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Stolen Saigon Seconds: Living in Ho Chi Minh City as a Digital Nomad

May 28, 2016 | 7-min read

I paid $5 for a clock that doesn’t tell time.

It’s not the battery. It’s not the gears. The clock isn’t a little slow, or a little fast. It’s not even right twice a day. The salmon-colored square, procured from a night market in Bangkok, lives on its own time.

I’ll lie down for a nap at five to 5; I’ll wake up at 10:30. It seems like, more often than not, the time reads 9-something. How can it be 9-something so often?

I could have chucked the clock months ago, but I’ve kept it around. Its topsy-turvy time felt more accurate than the way the real time moved here, anyway.

Was it earlier today that we arrived in DaNang, we wondered, or three days ago? Was it on Easter that we played a round at the windiest mini-golf course in Ho Tram, or more like Labor Day? Have I known these new friends for four months, or a lifetime?

The second hand sometimes pauses, or even ticks back a step.

I want to take a bit of that frozen time with me when I leave Saigon. I’d steal a few moments from these four months, tuck them away in those backward seconds, just to carry them with me a little bit longer.

So they stay bright and fresh and tangible and don’t fade.

I’d take a moment at a rooftop bar, any rooftop bar, pick a rooftop bar: Everyone jumping together and shouting the words to another dance-pop, summer-in-February anthem, the enthusiasm partly fueled by too much tequila. But only partly.

I’d tuck away a snapshot of my neighborhood, the neon glow of the primary-colored lights strung across Japantown at night. The ritual of the fried squid balls cooking at the 15b entrance, constantly being poured and rotated and sold to passersby.

I’d keep the time a friend and I searched down twisted, dark, unfamiliar district alleys for a forbidden treasure — dry shampoo — and paid import price at a doorway like a shady drug deal. Five bottles? We’ll take all you’ve got.

As if time weren’t strange enough, long and short and fast and slow all at once, I lived on the exact opposite hours of those at home.

I’d hold onto the way, in the mornings, I’d scroll through 75 group text messages from my best girlfriends, and their jokes and observations and lives would slip into my dreams. I’d rise and go to work and I couldn’t tell which felt less real — being for a moment home with them, or being for the rest of my day on the other side of the Earth, while they slept.

I’d take the things I didn’t know or barely knew.

More tones in a language that I knew what to do with. Than I could even hear.

How I’ll never be able to spell Haaggeenn Dazsz, even though I ate at that ice cream restaurant often.

What’s the story of that little black dog having adventures up and down Le Thanh Ton, crossing the street more expertly than I?

I’d also store in there some colors, tuck a rainbow in between those seconds.

I’d keep a little bit of the luminescent yellow of the government building I pass on my way to work, the aquamarine of the windows of a hotel, the deep red of roof shingles after a rain.

I’d like to take with me a bit of the 50 shades of jungle green you can see in the trees, that make you swear aloud during a van ride through the countryside because they’re so vibrant.

I’d take with me a bit of the soft pink of my favorite time of day: dusk. As seen from my apartment, my alleyway Japantown light box, my tennis court vantage point, my twilight nap retreat, my slow-morning, instant-coffee breakfast parlor on the weekends.

The sounds.

The clock’s seconds are barely audible, unless it’s the dead of night. The dead of night, when a faint recording from a street vendor cart also drifts in softly through the window, like a whisper.

The honking, my god, the honking. Which is definitely not like a whisper. But I’ll take that, too.

The jackhammer competitions, the bustle of new construction, always.

What other sounds can find a home in between those small clacks of plastic?

The slot-machine ring of the elevator numbers at Dreamplex, a friendly jingle alerting me that someone else was also going to 10, and I needn’t dig for my card.

A persistent question — “Motorbike, miss?”

The squeak of the bats at dusk, competing with the squeak of the tennis shoes behind my apartment.

The soft pop-pop of the tennis balls on the rackets and the courts the most calming IRL noise machine. Forget rain and thunderstorms, give me that sport.

But no — give me the rain, too. I’d stow away the way the rain falls in this new wet season, stuttering in a drizzle slowly, slowly, and then — a downpour, all at once.

If I can hide away a few sounds and colors and smells in the backward seconds of the clock, can I also store tastes? Feelings? This is my magic clock, of course I can.

So I’d squeeze in there some Robata sushi, and I hope there are enough frozen seconds to make a whole minute of it.

But I don’t want just the sushi. I want the lunch counter, the upstairs group dining rooms, no air con, fly-catching competition arenas. The phrase the staff shouts when we walk in, that I’ve never figured out. The tra-da. The sushi plates named after friends. The…soundtrack. So many seasons in the sun.

I’d even take the indulgent bite of a Macca’s* pre-brekkie* sandwich at 5 a.m., the moment we weren’t allowed chips* no matter how many times we asked; it was officially the morning already.

*I’ll take learning to speak Australian, and a bit of German, and Spanish and yeah, maybe a little Vietnamese. Geschmacksfeuerwerk!

Passing ships in the night.

A grapefruit run at Family Mart.

Three Bites of everything — except dessert.

Christmas songs played year-round.

An accidental three-hour Friday lunch. An on-purpose three-hour Friday lunch.

Cam on. Em moi. DIM DEHHHNG.

Not enough karaoke, for living in Asia.

Type racer competitions. Puzzles and riddles and brain teasers and Usain Bolt and straws.

Every single eight-person-or-more cab ride and elevator ride, a sweet, quieter moment stolen between the loud thumps of the clubs. Laughing, together. Our ears ringing.

The thrill of a lucky, straight-shot ride on the slowest elevator in the world at Dreamplex.

The motorbikes taking too sharp of turns around the alley corners, no-look.

Da Nang. Phu Quoc. Phong Nha. Da Lat.

Of coming back from a weekend away and pulling into District 1 and feeling it — home.

I’ll keep the less glamorous moments, too.

I’d store in my backward seconds the moment my purse was snatched by a motorbike driver at 2 a.m. by City Hall, my automatic response a shouted “Nooooooo!” at his back gaining distance, my credit cards and phone and $75 never to be seen again.

Throwing up on the backpacker street, but not for the reason you’d think! Don’t risk it on the street food Meat Lover’s Banh Mi, even if it’s only 50 cents. You pay in other ways.

Coughing for two months. Failed pharmacy trips.

I’ll take the firsts, there were so many.

Back in Chicago, the day before my flight, standing at my parents’ kitchen counter and squinting to make out the tiny faces in the Line group message. Googling “arvo.” Wondering, who are these people? Will we get along?

A first 25-hour plane ride. A first time in Asia. The first and last time I’d ever dare ask, “Tim Ferriss who?” the day I arrived.

I want to keep just a little bit of that adrenaline I felt for a month straight after I arrived, of walking into an office in Vietnam for the first time. And the adrenaline later, on the painful Vietnamese water slides, on a motorbike taxi dangerously weaving through traffic.

The next chapter has millions of seconds to offer me, and as I collect those moments, the feeling of the Saigon sun on my skin and the “Banh-mi-nong-day!” carts on my ears and the Guanabana smoothies on my tongue will become more distant.

These moments that I’ve kept tucked away in the backward seconds will fade further into the past, minutes, hours, lifetimes ago.

Those firsts — so magical and overwhelming and invigorating and life-changing. So bright and stunning and challenging.

There’s no room in my suitcase for the clock as I prepare to move to Bangkok.

It doesn’t work anyway. It’s a broken hunk of plastic.

I’ll throw it away.

Time for new seconds.

The seconds you can try to measure with the broken hand of a clock, yes, but also the Seconds.

Second country in Asia. Second round of rooftop bars. Second language to attempt (as well as I can) to learn. Second crazy beautiful chapter.

It’s time.