The one window in our apartment looks out onto the wreck of an abandoned construction site. The facing building is barely ten feet from our own, separated by an irregular gap that resembles nothing more than a lopsided elevator shaft. The two buildings are built are the same basic principles, with one narrow apartment stacked on top of another, and approximately matched in height. The large frame of our window corresponds to the wide mouth of the unfinished room, a kind of brick corridor tucked between the neighboring buildings but left open on two sides. At the far end of the corridor, we can just barely see — past a clutter of empty plastic buckets, planks tum- bled like Pick-Up-Stix across the concrete floor, broken bricks, and sun-faded plastic tarps hanging down from the stained cement ceiling — the grainy view over Ho Chi Minh City’s jumbled roofs disappearing and reappearing behind the flapping tarps like some cautious magician’s trick.
When I wake up on my first morning in Vietnam, I ask Michael if we should close the curtains. I am jet- lagged and disoriented, but he has been here two weeks already, along enough to know that progress in Viet- nam is not as straightforward as cause and effect. He assures me that a construction site does not mandate construction workers, and we go back to sleep in the thin morning light.
I am here, in this tiny, one-window apartment in a city whose language I do not speak, because I wanted — idiotically, naively, stubbornly — to test myself. With a final year of college ahead, this summer afforded the perfect opportunity to stretch my limits by about 7,000 miles, more or less, to see what was on the other side. What I found first was our apartment, which, with its clean white tile and mod-ish wall recesses, admits very little of the outside world. Under the fluorescent lights of the living room, Michael and I sit for hours, our strange schedules dictated by erratically organized independent projects, staring at computer screens and stringing words together.
For weeks, Michael’s theory about our abandoned construction site holds true. So I am not prepared to wake one morning with a sick shock at the sight of a man’s silhouette framed in our window, the intruder not-quite-in-the-night, but close enough to make me shudder with evolutionary impulse. He is rooting through the wreckage ten feet from our window, so close I feel I could speak and he would hear me. He does not turn his head when my own dark shape moves behind the curtains, but I am sure that he can see me from the corner of his eye as clearly as I can see him. I close the curtains.
Every morning for the next few days, the man, or his doppelganger, comes back to rummage around for a few hours before disappearing as mysteriously as he arrived. Michael and I hypothesize about his purpose. Is he searching for scrap metal to sell? Salvaging supplies for some other construction project in this city climbing over itself to grow faster, faster toward the future? Or is he scoping out our building so he can come back and burgle us later? We are torn between fascination and mild fear, our default reaction to much that happens in the first few weeks we spend in the country. What is that on the plate, and is it safe to eat? What is she saying? What does he want? Does the traffic ever stop? Do the smiling kids like us or laugh at us? Few of our questions get any answers.
Since the man comes around seven or eight in the morning, I make a habit of getting up before him. Life starts early here; most people are already awake by five-thirty, if they have not gotten up in the darkness before that to jog through the empty streets. Once the sun starts to fill in the sky behind the buildings, the roads begin to run with traffic. People mill along the sidewalks, which will soon be ceded to the sun, stop- ping to slurp breakfast at plastic tables along the side of the road. When the sun comes up in earnest, most people retreat into the shade of their shop awnings to put their feet up and prepare for a day of waiting. Work, construction and otherwise, starts by eight at the latest. By then, Michael and I are just getting up, eating the tiny, sweet bananas we love sliced over large bowls of cereal, a Western indulgence that costs us a few extra dollars at the supermarket. Sometimes over a bowl of cornflakes, it is easy to forget where we are, six stories up in Ho Chi Minh City’s endless churning life. After all, it is always quiet in the bright, windowless room.
Then the sound of hammering rattling us unceremoniously out of unconsciousness one morning, and the city enters our apartment in earnest. It feels like someone is pounding on the wall beside our heads, the sound echoing in the narrow shaft between buildings, filling the hollowness with enormous noise and percolating into our room through the thin layer of glass we had thought was meant to keep the outside out. Voices shout back and forth, abrupt, lilted syllables, bantering maybe, or commands shouted across the gap, while ladders rattle their claw-like feet against the cement and the hammering continues to play staccato on our heads.
The power goes out, like a bad joke. For a minute, Michael and I both sit in the darkness and listen to the men hammering as the light leaks around the edges of our curtains. This has happened twice already, but now the stifling darkness is intensified by the sounds reverberating through the walls around us. As the lack of AC starts to draw the air even closer, we cannot stay any longer.
A taxi ride later, we station ourselves at a small round table in a familiar café and order iced coffee so sweet it makes the muscles of my cheeks clench on the first sip. Michael opens his computer, and I dawdle, staring out the wall-sized windows of the cafe. We are on the street level, and the vendors and bikers who pass by sometimes stare back at the people sitting inside. Women in straw hats and face masks walk by, balancing heavy baskets of fruit across their shoulders or selling large plastic bags of chips and candy. One woman is cooking sweet wafers over a little coal-fired brazier on the sidewalk. Bored teenagers thumb their iPhones from the doorways of family restaurants. On tiny plastic chairs beside the food stands, men poke through bowls of noodles as young women in impeccable suits zip by on motorbikes. This is the city as it exists every day, as it moves and flows and confounds itself like a great river, rushing forward but still snagging among the old traditions. Across the whole city, skyscrapers stick up from the field of old, narrow houses as the aluminum roofs and pastel sun porches sheltering electric-lit Buddhist altars are crowded out block by block. Everywhere, mechanical cranes nod with ponderous intention over the sites of future high-rises, luxury resorts, shopping complex- es foretold in the oversaturated pictures plastered over high chain link fences, many of which enclose nothing for the moment but empty space.
We walk back to the apartment after lunch and a long afternoon spent leisurely working in the café. Walking in this city is a particular challenge; not only do we start to sweat after a humid block or two, but the sidewalks themselves are heaved tectonically up in some places; elsewhere, they are only wide enough for one person to walk, or else crowded with parked motorbikes and ven- dors whose carts and tables we pick around gingerly. This movement has a kind of rhythm to it, though, and we find ourselves striding with undue purpose. When we cross the busy streets, the traffic moves around us like a strange school of fish, continuous and yet yielding with a readiness that always surprises my inner New Englander. There is a method to the madness, a system of hierarchy among the vehicles moving on their many intersecting trajectories; we, too, are absorbed into the pattern.
Traffic is just starting to pick up as it does in the early evenings; the streets and sidewalks are suddenly packed with motorbikes, kids returning from school and families heading home for dinner, teenagers loitering in narrow parking lots with their friends, talking and watching the flood go by. This is the best time of day in Saigon, just as the sun slips behind the skyline and the heat breaks with palpable relief. For the first time all day, we are joined along the rickety sidewalks by throngs of people, strolling or playing badminton or bouncing along to the motions of an aerobic instructor, earnest and utterly unabashed. With so many people on all sides in this city, there is no privacy except the anonymizing force of the crowd milling, mingling, equal- izing all.
Back at the apartment, the men have gone home, and the flapping tarps in the room across the way have disappeared. Through the newly-cleared opening, I can see the view on the other side clearly for the first time, the plaster face of the building across the wide boulevard, its slatted windows and, at the top, a little porch tasseled with greenery. The muddled roofs spread out haphazardly behind it, finished buildings and hollow shells alike, everything frozen in the midst of some great geological surge uplifting this whole region.
But the view is gone two days later, when the brick wall appears after another long day of hammering outside the window. After that, the sheath of concrete and plaster is applied to the brick with similar abruptness, in the space of a few days. An iron grille is welded upright between the two windows, now mirrored versions of the each other.
The potted plants stationed on the shelf outside our window have survived this summer of change well, despite the reduced sunlight and the rain that now has to drip past a mesh of planks and grilles to feed them. I feel similarly hardy. We have passed the test that proves us able to take this sprawling, boisterous city in stride, to cross intersections without flinching, to weather the endless abrasion of 10 million people living loudly on all sides, without losing track of ourselves. Like any city truly lived in, Saigon now exists for us less as a com- plete place than a pattern of certain intersections and streets with certain landmarks we visit habitually. The rest of it, that blur of jackhammers and little alleyways, everything left unexplored by the end of the summer, lies outside of the particular version of Vietnam we have known.
When two workmen come to smooth a second coat of plaster over the first, we leave the curtains open. Somewhere below, the endless hammering continues in short, rhythmic bursts. The men outside our window have laid planks across the gap between the two build- ings, and sit casually over the great depth with their bare feet dangling, smoothing the white paste into the corners of the building and talking easily back and forth. One sings a short line to the tune of “Yellow Subma- rine.” Behind them, the view which we used to piece to- gether from behind a fluttering curtain is now reduced to one long rectangle squeezed between new doorways and walls separating that once-empty brick hallway into a series of clean-cornered rooms. There, a glimpse of that beige building across the way, the green roof be- hind it, the single slice out of an enormous puzzle.