When I first landed in Ho Chi Minh City, I could smell it. It was the “Saigon Scent.” Years later I would buy a candle endearingly labeled “Passion Fruit Saigon,” and its scent bore no resemblance to the city I remembered so well. The candle smelled flowery, perfumey, and manufactured; the city reeked of hot dust wafting above day-old meat. Similarities noted, I bought that small, almost-too-pink candle anyway to commemorate the life I had in Vietnam — but, instead, its scent turned into a reminder of the person I became there: a girl who lost her sense of self in her surroundings. A girl, not a woman. A girl I didn’t much care to remember.
In the beginning, that lightly foul city scent was strangely comforting. It matched everything my eyes took in. It fit the dozens of motorbikes raging down dusty sidewalks, trying to cheat the hundreds on the street. It explained the men pulling up their shirts to let their stomach’s air out, in turn confirming the reason for the bead of sweat on my forehead. It complemented the thịt nướng (grilled meat) burning in shoddy, lime-colored holes-in-the-wall, being watched only by aging portraits of deceased relatives. With the plumes of exhaust surrounding me, the relentless honking filling my ears, and the weight of the humidity pressing down on my entire body, this — this — was Vietnam. I could smell it. I could taste it. I could feel it. It was strange and it was new, and I liked it.
As the days went by, Vietnam became far more than just sights and sounds and smells. There were things I loved: buying fresh fruit at edge-of-the-road markets (passionfruit, even), driving my less-than-fancy Honda Wave down open boulevards while the wind gently whipped my face, walking out on the balconies of six-storey houses that towered under me with their narrow but mighty grandeur — these were my hobbies. These tiny things made life worth living. There were things I hated, too: the wheels of my motorbike being drowned in a foot and a half of water, old men staring at the near six-foot blonde that I am, desserts that couldn’t even be called slightly sweet. I disliked them terribly, but I would live with them. You take the good with the bad, after all.
And then there were things I abhorred: people putting the lives of others in danger by running red lights and speeding down pedestrian walks, people refusing to recognize the obvious existence of any queue, locals talking about me in elevators, never thinking for a second that I could possibly understand them. These things I detested and vowed I would never take part in. I was better than that. I knew better than that. There are parts of any culture that outsiders would frown upon, and these were mine.
As time wore on, my senses started changing. The incessant honking fell into the background. The six-story balconies didn’t seem so tall. The throngs of motorbikes seemed navigable. I started assimilating. I gave up wearing eyeliner that routinely wound up streaming down my cheeks after just a brief dalliance with a fierce wave of rainfall. I told old men to stop staring and let my elevator peers know that em hiểu tiếng Việt (I understand Vietnamese), and that I was none too pleased with their gossiping. I started to find that a good flan was on a par with a decent chocolate cake. Hell, I barely recognized myself!
Then I started doing the things I vowed to myself I would never do. I cut people off on the street. I started driving on the sidewalk. When a light turned red, I knew I had four more seconds to run it, even if it slowed down everybody else. I saw gaps in queues where I could easily shove in. Once, I threw an empty water bottle over my shoulder. But what I most vividly remember is yelling after a homeless man to demand he thank me for giving him 3,000 VND, or fourteen cents. Fourteen cents. I yelled at a man who would never have the quality of life I was destined to enjoy over fourteen cents. For less than a dime and a nickel, I got a good look at myself for the first time in a long, long while.
Who have I become? How did I let this happen? What can I do to change?
When I took a breath, I discovered I couldn’t smell Vietnam anymore. I wanted to go around to everyone I knew and ask them, “Can you smell it? Is it still there? Did it disappear?” But I knew it was just me, and I knew what I had to do. It was time to start over. It was time to leave. It was time to grow and repair.
I did. And that damn candle reminds me every day.