Tuesday, April 15, 2008


To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.
~Aldous Huxley

Vietnam is something that has to be experienced firsthand in order to understand it. Its pulsating cities and the calmness of its vast rice fields is something that only your senses can comprehend. Its cities are unruly, relentless and overpowering not to mention completely out of place in a region that, at the same time, also boasts mountains, beaches and farmlands just hours away. Its culture is seemingly unmoved despite the encroaching Western culture seen almost everywhere. ‘Nam to some American generations, Vietnam holds not only its own history but it also holds the key to the past of our own country. But despite years of fighting off those trying to conquer it, Vietnam seems forgiving and welcoming to all. It’s a place that, without its hardworking and resilient people, would not be everything it was to me.

My friend Michael and I had one goal for the first day. We wanted to find a tailor that would sew us a custom-made suit. I think the overall chaos of Ho Chi Minh City threw us off a bit because despite HCMC’s reputation for manufacturing clothing, we could not find one tailor. We dodged speeding motorcycles and overzealous sidewalk vendors as we chartered through streets with names like “D Nam Ky Khoi Nghia” and “D Cach Mang Thang Tam.” When crossing the street in Vietnam one just has to walk and pray. There is no method to the madness of the traffic; walking straight and hoping that all of the traffic swerves around you is the only way to do it. Unscathed by Vietnamese vehicles, we eventually found some tailors.

In almost every port bargaining is the name of the game if you want to go shopping. In Vietnam you can practically walk into a department store and still bargain for prices at the cash register. I’ve been conned many times into the “tourist” price and if this trip has taught me one thing it’s how to bargain. Not only is bargaining deeply imbedded into culture and therefore completely necessary, but it’s also a great excuse to interact with locals. There is the walk-away method, the sad-puppy face method, the outraged and disgusted method, the let’s-be-best-friends method, and the-guy-next-door-has-it-for-less method. Michael and I went to at least 8 tailors throughout the city getting offers as much as $400 for one suit. We found a legitimate place that would do it for $80 so we chose our fabrics, styles, and got measured.

Somewhere in between a motorcycle and a moped is a vehicle that has a population of 4-million in Ho Chi Minh City called the motorbike. Cars seem impractical when you can ride a motorbike in and out of traffic, through an intersection, over a sidewalk, and amid both locals and tourists whenever you want. If you think bargaining sounds like fun, try standing on a street corner in Vietnam doing a “vroom! vroom!” pose (as if your hands are on the handlebars of a bike) and wait for a man to come pick you up on his motorcycle. Hitchhiking for a motorcycle in Vietnam is the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B. You literally are holding onto a stranger’s hips, weaving in and out of the urban chaos, and praying your friend on the other bike hasn’t got separated by too much. With that said, we strapped on helmets and “vroomed” over to the Behn Thanh Market among the hundreds of other motorcycles polluting the streets that day.

Behn Thanh Market is a huge building right in the middle of the city that sells everything from handicrafts to clothing, cheap! The most inexpensive products you will see in your entire life are in Vietnam. Yes, most of it is fake, but even the real stuff is one-fifth of the price you will ever see in the U.S. The market is full of designer purses, shirts (supposedly) from Abercrombie, Hollister, Lacoste, Polo, backpacks and jackets from Northface and just about every other brand name there is. The market is the biggest fire hazard in the world with stores practically on top of each other. Piles and piles of clothes, mostly stored away in trash bags, cover the floor. Like most of Ho Chi Minh, it’s a vibrant and frenzied place. The Vietnamese, especially the woman, are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever seen. Not only do they lug around huge heaps of clothing and fold millions of shirts a day, but they are relentless in making sure you don’t walk away empty handed. “Friend! Friend! I make good price for you. Yes, yes. Very special price for you. Look. You like. Yes. Very cheap. I make good price. I make good price. Very cheap.” It’s the game of harassment, language barriers and bargaining—just another day in the life of a Semester at Sea student. At sunset the market transfers to the street and the “night market” emerges. Not surprisingly, I am still at the market at sunset…

By the end of the day, what once was a mild head-cold turned into a full-fledged mess of migraines, sinus-congestion, sore-throat and a cough. Blame it on India, Malaysia and now Vietnam—but my immune system finally gave into the stress of traveling and I too joined the hundreds of sick SASers. An early night’s sleep on the first night of Vietnam hopefully would do me some good.

The next morning I went on a trip to the Khuyer Tat Hoc Mon School for the deaf and hearing impaired. Established in 1993, the school has 50 students varying in age from 4 to 14. Facilities at the school are very basic—small to medium sized rooms with wooden benches and tables attended by 10 children per class. The school is in a rural area that produces about 60% of the vegetables for Ho Chi Minh City. Students, many of whom are collected and returned home by the teachers themselves, come from up to 15km from home just to attend.

I walked into a classroom. Silent. It wasn’t just the Vietnamese language because, now, any spoken language would be impossible for us to communicate with. I sat with 3 deaf boys in the corner as I tore them a page from my coloring book and offered them crayons. The kids were overjoyed to see us, but only their eyes and their smiles could tell us this. We pointed at objects on the paper and smiled, though there was still an invisible wall preventing me from even getting to know them. Still feeling awkward, I took out my Lonely Planet and quickly looked up some words. I wrote Ten la gi? on the top of the page and showed it to them. They understood me and wrote their names. They pointed to me. My turn? K-E-V-I-N, I wrote. I paused. Wait! I know sign language! My days in high school as a junior counselor at an overnight camp in New Hampshire brought memories of sitting in Cabin 9 fumbling with my fingers as I tried to communicate with a camper. I tapped on their coloring page to get their attention, and then spelled out the letters of my name, one at a time, with my fingers. They corrected me; Vietnamese Sign Language is not the same as American Sign Language, but similar. The teacher of the classroom saw that I was the first to break the communication barrier and she became interested. She helped me figure the basics out and soon I was on my way to a simple, descent conversation. The class became interested in my knowledge and together we all spelled out our names for each other, then our ages. I was so happy that, at the least, I could know all their names and be able to do it in a way I rarely get to communicate. The visit was a valuable experience and just more proof that no matter how much distance separates children or what other traits may set them apart, children are the same everywhere.

After the visit, I met some friends at the War Remnants Museum, a museum dedicated to the Vietnam War (or as they call it, the American War). It was a small museum with mostly photographs but the photos were as real as they could get. Dismembered people, bloody children and piles of bodies were just some of the snapshots to disturbingly stare into. The section on Agent Orange, a chemical used to defoliate trees to expose the enemy, was a clear reminder that my friends at the deaf school that morning were a living example of remaining warfare chemicals in the soil and water. After the museum, I went out to dinner with Lindsay and Nicole and ordered chicken fried rice and Vietnamese spring rolls—my addiction.

As we walked out of the restaurant, I took out from my back pocket a worn pamphlet for a “water puppet show”, one that would start in 10 minutes. With lack of something better to do, we thought we would check it out. We hurried through the streets, through the night market and quickly bought a last-minute seat still not knowing what “water puppetry” was. The stage is a pool of water and wooden puppets seemingly walk on water. The brightly colored animals and figures are maneuvered by puppet masters who are hidden behind the set and the figures tell the hardships and joy of Vietnamese daily life. Much humor can be found for the foreigner who watches Vietnamese-speaking puppets dancing on water. Though we laughed at ourselves for actually going, we really did enjoy the performance, plus, it was nice to splash a little more culture into our day.

The next morning I had a trip to the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is an area of marshlands that’s been cultivated into a series of canals. Along the Mekong the Vietnamese have adapted to cultivating rice, fish, soybeans, maize, peanuts, tobacco and melons. Many of these items are sold right from their boats—becoming the famous “floating market” of Vietnam. A two-hour drive brought us to the Cai Be area where we boarded a small riverboat and visited a thatched-roof hut only accessible my water. The people there produce rice cakes and coconut candy over open flames—items we were able to sample ourselves. Next, we boarded the boat across the river to the other side.

Floating down the river is a way of life for the people of this region. Wooden boats drift downstream as young men, tired from a long day’s work, rest their eyes and fall asleep in makeshift hammocks secured between the two sides of the boat. Women, sheltered from the sun by their Vietnamese-style hats, sit on top of their homes chopping pineapple and throwing the remains into the water. Children play along the docks as their older brothers and sisters secure the boats with tattered rope. Their families might spend months at a time on the water surviving with every bag of rice sold. They often have a land home too, a shack built on stilts that is prone to inclement weather but readily accessible to the water highways below. The people here are used to tourists, so they wave as we pass them. We take pictures of their small canoes filled to the top with fresh fruit. Their children sit and peer out the windows, eating a bowl of rice and peering onto the land. Life on the Mekong is tiring and by looking into their eyes, one can tell they long for the sun to dip well below the horizon. But no matter the height of the sun, their boats continue day in and day out.

After disembarking our boat, a short bus ride and ferry ride, we find ourselves in the river city of Can Tho. Free to explore for a few hours, my friend Jake and I got a taxi to try to go to a soccer game we saw as we drove in. After we finally conveyed the word for “soccer” through pantomime and description, our taxi arrives and Jake and I walk into a large stadium full of Vietnamese soccer fans. The crowd is enthused by everything happening on the field and only a few notice the two white boys in their presence—those that do smile and wave from their seat. The home team wins and Jake and I are off to check out the mystery hovering over the soccer stadium.

Up in the sky flies several colorful kites of all shapes and sizes blowing in the wind. Curious, we look up to the clouds and follow the kites right down to their beginnings. The bearers of these kites are children and families enjoying the nice evening. They stand in the park taking pleasure in the evening breeze and allowing their kids to run free. It is almost impossible to avoid a kite—there are hundreds of people all with a spool of string gazing up at the clouds. Each string leads to a child with a smiling face, eyeing their floating creation and beckoning for the attention of their parents. The “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” philosophy brings Jake and I to a woman selling kites on the street corner where we purchase our very own red and yellow kite, a ferocious shark to join in on the fun.

Like always, being the westerners on the continent of Asia is bound to get us attention. Little kids immediately ran over to us, excited to see we are joining their little party and to help us set up our kite. They proudly stuck each wooden pole in the correct spaces, glancing occasionally at our faces for approval. Once assembled, the kids showed us how to get it airborne, as if there was some secret scientific method to the wind. Parents brought their children over to meet us, to shake our hands, and allowed us to take pictures of them. We turned our digital cameras around so they could see their own picture. They kids didn’t speak English but talking wasn’t necessary. Together, we shared an experience that brought Jake and I back to our roots—a time when we too innocently roamed free without care. Now, we were roaming freely again, this time around the world, and yet still doing what we once did fifteen years ago. We headed back to the hotel via motorcycle for an Asian dinner, followed by drinks at a rooftop bar with some friends and some of our favorite professors.

The next morning we woke up early, had breakfast, and went to the famous floating market. Here we saw the entire river community come together to exchange goods. Boats would pull up to one another, sometimes up to four or five boats long, to exchange fruits, vegetables and rice. The Vietnamese threw melons from their boats to be passed along down the river—an assembly line of the day’s goods ready to be sold. It was a colorful and lively event; everyone was working, throwing, catching, selling, or buying. A unique water highway of commerce, the floating market is a simple yet complex system of sales and purchases. We pulled up alongside boats and enjoyed fresh pineapple and banana straight from their boat to ours. We climbed up to the roof of our boat, enjoying our fruits and the Mekong Delta way of life. The sights and sounds of the Mekong were indescribable that morning; it was a surreal moment that reminded me how far away from the familiar I really am. We spent the rest of the day enjoying more Vietnamese cuisine at a restaurant, and headed back to the ship.

On the last day of Vietnam I wandered off to do some exploring on my own. I enjoyed as bowl of pho (a soup of noodles, vegetables and meat) while reconnecting with the real world on the Internet. I moseyed around Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker’s district, where most international travelers hang out and enjoy a cup of coffee outside various hostels and inns. I found a small restaurant that my archaeology professor, who used to live in Ho Chi Minh City, recommended. So even though I was full of pho, I managed to squeeze in a few more Vietnamese spring rolls before a brief stop at the market, picking up my new suit, and heading back to the ship for our departure from Ho Chi Minh City. It would be just 48 hours to catch up on sleep, get rid of my cold, take a test, and internalize my experiences before I would be in Hong Kong.


mom said...

What a wonderful time - i can't wait to see ths pictures of the kids w their kites
Love, mom

Anonymous said...

I found your blog somewhat later than most everyone else, but I have to agree that it's one of the more interesting and well written accounts I've read. Your shoe adventure in Japan made me laugh out loud, and I could relate so well to the traffic in Vietnam. When we returned, we learned that our very own next door neighbor is originally from Can Tho. Talk about a small world! Your description of ship life too resonates as my daughter felt the same way about her adventure in Spring 03. Yes, I'm still a lurker now. Even the parents have a difficult time leaving it behind.