Cigarettes are everywhere, and it seems that nearly every Vietnamese male in the city smokes constantly.
This is a far cry from back in the US.
To be sure, there are plenty of smokers in America, 46 million of them, according to some estimates.
However, even with such a huge number of smokers, you don’t run into clouds of cigarette smoke as often as you do in Saigon.
There are several reasons for this.
First, it is considered rude to light up around non-smokers.
Many people will ask if those around them mind if they smoke, and they will be sure not to exhale in their direction.
The negative health effects of second-hand smoke are common knowledge, so common courtesy dictates that a smoker shouldn’t blow cigarette smoke at people, especially children.
That courtesy doesn’t exist here.
Xe ôm drivers blast clouds of smoke at you while waiting at red lights, and patrons at restaurants blow smoke over their shoulder and right into our face in order to avoid blowing it on their own food.
Men (and it is always men here) smoke with babies on their laps.
Second, as the potentially deadly side effects of smoking have become better understood, many American cities and states have passed laws governing where people can smoke.
Many cities have banned cigarettes from restaurants and basically any indoor area besides certain bars.
In some places the only location someone can legally smoke a cigarette is outside.
As a non-smoker, I love these laws.
Cigarette smoke hurts your eyes, smells terrible, and makes your food less enjoyable.
Smoke-free restaurants are fantastic, and few things are more disgusting than eating a meal in Saigon while eight people at the table next to you are chain-smoking.
A small handful of restaurants here are smoke-free, but they are few and far between, and mostly expensive downtown eateries.
Your standard Vietnamese restaurant often looks like it is on fire thanks to all the cigarette smoke.
Cigarettes are also very expensive in the US thanks to taxes.
Progressive cities like New York have tried to deter people from smoking by making it financially ruinous.
In NYC a pack of smokes costs over US$10, and a carton costs nearly $100, and other major cities aren’t far behind.
From what my friends tell me, in Saigon a pack of cigarettes can cost less than $1.
Why would anyone quit smoking when it’s so insanely cheap?
Saigon, then, seems to be a smoker’s paradise.
You can do it everywhere, it’s absurdly cheap, and no one will tell you not to do it around them.
I can only imagine how many people suffer from lung cancer or other smoking-related diseases here.
If something were done to reduce the prevalence of smoking in Saigon it would make this a more pleasant, not to mention healthier, place to live.
I don’t see anything of the sort being done anytime soon though, so I guess that dream will go up in smoke.