Sunday, September 19, 2010

all the small things

A backpacker’s life is never dull. Everyone moves at their own pace; some find a new city every couple of days and some linger for months on end. No matter how fast or slow you go, everyday is filled with new and interesting things. From trying foods for the first time to observing strange cultural differences, one can write home everyday about the things they’ve seen and done. Keep this in mind as you think I couldn’t possibly write anything else about Vietnam.

Nha Trang is a growing city built next to a long stretch of perfect beach. The sand is soft, the sun is hot, and the nightlife is good. The beach was a three minute walk from our $10 a night hotel and the sun shined every day we were there. Of course it rained a bit too each day, but I’m getting used to this monsoon business and by renting a bungalow, you simply hide under it during the 20 minute shower. But the rest of the time was hot and gorgeous; perfect for sunbathing and relaxing.

Actually, you couldn’t completely relax because there were heaps of locals pestering to sell an endless pile of crap. They would pace in front of you, sit on your chair, touch you, and chastise you until you bought something or clearly pissed them off. Sometimes it was snacks, jewelry, or art, but there even was a constant stream of book sellers and masseuses begging you to buy their goods or services. If you dared buy something, you were going to have to bargain hard for it and endure their ridiculous comments. The younger the seller, the ruder and funnier they got. “Why you Cheap Charlie?”, one spat as we argued over a quarter for Mentos. Annoying yes, but it makes for great dinner conversation later on.

In an effort not to be entirely lazy, we took a day tour on a boat (hung-over nonetheless). It was a great day of island hopping that seemed to get better and more random as the day went on. I started off by buying some crazy colored sombrero party hats, because we were the only foreigners on the tour and if we’re going to stand out, we might as well have fun with it. The highlight of the day was the “musical performance” where a makeshift drum set and guitar were busted out and the center row of seats turned into a stage.

First, a young girl with sparkle jeans and her shirt tied up starting singing. Then came our male tour guide dressed in a women’s bikini, top stuffed and all. We couldn’t stop laughing as he pulled us on the “stage” dancing and rubbing his “boobs” in everyone’s face. Then came a volunteer from the audience to perform and somehow finagled me onstage to sing (God only knows why) Britney Spears. This man in his spandex flowered swim trunks was born for the stage. It was a total riot.

Nha Trang was the first place we found with legitimate nightlife. Jim and I could finally dance our hearts out all night long to good music. Well, dancing is a loose term. By ‘dancing’, for Jim, I mean, crawling in the sand, pulling down poles in bars, and elbowing people in the head; all in the name of Lady Gaga. No matter how embarrassing Jim could be, he’s more entertaining than anything and always leaves an impression. Especially on the Irish.

One night, while dancing at a club on the beach, a couple came up to us and starting showing us pictures on their camera. They were pictures of us in Hanoi at the beginning of our trip and suddenly we realized we knew these people. And this is exactly why you are never alone when traveling, even if you try to be. Because when I stayed behind Jim and Mandy for an extra day in Nha Trang, I ran into the couple yet again and my quiet self-reflecting night turned into a full-on bar crawl. (I’ll always have a soft spot for the Irish.)

The best night out so far though started out at the beach bar and ended with Jim screaming to be peed on.

I left him at the end of the night on the sand by the ocean where he was going in to snag a man who was skinny sipping with a few others. I didn’t think I would see him again until morning but low and behold only five minutes upon my return, Jim ran into the room. “Pee on me! Pee on me NOW!!” he was shouting as he stripped his clothes and darted for the shower.

Yup, he had been stung by jellyfish. Mind you, this is 3:30 in the morning and Mandy was sleeping for an early dive the next day, but was up in hysterics as this is the best entrance to a room we’d ever seen.

I quickly stepped up and offered my services and luckily we had glasses in our hotel room. But my pee in a cup was not enough for Jim (maybe because I had just gone). But then Mandy’s services were requested, which seemed to do the trick. And so it took 2 whole cups of pee to calm Jim down that night, but a lifetime of shame to live down.

The main form of transportation in Vietnam is by motorcycle. Sure people use buses and taxis, and others even have their own cars. But it is much more normal to have your own little motorcycle or scooter. It’s how the family drops kids off at school, how teenagers go on dates, and in every city the best hangout is where everyone can park their moped and simply hang out. Street corners often have old men sleeping in the most interesting ways on their mopeds. And with so many swift drivers on the road, it makes crossing the street for a pedestrian more than a challenge. Slowly though, the foreigner will learn to step out and keep pace walking through the hoards of crazy drivers trusting that they will see you, calculate your speed, and swerve around you. Hopefully.

Maybe it’s because mopeds are such an integral part of culture, or because they’re so cheap, but one of the most popular activities for travelers in Vietnam is a motorcycle tour. From one day to one month, you can create your own path by yourself on a rented or purchased bike. Or if you’re like me, hire a driver to show you the “real” Vietnam. I opted for the two day tour to Dalat while Jim and Mandy went for three, but naturally we ran into each other as all the Easy Riders (aka drivers) are friends and visit the same sites.

While we stopped a lot along the way, the best part for me was simply taking in all the beautiful scenery with the wind in my face and a sense of danger on my shoulders. I knew flip flops and shorts weren’t proper motorcycle attire but also, that rules from home rarely apply to overseas. Needless to say, I did burn my leg on the exhaust pipe pretty badly. But I still enjoyed the thrill and beauty that is all of Vietnam.

In addition to mountains, jungle, and rice paddy fields, we were shown where Agent Orange was dropped and where battles were fought and we proceeded to ask questions about the war. I assumed there might be some animosity leftover towards Americans for coming over near 40 years ago and destroying their land and killing their people. But there wasn’t as they were a nation that had been used and abused by many for thousands of years; we were simply another oppressor on the list. And even though children are still born with birth defects from Agent Orange and trees still won’t grow naturally, they welcome us with open arms and talk candidly about growing up in Vietnam.

Part of this interesting experience was doing a home stay in a minority village unlike any other culture I’ve encountered. First, all the houses are long and built several feet off of the ground. Generations of family live under one roof and in the same room no less, (unless of course the foreign tourists are paying for half of the house). These people were unique in that it was a matriarchal society, meaning that the woman had all the power and control. Men had to pay several oxen as dowry to marry and even more if they wanted a divorce. Mothers made the decisions while fathers carried the babies around. And to top it off, this rural village seemed to be more populated by giant pigs, chickens, roosters, and cows than people; and they all roamed freely. This was wonderful for me to see but annoying to listen to while falling asleep and waking up.

Being that it was still monsoon season in Vietnam, there was always a chance, neigh a promise, of a short and heavy downpour of rain, and usually when you least expect it. It happened when I was out for a short walk through the small town nearby and I was stupidly without my umbrella. When it began to sprinkle down I decided to wait it out under a tree, thinking this would be decent enough shelter for ten minutes or so of rain. Some time passed and just as I was getting up to walk the rest of the way back to my shelter I saw local children running for their lives. That’s usually a sign you’re screwed if you’ve got no where to go.

And then came the monsoon.

I have yet to be stuck outside in such heavy downpour and had unfortunately chosen a tree as my protector and was nowhere near public shelter. I cowered into a ball and began to get soaked to the bone. I kept wishing and praying for the rain to stop but when I realized that wouldn’t do me any good, I mustered up the courage to run to the nearest house and shout ‘hello’ from outside the gate.

A man appeared at the open window and motioned the gate was open. I kept under the porch awning though he insisted to come in (mostly because I was dripping wet). Eventually I gave in and went inside their home, finally truly safe from that incredible flash storm.

The couple who lived here was young and had a small child as well. And they didn’t speak a word of English. I tried to stay in the corner by the door, not wanting to get anything wet. But they came out with a towel, put me in a chair by the TV, and brought out tea and candy for me as well. I stayed there for maybe a half hour as the heavy storm outside roared on longer and more powerful than I ever expected. I began to thank myself for finally admitting defeat and turning to strangers for help. The experience was interesting in the fact that I began to think of this in terms of home.

What if during a storm a stranger who didn’t speak any English wandered up to your house and it was clear they needed shelter. Would you invite them in? Feed them? Make them tea? Would you feel completely comfortable or slightly on edge that this was simply a ploy to steal from you or even murder you? Something about our culture has taught us that danger is around every corner and never to trust strangers. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s fault or the news is to blame, (or just CSI); it doesn’t matter. In this sleepy village nestled into the mountains of Central Vietnam, no fear of strangers exists; only pity for silly foreigners who don’t know what storms look like nor carry umbrellas.

One of my favorite parts about this village was the elephants. Near the rice patties, in their own open field, were elephants roaming around and walking the streets. At breakfast, an elephant named Beatrice stuck her trunk through the window and I offered her a bread roll. Elephants are such giant gentle creatures I want to spend more time with.

Once back on our motorcycle, we sped along the road swerving around the dozens of cows that marched along the side of the road and worked our way up to the mountain town of Dalat. We only spent one night there, checking out the market and recovering from the many hours of sitting on a motorcycle. The next day we rolled into Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon) and were just in time to watch the fireworks in celebration of some holiday.

Mandy set off the next day on her own for Phu Quoc Island as she had been to HCMC before, leaving Jim and I to explore and go nuts on our own for a few days. We were logical in alternating days between sleeping in and lazily walking around town and taking entire day tours of the outlying areas.

First we did a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, the infamous narrow tunnel system that the local peasants held strong and aided the Viet Cong to their success in the south. Because the American army had insisted people from that area either move or be killed, the locals opted to live under ground while fighting to protect their land. An intricate system of tunnels was built with many levels and stretched over 700 km in length. They were dug in the exact size of the person digging the tunnel which means they were tiny and near impossible for any American to fit in. Although they did give us the opportunity to crawl through one, it was obvious we could never have infiltrated this system. They picked a tunnel they had made larger for tourists, yet it was still claustrophobically tiny, uncomfortable, and god awfully humid down there. I have no idea how they did it.

The next day, we went to the War Remnants Museum and let me tell you, nothing kills a Friday quite like a visit to a war museum. The realty of the Vietnam War was shown to us in facts and pictures, an unbiased account of the death and destruction that occurred on both sides. I never realized the support Vietnam had from all around the world; Americans at home weren’t the only ones protesting. It was also nice to learn about the American soldiers who aided the local peasants but were unfortunately jailed for such ‘treason’. I couldn’t help but leave emotional and confused by how so much hate and anger could constantly exist in mankind throughout time.

At least in the nights, Jim and I were able to escape such deep and tormenting thoughts as we drank and danced the nights away. Luckily for Jim, we found a swanky gay bar that was primarily for locals and had a great time working the dance floor all night long to amazing music. We went there both nights we went out.

Our final day in Vietnam was spent on a tour of the Mekong Delta, boating around with rice farmer hats and gazing at the beautiful scenery. They always squeeze in the kitschy tourist crap where they try to sell you products you just tasted; for example, visiting a honey farm or coconut candy making factory (or the same place). It was the perfect quintessential last day topped off with delicious local fare and shopping until we could buy no more.

In case you were wondering about the local specialties, pho (pronounced ‘fah’) is number one. It’s a noodle soup served with either beef or chicken and lots of lime and chili and eaten from early morning to late night. It’s served everywhere on the street for merely a dollar, slightly more if from a restaurant. Spring rolls are also available everywhere and I’ll never get enough of that fried crispy goodness.

One month in Vietnam was more than most had, yet it felt not enough for me. This country is rich in culture, cuisine, and endearing people. You must seek further to understand their lifestyle than simply coasting through major towns and scratching the surface. I have a lot more to learn and see there, and feel I will one day return to see how they’ve grown and adapted to time and politics. That, and I must return to Hoi An to get some more clothes made.

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