I’m from Ory-Gone, USA where the air is crisp and clean, like a mouth full of 7-Up.
I’m living in Ho Chi Minh City, where the air sometimes has a texture, a color and at times, even rents an apartment downtown. Though I know this isn’t indicative of every Vietnamese city but after chewing on the smog here and the more I stroll the fine streets of beautiful Saigon, the more I notice how much it stinks here. The friendliness and the communal feel from everyone makes me forget there’s 8 million other people here and anywhere you have those numbers you’ll have some stank. I don’t care where you live, if it has over 5 million people, then your city has some stink.
In Saigon there are three families of emanating offenses which include:
These invisible, ripe clouds either well up from the warm storm drains or lurk in these large, rolling refuse carts that are pushed and filled by sanitation workers throughout the day. There are countless outdoor markets where fresh produce and meats are sold, bought, and entrails discarded atop spoiled fruit. It’s a treacherous, sickly sweet smell, one of a festering, familiar, natural quality.
Literally, millions of motorbikes and motorcycles stopped, going, going some more, when I’m at a light sitting behind them sometimes I can feel the puffs from their exhaust pipes blowing hydrocarbons onto my face. Ever go to the eye doctor and they blow the little puff of air into your eye? It’s just like that except it smells like burnt 90 octane. I’m unsure if the DEQ isn’t run by a gentleman who tears into work on an old two stroke Piaggio blowing blue smoke the whole way or not.
There isn’t a moment while walking around town when one of these olfactory amimals isn’t pouncing you like a leopard from a tree. There is a tremendous amount of building and renovating taking place in Saigon (and all of Vietnam) right now so with big new buildings comes big new stinks. Paint, adhesives, strippers, thinners, sealers, cleaners, the soft, candyish smell of lubricants like WD-40 and the vaporous, sharp sinus burn of some insane industrial solvent. Just take a casual stroll in any direction far enough and the wonderful wide world of smells will open up to you.
It’s a game, comparing smells, imagining them having a wrestling match and which would win, or sometimes I pretend they’re fine wines and I’ll break them down and give them pretentious descriptions like a heaping garbage cart would be “Assertive and robust with an earthy finish,” or if I pass a fresh lacquer paint job I’ll mumble, “Mmm, a bitey bouquet yet velvety and unassuming”. If I’m caught in a mass of motorbike fumes going two miles an hour, I’ll say “Ahh, the unfiltered romance of supple and complex vapors!” Makes the stink more fun because it’s easy for my soft self to feel abused by the odors of a big city.
What must be mentioned is that there are many good smells, too, the technical distinction between an odor and an aroma.
My personal favorite smell is street food, meat on small charcoal grills, warm baked breads, fresh cut fruits from a corner stand, some of the best smelling food is how new places to eat are discovered. Coffee can also be enjoyed by aroma while walking, it’s strong roasty smell is easy to identify and follow into various cafes or streetside spots. Barbecues are hugely common and the smoke and spices of succulent pork chops, boiling crab or stir fried vegetables neutralize anything malodorous that you may have found along the way. Sometimes the street will fill with the mouth-watering tastes of Vietnam’s diversely delicious cuisine, when half a dozen restaurants all cook outside at once, chemicals in your brain will force you to stop and taste something. You just can’t help it.
So for every stinky smell in Saigon there is something wonderful right around the corner. Or maybe up the street a little ways. Further. Keep going. A little more. Ok, there it is. Yum.