazy wiring of HCMC

A traffic light existed at the main intersection of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du. But after a few minutes of studying the patterns of traffic, I decided the free-for-all of cars, motorscooters, buses and taxis was as much of a twisted, webbed cluster as the intertwined telephone and cable wires that gathered, looped and tangled on the city’s telephone poles located along street corners.

Finally another pedestrian came along as the light turned green. Following in synch with the local, I proceeded. Jerking about while looking right and left at traffic, I flinched as scooters beeped at me and came dangerously close to toppling over my nearly paralyzed body.

I don’t know how, but I made it across the street. The caffeine I had so desperately wanted wasn’t necessary anymore. Surging adrenalin took care of that, and made me more alert than any jolt of java could.

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On an Ao Dai High in Saigon

beautiful woman in Ao Dai

beautiful ao dai woman 1960ishShe was stunning. And, for all practical purposes, I was stalking her. Moving past a lineup of tarnished, stationary yet imposing tanks and helicopters leftover from the Vietnam War, the woman wore a long sleeved neon yellow tunic dress fitted over flowing white trousers that barely revealed the tops of pointy kitten heeled shoes. Although in full 2014 vibrant color, she looked like she came straight from a black and white photo shoot for a 1960s Life magazine pictorial of Saigon.

This was my first up-close sighting of a woman wearing an ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional, elegant high-collared dress with slits up the sides that is typically worn with silk pants.


In the courtyard of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants museum, I first pretended to be examining a tank, US Army 09A78969, and then moved closer to a wall displaying bold primary colored propaganda posters. I scrutinized one featuring Ho Chi Minh as if I was completely literate in Vietnamese. Really, I was just working up the nerve to ask the woman in the ao dai for a photo.

She was standing with a man who wore a polo shirt, khakis and had a camera dangling from his neck. Since we were at a museum, I assumed he was a tourist and the woman was possibly his guide — especially since she gestured toward the tank while she talked to the polo man. In a quiet moment, I finally approached her and asked if she spoke English.

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Getting Karaoke Confident

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the banks of the Saigon River in District 2.

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the banks of the Saigon River in District 2.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. May, 2014

For some reason, when my new Vietnamese friend, Ivy, kept prodding me to sing, the only tune that came to me was “Timber” by Pitbull and Ke$ha. My seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, had recently downloaded the song on my iPhone and it’s one of those ditties that stations itself in your brain for an indefinite period of time.

© Becky Sullivan

Ke$ha © Becky SullivaMy seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, had recently downloaded the song on my iPhone and it’s one of those ditties that stations itself in your brain for an extended period of time.

“It’s going down; I’m yelling timber. You better run; you better dance.”

Even I could hear my pubescentesque squawk in “Timber” as I sang for Ivy and her enthusiastic boyfriend, Danny, while we stood on the banks of the Saigon River in District Two of Ho Chi Minh City. Although it was dark, I still looked around, hoping no one else was watching or, worse yet, listening. Usually, a few alcoholic beverages are required before I can do this kind of thing.

Completely sober, I cringed since we were at a spot where many couples came to gaze at the well-lit nighttime cityscape while they held hands and probably crooned in-tune love songs to each other. I knew karaoke was big in Asia, but a request for impromptu singing with no backup music and no reliably scrolling lyrics on a screen?

Here I am with Ivy after my solo.

Here I am with Ivy after my solo.

“Steph, that is wonderful!! Keep going,” Ivy said and hugged me as she did when, as a tour guide, she took me out sightseeing the first day I arrived in Saigon. Danny also praised my discordant vocal talents. “You sing very well,” he said nodding with what appeared to be one of the most sincere smiles I had ever seen. I couldn’t remember any more of the lyrics aside from the lengthy series of “oooooohs” in the chorus.

When I told Ivy I couldn’t recall the rest of the words, she said, “Sing another song!” Oh man, what was I in for?

Ivy and Danny, my new friends, and apparently, fans.

Ivy and Danny, my new friends, and apparently, fans.

Earplugs and earlier scarring

I’m a bit concerned about the Vietnamese. Frankly, I think they should focus less on wearing face masks to ward off air pollution while in motorscooter traffic, and instead, invest in some earplugs. Clearly, there is some hearing loss going on.

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