After spending nearly three weeks in Vietnam, I’m in love.
The Loyola Center is in Saigon, a lively metropolis that lacks the dreadful hostility, gloom and pretentiousness of many American cities. Rush hour seems to be every hour of the day, as the streets are always a crowded blur of honking motorbikes, buses that don’t fully stop for passengers and elderly men peddling tall tricycles — all struggling to pass each other. Such traffic makes crossing the street a near-death experience, but I wouldn’t trade the thrill for anything.
Saigon is as hot as Chicago is cold, but the Vietnamese locals dress in jeans and even sweatshirts in an effort to keep their skin fair and free of dirt, hardly seeming to notice the intense heat. Once, I tried to dress like them, foolishly thinking I had adapted to the weather, only to find myself drenched in sweat and feeling like a rotisserie chicken. How the locals stay so cool remains a mystery.
The downtown district is developed and full of tourists. It offers upscale shopping, rooftop bars, swanky hotels and a Western standard of comfort. Loyola students reside in the less flashy District 10, which is an equally bustling area with stunning tree-lined streets and food vendors who serve the best cuisine in Vietnam right on the sidewalk. The only downside of living in this area is that, because it’s not a tourist spot, the locals shamelessly stare at the strange sunburnt faces of American students like myself.
It’s as if I’ve been bumped up to a higher social class here. No longer a financially struggling American college student, I don’t have to worry about setting my thermostat too high or splurging on name-brand peanut butter. It’s tempting to abandon the budget altogether and instead live like a Saigon queen, but doing this would isolate me from the culture. I want to experience Vietnam as authentically as possible rather than transform into a cultural slob and a slave to my newfound fortune.
I came to Vietnam with a planned budget of $5 per day, uncertain of how difficult it would be to stick to it. For the most part, daily life is extremely comfortable on this plan, and I have only gone over budget a few times.
For an average week, it costs me $0.20 per day to get to school and back by bus. Weekends involve shared cab rides to District 1, costing about $3 per person round trip, and Saigon beer, which usually goes for about $1 per bottle. This leaves about $2 to $4 a day for food and miscellaneous purchases.
Feeding oneself with $2 to $4 per day is completely doable with street food but not at legitimate restaurants. On the street, large Bánh mì sandwiches (baguettes loaded with spicy sauces and vegetables), may be as inexpensive as 50 cents. Overflowing noodle bowls that are filling enough for the whole day can be purchased for $1.50 and eaten at tiny tables that appear to be made for children. The iced coffee, sweeter than any I’ve ever had, is usually 50 cents. Fruits of every color and fresh produce can be bargained for. Every moment is an adventure and a cheapskate’s dream come true.