Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Afternoon Siesta

Saigon rests at a latitude of around 10 degrees North. For those who weren't obsessed with geography as a child, this means it is very close to the equator, and, obviously, very hot.

I knew this before I arrived but in many ways I am more chimp than human (although I promise never to tear your face off), and refuse to really believe anything until I see it for myself. This is a character trait of mine that has gotten me into trouble over the years, and the Saigon Heat was no exception.

My first task here was to find a job, so I methodically and efficiently spent a day looking up the location of English schools and marking them on a map, plotting a route. On the following day, I dressed myself up in nice pants and a button-down shirt (the former light to keep off the heat, the latter dark to hide my sweat), packed my CV and some deodorant, and ventured into the city to pound some pavement.

The morning went fine. I got lost a few times, and nearly run over more than a few times on the chaotic, motorbike-packed streets, but this is all par for the Saigon course. The real trouble struck at noon.

Foolishly, I had thought that the morning - already sweltering - was the apex of the day's heat. This was not a rational thought, but rather the product of seven years in Southern New Zealand. Already, it was hotter than Dunedin's hottest day - in my mind, some kind of limit had been reached, and there was no way it could get hotter.

It did. Imperceptibly, the temperature rose a tiny bit with every passing minute until it was a full-blown heat wave. I wouldn't be stopped though. I was a man on a mission, with CVs to hand out, doors to knock on, and contacts to chase up. The heat must have been affecting my brain by this stage, because it was not until later that I realised that the streets - perilous in the morning - were now empty, and the sidewalks - empty in the morning - were now packed with locals on tiny stools, eating soup and mystery meat, drinking the refreshing sweet drinks that are so widely available in so many flavours, smoking cigarettes, and gossiping.

I trudged through the masses of people, shirt soaked with sweat, body screaming for water. My second warning sign then came, which I, typically, ignored: my nose began to bleed. Before I knew what was happening, a matronly streetside vendor in her early fifties yanked me into her stall, firmly telling me in Vietnamese to sit down, hold a tissue to it, put my head back. I don't speak any Vietnamese, but since these words were accompanied by her flailing her arms and roughly pushing me into a chair and forcing my head back, it was not difficult to put together the context clues.

When it cleared up, she poured ointment into it, which burned but definitevely solved the problem, and shoo'd me on my way with a few terse words, probably along the lines of "look after better yourself next time."

The language of Irate Mother is universal.

So I stumbled on, by this point in really awful shape. As I approached an English school (which would turn out to be closed), I decided to make sure I didn't have blood all over my face and stopped in a shop with a mirror to inspect. Satisfied with my lack of bloodstains - something I never thought I would be satisfied with - I made to leave.

Then I noticed something. There was no shopkeeper. There was also no staff, only a security guard who sat outside, fast asleep. I looked around the shop, and it became clear: they were all asleep. Leaned back in chairs, sprawled on the floor: every single employee of this shop was fast asleep.

It's the afternoon siesta, the time that it is literally impossible to do anything but sleep, as my sad day showed. I only wish I'd gotten the memo before I arrived.


  1. Tell ACC about this. Seeing as you're pretty close to being a New Zealander they'll probably send over a gaggle of temps to write warning memos about the heat to every other New Zealand visitor. Ha!

  2. mad dogs and englishmen go out in the mid-day sun...