By the time I had processed the documents for my visa, made it through customs, and found a motortaxi into town, it was getting dark outside. Entering the streets of Vietnam, my imagination of how chaotic the traffic would be was confirmed. Streets were congested at all times of the day by fleets of motorbikes and the brave taxis and cars that swerved in between. On top of this, the weather was almost always hot and humid. Not wearing a helmet was against the law so most did to avoid fines if caught by authorities.
My driver couldn’t find my Couchsurfing host, Thanh’s address so instead he dropped me off on his street. Using a passerby’s phone after communicating through exaggerated hand gestures, I called Thanh and he was kind enough to come pick me up on his motorbike: the new norm of transit. Entering his home, he apologized for how dirty it was. Everything seemed spotless but when I looked at the bottom of my feet and further inspected the floors, I understood what he meant. Parts of the ground were coated in inches of dust.
Thanh explained how he and his wife, Nguyen, were in the process of converting their 3 month old home into an all-day kindergarten school. While Nguyen’s parents ran another kindergarten further down the street, an additional one was becoming a necessity due to overcrowding. Each day for the past few months workers had been coming to build new rooms and install required facilities oriented for the kids such as the four mini toilets next to the room I was sleeping in.
Once neighborhood friends, Thanh and Nguyen could have never imagined building this kindergarten together after falling in love and having Kitty, their adorable 4 year old daughter.
My experience over the 3 nights, 4 day stay with Thanh and his family was similar but different to Couchsurfing with the Ukrainian family in Podgorica from over the summer. Since it was just me staying, I felt a connection that I hadn’t experienced with other hosts before. Maybe because it was my first time Couchsurfing solo or maybe because we spent a lot of time together since getting around always involved Thanh taking me on his motorbike. If anything, it felt like what I can only imagine being an exchange student in another country would be like.
I was immediately welcomed into their family, meaning they took me to events, toured me around the city, introduced me to friends and family, picked me up and dropped me off, and even insisted on paying for meals. Luckily, I was able to work out a deal that they’d cover dinner only if I could cover breakfast. Yet again, the idea of Couchsurfing blew my mind. All that was to be expected from the website was for a place to sleep and for a person to introduce you to their city but here I was, entirely immersed in another culture. It was the benefit of doing a work exchange minus the work.
Each day of my stay, Thanh would wake up at 6am to get Kitty ready for kindergarten and then drop her off. Afterwards, he’d return home where I’d meet him, half asleep, at around 7am to begin the day. I slowly adjusted to the earlier schedule that most people in Vietnam seemed to run on.
Trying a new spot each day, Thanh and Nguyen always invited me out to breakfast. Often I was told that I was the first foreigner to have eaten in the spot mostly because Thanh lived in District 8, a part of the city on the outskirts that there’d be no value for typical tourists to come out to see. In reality, it was such an excellent glimpse into real Vietnamese life.
After eating breakfast, Nguyen would go to work at her parent’s kindergarten along the same street and Thanh would either go to work, or spend more time with me depending on his flexible hours. He took me on motorbike tours of the city, around every district, and even on one evening, the outskirts to catch a sunset over the skyline.
When I was off on my own, I explored the Chinese district, District 5, to go to the Chinatown Market, Chợ Bình Tây. Immediately upon entering, the environment was more hectic, overstimulating, and crammed than any other market that I had entered in the past but I still loved it. Waking up early had its benefits and seeing the preparation that I only assumed went into operating a market on that scale everyday was both fascinating and overwhelming.
Men gripped enormous boxes stacked on top of each other from behind their backs as they passed in every direction, frantically stocking goods to vendors. Women also rushed around, plates full of delicious looking foods to be delivered to shoppers and vendors alike. Products surrounded me for as far as the eye could see: hats, candies, purses, spices, toys, and more.
After more than enough time in the market, spending several hours observing the daily lives of the sellers and buyers, I took a bus to District 1, the most central yet touristy part of the city. It was here that I breifly visited the overrated twin of Chợ Bình Tây, Ben Thanh Market.
Upon entering, I was overwhelmed, not by the products sold, but by the vendors themselves who insisted I needed “new, cheap shirt” or “good, best Vietnamese food.” As quickly as I had entered, I left. It was clear that this market specifically catered to tourists and coming from experiencing such authentic culture in District 8, I saw right through it. Luckily, the rest of District 1 had much more to offer. I later visited the Reunification Palace, The Central Post Office, The Notre-Dame Basilica, and even passed by the city’s Opera House.
On my last night with Thanh and his family, he took me grocery shopping then cooked an authentic, homemade Vietnamese meal as a final goodbye. The food was absolutely delicious but I vividly recall him explaining to me that when he was my age, meals consisted of just one bowl of rice with one piece of chicken or pork. According to him, food rationing like this lasted for ten years throughout the country during the war. It gave a new meaning to being thankful for what I had, where I was born, and made me that much more appreciative of the incredible time, hospitality, and generosity Thanh and his family had selflessly provided me. I felt like I had experienced one of the best introductions to Vietnamese culture, but it was only the beginning.
I was warned countless times from Thanh and other travelers that if I was planning on going anywhere for the next month, it was best that I booked transport tickets as soon as possible. I happened to arrive in the country right before the beginning of Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. This holiday was the most important of the country and because of that, buses, trains, flights, and more were booked out days, even weeks prior as Vietnamese people left big cities to go celebrate with their families. Knowing this, I desperately wanted to celebrate the holiday with a family, to get a true taste of what it was like.
Suddenly occupied with more work than anticipated, Thanh wasn’t able to drop me off to buy my bus ticket until my last day with him. It was at this point that I could no longer book for that night as planned since all of the buses from every agency were sold out. While I had been warned, there wasn’t much I could do. Needing to travel 1,400+ km (870 mi) up north to Hanoi in 2 weeks for my next pre-arranged work exchange, I booked a bus to my next destination for the following morning and figured I’d be able to book a hostel in town if I wasn’t able to stay an additional night with Thanh.
One thing that Thanh kept encouraging me to do was see what people closer to my age did for fun in Saigon, especially because he had suddenly become so busy with work and knew his family and he could only show me their perspective of the city. I was all about it but with no Couchsurfing events going on, I decided to try a different approach to meeting new people.
Having heard many positive remarks from other travelers and friends I had met on the road and even back home, I downloaded Tinder to try it out. But, before you’re quick to make judgements about that, I encourage you to read this resulting story and hope if anything, it goes to show that the app and one’s similar, ultimately come down to what the user makes of them.
For those unfamiliar, the idea is simple: you load up the app on your phone, fill out a brief profile, and begin swiping through other users within a certain distance of you. If you and another person both swipe right, signifying you like each other, then you’re “matched” and can begin a conversation. While the app’s founders coined it as a discovery app to compete with social networks, the media has hyped it as something entirely different and unfortunately it’s often referred to as solely a “hookup app.”
Truth be told, it’s nothing more than implementing contemporary technology to help individuals find others with similar interests nearby. Most likely if you’re a millennial, many of your friends have also given it a shot if you haven’t already yourself. At this point in my trip, I had heard so many positive stories of people meeting good friends, friendly locals, and more through it so it seemed like a missed opportunity not to give it a try. As you’ll soon read, it absolutely would have been.
Việt, although Vietnamese, was actually born in Russia because his parents had moved there in the 80s for labor exchange when it was still the Soviet Union. While his mother worked in silk manufacturing, his father worked at a fridge factory. But when Việt was 4 years old, his family made the decision to move back to Vietnam. Since then, Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as he and many locals still referred to it, was his home. Việt grew up attending high school and later even law school for a year in Saigon before discovering it wasn’t his true passion. Instead, he took a big chance, leaping across the pond to study Behavioral Economics abroad in California. In 4 years he graduated and immediately landed a job in Brooklyn. He had been working there since in creative advertising for the past 2 years. Recently offered a new job in Saigon, Việt just so happened to be moving back home the very same days I was there.
After booking my bus ticket, he picked me up on his motorbike outside Ben Thanh Market and together we drove to a hidden cafe which I had walked by a handful of times yet never noticed. Tucked away in a busy alley, the door to an unmarked apartment complex led us up several flights of stairs until we emerged on a rustically themed rooftop cafe. We took a seat and over a few beers got to know each other.
Not only did I uncover that Việt was interested in photography, design, innovation, similar movies, music, and traveling but I also found out that he had visited Philadelphia while living in New York City. Although our paths didn’t cross then, he had instead spent his time exploring Fishtown, one of my favorite neighborhoods, seeing Caribou, a favorite band, and even photographing the Divine Lorraine, a historic yet abandoned gem of the city and one that happened to be the first of many that I had explored. After talking for several hours, Việt dropped me back off at the station to Thanh’s and we continued talking throughout the afternoon. That night he invited me out to see Saigon’s nightlife.
When Thanh arrived home from work, I talked with him about not being able to book a bus until the next morning, especially because I had only arranged to stay with him until that night. Planning on preparing his home for Tết the whole next day, it worked best for everyone for me to take Việt up on his offer to see the city’s nightlife. Not only would this allow me to experience the city from someone around my age’s perspective, which Thanh and his wife encouraged, but it also saved Thanh from having to drive me an hour and a half out of his way to catch the bus very early the next morning. Việt happened to live just 9 minutes away from the bus station so the decision to see him again and experience the nightlife with a contemporary would now be a reality.
Driving all the way out 40 minutes to Thanh’s, Việt picked me up on the vintage motorbike that he had earlier in the day, only this time I learned that is was the same bike his grandfather once rode. Before getting on, I gave Thanh, Nguyen, and of course Kitty huge hugs goodbye and many thanks for such a warm welcome to the country. With the night’s cool air breezing by, Việt and I made our way back into the city. When we arrived at his apartment, I dropped off my bags and feeling much lighter, hopped back on his bike to head out to a few favorite spots.
We returned to his home past midnight and with only a few hours before my bus, briefly retired. At 5:30am, we awoke and I quickly grabbed my bags before getting onto his bike to drive to the bus station. We had shared a great night, exploring more hidden cafes and discussing so many different topics in common. I would have loved to spend more time getting to know him, but I had booked my bus ticket prior to meeting him and the chances of getting another were slim with the holiday fast approaching. I also had my work exchange arranged up north in Hanoi and had about 2 weeks to make the journey.
It was clear that we shared many common interests but at this point, since I was very likely attending Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for the fall, we planned on meeting sometime when he’d come to visit his friends back in New York. We said goodbye and I boarded the bus as he drove away, but really, this was only the beginning. We’d be meeting again far sooner than a few months in Brooklyn.
Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.