The Return of Couch Surfing – Getting to Know Saigon-ites

Couch Surfing is Asia has mostly been a failure, from the boring to a cult to plenty of flakes and unreturned messages, I haven’t had any completely pleasant interactions.  Big cities usually have more hosts so I took going back to Ho Chi Minh City as a good chance to get back on Couch Surfing.  Alas, I was met with another flake who I stayed out in the middle of nowhere to meet!  The silver lining is I was invited to coffee at Lu Cupffee, an English cafe out in District 3.  I was even invited to stay there the next time I returned.

And return I did!  After my brief jaunt in the Mekong cut short due to rain and mud, I sold my motorcycle, and I found a community I did not expect.  I found that low-key host that does not really care how long you stay.  I was his resident foreigner for his guests to practice English with, which is a much more laid-back and better culture exchange way for me to teach English than a formal, repetitive class.  The people who frequented this cafe were not what I saw when I rode out into the middle of nowhere Vietnam.  These guys were well educated, looking to improve their language skills, and at least solidly middle class.  It was another side of Vietnam I had not seen yet.

Considering the other graffiti I saw was math, this stamp map of Saigon and the river may be as counter culture as street art gets here.

My first day out and about was led by a friend of Lu’s on motorbike to the tourist destinations of Saigon.  I do not go out of my way to go to these places and this day reminded me why not.  I still did not enter the Reunification Palace and instead visited a temporary water party Sprite soda had set up.  Two French couch surfers also staying at Lu’s helped goad my Vietnamese guide into joining us in the foam pit and water slide areas.  Surrounded by raucous music and wet fun, I’d never seen the Vietnamese let loose so much!  Afterwards, soaking wet, we went to what the university students of Saigon declare the “cafe bit” (I think bit? or bot? I can never spell Vietnamese).  An illegal set up of street vendor cafe in the park in front of Reunification Palace where they meet.  I was originally surprised to find them in touristy District 1 but they let me know it’s the center district so they all meet there from all over town.  It is normal for Vietnamese to live with their family until they marry.  I was surprised at the group we joined for coffee, these kids looked Goth and alternative!  A few of them told me they did crazy things, like motorcycling alone into the countryside and listening to local metal music.  Alas, I did not catch any local metal bands although that sounds amazing.  The one odd part of the day was my Vietnamese guide expecting me to pay for everything, including taking me to more expensive coffee than I would’ve chosen on my own.  This was quickly reversed for everyone else I met.  All the other friends, and even acquaintances I hung out with for a single night, just would not let me pay!  They seemed more than happy to let a foreigner intrude upon birthday dinners, private dinners, and whole friend groups and then insisted on not letting me chip in at all.  I already consider myself lucky to get to know them better, their hospitality was overboard.  In Vietnam (and China, as far as I understand), inviting friends out implies that you will pay for them.  To get around this, you tell friends you will go “American style” which means split bill.

With an American expat I visited a roller skating rink that was quite the experience.  This completely sober experience involved Vietnamese people showboating their one footed light up roller blading skills, their backwards chain roller skating, and their middle of the dance floor moves.  I’m not sure this would’ve been alcohol free or closing shop before 10 pm in America given the dark room and neon party lights.

We’re learning to make paper dolls!

I also went to volunteer at a children’s hospital.  I keep telling people how hard it is to find noncommittal short term volunteer work and the organizer seemed just as surprised that a traveler would show up to something like this.  I was not ready for what I saw.  The hospital was covered in families in any available floor space, cradling their terminally ill children.  Whole families lived there until I suspect the child passed or recovered.  Yet these kids were still buoyant, the ones who showed up to play with us happy and energetic.  One even tried to make out with a few girls and me, and I’m pretty sure a few were rather grabby.  We made some upcycled magazine paper dolls to sell at a charity event later that week to raise money for charity.

He seems pretty proud of his creation and that cracker.

Isn’t… every school in Asia the Asian High School? There are a lot of international and “international” schools as English speaking skills are at a premium.

Through the volunteer events and just hanging out at the coffee house I met some pretty interesting people who clued me into all sorts of culture I would not know and still do not understand entirely.  Some had studied abroad, and I was surprised to see how they adapted so easily to living in countries like Australia and America, drinking and doing other Vietnamese scandalous activities like staying out past 9 pm.  Yet four years later they returned to living with their families, with curfews (the liberal parents let their kids stay out until midnight one told me), and with social norms that seem so constricting to my American mind.  As a note, most university students (at least the girls) seem to be barred from dating here and there is an assumption that most people are virgins until marriage, which is just hiding a plethora of abortions and lies that everyone seems to know about.  There is a consensus that families have rejected brides who were not virgins, whether this is true or not or an excuse to hate on a bride I am not sure.

Craft night at the cafe to make more things to sell for charity.

I also realize these people are just not so different from American kids.  As much as I love observing life occurring around me, I must say I enjoyed having people who could speak English so I could hear their dreams.  They have interests like handmade crafts, gardening, and pets (kitties, puppies and turtles).  The newer graduates struggle to find jobs in a recession economy.  Some dream of being singers by making it on reality television but in the meantime they hone their acoustic skills in the cafe and open mic nights.  They are not allowed to play on the streets for money though.

Crooning in the cafe. It’s mostly American pop songs, which becomes less cheesy when you have a kid putting their heart into it.

Perhaps because these people were more well off, the most common jealousy I heard from them was not that they wish they had the money to travel like me but the freedom.  To them, the societal constraints of family duty and what the mostly women who said this were supposed to do was too much to ignore.  Although I feel compassion for the poverty I see, it is here among middle class urbanites that I felt the most lucky that I had been born in America.  I was lucky to naturally learn English and to not be raised in a country in what I consider a society without personal freedoms.  One of the people who studied abroad let me know that she understood that they learn a different history, that Uncle Ho may not have been the perfect god they revere him as in the country.

Pets are a tough pill for me to swallow in this country and region in general.  A lot of dogs and cats will run away when you try to pet them as there is a lot of abuse in the form of kicking and hitting of the pets.  Smacking, not just for your disobedient kids!  The first day i returned to Saigon my host had tied a tiny orange stray kitten to his bench outside.  A lot of the locals seemed confused when I had trained her to climb into any laps for some warm comfort.

Rawr! I will act fierce despite being tied up with an adorable green ribbon.

I am aware negligence occurs anywhere, however I feel guilty about this particular case.  My host did not seem to know much about cats and did not want to believe me that she was not eating too much, her stomach was swollen from being starved.  The poor little kitty was covered in crawling bugs and was rather weak.  He abandoned her midweek because I don’t think he wanted a sick cat and told me “another family owned her”.  I suspect he was upset that she was sick and had diarrhea but refused to get the litterbox I told him people keep inside to handle pet waste.  The kitty returned to the house days later because it was the only place she had any food or care at all, even if it had stopped.  One day, she finally couldn’t even support her own weight and open her eyes.  She could only muster the strength to limp away when i tried to pet her.  I finally found a cat lover, uncommon in this country, to bring me to a vet.  My host had told me “Vietnamese people don’t use pet doctors!”  I later found this to be a lie.  I understand pet care is expensive, but the deworming shots I got this poor sick kitty cost about as much as a midrange bowl of pho.  Unfortunately, it is Vietnamese bad luck to have a cat die in your house and when I returned from dinner I was told by my host that “she was taken away by another family who owned her.”  It was only when I talked to Vietnamese people in the cafe could I confirm she had passed.  I hope you are enjoying kitty heaven and someone is taking better care of you now, little orange cat.

The day the first kitty was needlessly being ignored and dying, my host got another kitten delivered.

I really hope this kitty has a better life.  God speed little fuzzball.  She at least has the kibble and formula I had bought at the vet’s for the first kitten.  I called Animal Rescue Saigon for the first kitten but they didn’t get back to me for days and when they did, told me they were full of abandoned kitties and could not take any more.  I know Vietnam is not a cat country but releasing your unloved kittens (and puppies) onto the street and a lack of spaying and neutering seems to just create more problems and bad luck for everyone involved.

I kept meaning to leave Ho Chi Minh earlier, I’m not usually a fan of huge towns.  Yet I just could not, I just kept staying to see these people more.  Perhaps I was more sick of moving quickly than I realized.  I stayed a whole two weeks.  I love seeing places through the eyes of those who love it, who want to show me every last bit.  I even got my hands on a kitchen to cook an American dinner for some homesick expats.  On my last night and morning I was bestowed with more generosity than the amazing amounts I am constantly already shown.  My friends gave me a duet acoustic performance at my request, I was given physical gifts that I seem to accumulate wherever I meet kind souls, and one couch surfer even volunteered to get breakfast with me and take me to the bus station ridiculously early in the morning.

Typical Saigon traffic and lack of understanding at how a roundabout works. There are stoplights involved here and everyone sort of rushes in at right angles causing traffic jams.

Some people told me that they hoped I loved Vietnam, and I could honestly tell them that the one I had found I did indeed love.  Away from the bustle and harassment of the tourist zone and amidst all the scooter traffic, I found another side of the Vietnam I had fallen for the last three months.

1 comment
  1. sounds like you’ve had some interesting volunteer experiences! I’d love to learn more. If you’re interested in answering a few questions about your trip for email me at katie at Thanks!

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