From the archive. Jogging in Saigon!
The South Vietnamese city Saigon, officially tagged Ho-Chi-Minh-City since the reunification of the two countries in 1975, is a hellhole megalopolis. Eight milion rather fast people live there quirky lives here day in and day out. The city comes with a tropical climate and a chaotic traffic situation.
So why the hell would anyone fancy going for a run in Saigon? Just because there is no satisfying answer to that!
But there are a few things you should better take into account:
A map can definitely be helpful, but maps are mostly too bulky to be carried around while jogging. If you want to find the way back to your hotel nevertheless, it can be a good idea to memorize the most important names of the streets you intend to turn at. But with street names such as ‚Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Avenue’, the memorizing might take just as much time as the run itself.
One alternative is to never turn at all, but instead just run into one direction, then make a 180 on your heel and take the exact same way back. If you decide for that, you also save a few street crossings which can be perilous (>> see Traffic).
Another thing that helps is carrying a business card of your hotel, which you can show to someone if you get lost. Which should be expected. Then you just have to be lucky and the person you show it to speaks English and has at least the slightest interest in helping a tourist. Which should not be expected.
Neither map nor business card help at all if you are getting into one of the frequent rain showers. After that has happened, you and everything on you looks like it’s been washed at 60 degrees (>> see Monsoon).
You cannot ignore Saigon’s traffic; it is omnipresent and you can feel it even in the smallest alley. Looking for an analogy, a huge, hardworking ant colony comes to mind. You know there must be a system behind it, but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to detect what it is. 8 million Saigonites own around 4.5 million motorbikes nowadays, an effect of China flooding the market with cheap models around the millenium. Only rarely do you see one of these vehicles standing still, normally alll of them are constantly in use. That’s why, at a traffic light, you mostly look ino an armada of two-strokes, with no end in sight.
If you cross one of the numerous wide streets some of which come completely without traffic lights, the only promising strategy is to walk boldly into this ocean of languidly mellifluent two-wheelers and keep the trust that those riders who are close to hitting you will be kind enough to break at least mildly. That way you conquer step by step to the other side. If you are looking to survive your exercise, you should definitely use this method when out for a run, even if it involves a lot of slowing down.
In Vietnam, the vehicles turning and those going straight often undergo a symbiosis which might be fascinating to look at, but can really only be the result of complete lunacy. It is not recommendable to engage in this Gordian knot as a pedestrian, as there is a good chance you will not come out of it in one piece. You can use the digitally displayed waiting time until the next green light for a little stretch. But be advised: Not all lamp poles are fixed to the ground properly!
If you like your angles and ligaments a tiny bit, you don’t want to let the ground slip out of your focus for even one split second. Permanently, you need to jump over puddles of abysmal proportions, skillfully outbalance shaky manhole covers, or circumnavigate displaced steel nipples in the ground to the millimetre. The potholes are a chapter of their own. Let’s say that much: If you can avoid it, do not step into one. Period.
No matter which exact running route in Saigon you chose, it will always resemble a well thought-out obstacle course. Sometimes it might also remind you of a computer game, with the small, but crucial difference that you do not have three lives here.
Sidewalks are often suddenly interrupted over their whole width by a flower bed. If that is not the case, you can be sure that some foresightful local will have parked his motorbike in the middle of the sidewalk or even have erected a whole stand with counterfeit cigarettes or luxury articles.
There is a temporary noodle soup restaurant built on pretty much every corner of the city. The strings holding the roof of these places together demand special attention, as they are going in crazy ways and are almost invisible to the untrained eye.
There are countless distractions in Ho-Chi-Minh-City. For starters, there are plenty of huge billboards and flourescent letters, advertising for whiter skin or bigger boobs, two certain ways by which Vietnamese women believe to get a little closer to the concept of ideal beauty which is strongly influenced by the West.
A much more likely reason to loose focus of your route though is the almost unavoidable encounter with female Vietnamese students. All over the city there are groups of these enchanting young women in their breathtaking white dresses which Westerners would probably rather wear for a visit to the opera than attending university classes. When you pass such a conglomeration of elegance and grace, yourself sweating and gasping, and 80 pairs of eyes follow you in a slightly mocking manner, you start to ask yourself if maybe you are nuts after all. Maybe you should be sitting in a climatized restaurant with a chilled beer instead. This is what they expect from a tourist anyway.
It can also be distracting to reflect on the momentary definition of communism in Vietnam. This happens easily when, for instance, you have chosen the shopping boulevard Duong Khoi as your running route and you pass both hand-painted posters depicting the fraternization with the Republic of Cuba and numerous Western shops and luxury cars in quick alternation.
The armed men on the side of the road might remind the jogger of pictures of the Viet Cong, displayed in the Museum of War Crimes that leaves every visitor speechless. But these guys don’t seem to be harmful after all. They are, quite obviously, also not trained for stopping the black market alongside the roads (>> see Obstaces). If I have understood the situation right, these men, constantly wearing a scowl on their faces, just want to regulate the traffic. They don’t seem to be particularly trained for that either.
While the normal ozone levels will already bring tears to the eyes of the average Westerner by the time he leaves the airport terminal, you can be sure that you get your 3-weeks-dosis of carbon monoxide on a one-hour run in the city. Breathing gets harder as you go, but that could also be due to the humidity of a decent 80%.
The roots you can stumble upon or the big twigs you have to move out of your face constantly are by far not the only problem. You also have to be prepared for gigantic leaves or even careless bugs falling out of the trees and right onto your head at all times. They have to live somewhere, all these snakes, scorpions and centipedes which the Chinese minority pickles in liquor. This brew becomes a psychoactive drink after some weeks which is commonly referred to as medicine in this region.
If, soon after your arrival to Vietnam, you tend to believe that it’s always rush-hour in Saigon, you are mistaken. During the really busy times the traffic sure knows how to top the general busyness. Now the motorbikes are also on the sidewalks, often moving in several rows next to each other. I did not really understand where it is that the pedestrian is meant to go during these periods. Maybe into one of the cookshops at the side of the road until all this fuss has gone up in smoke?
Unfortunately, the rush-hour times in the morning and in the evening are pretty much the only times suitable for a jog, as the 29 degrees then might almost be considered chilly in comparison to the rest of the day.
The rain always comes when you least expect it. But when it comes, it comes big time. In this case, you can either join the friendly Vietnamese people inviting you under some rickety roofs or rapidly improvised tent constructions. Or you can simply lie down in one of the torrents at the side of the road and hope that it will float you into the direction of your hotel. There are only these two options.
If suddenly, you find yourself in complete darkness at just around five in the afternoon, you have not taken into account Saigon’s proximity to the equator. Darkness does not only come early here, it also comes completely out of the blue. In this case, all dangers mentioned above exponentiate by the factor 5.
If you mind the points given above, jogging in Saigon can be an uncomparable experience. Standing at the window of your hotel room and looking down into that chaos on the streets, the simple joy of still being alive can be the greatest reward for your exercising.
Normally you are constantly being asked ‚Mister, you like motorbike/city tour/watch/hotel/…?’ While jogging, you can discover the city completely without this kind of hassle. If someone does ask you something, he is most likely just teasing you and you can laugh about it together without having to argue.
You eventually return to your hotel with a bright red head and sweaty clothes. With these looks you might be able to impress some French people who often seem to come to Vietnam to visit their colonial heritage and devour a few dozen frogs.
Standing under the shower, you will notice that you carry millimeters of dirt on your skin. If you scrap these layers carefully and sniff at them, you can recognize the different districts with some effort. That also makes it easy to decide where you would like to go again and where not.
If you decide for a jog in Saigon, you should keep it moderate and not repeat this exercise more than once a week. I have seen one other jogger on my way. He looked like he had already had a bit too much of that snake liquor (>> see Trees). He seemed to levitate through the traffic with his headphones on, carelesly humming some sort of apocalyptic melody.
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