The Embassy Hunter
Crossing the street in Saigon is an extreme sport of senseless proportions. You cannot wait for a gap in traffic. The gaps never come. Instead, you must just have faith that the steady river of motorcycle (moto) traffic dodges you as you cross from one side to the other. A driver sees you, estimates your position as he approaches and adjusts his path accordingly. Swarms of gas-powered vehicles weave in, out, and through lane-less streets and alleyways without discernable signs of order. On a sociological level, it is intriguing to observe so many rapidly moving vehicles managing to avoid collision with each other and the pedestrians. On the other hand, if you are part of the situation, it is scary as hell.
On my second day in Saigon, I penetrated the deluge of human beings that covered every surface of the city. I was on a mission to research visa acquisition at the Embassy of Laos. The overwhelming distribution of people and buzzing traffic sent my internal compass spinning and I became severely lost.
Street in Saigon
After a couple of hours of wandering hopelessly, I found myself in some sort of communist housing labyrinth. Crooked paths, two arm lengths wide, split off in every direction. Many of them led to dead ends. They were crammed with throngs of inhabitants who seemed to take great pleasure in bumping into me, the only foreigner within a thirty-block radius. The front wall to each unit was open, fully revealing a family’s assigned living quarters that included a dollhouse-sized sofa and a television tuned to the same channel as everyone else’s. It was all disturbingly compact. The Vietnamese are either a society of open-space fearing agoraphobics or they don’t mind cozy living conditions.
Soon, I became completely disoriented. I had no sense of which direction I was headed, where I had come from, or how long I had been there. I began to feel uneasy. It was probably just my imagination, but I was convinced that the local people were becoming suspicious of my presence. I had this image of a kid pointing at me and blurting out a version of, “Hey, a capitalist American! Get him!” Whereupon a rabble of enraged Vietnamese would chase me into a corner and rip my flesh apart with their fingernails chanting, “Baby-killing Yank! Baby-killing Yank!”
To my great relief, however, just before real panic surfaced, I found an escape. To my annoyance it happened to be the place that I had entered. Apparently there was only one way in and one way out this residential nightmare.
Still in search of the Laotian Embassy, I decided to swing into the conspicuous and brooding U.S. Embassy to ask my compatriots for directions. I passed several paranoid guards in military fatigues and entered the fortified compound. Over the next half hour I endured three security checks, two metal detectors, and two interrogations (one guard asked me to take a sip of my water – presumably to prove that it was not acid). Finally on the inside, I went up to the bulletproof glass window and told the apprehensive Vietnamese woman behind the counter that I had been searching for the Laotian Embassy for hours and could not find it. I asked her if she knew its location.
“Yeah, go right down the street and take the first left.”
Once I apologized for my ineptness and thanked her, the security guards hurried along my departure in a fashion that did not feel so voluntary. I went right down the street and took the first left. There it was in plain sight. The security was rather lax in contrast to its American counterpart. The one guard, who I believe may have been asleep, ignored me as I entered the wide-open gates. The single employee inside the building, possibly the ambassador himself, welcomed me in as if I were the first customer all day. “You want to see my country. It good place. Easy. Come in, I tell you.”
At that point, I was up for anything easy.