Monday, May 27, 2013

Vietnam, in Vignettes

I'll admit it: it took us a little while to warm up to Vietnam. In Saigon, we felt hustled by taxi drivers and aggressive touts. When we left Saigon for the quiet mountain town of Da Lat, Nod came town with a bad stomach bug that forced us to lay low for two days. By "lay low," I mean that Nod spent some 36 hours heaving in the bathroom while I fed him ice chips and beat every single level of "Plants Versus Zombies" on my iPad. Not the Wazis at our finest. Da Lat is also the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, which meant that we were surrounded by inescapable adorableness even as we were feeling rotten. Here we were, slumped over in a swan-shaped paddle boat, or holding our stomachs on the scenic gondola ride overlooking the pristine rose gardens. In our sickness, we felt taunted by the ever-present cuteness.

Furthermore, Not many people speak English in the big cities (though we've been relieved to run into more English speakers in smaller towns). We know it's our responsibility to learn the languages of the countries we travel to, but Vietnamese is a tonal language with six different tones, so it's not a simple thing to pick up. It turns out that when we thought we were saying "Hello!" we were really asking, "Would you like rice soup?" So the potential has been high for both the joy of cultural immersion and the frustration of misunderstanding. For the first few days, we were feeling more of the latter.

In addition to all that, traveling from Cambodia to Vietnam meant traveling from former war zone to former war zone. In actuality, being in Cambodia was much emotionally heavier for us than it has been for us to be here in Vietnam, at least so far. I think what it really comes down to is that Nod and I can only emotionally process one thing at a time. We visited the Vietnam war museum in Saigon only two days after we visited the Killing Fields, and it made our heads spin to hold so much war in our minds at once. It has been difficult to allow ourselves to deeply reflect on the role our country played in Vietnam's recent past, and the violence that was brought about because of it. When given the chance to stay at a beach near the site of the My Lai massacre, I opted out. My heart is just still too heavy.

All the same, I still feel shy to let Vietnamese people know that I'm American, though they don't bat an eyelash. When we've asked people how they feel about American tourists, they just shrug and say "The war was a long time ago." I keep wondering what people really think, deep down, but people seem genuinely happy to see us. And I suppose that is the cycle of life: countries go to war, and later they become friends again. I suppose I should celebrate this as a good thing, but I still felt a bit strange getting a manicure in a country we recently napalmed. But then again, maybe time is a better healer than I thought. Could it be possible that in forty years Americans will have their honeymoon in Fallujah or Kabul as easily as we went to Vietnam? It seems so unimaginable, even scandalous.

But things in Vietnam have been looking up for us again as of late: we've tracked down some decent vegetarian food this week, along with some free bicycles. Now that we're feeling better, there has been much to enjoy and appreciate: the surprising public dance and aerobic classes in the park in Saigon, the flowering bonsai trees and songbirds in the country's many gardens, syrupy sweet iced coffee, stunning sunsets that turn rice paddies orange and pink, colorful lanterns floating romantically down the river in Hoi An. 

Wandering the streets of Saigon

Yay, Vietnam!

But enough of an introduction: here are the stories of our recent exploits, told in vignette form. Read below to discover why bicycles are best, how to change a flat tire, and why you should never, ever try the ginger sauce.

One: On the woes of being a vegetarian in Vietnam
When ordering food in Vietnam, especially as a vegetarian, there is one rule to remember: never assume anything. I myself am not an official vegetarian, though I trend that way, and Nod is nearly vegan in his eating habits. In any case, I'm often wary of eating meat in foreign countries: eating beef steak is well and good, but eating cow brain is not, and I want to have the language skills to know the difference. We started off our journey in Vietnam overly ambitious about our ability to order street food with zero language skills whatsoever. Nod ordered a vegetarian sandwich and got beef liver instead. At a bus stop, what we thought was tofu with tomato sauce turned out to be slices of pork covered in oxtail stew. That was enough to turn our stomachs for the remainder of the bus ride (though on the mountainous roads we've been traveling, that isn't hard to do: I was handing out Dramamine like candy to fellow passengers during our last trip from Da Lat).

But when things go wrong with Vietnamese food, they can go really wrong. I was made to sample something the other day that our host described as "spicy ginger sauce." Its secret ingredient? Pulverized rat. As if by way of clarification, the old woman selling it made little squeaky rat sounds and pantomimed how she barbecued and then bludgeoned the rat with her mortar and pestle. Fabulous.

Other foods in Vietnam that we have dodged more successfully: fried crickets, snake wine, cat, boiled eggs with baby chickens inside (this was billed as a great snack for a night of drinking), scorpions, dog, and monkey brain. 

Yum: Fried crickets with a side of chili sauce.
Happily, our hostel directed us to a vegetarian-only street food cart last night and we had the most delicious pho soup yet, so we're feeling more hopeful about the cuisine again.

Day #5: our first good vegetarian meal. Hallelujah!

Two: Not what we bargained for

Seasoned travelers though we may be, bargaining is its own art form that requires good humor, quick math skills and--above all--knowing how much something is actually worth. Nod and I honed our skills in countries we actually lived in, where we knew the language and the prices. Then haggling turns less into a contest of wills and becomes a form of market entertainment. I once spent two hours bargaining in Arabic for a rooster statue in Egypt (meant to be the crown jewel in my dad's extensive rooster collection) and when we finally came to a deal, the shopkeeper shook my hand and invited me to stay for lunch. It was my greatest achievement with that difficult language.

Arriving in a new country, especially when you don't know the language or the currency, feels like you're flying blind. And so it was on our first day in Saigon, when we tried to find a taxi that would take us to a network of old Viet Cong tunnels a few miles outside the city. We were still at the point where we needed to pull each bill out of our wallet to remember how much it was worth, and kept forgetting the exchange rate. We were hardly in our best form, but we never expected the human drama that would unfold over a simple afternoon of site seeing.

The first taxi driver we approached might have been certifiably insane. He was pacing the sidewalk outside of the Vietnam war museum, angrily biting off a chocolate Popsicle and barking to his friends sitting in the shade nearby. His face was red and his eyes were opened wide as flecks of ice cream flew out of his mouth as he spoke. He was not the kind of driver we would ordinarily approach, but his eyes locked on us as soon as we came into view, and his ferocious gaze shrank our willpower to walk away. We were cornered. As he approached, he tore the Popsicle wrapper off its stick and threw it on the ground separating us from him. The gauntlet was thrown. We gulped. As he slid the last bit of ice cream over his tongue, we tentatively asked, "Cu Chi tunnels?" He grunted. We named our price. After turning his head to bark something unintelligible to his friends, he agreed and started to herd us into his car. Stunned that he agreed to our price so quickly and a bit turned around by the rapid turn of events, we sat wide eyed in his stifling taxi, wondering how we had just agreed to spend our afternoon with the angry ice cream man. Luckily, he gave us an out soon enough: we had scarcely pulled away from the curb when he locked all of our doors and demanded a 10% increase in the price. Not eager to be extorted all afternoon, we forced open the doors and fled onto the sidewalk.

The next two taxi drivers we spoke to were blessedly calm and sincere young men, but the language barrier was formidable. Which is to say that the only word in English they knew was "okay," and the only word we knew was, "pho soup," entirely irrelevant to the negotiations at hand. More than once during our feeble attempts at sign language, the drivers would pull out their phones and start dialing someone. We assumed they might be calling a friend or colleague who spoke English and who might translate, so when they held out their phones to us to speak, we answered with an English "Hello?" But on the other end, there was only ever silence, or sometimes a man speaking Vietnamese. We never fully understood what that was about. But after pulling out maps, calculators, and cellphones, we finally found a nice, professional young guy who seemed to understand where we wanted to go for a price we were willing to pay. We relaxed into the seat of his taxi, grateful for the cool air conditioning and looking forward to seeing these remarkable tunnels used during the war. True, some miscommunication still happened and we ended up driving some 20km the wrong way for a while, but we eventually arrived and, with lots of sign language, tried to communicate to the driver that we would meet him again in two hours.

The tunnels were impressive: built by local villagers over 20 years of war--first with the French, later with the Americans--they added up to a system 200 km long and so deep in parts that outsiders visiting them have died for lack of oxygen.

Crawling through the relatively spacious first tier of the tunnels

Used both to permit village life to continue under heavy shelling and also to aid their fighters, they built underground schools, hospitals, kitchens, meeting rooms, and bomb shelters. Hidden tunnel entrances dotted the jungle, giving fighters the chance to snipe at enemy soldiers unseen. It was a bit unsettling: a 1967 propaganda movie showing at the visitor center praised a girl from Cu Chi for being a "#1 American Killer," and our guide showed us all the booby traps these guerrillas used against the Americans, usually made out of nails, sharpened bamboo, or unexploded American bombs. I could appreciate the hell it must have been for these drafted American soldiers to be sniped at in the jungle by an enemy they couldn't see--though it certainly wasn't the same hell the Vietnamese faced when their country was invaded and bombed (with more bombs than were dropped in all of WWII, I learned), with two million killed just during the American phase of their longer war for independence.

So we spent two hours crawling through tiny tunnels and learning about life during the war, and then happily found our taxi driver waiting for us as promised. We began to relax--ha ha, we thought, how absurd our first ice cream eating taxi driver had been, how easily everything had worked out in the end. Our trip home came during rush hour, when even the back streets we took through village markets were filling up with motorbikes and drivers jockeying for some space in the crushing flow of traffic. It was right about then when we felt a thud, and our driver's eyes widened in alarm. He forced his way through the traffic over to the side of the road, where he parked, and then flung himself running into the oncoming cars. Left alone without explanation, we slowly made our way out of the car to assess the damage: a flat tire. In the distance, we saw our driver running back toward us just as maniacally, waving a hub cap in his hand victoriously. How he managed to find it and pluck it off the road without being run over, we will never know. Nod and our friend David set to work assisting our driver--whose sharp looking uniform was now covered in grease--with the car jack and the spare, while our friend Erin and I were left trying to divert traffic safely around the three guys. 

Nod also thrust his camera in my hand to document this unfolding scene of craziness, which had me wading through puddles of rain water and motor oil to stand among the swerving cars to get a good angle. I have never felt more like an intrepid photojournalist. It was right when I was putting back on the lens cap when I noticed a large bus barreling towards us. Nod and David looked up just in time to dash out of the way. By now the bus driver realized he hadn't given us quite enough clearance as he tried to inch past the car without scraping it. He ended up clearing it by less than an inch.

When all was finally fixed, we passed around kleenexes as our driver futilely tried to wash the grease off his tie with a bottle of drinking water. When we climbed back in, our driver--who had earlier driven us in silence, turned on techno remixes of 1980s love songs and blasted them as loudly as he could. I guess we all have our different ways to unwind. 8 hours after we had first begun negotiating a taxi, we finally returned to our backpacker hostel--filthy from the tire change and from climbing through the muddy tunnels. It had hardly gone as we had planned, but then, I don't think we would have changed a thing.

Three: Vietnam on Two Wheels

Our best days abroad have been spent on two wheels--bicycles and, recently, motorbikes--that allow us to venture off into the countryside and do our own exploring. We rented bicycles when we were in Cambodia and relished the freedom and fun we got from our bikes. In Hoi An, we wobbled on our bikes over back country dirt roads to ride by vegetable gardens and rice fields in surrounding villages. One sunny day at high noon, our road dead-ended into a flooded coconut grove. Woven bamboo boats shaped like teacups hovered in the water, where farmers would paddle out to check on their crops. 

Round basket boats

We happened to run into an old woman who motioned that we could get in her boat with her, and so we spent an hour floating between the palm fronds in an area that once housed a secret base for the Viet Cong.

In Nha Trang, a German man offered to let us ride his gorgeous, never-ridden mountain bikes and take a class at his wife's yoga studio for free in exchange for Nod taking some promotional pictures of their businesses. We rode our bikes out over rickety wooden bridges and through village roads for three hours in search of a famous Buddha statue nearby.

It was the day of the full moon festival, so families and monks filed into the temple to bring their prayers and offerings. It was a lovely and peaceful day.

But in Vietnam, we've also upped the ante by a few cc's in the form of motorbikes.

I am the worrier of this relationship. I fret when the bicycles we rent don't come with helmets. I worry about unseen potholes, the carelessness of other drivers, the hazards of braking too quickly if we come across an unexpected water buffalo in the road (true story: we saw a Vietnamese family take a spill after running into one of these mighty creatures on the road at night. Everyone was alright, I think). 

Hazards of the road in Vietnam

Despite my efforts at yogic breathing and the calming mantras I repeated in my head, all of these anxieties were magnified when we agreed to go on an all-day countryside tour of Da Lat--on motorcycles. The tour came very recommended to us: our guide was born in a hill tribe village, where their customs and language differ radically from most Vietnamese. The area we were in is famous for coffee groves and market places, and our guide promised to show us life inside his hard-to-access home village. All of this would be done on motorbikes.

Now, Nod had been as very patient as he could. All through Thailand, I cited the risks of driving motorbikes when he petitioned for an afternoon ride. "The crazy traffic!" I said. "It's on the wrong side of the road!" We agreed to a truce on the motorbike question for the duration of Thailand, and in Cambodia, I was able to persuade him to join me on a bicycle instead. "It's better for the environment!" I protested. "You love the environment!" In Vietnam, Nod finally had the chance to jump on the back of a motorbike taxi to tour some temples in Saigon as I spent a morning working on our blog. He came back breathless and ready to drive his own--and shouldn't I try one, too? 

Nod and his motorbike driver in Saigon

In Da Lat, I finally relented, though my vision was still to ride on the back of someone else's bike--preferably driven by someone Vietnamese who had been riding a motorbike since the age when they could first stand. Nod decided to ride his own bike during our tour, and spent a half hour during breakfast practicing with the bike in an alley behind our hostel. "It's easy," he said. "Just like a bicycle--with a lot more power." I nodded grimly. That was precisely the problem.

When the moment came, I climbed on the back of our guide's bike, and Nod and three other guests followed along behind. I held on with sweaty palms, trying my best not to visualize flying off the back of the bike and ending up splattered on the roadside. It's a bad habit of mine. Nod, in the meantime, was loving life, secretly hoping to fall behind the group just ever so slightly so he would have an excuse to come roaring back, accelerating through the admittedly sparse traffic in the mountains.

After an hour on the bike, even I started to relax. We couldn't have been going very fast--maybe 35 mph at most--so it was soon very comfortable to just sit back and enjoy the scenery--though I still kept a sweaty grip on the guide's jacket. We made several stops: at a cricket farm where we declined to sample fried insect treats, to a family's silk worm workshop, and through a local market. 

The day seemed so carefree by now that I mentioned in a sort of swaggering way that I could probably ride on the back of Nod's bike, seeing how easy this whole motorbike thing was. I secretly hoped that I could still claim dibs on my old spot on the guide's bike, but another girl in our group quickly took my place. So here we were: the Wazis on two wheels, though not in our usual pushbike fashion.

I believe this was taken early on in the day, before I had reached near panic attack levels

To my credit, I'd like to say that I did very well for, oh, the first hour. Sure, I tensed up whenever we accelerated, and I found myself whispering in his ear more than once to slow down, please, if he wouldn't mind, thank you. But the scenery was so gorgeous that it took my mind off things: we were ducking in between green, forested mountains with the sun sometimes jacketed by whispy clouds that kept us cool. Coffee trees lined the roads, and families hauled out their private supply of fresh rice kernels to dry in the sun by the side of the road. We stopped to admire a cascading waterfall.

But after some time of riding on these gently curving, broadly paved roads, we took a turn onto a narrow dirt track. Rain and motorwheels had gauged out stretches of the path, leaving us to totter across narrow strips of passable road with our feet down on either side. Tractors and supply trucks competed for space between stretches of farmland, leaving little room for us to work around. Each pothole we hit wound me tighter, until I had to start wiping the sweat of my palms onto Nod's shirt before resuming my death grip. My supplications to slow down became more insistent in his ear. I knew I had to be stressing him out, which doesn't help him drive any better, but I had lost that cool confidence I boasted of earlier in the day and was now simply focused on my survival.

Decidedly less enthused as the day wore on

My panic was given an afternoon respite when we arrived at our guide's village and got to spend a few hours on our feet, rather than the bike. We met his family, ate some delicious vegetarian noodles (prepared by his sister, who is a Buddhist nun and therefore vegetarian as well). But the best part of the day was when he decided to have us drop in on some neighbors to see if we could find some villagers who would be willing to entertain a couple of foreigners for the afternoon. So we literally started going door to door, calling to see if anyone was home.

The house we ended up staying in was originally just a one-room wooden house, though the government had paid to have some concrete additions put on to help better house the 13-member family. Since it was the middle of the day, the men were all working in their farms, leaving behind a group of mothers and sisters-in-law who ranged from ages 84 to 36. It was here that I was made to eat rat paste (best paired with fermented rice left in a gourd for four days, which the 84 year old woman gulped down with apparent glee). But we also had a chance to ask them questions through translation, where we learned that this village was a matriarchal society: women purchased their husbands, kept the family property, and passed on their names to their children. (When asked which of the men in our group would make the best husband material, one of the middle-aged unmarried daughters stood up, stared each man in the face only inches from them, and eventually concluded that on account of Nod's facial hair and high energy, he would probably do). When at the ripe age of 13 or 14 they gave birth to their first child, they would deliver their children in their home or in the fields where no one was allowed to touch the new mother and child for an entire week. It was no surprise, then, when these women lit up a cigarette midway through our conversation--I might need to take the edge off, too, after giving birth all alone.

I should mention here that our guide's translation services were not always keep true to the original meaning. He took endless pleasure in telling the older women to repeat after him, and then slowly having them say "I love you" or "Gangnam style," and then watching as they would turn to beat him after discovering what they had said. 

Now, there are a number of poisonous snakes in the highlands of Vietnam, and the most deadly is a small green snake that likes to live in coffee trees. We had already learned that our guide kept a small rubber snake in the pocket of his track pants after he flung it at Nod in a coffee grove and caused us all to fall over in panic. These village women were not to be messed with, however. When our guide repeated his antic and threw the rubber snake at their feet, one woman was already pulling off her shoe as the snake was mid-flight, and then proceeded to beat it until she was sure it was dead. I have no doubt that she would have been able to tear a lion apart with her bare hands if it had come to it. In the end, I'll place my bets every time on the women who deliver their own babies in a field.

Four: Summer nights

Three days ago, Nod and I flew to the seaside town of Hoi An. This was definitely the softcore way to travel: we could take a 16 hour bus ride through the mountains, or we could pay $100 for a 55 minute flight. I thought over this decision for, oh, 0.3 seconds. (Had we taken a bus, though, as we did from Saigon to Da Lat, we could have enjoyed the most beautiful sleeper buses in the world. My queasy stomach just thought otherwise).

Bunk beds on the bus!

So we arrived, and soon after we hopped on a few free bicycles provided by our hotel and aimed for the nearest beach. As soon as we got there, we knew we had been wasting our time the previous 2 days when we had twiddled our thumbs at a resort beach overrun by Russian tourists. The beach in Hoi An was quiet, ringed by mountainous islands, with warm water lapping up on a stretch of sand populated overwhelmingly by local families. We sank into the waves and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon of swimming and dodging little sand crabs.

Around 5pm, Nod tapped me on the shoulder. "Did you notice how crowded it's gotten?" In my relaxed stupor, I hadn't seen the steady stream of Vietnamese families filing onto the beachfront, carrying coolers and ordering bowls of rice soup from vendors that had popped up out of no where. Teenagers off of work ran into the water with their uniforms still on, girls played with each others' hair, fathers carried naked babies over the shoulder and into the shallow waves. Soon the beach was packed with family picnics, so Nod and I settled in at one of the impromptu restaurants, ordering coconuts and lemon juice as we sat and watched in little plastic chairs that sunk lopsided into the sand. Above the din of conversation, we heard someone play recordings of Debussy and Rachmaninov.

And then the full moon rose. I didn't see it at first, as transfixed as I was on all the family scenes around me and on the pink swirling clouds of sunset to the west. It was as the sun had just dipped below the horizon that I turned the other way and thought, for a moment, that the sun had somehow flown across the sky to rise again in the east. The moon was brilliant orange and huge, so much larger than the sun could ever be. It hovered low against the horizon and slowly changed from a vibrant red to a vermillion, shrinking again as it climbed higher. I have never seen anything like it before. At first I thought that all these families had come because of the moon--many of the places we've traveled to have special full moon festivals. But no, as I later learned: like us, they had come because the summer nights are hot and the seafood is cheap. So we all sat together, enjoying a summer evening.

And now we've finished our first week in Vietnam, and we still have much to see. Later today we'll fly to Hanoi, and then admire the famous beauty of Halong Bay and the terraced rice fields of Sapa. And though some of you at home may have realized that, technically, our time abroad will soon be coming to a close, Nod and I still prefer to keep our eyes firmly glued to the present. No need to start counting down the days when we still have yet to see Malaysia and Japan! Many more adventures still await us in our final weeks. And once our travels are over, we will die of happiness to see you all back home once again.

Until then-!

No comments:

Post a Comment