I check my email for the fourth time before finally shutting my laptop. Getting off the couch takes a tremendous force of will. As I stand up, I’m seized by the impulse to rush back to my computer and read the Wikipedia page for Grand Theft Auto — not because I care about video games, but because it would mean delaying my walk out the door.
Instead I slip on my sandals, step outside, and pick my way down the alley to the narrow market street. The vendors who squat along the curb are selling pomelo, jackfruit, durian, hunks of meat, fish flopping in plastic tubs, and pastries. The river of motorbikes is endless and the heat is oppressive.
I’m not entirely sure which way to go. It’s not that I have an precise destination, but it’s my first time navigating the area on my own. I was out here the day before with Michele; she led the way, though.
I see a gravel road that looks familiar and walk towards it purposefully. As I pass by, I notice locals staring at me over bowls of pho. I half-smile without making eye contact. I’d cross the road if I weren’t so skittish about getting hit by a motorbike. Turns out the gravel leads to a dead end. Embarrassed, I turn around, dreading the walk past the people who’d seen me come this way just a minute before.
It dawns on me that I’m terrified. I’m nervous that locals will look at me and think that I’m clueless. I’m embarrassed that I don’t know my way around. And I’m skittish about crossing the street not because I’m afraid of getting run over; I’m actually afraid of being laughed at for not having mastered the local kamikaze approach to being a pedestrian.
The truth is that I am clueless. How could I not be? I’ve only been in Saigon for a day so far. But my ego is wrapped up in my identity as a hardcore traveler, someone who is immediately at home anywhere, no matter how challenging the new environment. Therefore, it’s critical that the hundreds of local Vietnamese I’m passing by, none of whom I’ve ever met before and few of whom are actually paying attention to me, understand just how badass I am. Otherwise, my whole identity might disintegrate.
And so I continue my walk, actively un-enjoying the privilege of being in a place I’ve yearned to experience since college, muttering to myself. I pass by a small stand selling banh mi. I’m hungry but I hesitate. If I buy one of these sandwiches, I’ll have to interact with a local who speaks no English. She’ll see right through me, and then it’s all over. But man, do those sandwiches look good. OK. Just do it. Buy the damn sandwich.
“One banh mi, please.”
We exchange hand gestures, vocables, and laughter. She holds up the price on her fingers. I point to what I want, which is everything, even though I have little idea what any of it is. She turns to her companion, speaks in rapid fire Vietnamese, and they laugh together. I join in. They may be laughing at me, but I don’t mind. My anxiety has dissolved completely. I’m exploring a new city that I already love. It’s hot, colorful, and intriguing. And I’m about to eat my first real banh mi.