Saigon and I reached the next level in our relationship two weekends ago when I lost myself in the alleyways winding from my hotel to the cathedral.
When I say lost myself, I don’t mean it in a metaphorical sense. I mean I found streets I didn’t know existed and walked around for two hours trying to find my way back.
And I say from — instead of between — the cathedral and my hotel because while technically, anything could count as between two other things, some are more roundabout than others. I’m just glad I was walking instead of driving, so I couldn’t get into too much trouble.
I made it to the church fine, and it was gorgeous. Cocky with my new knowledge of HCMC, I chose a different way back to the hotel. A way not on my screenshot of Google Maps.
A dogged pride about my sense of direction and ability to recognize street names after I’d seen them once drove me past a gym, the Reunification Palace, and into the heart of District 1.
My hotel was in District 3. If you look on a map, they’re not too far apart, but at 7:30 p.m. in a strange city, it feels like they’re miles away from one another.
I ended up in a different district at a roundabout I recognized from the bus ride into the city, and from there locating a main street and backtracking wasn’t difficult.
Since losing myself on foot, I bought a bicycle and have gotten lost on it as well. I’ve visited four different districts without meaning to, so at this rate I just need to keep trying to get back to my apartment and I’ll visit the whole country.
That first night, I found a bookstore I never would’ve walked to otherwise. Last night, I rode past the tallest skyscraper in town and it was all lit up like a private show. Two nights ago, I rode down the infamous Bui Vien — think Bourbon Street for cafes where beer costs $.50 — going the opposite direction I walk it, and it was like seeing the street for the first time.
Getting lost takes me places I wouldn’t expect, and forces me to think creatively about my next moves. As much as I joke about leaving the city behind by accident, that could only end poorly with my basic grasp on the language and sparse geographic knowledge.
I like to refer to it as orienting myself instead of as straight up getting lost. After a month or so of allowing myself a little extra time to make it home, I’ll know more about ways home than if I paid a taxi driver to use his every day.
It’s a learning experience, not a reason to feel defeated by a city whose planning makes less sense than New Orleans, where even though streets change names, there are a few grids involved. It’s an invitation down the alleys covered in lanterns and through parks full of teenagers snacking on street food. It’s
And maybe eventually I’ll let myself stop at one of the restaurants I find instead of stumbling into Pho 24 when I’m too hungry to find somewhere legit.