And even more than Hanoi, there seemed to be no break in Saigon, nowhere to rest or even catch your breath from the heat and exhaust and honking, the billboards and the building, always building—more, higher, newer: an unrelenting city, like hot breath on the back of your neck.
But if you looked, if someone showed you, you could find them—passageways, skinny portals to other places, other cities, secret cities just behind the surface.
You don’t notice them at first—or you think they’re dead-end alleys, nothing gaps between buildings—no wider than a doorway, and you step through them, into them, into another world: alley streets that wind inside city blocks, where people sit in doorways and women crouch over grills of smoking meat and children run and laundry hangs and TVs flash beside flashing altars and telephone wires stretch in impossible tangles, like dreadlocks—in short, where everyday life is lived.
It’s cool and quiet inside—the buildings are high and the alley streets narrow. You pass a succession of doorways, more glimpses into the lives of the people inside, a flood of images: families huddled on the floor around a big cooker, eating rice; chickens clucking around; old men napping in hammocks; women lighting incense and raising it and waving it and tucking it in a crevice to smolder and smoke.
It feels like a Moroccan medina, those deep parts when you wander far enough—little shops set up in the front rooms of people’s homes, the random internet cafe, children running everywhere, squealing and toddling off into doorways. Only the smell is of fish instead of spices, and it’s motorbikes instead of donkeys you have to look out for.
But it’s the same sense of feeling strangely at home, even though it’s so far from your own home, anything you know of home. There’s something incredibly comforting about the living of everyday life. For those of us that have treaded onto the dark side—maybe for all of us—there’s something really precious about the doing of everyday tasks, a simple joy in being a part of the world, a simple part of it all—even if only as a passing shadow on the wall, a white girl snapping photos and peering in crevices and smiling and waving when the children exclaim “Hello! Hello!” in an English they barely know.
You wander and rove, twist and turn, and then suddenly you’re back out on the surface, the wide swarming streets, an assault of heat and honking. It feels addicitive—you want more, you want to go back, go back under. You find another small portal and dive into the cool dark shadows.
It starts to feel like water, like bobbing up and down, in and under the surface, submerging and coming up for air—only you’re not sure which is the breathing and which is holding, cheeks full and a quiet burn rising through the chest.
You move in a strange space through caverns, observing the private lives of organisms you feel you’re somehow distantly related to; you move through a still, dark world terribly foreign but also somehow familiar, somehow like home—at home, in the secret cities of Saigon.