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Sài Gòn Ơi, Let's Meet for Cà Phê Once the Pandemic Is Over

For various reasons, some city activities that I’ve long shunned are now replaying in my mind like footage of an old home video during these days of working from home.

I’m a Saigoneer in every aspect of the word. Like any denizen of a multi-million-resident metropolis, I have a bittersweet bond with where I live. At times, the bitter part thrives a bit more, especially at 6pm every day when I leave work to plunge into throngs of traffic on the street. In the suffocating heat of exhaust fumes and clamoring noises from all directions, I never hesitate to rush home as soon as possible.

Only when our urban rhythm slows to a sluggish crawl because of the pandemic and the fact that setting foot outside is now a risk, my mind floats to the city’s familiar places that I took for granted during hectic times. As a wistful tribute to Saigon, here are some places and activities that I will definitely put on the to-do list one day when the epidemic subsides.

Hang out at Turtle Lake

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

To me, the presence of Turtle Lake (Hồ Con Rùa) is a miracle. Amid central Saigon where a square of land is worth its area in gold, there exists an oasis where both happiness and WiFi are free. The washed rock structure has been here since the 1970s, bearing on its surfaces the wear and tear of time. Not only is the lake the intersection of Vo Van Tan, Tran Cao Van and Pham Ngoc Thach streets, it’s also the convergence of multiple generations and social strata. There are the young and the old, the local and the foreign, and the contently seated and the tiredly seeking seats.

I’m unsure if it’s because of the unique architecture of the structure or the contrast between its jaded design and sleek contemporary shops in the vicinity, but whenever at Turtle Lake, I can’t help feeling like I’ve crossed into a separate “world,” as open and safe as it is strange.

Photo by Nghĩa Nguyễn via Unsplash.

While in college, my friends and I often met here during the weekend — and even on weekdays when we skipped classes. Without fail, we arranged ourselves neatly along the narrow footpaths over the water surface of the manmade lake, chatting up a storm while setting up our snack banquet.

Some say money can’t buy happiness, but at Turtle Lake, with just VND100,000, one can come pretty close to the old adage with their snack purchases: a jumbo-sized glass of kumquat tea, a portion of bắp xào or a bag of bánh tráng trộn with highly sought-after quail eggs. Hồ Con Rùa munchies are nothing fancy or particularly filling, but they are perfectly adequate as fuel for our youthful banters under the shaded District 1 sky.

A joy ride along the canal

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

In my eyes, the stretch of the city under the name “bờ kè” (embankment) lends a much-needed grace to the rigid criss-cross of Saigon. It’s a term of endearment that many, myself included, give to the two streets running parallel with the Nhieu Loc Canal, Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. Far from the usual pandemonium seen in long roads elsewhere, the embankment is usually languid and calming. It almost seems like any movement here takes place more gently, like the way the placid water flows towards the major Saigon River.

Because of this tranquility, I am personally more fond of these streets than any other paths in Saigon. Ever since the early days when I first learned how to ride a motorbike until my maturity as a bona fide “Lead ninja” now, every week I always spend some time just riding along the canal, for many reasons — sometimes, a heartbreak, and others, just to procrastinate. Secure the helmet on, put the kickstand up, cruise down the road at 25 km/h, and one can observe the quotidian activities of the neighborhood on the drive: lovebirds fighting and flirting on the back of their bike, puppies breaking free from the leash to frolic on the grass, and school children walking home hand-in-hand.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

On the crowded pavements, carts serving fragrant dishes congregate; groups of young Saigoneers huddle on red, blue plastic stools to slurp bowls of hot noodles while anxiously scout the distance for the sidewalk crusade. In tenement courtyards, middle-aged residents go through their morning calisthenic routine, play badminton or sway back and forth on public exercise machines.

Photo: Alberto Prieto.

Many an afternoon spent along the embankment remind me of a song by Mademoiselle:

Có một chiều tôi đi theo anh. 
Loanh quanh loanh quanh đi khắp phố phường
Thì thầm đọc tên những con đường, 
Gió lùa qua mái tóc, xem nắng nhuộm vàng trên hàng cây già.

I follow you one afternoon,
circling around every street, every quarter,
whispering the street names under my breath.
The wind plays with my hair as I watch the sun paint old trees in the color of gold

Of course, it’s still okay to take my bike out these days, but during social distancing, the canal has lost part of its lifeblood.

Reading at the city library

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

If downtown Saigon is an energetic anthem, then the General Science Library will be its lowest note. The building can seem neglected in the memory of many locals, especially when a plethora of flashy skyscrapers have popped up around it.

Still, the glory of the library doesn’t lie in its reputation, but the numerous episodes of urban history it’s witnessed. It’s not incorrect to call it a historical site as it was constructed based on an old French library. In the 1970s when the last few granite tiles were put in place, the library took on a modernist facade, representing the confluence of global modernism and traditional resourcefulness.

Photo by Lee Starnes.

After half a century in the extreme elements of Saigon, its exterior has shown the marks of time, adding to the building’s historic ambiance. Once I was reluctant to visit due to this ancient appearance, but I soon discovered that behind these seemingly solemn walls is a welcoming atmosphere.

When at the library, I often find a seat in the main reading room, the library’s best space in my opinion. Soft sunlight slithers in the room through the patterns of the windows, casting a golden hue on sets of mid-century desks and chairs. The room looks as if taken straight out of the set of a Trần Anh Hùng movie — elegant and serene. Any activity I undertake, be it perusing dry academic texts or rushing to complete a project, seems less trying and more poetic when done in this room.

Libraries are established as a public civic venue, but every visitor comes here with their own personal goal. There are model students with their drive for academic excellence and self-help guides penned by successful moguls. And then there are tardy ones like me, often spotted with worksheets and assignments that are hours from reaching the deadline. There are dreamy minds floating in and out of slumber, and demure couples on study dates but don’t quite dare to hold hands. In our various appearances, moods and life situations, we sit close together in the quietude of the library.

Photo by Lee Starnes.

Because of the social distancing order, the General Science Library has closed its doors, but I know that, after everything has settled down, it will once again become a holy ground for Saigoneers to let their inquisitive minds wander.

Coffee dates

A sunny corridor at Cafe Nhà Phạm. Photo by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên.

How many cancelled dates in Saigon take place at coffee shops? It’s hard for any of us to come up with an answer. Going to cafes has become so ingrained in the routine of Saigoneers that a coffee shop invitation can serve as both a conversation starter and ender. It’s a simple leisure activity that doesn’t require the inviter or invitee to think too much, as cafes mushroom in every nook and cranny of Saigon, ready to serve all types of customers with different price ranges and tastes.

A cozy corner at Cafe Tokyo Moon in Le Thanh Ton's Japan Town. Photo by Mervin Lee.

Going to a cafe to me is an intimate act reserved for long-time buddies or very-special romantic interests. My coffee rendezvouses are different from one another — raucous and fast-paced among friends, cozy and meek with a special someone. Outside of these two groups, I wasn’t someone too well-acquainted with this “national sport” of cafe-hopping before the social distancing order. I for one don’t drink coffee, and am not too keen on social activities requiring one to sit opposite others in a confined setting for an extended period of time.

Sit on the terrace of The Hidden Elephant and enjoy a view of Bến Thành Market. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Only after the epidemic swept through the city, shuttering my favorite quáns, did I start to regret the missed opportunities. I made a promise to myself to pay them a visit every day for a week when the outbreak ends. It could be a distinctive cafe in an old apartment, a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Japan Town, or a quiet space nestled in between vacant corridors — whenever they are, I am absolutely sure that the aftertaste of the drink on the day we meet again will be as sweet as ever.

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