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Theme song of the Day:
Noctuary – Bonobo
In a country so stricken by poverty, its hard to fathom how a shop that sells only large stuffed caterpillars can make a go of it. This is the complexity and contradictory simplicity that is Vietnam.
As we made our way through the maze-like waterways of the Mekong Delta we were struck by so many thoughts and feelings that seemed at odds with each other.
The Mekong Delta supports millions of people and it shows. We tried to hide our unintentional looks of disgust as the spray from the boat hit our faces.
There were people bathing, fishing, and trolling boats of various shapes and sizes along the river. The floating markets are hubs of activity – each boat hangs a sample of their wares from poles at the stern – a form of advertising. Women are a huge part of this important venture. It’s so hot and humid, they row their small boats, heavy with produce, up the waterway for hours, yet they look so put together. Many don silk suits and they all don looks of determination and pride. I would be proud.
We spent a few days in a small city called Can Tho before making our way to the coast. Rach Gia is home to the port that is home to the ferry system that takes people to the island of Phu Quoc.
It’s also the first place that I really felt my visible minority status. As we walked from the bus station to search out guesthouses children ran out to great us “hello, hello, English”….people stared; turning around to watch us pass. This doesn’t happen in cities as big as Saigon. In Vietnamese culture one is best to blend in. Standing out is undesirable. … but then, there is a novelty to us ‘big girls’…5’9”, both of us. My blond hair and freckles get a lot of looks.
I was stared down by the driver of one of our taxis, after I said hello. He looked at me as though I had just uttered a string of profanities regarding his family. I felt I had offended him in some way and I was feeling quite self-conscious. I sat quietly for the 20 minute drive. As we got out of the van to grab our bags, he mumbled shyly in very broken, quiet English…head down: “You are very beaut-i-ful”… I smiled inside and out – it’s so easy to misinterpret.
I am amazed by the way we are welcomed. We have made friends at every turn. Our waiters and motorbike drivers insist on giving us their phone numbers, writing out English words, helping us with our limited Vietnamese phrases, offering themselves as husbands (just joking…sort of). The people that can speak English are eager to practice.
I couldn’t help but expect a sort of underlying national animosity towards Westerners…North Americans in particular, after arriving in Vietnam. It would be so understandable; the recent history of this nation can’t be easily forgotten…can it? I wouldn’t think so. It shouldn’t be. But from what I’ve witnessed so far, it seems that for many, the horrific history is just that. History.
Theme Song of the Day:
Don’t Fight It – the Panics
It’s been a matter of days, but it really feels as though we’ve seen and done enough to warrant a few weeks in this little nook in a small, but vibrant, corner of SE Asia. It’s time to slow down a bit, and we’ve found the perfect place to do just that.
Kim and I awoke in a small coastal town called Mui Ne this morning. We’re in agreement: this will be our temporary home as long as our itinerary will allow. There is something in the air that differs incredibly from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon), where we’ve spent the last few days…it might be the whiff of the brackish, fishy ocean? You get used to it. Actually it’s just a quietness; it floats on the air. Only waves break through the heavy, humid blanket that wraps itself around you and doesn’t let go.
Mui Ne is the wind- and kite-surfing capital of Vietnam and many guesthouses line the six kilometer beach…fishing boats span the horizon. We’re on the edge of the South China Sea. So far, the entire scope of our activity has been walking, reading, spa-ing, eating and sleeping…oh, and swimming! Beautiful.
Saigon was about how I’d imagined it. Maybe bigger, busier, noisier, …more motorbikes. SO many motor bikes – supposedly the ratio is 2:1 people to motorbikes. That works out to about 5 million bikes in the Saigon area alone. I had read that crossing the street can be perilous in HCMC. It was suggested that one is to walk slowly and steadily through the throng, eyes focused on the other side of the street. I guess the idea is that everyone will adapt and move around you if they can see the direction you’re intending? Yeah, that doesn’t work (not in the streets of HCMC… nor in everyday life).
The funny thing about crossing traffic-laden streets is that you can’t really practice. It’s something that should be done properly, right off the bat. No room for getting it a “little bit wrong”… luckily survival instinct should kick in. My best advice: face the fear, take a deep breath, look for a small gap and make eye –contact. Cross slowly and steadily but look at the drivers, they need to know what you’re doing. Eye contact is the key. Áfter the first couple of times it becomes second nature. I feel I have the skills to jay-walk ANYWHERE around the world. Travel teaches you so much, hey?
Anyway, it’s been a few days now, but I am still thinking about our trip to The War Remnants Museum in HCMC. The pictures and stories on display give a no-holds-barred look at the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War over here) and the atrocities that took place. It’s the worst of the horrific things you’ve heard about, but in its visualized form the horrors are really driven home. The effects of Agent Orange and other dioxins that were used are discussed and displayed vividly. Kim and I had a chance to meet people disfigured by these chemicals the very next day, and let me tell you – these people have strength – it certainly gives one a different perspective on the many faces of the spirit of humanity.
Needless to say, the history here is vast and has affected me deeply. It has given rise to thoughts and feelings with regards to politics, patriotism, mob-mentality, and the power of the human spirit and the lengths we will go to simply survive. This may not be the medium to discuss all this, but I think it’s important to touch on something that has shaped the culture of this country so profoundly. Humans are capable of so much – good and bad. It’s amazing how we are able to rationalize even the most abhorrent behavior.
Although these are heavythoughts, we have also managed to enjoy all that Saigon has to offer. We have met some great people. Only hours after we arrived on our first night we were invited to an engagement party! We were treated as old friends as we sat and ate and drank and shared stories with the locals. We danced too, but didn’t take our new friends up on their all-night dancing party. What a welcome.
The people here have so much to offer and smiles welcome you at every turn. Poverty has settled in between the cracks and it’s so easy to become desensitized to it. But happiness is prevalent and there is a determined and relaxed quality that surrounds us; it’s admirable and beautiful.