Every night at six, about ten steps outside the apartment in my corner of this particular labyrinth of phong 22, Binh Thanh, Saigon, Vietnam, the evening market goes into full swing.
It would take me pages to tell you everything there is to buy here, food-wise, everything fresh, local, and sometimes still alive. I walk by a soft pink fish being weighed, flicking its body back and forth with resignation before being scaled, its gills still moving in and out. There are piles of greens: watercress, shiso, cilantro, rice paddy, mint, morning glory, amaranth. Mounds of fruit: papaya, watermelon, rambutan, mangosteen, cherimoya, bananas cut in bunches of twenty straight off the tree. Pyramids of vegetables: taro, cassava, bitter melon and hairy melon, pumpkin, eggplant, string bean. Quail eggs, chicken eggs, duck eggs, with fetuses and without. Liver, brains, tongue, legs, wings, fish heads, eels, pig ears, snails, the entire back end of a suckling pig looking as if it were chopped in half mid-trot, shrimp jumping out of a shallow plastic tub, shellfish with colorful ribbed shells worthy of seaside trinket shops.
I go out with a dollar or two in my pocket and come back with more produce than I could possibly finish in one meal. It feels like robbery, especially when it’s this fresh.
Tonight’s loot: One small watermelon, which I will probably eat in two sittings, they are just that sweet. A few tomatoes, a squat head of cabbage, silky fresh tofu, and chanterelles. While I shop I’m already scoping out tomorrow’s dinner. Some meat would be nice, duck or pork, just a small amount, with some herbs and thinly shaved bitter melon.
A sweet old woman, short grey hair in pin curls, just to the right of my alleyway has a storefront selling oil, condiments, garlic, ginger, chilies, whole or finely minced in large stainless steel bowls. There are more bowls, chili-marinated soft shell crab, pickled mushrooms, dried shrimp. She speaks to me in English when I buy a thick stub of ginger (for 14 cents) and surprises a smile onto my face.
Next to her, a table with freshly butchered pork. A loin, a leg, some soft innards I can’t identify. Across the way, a woman in loose green-print cotton trousers squats in front of a blanket with a pile of green beans and a few heads of cauliflower. I’d love to buy from her, but I can’t figure out how to get through the jumble of pedestrians and motorbikes that is five feet thick between us. There is so much bustle and buzz here, and I haven’t even mentioned the street food vendors, coffee sellers, barbeque-ers, sandwich makers, durian peelers, dry goods shops, and clothing stores.
I want to go and stand there at the side of the street, staring and smiling like a fool, drunk on the vibrancy of it all. But that would mean getting run over. The traffic is intense. Pedestrians and motorbikes, bicycles and street dogs, all weaving around one another like currents overlapping in a stream. Even getting lost in my thoughts is a small hazard. One dreamy misstep and my foot tips out of my sandal and into a shallow puddle, what smells like fish water poured out into the street now seeping up my pant hem.
A few paces away from all this and I’m home, my key in the lock, waving to the little boy who calls hello! from his bike and his mother who comes closer to greet me in Vietnamese, a young girl in her arms, shyly hiding her face in her mother’s neck then turning to look at me again. And there I go head-over-heelsing it, like I’ve gotten into the habit of doing after a few days in every new place. I want to stay. I want to learn the language and talk with these smiling people. And I remember, for a short stab of a moment, that this will all end for me in ten days, that I will be on the road soon, leaving another new place I’ve gotten to know. Why do I fall in love so quickly? And then leave and it breaks my heart again?