Viet Nam - Slicing and Dicing a Country
This is the last stop on the Viet trail, my friend, but I think the best part. Nevertheless, if you don't find yourself in full agreement, I beg that you please suffer silently and direct all passive-aggressive responses at someone more deserving than I. Like a cuddly puppy or fluffy rabbit.
Yes, hereare my last words on Viet Nam. Or words and words and words, as I have a bit of diarrhea of the typing finger. With no pictures in this entry, you should ask yourself - are you up to it? No visual distractions to placate your A.D.D.? Here we go...hold on tight! Ooooooooooh... joooooooooyyyyyyyyyy!
The Natives Won't Try and Kill You On Contact
Now, that headline is not a snide way of saying that the Viet Namese people weren't ever so friendly. They actually were, outside of a rare, yet stoic and unemotional stare of death. The vast majority of people in 'Nam were very easygoing and typically approachable.
For example, tons of people practiced the one word of English they apparently knew. For the record, that was "Hello". Or, as they said, "Hehhhlllllllll-oh." No big whoop, sure, but it was endearing and kinda comical to see so many kids light up with saying it, awaiting response. This I duly gave: "Up yours!" I kid, but that woulda been educational. The kids were often prompted by beaming parents, encouraging them to wave and say "Hi" as well. It can be safely said that the entire language was covered.
Speaking of parents and kids, it was quite refreshing to see such unafraid families. The American culture of fear hadn't yet invaded this fearless country (we delivered only bombs); I hoped it never did. It was a relief to be able to smile at a kid and say "Hi" without getting a dirty look from a parent - as if that was only a preamble to kidnapping and doing horrible things to their child. Who wanted to look at facts and statistics when there was a sensational story to follow ad nauseum on your local U.S. news? Come to think of it...on the national news, too. A pet peeve of mine. Well, actually more than that. I'm all about pet peeves, you shall see. But let's move on, shant we?
You say Viet Nam, I say Vietnam.
Or Mui Ne and Muine, or Da Lat and Dalat. You get the picture, no? Apparently every syllable in the Viet Namese language is a word, so there is this constant discrepancy in spelling where western language and spelling butts syntax with that of Viet Nam's. Confusing in a slight way.
On we go further...to names. Hung, Dung, Dong, Phuc, Bich, Long (I'm omitting diacritical marks): all common names of places. Put it all together and...you can get some pretty goofy (English-wise) names for restaurants, temples, or anything else for that matter. You also get funny pictures, though, so it's not a complete loss: Thailand's Phuket (actually "Poo-kett") has nothing on the Hung Long Restaurant in Da Lat. What more can be said, I ask, but to accept that it's just an amusing twist of linguistic fate. Let's continue on the slice of Viet life trail, shall we?
Eat this, Drink that
I couldn't say enough about how awesome Viet Namese food was. It simply was the best traveling food I'd ever had, hands down (there will be a reprise - be warned). I was happily if temporarily rooted in a heaven of street restaurants and grub vendors galore. So many awesome tastes, a number of them would be completely new to my quizzical palate.
Often there was that French touch in presentation, and in a number of places (particularly in the old French capital Ha Noi, but also in Da Lat, the colonial retreat from the heat), one could even find original French cooking/pastry. But being Viet Nam, with all that THEY had to offer on their own terms platewise, what was the point of going all frenchy, anyway?
Fruitwise, I got the chance to try out longan, dragon fruit, durian, rambutan and a host of others that were in season. Nothing like trying a smoothie with avocado, pureed with something citrusy, then adding some cold OJ or ice and blending the thing some more. Another, please!
The seafood was amazing, too - I couldn't say enough good stuff about fish sauce, chili sauce, oyster sauce, shrimp paste and all of their other friends in happy Viet sauceland. It wasn't tough being (mostly) vegetarian, either. Granted, when hosted by someone, particularly in their home, I would eat a fetid, ten-day dead dog's eyeball. Okay, perhaps only nine days dead. Whatever - with the cost being insanely low, and plates often going for $1-3, there wasn't much risk in trying it all.
Insane, too, were the numbers of restaurants, both formal and informal. Formal? Like in a building with place settings on wooden tables with art on the walls? Well, I feel safe in assuming that you're used to that: BORRRRR-ING. Nevertheless, they existed, and here I afford you a summary description: you'd choose from the vast array of dishes, yummy yummy yum, then you'd roll out the door happy. Simple.
Spring rolls, soups, cooked this that and the other meat or veggie with brilliant chili/fish/herb sauces? - that was the menu, and more. Supergreatduper, and as stated you'd walk out stuffed for perhaps all of a few U.S. dollars. It'd be fair to say that I didn't have a bad meal at any of these "formal" venues, even when I ventured to try some random surprises. That could be as simple as having something steamed instead of fried, cold instead of hot, perhaps white instead of black... I think you're catching on.
Certainly, if surprise is the spice of life, then Viet Nam was one hot pepper. In touristed areas the restaurant menu usually had an English version, but I still made a point of attempting a ritual slaughtering of the pronunciation of the Viet Namese name for each dish. I did this as a point of pride, often helpfully indicating it on the menu to lessen mistakes. Granted, there wasn't much room for pride when they smiled or laughed at me, but the mind is a powerful thing!!!
Ahem. In summary, the Viet Namese justifiably took pride in their cooking and there was no shortage of variation at the "formal" restaurants. And nothing (practically) was bland, either. If so (impossible, mind you, but I'll allow for it), there were a host of things to dip with or add on to change the equation. This was expected, actually. Three cheers for the Viet Namese restaurant kitchen.
Wherever it may be. Which brings us to the "informal" kitchen, perhaps far more common to the Viet Namese people. That generally meant one found on the sidewalk, or onto the street as necessary. In fact, sometimes it was rather difficult to tell if it was just the front of somebody's house and they were "eating out(side)" or if the tables and chairs comprised an actual business.
More than once I waited for someone to pull up to the (main, sometimes only) table on the sidewalk showing cash. I felt better when I was sure I was "entering" an establishment of cuisinal commerce. Yet even then it wasn't a sure thing, although usually it was obvious enough. A portable glass case, or baskets trotted in on a bamboo pole plainly visible in front of a wall (as opposed to an open doorway) - dead giveaways.
Sometimes in these street cafes (a liberal use of the term!) there was a table or central tray loaded with sauces and herbs. This might be a place to set down your bowl, too, if you could find room. Then, oh cherished customer, you needed to squat or, just as likely, marginally sit on a stool about six inches from the ground. This was a good knee/thigh workout every time. (Stay tuned for the accompanying exercise video for the low price of $9.99... or 160,000 dong, a special price just between us friends. Certainly I never had so many "friends" before as in Viet Nam! Indeed, I was so POP-u-lar, like ohmygod! You and I, WE can do business, this I was repeatedly assured. Yes, yes. Har, har. Burp.)
ANYway, these sidewalk tables and chairs were generally of a thin plastic (I saw them collapse under a westerner's weight more than once), stackable for storage... or quick removal. They might be moving shortly to wherever the portable restaurant came from or needed to go next. Without fail, the old woman - no men cookin' that I saw - running the show became your new Jewish-Viet Namese mother, often setting you demonstrably to rights on how to eat your grubbage. No hard sell usually came from the food stands, surprisingly.
In the morning, a food stand breakfast was often variations of noodle soup, bird's eggs, or rice n fishcake. In Ha Noi, anyway. In Da Lat I had noticed more egg and fried dough variations. But, wherever you were, you just needed to squat, listen to momma, eat up, and pay your 5000 dong or so (30 cents). It was hard to dicker on a price like that, which probably implied that Momma apparently had the right to whack you with the ladling spoon. (It was raised at least once with a smile on me.) I shut up and paid, happily so.
Yapping on about food, I can't escape commenting that all this was done - made and brought in - by women. "Weaker sex, my arse" I'd have to say... as these mighty Libras with their basket scales, balanced on a sturdy split bamboo pole over their shoulders, glided along the streets like beasts of burden. That's acknowledging that those suckers were HEA-vy and not that the women were beastly, mind me you. Perish the thought.
They did this "manly" work, yet they all the while were eyed by men sitting nearby on their motorbikes (or cyclos). THEY idly waited for customers to be whisked around with the aid of their motorized gears and wheels. Considering that men are generally physically stronger, a certain logic - though not a tradition - lacked there. At least when it came to walking the baskets through town.
Regarding the two baskets hung on bamboo poles, I couldn't fathom how much one weighed typically, but each one could convey perhaps a couple hundred oranges, to give an example. The graceful move used to roll the pole around the neck, for switching the weight-bearing shoulder, might have suggested a certain careless ease in carrying out this task every day of the week. But I wasn't fooled: there was no escaping the fact that this was some tough labor.
What was actually inside the baskets? THAT could be any of a zillion fruits and vegetables. Or raw/cooked meats wrapped in banana leaves. Beyond that, these cargos often included a kitchen on the way to finding a corner to set up shop. Sometimes there'd even be huge pots of soup on the boil, literally, alternately and vigorously sloshing in transit. Indeed, if there had been a kitchen sink or two on board I wouldn't have been surprised! And oh, by the way, did I mention that these offered the best traveling food I'd ever had, hands down? (The promised reprise: I deliver on my word, mind you.)
Going hand in hand with food, of course, was drink. Alcoholwise, it seemed that rice wine and fresh beer (bia hoi) were the most common sources for imbibing publicly. Certainly there was no beating the social scene that bia hoi had, these open air, kegger affairs abutting the street as the heat eased into the night. Sure, rice and snake wine were fine things to go cross-eyed over of their own merit, but nothing beat the burgeoning boozefest that was a bia hoi corner at the end of the work day.
Liquidwise, most Viet Namese otherwise chiefly drank gobs of green tea and coffee. Nothing special about the tea, although it was good, but the coffee was something unique. Basically it was strong drip coffee, though not particularly weighty in caffeine, it seemed. Most importantly - it was tasty.
The means was the thing, starting with being served a glass with a contraption on top of it. Said glass would start empty, soon beginning to fill, however, as the coffee percolated through the device. THAT essentially consisted of a plate with perforations, plus a spindle in the middle. On top would rest a lidded container with the grounds inside, letting the liquid to pour over and through it. Finally it would seep out its perforated bottom and into the cup. Simple, effective... but only in Viet Nam. Dunno why.
In the south of the country (more so, anyway), you would often also get a small steel thermos with more hot water inside. That was provided should you want to have a larger (and thus somewhat more diluted) coffee. In the north, though, often the coffee would already be finished percolating when you got it, all lonely and served only in its glass. The contraption had been used back in the secret lair of the kitchen, however. Dunno why the diff.
In the event that you wanted a sweetened - sua - coffee, a condensed milk and sugar mixture would be added. This perhaps would measure up to two centimeters worth, sitting on the bottom of your glass prior to any percolation. Due to greater density, the coffee dripping on top wouldn't mix with it on its own. It was up to you to kinda scoop into the sugar goo below to mix as much as you wanted with your coffee. The rest at the bottom was left for later or never. I found Viet Namese coffee a great way to start the day at 5 a.m. Also 5 p.m. For that matter, noon. It's always coffee time on vacation! (In hometown Seattle, it likewise seemed that way for all 24 hours of the day. Hmmm. Must... cut... back.)
Rules? Hah! Well, okay: you had the right to push, maim, or kill all that was smaller or under less power than you. There, that about summed it up! Or, if you prefer, the rules given as a lesson: Part 1: Crossing the road; Part 2: Being the road. Taken together these were akin to catching flies with chopsticks, certain to be the next kung fu craze. Let's start with Part 2, shall we?
First let it be said that I ultimately DID figure out the transportation dealio, best described as a philosophy of how you or your potential vehicle might fit in. Simply put, it was survival of the fittest, that ol' jungle law. Or bravest, as I preferred to think. Here it is: if your vehicle was one centimeter longer or wider, or a kilo heavier, you WON! This implied that you MUST assume to the edge of a collision that you were in the right. Expected behavior was key. You'd honk your horn repeatedly, yell out the window, let everyone know who's king - that's how it was done. This made for some VERY interesting moments...every 2 minutes or so. But it worked. Hmmm... I think I just covered BOTH parts (1) and (2) with that marvelous description. DONE!
Anyway, a guesstimate of what filled the mean streets would be that 90% of the vehicles were motorbikes, 3% buses, 3% trucks, 1% cars, 2% bicycles, 1% whatever (cyclo tuktuk, motocycle...is this adding up?)... in 2007. Whatever - the most intriguing thing to me, outside of the insane number of motorbikes everywhere, was the GARB that women had for negotiating the road. They looked like moto-bandits!
Glasses, rigid conical (or floppy sun) hat, kerchief covering the face and neck, removable sleeves over the arms... and high heels. Why such clothing? Easy - it all had more to do with the ideal of light skin than any bank robbing opportunities. The heels just came extra. Nevertheless, should the need arise with a bank actually being taken to taks, a telling description would have been tough: "She was wearing a mask, then took off on a motorbike!" That only described about 40 million people in Viet Nam.
On to... sidewalks. It must be noted that when necessary, or even existential, they also functioned as road. Does this change the definition of the word? Do we have a say in matter? No. What this really meant was that the vehicle size rules mentioned above still applied, but now the pedestrian was part of the mix and was expected to yield.
For that matter, motorbike parking took priority on the sidewalks as well, often forcing the pedestrian into the street and once again, per above size rules again, as low man on the totem pole. Meanwhile on the other end of the scale completely, wide cargo loads on ANY vehicle meant nothing more than increased girth and weight: everyone had to yield. Thus you could change your ranking by loading up!
It is important to note, too, that going the wrong way on both one-way and two-way streets was allowable. How to adjust? Simple: use the same size priority rules, and stay alive somehow. This could get interesting when two motobikes headed right at each other... who's chicken now? they seemed to ask. Enough about the roads, already.
Where was Uncle Ho, Anyway?
Considering that the wars fought on Viet Namese soil were primarily over ideology, and the incredible suffering that ensued in executions and reeducation camps, one would think that the commie gov't would be rammed down your throat. But that simply wasn't true for the tourist, and it generally wasn't true for the population at large ten years after the country by and large reopened for business. The officials were there all right, never hard to find. You just looked for the nicest building in town, all yellow with the big red flag out front. Otherwise, however, you'd think you were roaming in just another capitalist country.
Now That'd Be A Po-Lit-I-Cal Question...
As usual, I tried to pull out some politics from any local guides I hired and acquaintances I made. As in China, people were now free to seek economic opportunities; in many cases, they seemed to be doing so at a frantic pace. They just didn't speak up about political issues, though. This kept one on the fine and dandy side of the political fence, apparently. Even still I DID meet a number of people who gave me some stories about the Viet Nam (or American to them) War, old hat.
Amazingly, for the horrific experience the Viet people were put through, most vets were incredibly friendly and forward-thinking. My cyclo driver in Sai Gon, who had fought with the Americans, was sent to a reeducation camp for three years. At the time of this writing he commuted illegally into the city each day to do his illegal job - yet he still managed a very upbeat disposition. Another guy, in whose Me Kong Delta house we literally just wandered into, had a numbered tattoo from his imprisonment from trying to escape to Cambodia. He just laughed and gave us grapefruit. Amazing.
Now here's a bit of trivia fer ya: remember the famous "boat people" from Viet Nam in the 70's? Turns out that most of them were actually Chinese ex-pats persecuted out of the country when China invaded Viet Nam. This brought to mind much of the Jew envy in many European towns between the world wars that came horrifically into play in WWII. Anyway, this mass exodus occurred right after Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and China responded with more than sabre-rattling. But all of this was only after the Americans had finished bombing everything in sight... preceded by the French, the Japanese before, and the Chinese once and forever. Didn't I say this was a forgiving people? (A sidenote: the Viet Namese always won in the end. There's "pluck" for you.)
Back to the political business at hand: All kinds of rules existed for who could be living where, or what kind of business could be done. Apparently not too many people were taking heed, though. Run into trouble with the law? You just paid the fine, or paid off the official, or disappeared for a while. Then back at it. It didn't seem to be something people were worried about.
What you didn't do, however, was mouth off in public or print. No, no - that was how you ended up in real, quite unimaginary trouble. Jail in the developing world, now there was a proposition worth considering. So, no yakking about the guvm'nt allowed. Otherwise you did pretty much what you wanted, checking all appropriate official boxes as encountered... or cleverly skipped by them.
On the other side of it, and in keeping the spirit of ducking to keep your head low, other situations could arise that I heard about. For example, if a government official decided that your place of residence was in the (i.e. his) way, you could expect to be moved out of the way eventually... and possibly very soon. Accept your lot, comrade! Those thus sitting on top of prime property, in particular, had a way of no longer sitting on it when its value increased speculatively. Think beaches, places with views, nice city locations. Still, the guv would likely give some money and a place to go from what I generally understood. SOMEwhere. Lucky you.
Sometimes the government could show its benificent side, however, like after the typhoon that hit the Hoi An area. Many new buildings were built as replacements on the guv's dime. Not that Big Uncle (Uncle Ho is a well-known pseudonym for Ho Chi Minh) couldn't change his mind again down the road. But in light of American events, such as occupied houses being legally and forcibly knocked down to build malls(!) as recently happened in 2006 New York, ostensibly for the public "good" - exactly HOW different the communists were from the Americans, I didn't know. Money talked, poverty walked.
As expected, there were still some of those famously huge "worker's" posters here and there, each lauding the proletariat and such. Classic communist fare, they were gaudy, cheerful things with red scarves aplenty. Nevertheless they seemed to be on the way out, with bigger billboards advertising products and dwarfing them. Same diff.
The same went with the ubiquitous statues and monuments to the Viet struggle against foreigners. They were still everywhere, but it seemed that construction on them had slowed down, or halted. Maybe. Regardless of these visible trends, at the crack of dawn (in the unfortunate remaining areas subjected to them) loudspeakers aurally continued the self-promoting tradition. They kicked themselves on at ungawdly volume with government news for all to hear, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. This was so loudly accomplished, there really was no choice.
Politically speaking, my guessing was that - as must some day happen in China as well - the people were slowly going to assert themselves. Such was the hope to any number of citizens and tourists alike, that some pieces of democracy would come this way however glacially. The increasing openness in Viet Nam lent an aura of inevitability to it. Perhaps first would come freedoms and rights related to business, followed logically by the environment (as a result of business mucking it up), then... who knew? In the meantime the right people would have to be bought off to get between here and there. That was progress of some sort, anyway.
You'll Get There...Somehow!
As one would expect, there was more than one mode of transportation in Viet Nam. Flying, of course, comes to mind. Not a bad option, and the local airline (that'd be Vietnam Airlines) seemed just as nice as any other I knew of. With tickets at $100 for Sai Gon-Ha Noi knocking out a coupla days of travel, this could be a great option when necessary. Da Nang-Ha Noi (1/2 the length of the country) ran $55-$65. There you had the most likely uses of air travel.
Security was a bit of a joke, but who was after the Viet Namese these days, anyway? To illustrate, after pronouncing my name carefully (and in person) to an agent making my ticket for a flight, it ultimately came out in print as Mr. Lyan (Ryan). Bringing this up immediately, I was laughed off - was it really worth wasting more paper to change? Evidently not - the mistake wasn't questioned at any point during the check-in or boarding process. I paid, therefore I went. Simple... logical!
Significantly cheaper (usually) was the train, air-conditioned (all the time - how wacky!) and comfortable enough. You could get a sleeper seat, a cushioned one, or a hard wooden one. One chose wisely, grasshopper - it was YOUR butt. At least on a train you could walk about the cabin to stretch your legs, even if you had nowhere to go. I loved that: possibilities!
No such luck on the bus, though. These were of two classes usually, tourist and local. The tourist bus was more non-stop in its approach, generally with A/C, but there were no guarantees on how often THAT would run. For random entertainment you might get a stream of loud videos, or not (please NOT!). The local's bus was the same deal in practice, just cheaper and in worse shape. Here was the caveat: the tourist bus only ran between about ten cities. Thus you'd go loco-local soon enough if you spent enough time in the land of the rising rice paddy.
Most of the remaining typical public transport opportunities existed in the form of local city buses, which ran the gamut of quality. How long were you going to be on one though, anyway? Super cheap. Same went with minibuses of twelve people or so shuttling between towns. There was no getting up and stretching out in those at ALL, however, which could be hell. Potty breaks were on their schedule, too. I thus wasn't fond of the minibuses, however nice they looked... from the outside.
The last (but definitely not least) "public transport" available was dedicated solely to you. This was when you got on the back of someone's motobike (which were constantly being hawked about) and off you went. Hopefully you arranged the price with the driver ahead of time, but that didn't mean he wouldn't try and raise the price at the end somehow, or pretend to have no change. You'd have to wait out the show of his asking around for spare dong - as he would take his time, too.
Exactly the same money game went for a taxi, a useful vehicle when you had multiple people - or a heck of a lot of stuff. It's worth noting that a humonguous backpack was not considered a lot of stuff, by the way. A motobike driver would find a way to get that on board, no problem - probably on his lap.
Build it - They've Already Come. More Are On The Way
In keeping with the go-go pace that defined Viet Nam at this time (okay, far less so big bizwise than China), a lot of construction was going on. Certainly in all of the areas that the tourists had already found, it seemed that every vacant lot or under-utilised one was swiftly turning into a building with a hotel above. A restaurant or tourist agency soon located below. These were often nice-looking buildings, with lotsa tile and colonial-styled appointments generally. They nevertheless juxtaposed harshly in many cases with ramshackle-built stilt houses or concrete block structures, making for quite a grabbag of architecture... or the lack thereof.
Among the more notable things was that many buildings faced the street at an angle (following feng shui, I believe). More egalitarian in concept, however, the law stipulated that (virtually) every family got the same square footage of land. This seemed a good way to fight sprawl and the keep-up-with-the-joneses nonsense; I found myself agreeing mightily with the sagacity of this particular mandate.
Nevertheless, one could pay the big bucks to get a bit more land just as one paid to get past the national 2-child/family policy. But the vast majority built on the same standard landstamp, usually going up to three or four floors when they could. There was usually a business on the ground floor, family living space on that floor and just above, then either a hotel or more family above that. Buddha might get a balcony or a commanding place in a room all to himself, too - not uncommon at all. This concept of land equality was one of the few areas in which communism actually shone.
Infrastructure-wise, the road system was overloaded - mainly since it wasn't extensive. South of Sai Gon there were almost no bridges over the myriad of waterways nature had provided, yet many were being built. I expected the waterworld there that existed during my trip to change drastically when most of the transport wasn't dependent on ferries.
Elsewhere, the roads just didn't cut it for the traffic they received. Fortunately, motobikes formed the vast majority of what was on the road for the time being: they couldn't be all that taxing on the surface of it. They could get around almost anything, thus (if only unwittingly) doing their part reducing or eliminating traffic jams (at least for themselves).
Meanwhile almost all roads - including highways - were two-lane jobbies. Passing lanes were an esoteric concept, and often incurred a creative venture in the most literal sense. Considering the jungle primacy rules of the road in Viet Nam - with everyone passing each other whichever way - this made for a mess particularly near any city. To compare, a mile or kilometer in the US or Europe probably took 4 times as long to cover in Viet Nam. I couldn't guess how soon this would change - not soon, it seemed.
For all that, the people had spoken - when it came to bulding their castles. By this I mean that there didn't seem to be much control at all on growth limits for housing and businesses. If one was judging by buildings alongside main roads to determine the extent of a city, Sai Gon would've appeared to be the size of Sao Paolo or Tokyo. This was only an illusion, of course, all of one building deep (with rice paddies behind) for a very long distance.
It just meant that all routes out of town effectively turned into unending strip malls. (This was true in other Viet Namese cities as well.) If you weren't facing the main road, you didn't count, apparently. Then, to make this worse (though probably safer considering driving techniques), there might be a barrier placed between the two sides of the road to prevent head-on collisions. This was stellar, at least until you had to go in the other direction. With almost no crossing points, a chosen few would (naturally) pluckily drive the wrong way on one side of the barrier before eventually making it to a hole in the barrier. Once there they'd flip around and continue on the correct side. Good luck with that!
Everywhere, EVERYWHERE, construction was a prevalent activity. There was an immeasurable number of jackhammers and trucks with gravel, sand, and concrete. An incredible amount of the labor was still done by hand, mostly by out-of-town peasants who might live on the jobsite itself in prefab huts. This was backbreaking labor performed under the deathly sun, with buckets slung over shoulders and women and men (more men at the construction sites) laboring away using what looked to be techniques of a former century.
For all that, however, when they were done the buildings looked pretty nice. Except for the tangle of wires stringing them all together. I couldn't comprehend how a telephone or electrical worker could find which wire or connection he needed to work on when he needed to - there were only a million to choose from at each junction. Maybe they just guessed and saw what happened, which seemed like the only possibility. In any case it was all getting built - and quickly.
But, Viet Nam travel must be so haaaaaaaarrrrrrd to go to and so faaaaaaarrrrrrr away!
There're them thar things called airplanes, to handle the second point first. (Carbon footprint was another thing again.) As to the first point: for all this that might've seemed like high adventure, being Viet Nam and all that could imply in 2007, traveling as I did was quite easy to do. The places usually heard about, with the great landscapes? All well-serviced by tour companies, organized by the state, then run privately. Getting there (and for many, getting the photo) wasn't the problem.
No, it was LEAVING said plan where things got interesting. What was intriguing to the western tourist could be simultaneously and oddly humdrum for the local. They might even wonder why you wanted to go where you wanted to - "That old thing? Yeah, that's always been there. So what?" Try explaining your interest to them - good luck with that! Especially because outside of the areas with tourism, English and French (and whatever else) quickly became useless. You learned Viet Namese quick or became a champion at charades or sign language.
The Viet Namese language is perhaps as tough as Chinese to a westerner - no quick learn that! - but fortunately its latin-based alphabet in writing gives reason for hope in sounding out a word. Thank that forward-thinking French Jesuit Priest who designed the written Viet Namese language some 400 years ago - he mighta struck out on conversions, but he made his mark on la langue forevermore. Not that French was a helpful language to start with: the French friends I made in Sai Gon - the priest's own countrymen! - seemed to get iced coffee as often as hot coffee, if always intending the latter. (Maybe they should've known that it was ice coffee time! Half the time, anyway.)
It was no coincidence that I was less intrepid traveling in this country where my foreign language skills amounted to nearly naught. Good luck trail blazing with twisted fingers from repeated failures at sign language. Here was a perfect example of reward versus cost.
To the squeamish, a tougher adventure perhaps laid in the smells one might encounter. But hey, didn't your older brother fart in your face? Didn't your Dad learn ya not to pull his finger? Yeesh! Okay, then: to the western nose, a marketplace could be quite an assault on the schnoz, running from heavenly to atrocious. Butchered meat (you name it, it was there) to floral displays, open sewage to ripe fruits/vegetables. Or just as likely, a restaurant might serve dishes that would stun you with their pleasing aromas where others might make you... question things. It was all there; sometimes the whiff in the air changed every meter or two! Let that at a minimum serve as a marketplace warning. Now forget about that and head in there anyway - you'll be glad you did.
Physical comfort, too, might take a backseat - perhaps extremely so - when it came to escaping the heat/humidity, or taking crowded local transport. I'd done this enough over my travels that I'd come to expect it. That didn't make it more enjoyable, just more bearable instead. However, there were plenty of tourists who got a little jolt when they left their package tour arranged from afar, reversing the accustomed equation of guaranteed bland comfort to experience. Isn't that always the case in travel?
In short you got what you pay for comfortwise, just not experiencewise. You must stick yourself further out to get the random rewards, but they'll likely be bigger than anything a tour could guarantee. Ya gotta take some risks. My strategy was to take as much discomfort as I could, flying low and on the cheap, but when it was enough - okay, I'd give! Then I'd pay that extra dollar for the six more inches of legroom, or I'd lay out some dong for AC that went on for ten minutes an hour instead of a mere five. It's the little things, no?
Temple/Pagoda = Church/Cathedral.
There was no shortage of shrines, monasteries and whatnot for the Buddhist faith in Nam. And, while it was true that the architecture was nothing to scream about in terms of feat, some style points went a long way. Settings for these edifices were often taken into tasteful account, a fortunate thing, while decorative touches ran the gamut from detailed/intricate to outlandish/garish (not so fortunate).
For all the wacky relics found in Europe's churches, the buildings themselves represent architectural marvels that I just didn't see in Viet Nam. So be it. To be fair, though, Europe's religious halls didn't ingeniously blend with nature on the scale of Asia's. It was like comparing a French garden or British maze with a jungle and a forest. Can't compare them.
It's worth noting that the Buddhism practiced in Nam was unusual in its combining the Buddhist strains of China and India. Eight-armed gods and swastikas (the Nazis stole and reversed this symbol of life) met smiling Buddhas in an unexpected way. Yes, THAT same Buddha - he of bellies of differing size, countenances of various ages, and dress of disparate regions (style and traditional roots were more Chinese in the north, Indian in the south).
For the interested, one could pretty much enter any of these places. But they did all start to look alike after awhile, just like churches in Europe. Their environments were almost uniformly agreeable, as were the monks on the grounds. To enter you typically only needed to remove your shoes for "final approaches" to the altarlike displays.
Ubiquitous incense lent its part to achieve a unique atmosphere of scent, but to me the real bonus was when you caught someone chanting. This was rather hypnotic at times, a case of "nearer my Buddha to thee" I'm sure. In any case, chanting had the best hold on me to stay longer. [A disclaimer, perhaps necessary: one might surmise that I'm not exactly religious, but I respect that these institutions did provide some comfort in the minds of their adherents, certainly. I'm all about peace, baby! So insert 10-foot poles as necessary... and please continue reading.]
She Wore an Ai Rong - attire
Jeans or (pa)'jamas - how was a woman s'posed to choose? Both had plenty of adherents in Viet Nam, although there did seem to be a bit of a generational divide among the women, fashion's usual champions. Most/many (depending on the town) women of a certain age still chose what might be called matching pajamas (of silk, or silk-cotton, or cotton) as everyday attire. These garments were nicely flowing, a bit cooler to endure the heat, and were thus the logical choice in my opinion. Of these outfits floral patterns were the pick mostly, making for a colorful street of pastel at times.
Meanwhile, in apparent honor of (modern) fashion, and as a testament to youth's defiance by suffering for a cause, the more-chic girls would wear jeans. Now that was tough sledding in 90F/30C heat, not to mention humidity. Stick-y!
Fitting right in with the jeans look, and de rigeur for women riding the (motor)bikes, there was additionally an accompanying mask, bandanna over mask and neck, glasses, and large hat (floppy, baseball, conical) come riding time. With a premium placed on light skin among the ladies (the men didn't seem to particularly care), long pants and even attachable sleeves were required pieces of a woman's ensemble in daylight, too. If the jeans weren't enough to cook the girl at 100F, then those accoutrements would finish the job, I figured.
In the increasingly rare case, harkening to a time before karaoke ruled Asia, a traditional ai rong might be worn, though mostly only in high-end places affecting class. A pity, that, as these items were truly beautiful. With white (silk) pajamas underneath, the ai rong draped over the torso like a form-fitted sheet, slit on the sides above the hip and dropping to the knees or ground. This would become hip some day in the future I was absolutely positive - just wait until it becomes de la mode in the west. Then I can yell "I told you so!" from the grave or asylum. I guarantee you it will indeed eventually happen, as it both works supremely in the heat and looks great.
As for what the men were wearing, well - as usual - there was not much to say. Long pants, often of loose cotton, and a buttoned short sleeve shirt. Baseball cap, or fisherman's floppy. With their skin exposed, men completely left the paleness objective for the other sex to deal with.
Ice, ice, baby - and the freshy fresh gamble. Brave enough to try?
Gawd, it was hot! Sure would've been nice to have some ice in that drink!: a cube for a cola, an ice tub for a beer, or some ice mash in a fruit shake. But...feel lucky? Wanna risk a little bacterial gut fun? Well, the newbie to the scene almost never does. And wisely so.
But hey, after a week or so... aw, to hell with it! You're in Viet Nam, when ya coming back? The food and drink was the best thing going in Nam, so... bring on the ice (fortuitously manufactured almost only in huge chunks, delivered by (motor)bikes each morning)! COLD can be a really good thing.
Next I'd suggest letting the fresh fruit and vegetables fall off the "verboten" list. That need only take about a day once any ice (pardon me!) has been broken by necessity or lack of will, speaking from experience. Finally, down should go that huge remaining barrier that lets pandora run wild... STREET FOOD! Now you're traveling. Good luck with the gut - may an iron one be with you!
The Net, s'everywhere...
At generally 40 cents an hour, and everywhere you looked at touristed places, the net was around enough. This was generally via a slow connection, but it was faster than dialup, anyway. Picking a place, the cardinal rule was to see how many people were in the place (often a café), plus what they were doing. Buncha kids playing Warcraft? A spaghetti of wires to devices (cameras) for uploading? Lots of folks with headsets making phone calls? Fuhgeddabowdit.
My general attitude regarding the net was that I found it a shame when people just couldn't seem to do without it. It's called TRAVELING! But on this trip, ahem, that unfortunately also needed include me with my uploading of pictures. (A pathetic disclaimer: I didn't want to invest any more in outdated XD cards for my old camera, but I was too cheap to get another camera just yet. Hmmm ... that was kinda like the celphone I still hadn't taken to - another story completely.)
Sigh... on this trip I found myself repeatedly resolving that my net experiences, sitting sometimes for an hour or two on a computer for uploading, would necessitate a change for my future travelling. Increasingly, I was becoming determined to lessen my internet exposure again to a bare minimum.
It seemed to increase with each trip's offering of conveniences that I wanted to return ever more to the old days of "Hi. This is Dave alive in Timbuktu. Bye." Travel was best when it was like that, escapist and distant. You can't escape when you're connected, and to kick up the zen travel karma one must carry the least necessary for comfort and interest. Didn't thus speak senor Quixote, that wise man? To the fool who hasn't read and comprehended that masterpiece yet: the Don knew best.
The Environment. You know, all that stuff around you
The concept of environmentalism - or even the hint of it - had not graced the fine shores of Viet Nam at the time of my visit. There wasn't even lip service. Which meant, to start, good luck finding a trash can on the street! Trash littered the roads, there were heaps near any markets, and any vacant lot next to a business was hopeless. In practice, I at best resigned myself to conjoining my refuse with a bag already started on the curb (kerb if you must).
Regarding kerbs, always an exciting subject, a common sight was to find open drainage canals to their streetside. These mini-sluices ran 6"x6"x6" in dimension (roughly), and apparently kept things moving along as water seemed to often be running down them. They generally looked clean, somehow. Nevertheless, might I advise...? Don't sip.
Where did that water come from? I had no idea, and perhaps no other person did either, but it did seem like a whole hell of a lot got pitched into the street. This ran from rinsewater (from whatEVER), to soups, to rain runoff - who knew? It just flowed. This led to my conclusion that the rivers into which they ultimately drained must've been laden with god-knows-what. Don't sip there, either.
At least there were city workers who materialized randomly, making their way down the streets and picking up the larger (and less biodegradable) stuff. Good luck to them! Yet somehow it could be said that for all this, the smell of rank garbage was NOT detected in the air for the most part. Amazing. (This, of course, did not include the fish, fowl, and beast sections of the open markets, the incarnate definition of "arresting".)
The air, at least in general, seemed pretty breathable - not at a cough-cough-hack level. Sure, there was the random whiff of diesel, and its counterpart dust was on top of everything, but it was nowhere at the extent found in the conurbanisations of South America. Just sayin', not necessarily understandin' by any means! It seemed that the motorbike fleet at least had good mufflers, too. THAT made it all the more the pity that an eco-sense didn't extend to their horns.
Realistically, I guessed that the polluters were around, and unfettered at that. It was just that there weren't enough of them yet to spin your head silly, as had been the case in China. I saw the clusters of (new) factories outside of Ha Noi and Sai Gon, true, but in the grand scheme of things this was still a country of agriculture and handiworks (as in literally done by hand, not any machinery whatsoever!). I guessed that the good news was that up until recently everything around was probably - almost - entirely of an organic composition. Hopefully someone somewhere in the commie-politico-land that ran the country would get this figured out, avoiding setting down too hard along China's disastrous ecopath.
Continuing our pleasant discussion of your friendly neighborhood street... Spitting, pitching trash, pissing (not in core urban areas)? - all permitted, not looked down upon in the slightest. Accordingly, one should watch There was nothing like someone extensively clearing their throat to get you up on your feet and moving. It was headed SOMEwhere.
In eco-green-summary, you couldn't ignore that various shorelines had plenty of plastic bobbing, and plastic bags blew in the breeze too often. Yup. There also lay sticky blobs of unknown and undesirable provenance on most streets and sidewalks. Sigh. BUT, based on my travels in other developing nations, I imagined this would change as the country further developed.
Environmentalism rises in concert with tourism and higher standards of living, demanded both by the vistor and (eventually) the local. All this made me think: maybe Viet Nam should host an Olympics! Nothing seems to break out public works and pride like that, be it Barcelona, Athens, ... even BEIJING (superficially at least.)
Gawd, It's Loud Out There. And In Here, Too!
As for noise, the forgotten side of the environment... where to begin? I came to think of the moto-horn as an extension of the finger in Viet Nam. That was just in the streets. On the river, where the engines were as ancient as could be, and perhaps antique single-strokers at that, the noise could be deafening and without cessation. A number of times near, but out of view of, the river, I thought I heard helicopters approaching. This being Nam and all, that could've been discomfitting if my flashbacks were of a combat type. (Fortunately, they're mostly about elementary school, junior high school, high school, college, first job...)
Nope, that racket was just your local melon boatsman on a run to market. Of course, it wasn't like they noticed any sounds themselves - they were probably all deaf! With the typical boatman manning his craft from a stance a mere foot away from these finely aged propulsion units, there probably was no other possible result. Union, anybody?
Adding to the cacaphony, and inside establishments of all kinds - from hotels and restaurants, to shops and buses - there was a good possibility that there was a (pointless) accompanying din to the environment. TVs, radios, and karaoke wailing away could be absolutely inescapable at times - you really never knew when.
Volume switches probably only ran the gamut of on and (only occasionally) off. Earplugs or, better yet, a good sense of humour, was a necessity. With little or no sound insulation, noises of the street could - and would -easily (and seemingly always) find you. They would, believe me, they would. And you... would... suffer. Sorry! Ta ta, toodle-oo, sorry sorry to be you!
Speaking of noise, what's on TV? And who cares?
In most of my (admittedly cheap) hotels, there was a TV. Ah, the very symbol of modernity! A few times I even flicked them on and spun through the channels. Yuk. Here's what I saw (pretty much the same on each occasion): a buncha channels dedicated to (sappy) Asian telenovelas and music videos, a few cultural channnels displaying old school (i.e., ancient) music and theatre (both Chinese and Viet Namese), a random South Korean station, some Viet Namese stations with variety formats of news/talk/game shows, a Hong Kong station in English, and BBC World.
It was only the last of that lineup that let me know what the hell was going on in the world, should I actually care while travelling. I generally don't. If it was that important, someone would let me know I figured. I'd rather that the hotels spent the money on laundered sheets, if anyone was to ask me. But they didn't, and that was Problem #1, not the TV!
It's the heat AND the humidity
I was in Viet Nam for the rainy season, but I saw little rain. Nice! This merely proved that the Legendary Trip Trumpet Mojo apparently was still in effect, as I've always had the most amazing luck with the sun in places where I should expect wet misery. That said, gawd it was hot. Wished it would rain... nah.
Dealing with such heat and humidity, it became apparent that I'd lost my Florida tolerance... or it was the fact that A/C was not in widespread use in places outside of hotels. Those were the only places I noticed where one could properly combat the heat with some blessed cold. I got by with ceiling fans and was generally quite happy in this regard, but a couple of nights with A/C over the course of the trip were rather blissful, I admit. Typically this added only $1-5 for the pleasure, so expense really wasn't a problem.
The REAL crux of the matter was that outside of your accomodation - which you fortunately had a hand in choosing, of course - rare was the place on the streets to otherwise retreat from the heat. Fans might be cranked up in various restaurants and businesses, sometimes one to a table or desk, possibly sufficient. Until you moved out of its breeze zone, anyway. But for the truly cool blast, it was back to quarters, soldier.
Was it humid? Yes, plentifully so. Thus it was the case that if my mojo succeeded in preventing rain, it abjectly failed in holding back my own portable and dripping weather system - me. This was especially so in the south, but certainly not restricted to it. (The highlands could give a break from both 'H words', however.)
With this in mind I often got out early (very! like 5-6 a.m.) to enjoy the morning, then ducked for cover during midday. I then reappeared like a phoenix from whatever bunker at dusk to see if the radiation had lifted. Was there anything out alive still beyond the cockroaches? At least I had a plan!
Tout and Shout - The Price of Doing Business
"Motorbike?" "You want motorbike?" "Hey, Motorbike!" "MOTORBIKE!" Hmmm, perhaps you'd like... a motorbike? If I had a dime for every time.... One thing that took quite a bit of getting used to, even after a few weeks of such verbal assault, was the constant haranguing, harrassing, and harrumphing involved in walking down the street. Frankly, no one was allowed to just stroll. Sigh.
Every trick in the book, down to frankly blocking your way, was employed. Surely, there MUST be some good or service you were after! You couldn't be aimlessly walking nowhere! And damnit, the world needed to know what it was NOW to better serve you. So... motorbike?
Relief of your Dong (roughly 16000 to the US dollar) was but a trivial consequence. Such trifling affairs as paying were to be left for later - let's get the business started... like NOW! "Where are you going?" "What are you doing?" "How many people are with you?" "What do you want to do?" All information was on the block, but it was up to you to offer a morsel, should you be so bold.
If you DID offer said morsel, then you were really in for it. Unless that was what you were looking for! Nah. The problem was that ambling about and shooting pictures didn't put rice on the table, or (more importantly) a motorbike in the foyer - the garage de nuit (at nighttime). So, please buy, you silly foreigner, YOU!
Granted, one did get better at refusal, much as a fighter probably takes hits better after a bludgeoning. What first used to be a smile and a polite and fully enunciated "No, thank you." gradually became a shake of the head and then only a hand raised a miniscule degree. Toward my final days I was down to a subtle NO twitch which was perceived imperceptibly as I moved on. USUALLY. Sigh.
At the storefronts, it was almost always the most attractive girl or woman of the (family) business entreating potential customers with a smile and a "Come look!" The accompanying, violent, and come-hither hand wave could be particularly insistent immediately afterward. Surely, you must be a fool if you wouldn't come-right-this-way to the most-amazing-goods-bargain anywhere!
Brand names? Uh, yeah... sure! - "same same (pause) but different". As in there was a 100% chance it was phony. (There were t-shirts with the ubiquitous phrase "same same but different" - a better souvenir there couldn't be.) One quickly got used to this sleight of hand, as it could apply to EV-R-EE-THING. On the other hand, it was probably honest. Are Gucci handbags ever worth their price? (NO!)
On many sidewalks and street corners, there was a ubiquitous middling-aged man resting halfway on his motorbike/cyclo/tuktuk. There he whiled away the day under the sun (or, far more likely, the shade of the tree or building - he wasn't stupid), keeping one eye on passers-by and the other on whatever they were really interested in. The third eye slept. Kids, too, were likely to be "employed" in this biz as well, if all stops needed to be pulled out. Family worked that way in this slice of Asia.
EVERYone WAs always selling SOMEthing. Incidentally, it should be noted that the wares themselves were almost always incredibly cheap. At the time of this trip, I could only smile at the bargaining game - what was a few thousand dong (a coupla dimes) between friends? Indeed, it was all fun and games at such prices, in 2007. But there'd be gnashing teeth and drawn blades five years hence, when the price had immeasurably gone up, the tourists numbered in the millions plus, and the Viet Namese had leveled the economic playing field somewhat.
For those of a shopping mind, meanwhile, there were some great handicrafts to be had at good prices. Especially if you needed ta gits ya some Buddha statuary, lanterns, silks, clothing accessories - anything really. Viet Nam was less a secret with every passing day, if secret could at all be fairly applied anymore, but it still was awfully inexpensive.
Bargaining itself was straightforward, just like in the rest of the developing world - you asked their price, they sized you up as an idiot, and there you were. Ever so wisely, you cut it in half. Apparently you just stabbed their mother their newfound look now said: once you were in the door and talking turkey, the smiles went buh-bye and it was time to get down to it.
Next they perhaps would split the difference, returning to talk about your deep friendship of five minutes. Maybe you would hold the line, or give a wee bit. They came down further, perhaps, or you wiggled up. Maybe another round. "Best price?" you might offer up to the gods. A knowing smile. Price lockdown. Now you stayed or went.
Walking of course, intensified this struggle of the proletariat (or the polisario, or the politburo - I gotta keep all the fronts straight). How many steps can be walked before a new final offer was tendered? Would it? Would you actually make it to the street front? Had you mosied to the next business? Wouldn't they, uh, (please?) come out, desperate for your honored business? Or would you returning for another (this time final! Promise!) round? Or would you admit some kind of defeat instead, sullenly and sheepishly retracing your steps to the battlefield to make the purchase? Your move.
Whatever the move, it was wrong to think that the businessman was a cheat and a lowdown and all that nonsense. It only FELT like it - although some tourists didn't take well to this reality. This was how it was DONE in Viet Nam (and most of the developing world). Just because you didn't play the game wisely, it didn't mean that the game was wrong. It was their culture, subject to supply and demand. Just because we only went through this headache back home when we bought cars didn't mean we couldn't have the same luxury when buying... toiletpaper.
Strategywise, halving the price was always a good start and, with the resulting astonished face of the seller, fun could begin in earnest. It did help to remember that this is (could be?) fun! Accepting in advance that the seller would always win (that was how they stay in biz after all, and only they knew the actual numbers), I'd come to look at it as series of bullshit excuses to gain territory. Since playing the game was a must, might as well enjoy it.
Some of these experiences served as a rich vein of fun anecdotes to remember, with gambits often ridiculous on both sides. For every time the seller noted that I was rich (not based on my look, surely), I'd note how much better he was doing than his neighbors - it was all relative. Next they might say that they were having a tough go of it - even if it rarely struck me as the case with the ones I tangled with. Perhaps he'd relate about how he thought he had made a connection with me that allowed a "special" price... or they didn't have change on hand... or... or....
It could be quite the show, really - and you had to laugh or suffer the mentally draining consequences. Sometimes it was worth sticking to guns if only to count how many steps outside of the shop would have to walked before, amazingly, the last price countered with was actually okay. Other times that would result in walking away and forever wondering: was I really that close to success? Was there ever a REAL price? Doubtful - a bigger sucker would come along soon enough, anyway.
On a related note, as a tourist one sometimes looked to take an organized tour. For example, the Me Kong Delta and Ha Long Bay were places where tours saved me a lot of money and headache. That didn't mean paying the best price or going with the best outfit, but at least in Viet Nam I knew that I'd probably be fine - more or less the same tour was offered many times over.
I talked around, read any handy guides, then made a best guess. Since almost every hotel offered services to place tourists on these tours, it never was hard to find guide services. They may have lifted the name of another agency with a deserved good reputation, but no matter.
It WAS important to note that, in Viet Nam anyway, hotel staff was always VERY eager to provide these services. In fact, they'd often appear hurt or pissed off when not used in favor of another outfit. This was a tricky affair at times, especially when they pushed so hard that, as a westerner, you naturally recoiled under the pressure and decided to take your business elsewhere.
THAT response, believe it or not, could be the biggest insult to the hotel owner: the low price of the hotel room was often only so in the first place because they expected you to pay for some more things outside of your meager room. Who knew that a room wasn't just a room? It wasn't. From numerous ex-pats I spoke with over my time in Nam I only eventually learned that that was actually the case. Perhaps that was true in a majority of the time in backpacker areas, so... in for a dollar, out for a dong. You decide.
Begging - your guess is as good as mine
Hand in hand with bargaining was begging, which had that same feel of negotiating around honesty. It Viet Nam, begging ran quite the gamut. The amputees and otherwise mangled persons certainly evoked sympathy - it really just depended on your level of empathy and pocket depth to determine how much you wanted to help out. Good on ya in such an event. No question that Viet Nam was a poor place, and some folks were unquestionably suffering. It's hard to argue that's not the case with someone missing limbs or worse.
More questionnable, however, were some of the "acts" that come along. Without disfigurations to aid you, these created a real guessing game. I saw some amazing transformations from normal to hideous and pitious looks as a corner was rounded or a restaurant was entered. One guy even worked up a frothing mouth in no time - impressive. Another work of art was the look this one kid gave as he imitated shoveling food into his mouth with an empty hand was Oscar-worthy (I had just seen him joking with a friend.)
Timing, of course, was everything. Nothing like getting ready for a big juicy bite and having someone tug your sleeve and rub their belly. From what I heard, this was a lot worse in the past. So you definitely could become callous to the whole affair - indeed, it was much like the case with the beer bums at Seattle's freeway exits. But they were not going away any time soon, not within the span of one visit to the country. So you had no choice but to face up to what to do - help someone in need, or someone in greed. Good luck figuring it out.
Hygiene for Gene and Jeanne
Clean could be found, however fleeting: it was all a state of mind. Loogie hawking, spittin', one-nostril finger blasts, sneezes to the wind... ah, Viet Nam! Denmark this wasn't. Yes, the blood and the pungent bite was there - better get used to it. Stepping out the front door might invite unbidden the charming scene of a lady whacking off a fish head... or pounding some pork butt tender.
The smaller the alley, the more intense the experience. You'd get over it, though. You had no choice. Hey, the hotel rooms were generally just fine and smelled good - and at $6/night, come on! (This is speaking only to backpackers; others could check into the nearest version of a Holiday Inn and thus effectively bypass the country as more upscale travel encourages.)
Moving now straight to the bathroom (because I know that's where you want to go), yes, the western toilet was found in abundance. Certainly in the touristed places. Like I said, merchants WOULD separate you from your dollar, and dammit they knew we's sitters and we'ints squatters. Which is not to say that you wouldn't - at some point - get caught with your pants down, so to speak. Moreover, said commode might be soaking wet from the shower just above it, or some prior numbnut might have forgotten to have taken the toilet paper out prior to taking a shower - now it was all wrinkled and soggy. But... WE HAD TOILET! Except, as mentioned, when we didn't (think of two footprints and a hole - with a flusher!).
Anywho, these places were usually clean enough, especially if you thought about keeping them that way. Heck, there was often even an extra (jet) hose next to the toilet for those who wanted to go that extra, whistle-clean, butt-blution, ablution mile. Often a towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, soap, and even shampoo were included in even the cheapest places (and I know cheap) - WOW!
Sometimes even shower slippers came with the room - not new ones, but there they were. When you got to showering with them on, often you even got your own personal symphony of quacking ducks as they merrily squished to your shower dance (sometimes down around the sink and toilet since the shower was overhead). At least everything in this holiest of rooms logically drained to a corner - it just was best to adopt a zen attitude of into-the-hole it goes.
All of the above was verbage only regarding hotel toilets, though. The public toilet, as one might surmise, was a bit LESS clean. It might be more or less as above in a restaurant/bar with a more western clientelle, sure. But then again it might well disappear in favor of a hole with two footprints (one on each side, you do the logistics). In that case you'd grab onto something nearby only if you dared.
This formal version of a plumbed hole could degrade quickly, however - lose the footprints, lose the flusher. Maybe you'd pee into a fetid trough or have to take it outside out back. I came to wonder if there was some logical equation for toilet quality, both relating it to city center proximity... and the amount of money exchanging hands at the shop. Sure seemed that way.
Back at the hotel, and outside of the bathroom, there wasn't much more to say about the room proper. Bed, table, chair, TV, A/C unit (with remote to activate it, if you paid for it), ceiling or even floor fan. Standard stuff. And sheets. I never entirely figured out if they washed them rigorously or just remade the bed. Well, sometimes I was SURE the bed was just remade, but we won't go into that.
Why? Because... when you were tired after a hot day, boy that bed felt good! Come that magical time, it was best to fall asleep quick - the A/C could sometimes be shut off remotely to save expensive energy. This was accomplished at the front desk by merely flipping the circuit breaker. Yes, they would. But what was a few thousand dong, or a little hot air, between friends?
I guess one couldn't escape talking at least a little about the war. As an American who was a bit of a history buff, I came to Viet Nam with a bit of foreknowledge. Still - I wasn't looking to find reenactments of past battles, or walk down those memory lanes. The Viet Nam that interested me was the now, and the future.
For all that self-imposed ignoring, it's not like I had no opinion though. I firmly believed that it was an incredibly mistaken war, and that the Americans had no business putting a people through such a hell for American political ends. It was a height (or rather, depth) of cultural egotism writ in blood. (Guess where I stood on the Iraq fiasco.)
It wasn't that I thought that communism was so great, though. Actually it's never made much sense to assume equality among people's abilities or desires. THAT supposition goes against human nature. (I'm not saying we can't do some things collectively for the common good, however.)
The Viet people should have always been in control of their own fate. Indeed, who knows what might have happened if there were no colonization attempts by the Americans, French, and Chinese over the years? Might Viet Nam have evolved to democracy on their own over time, with the free exchange of ideas? We'll never know, but our heavy-handed involvement unquestionably set them back for a time as it DID happen.
So no, I didn't wander much about the tunnels or related (war) museums. Maybe some other time - I knew where they were, what they meant. But it was in a past I was uninterested to actively explore further, and a sorry past it was. It was like it could be completely ignored even if I wanted to, anyway.
For example, at times I would see an old pillbox or some bulletholes in a wall amidst a great amount of beauty. In such moments I'd have no choice but to find myself wondering what events must have taken place right where I was standing. What tension was in the air then? And what the crap were people thinking, turning such a beautiful and calm place into such a tinderbox of hell?
I'd never really know, of course. But the Viet Nam of 2008? That was a cool place. A hot one, too. Tasty. And how.
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