There are tons of photos that can go with this entry, but it’s late and I can’t do it right now – too bad for you, sorry!) 🙂
It’s amazing to me that all it takes is to cross an arbitrary physical border and suddenly there’s a whole new culture, language and way of being in the world. And so it is here in Vietnam.
I’ve gone from one of the smallest populated countries in Southeast Asia (8 million people in all of Cambodia) to Vietnam, one of the largest, with almost 90 million, the 13th most populous country in the world. In Cambodia, more than 50% of the population is under 25 years of age – the aftermath of the older population having been annihilated by the American War (as it is aptly called in these parts), the Khmer Rouge and a long history of war and strife. I don’t know, but I imagine it’s similar here in Vietnam.
The first thing that struck me as I arrived in Vietnam is the very obvious difference in the standard of living – there’s clearly a middle class, and I haven’t even gotten to a major city yet, where they are generally more apparent. In Cambodia, it appeared that most everyone was dreadfully poor or close to it – in Vietnam, it already appears more like the opposite. I’m sure there’s poverty here, no question, but the difference is striking.
Where the culture is so much more conservative in Cambodia, here in Vietnam there are bare shoulders and knees everywhere! Men and women, boys and girls are seen together all over the place and … get a load of this … there are actually public displays of affection! I saw a young couple completely entwined with one another on the ferry to Phu Quoc. I thought perhaps it was just the island lifestyle, but I’ve seen it repeated here on the ‘mainland’ too. How utterly modern and western!
The style of women wearing pajamas (‘loungewear’ is perhaps a more accurate description) continues in full force. But here it’s not all long sleeves and pants. The women wear capris, tank-top style tops and a wide variation of styles. But still, they’re traipsing around in what look like pajamas to me – I love it!
On Phu Quoc, which was not a place I had much fondness for, another anomaly struck me – while it was filled with holiday go-ers, this time, another group was in great attendance – the local people, the Vietnamese, were on vacation. I hadn’t seen any such thing in Lao or Cambodia – those people were way too busy taking care of the basics of life to be focused on taking holidays. But here, the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh City and plenty of other places were taking their place amongst the vacationers. Strikingly different indeed.
Skin color is dramatically different – they look almost white compared to their Khmer neighbors. The women especially keep their skin as completely out of the sun as they possibly can – which means that when they are out on their motorbikes, their legs, feet, arms, hands, faces and necks are totally covered from the effects of the sun. Some say it’s to preserve the quality of their soft skin; others say it’s to keep themselves light-skinned – most likely a combination of both, I’m thinking. As I sit here writing, I see Lieu taking a walk of less than half a minute, no more than 20 steps in either direction and even for that short distance, she walks with a large towel draped over and around her. They all must think I’m crazy as I expose as much of my body as possible to the sun with no protection whatsoever. Maybe we oughta compare skin condition in 20 years or so and see who’s in ‘better’ shape – or we can even do it now – I think they’ll have me by a long shot.
There are very few English speakers here, even those working in the tourist industry. Where in Cambodia, any sizeable town was filled with English schools; the Vietnamese don’t seem particularly motivated to learn English, even though tourism is huge. Some of the older folks speak French, but English is rare and making myself understood has already been challenging.
Like when I was walking the streets of the main town on Phu Quoc and I was desperate to find some hair color for my almost completely blonde hair. I really didn’t want to be blonde – I wanted my at-one-time-but-now-no-longer ‘natural’ dark brown back (with gray likely being my ‘natural’ color now!). But there are no drug stores, no grocery stores (no fancy new Hilo Safeway-esque stores in any vicinity!) – just simple little shops selling next-to-nothing. I pointed to my hair and said silly things like “dye” or “color” – they wanted to sell me shampoo. I pointed at their hair (invariably very dark brown or black), pointed to mine and pantomimed that I wanted mine like theirs. No luck. I even found a few hair salons (I use that term loosely) and pointed to pictures of hair – yes, they had hair color, but it was only black. And surprisingly it wasn’t cheap – they wanted something like $10 for it. Yes, yes, I know, that’s cheap by western standards, but I’m far away from the west. I even buy hair color in Hawaii for less than $5, but even so, I really didn’t want black hair. The process of simply trying to find a salon was very difficult with no one who spoke English – such a contrast to Cambodia where English was certainly limited, but where they were hungry and eager to learn the language.
(A side note: I did finally find some hair color on Phu Quoc, I’m happy to report. In a salon. Dark brown. The man sold me a tube of dye, a large, dirt-covered bottle that he pantomimed I should combine with the tube. More pantomiming made him produce a pair of thin plastic gloves and I was outta there, on my way to being brunette again. I was a little nervous about how it would turn out, of course; and although it’s very dark brown, I’m thrilled to report that I’m no longer a blonde.)
And the motor bikes – ohmibuddha, the motor bikes. Sure, plenty of people were cruising around on them in Lao and Cambodia. But in Vietnam, it’s a whole new world. And there’s no other way to say it – I’ve simply never seen so many motor bikes in one place. The closest thing it reminds me of is the huge assortment of bicycles gathered outside the Central Station in Amsterdam. For anyone who’s been there, that comes close. But not that close – multiply that number by about 10 and maybe you’re approaching what it looks like here – only these are not sitting anywhere, they are in constant motion whizzing through the clogged streets.
Their driving is kamikaze-like – they are fast and aggressive and there are so many of them – truly it is a sea of cycles in every direction. They drive insanely close to one another, on the sides, in front of and in back of each other – and the horns are blaring constantly – it conjures a fear in me I rarely feel on the road. Bicyclists are in grave danger and pedestrians – well, they are the least powerful of all. I’m truly amazed that I have yet to see an accident. Statistically, it’s bound to happen sometime soon.
Not only are there a kazillion of them, but I understand that they are quite the status symbols. While people often have very little in the way of material possessions, two things signify their status in society like no other – their scooters and their cell phones. Ahhhh, the western influence continues to have its deleterious effects, even in communist Vietnam!
Funny, I recall back to my early days in Lao when I was drawn to rent a motor bike but didn’t feel secure enough to do it through that unknown and remote environment. I was recalling that the other day in Cambodia when I was cruising around that unknown and remote countryside outside of Kep! There I had the best time! I guess I hadn’t had my adventure traveling legs on quite sturdily enough back in Lao. While I’m pleased that I’m becoming more confident and having more fun with them, I also know that it’s exponentially scarier here. My day of exploring on one on Phu Quoc, which while fun, was a harrowing and nerve-wracking experience that I’m not so eager to repeat. I think I’ll leave it up to the locals to ride me around – I’ve already been on the back of loads of them in my short time in the Mekong Delta – and undoubtedly I will continue to be. There’s no way to be in this country without coming to some kinds of terms with the motor bike. There’s simply no other way to get around.
There’s something more high-powered and intense about life here. Surely it’s partly the size of the population and the density of it – there’s something to learn about living so close together with other people. There’s no such thing as personal space or privacy – they are concepts that simply have no place in this society. There’s no such thing as queuing – there is no such thing as having some priority because you’re in front of someone else – they will simply push their way through if they want to be in front. While I have certainly experienced intense cultures before (Italy and India come to mind), the decibel at which people talk here is deafening. Maybe it’s that they’re all on cell phones, screaming into them at fever pitches. Maybe it’s their shrill ‘head voices’ that are not only at high volume, but extremely high frequencies. Yikes, I don’t know what it is, but it seems everyone is screaming but no one is talking. I saw someone on a motor bike on Phu Quoc with a t-shirt that said (in English) – “Yelling is not a form of communication.” – HA!
Even in peoples’ homes, there is no privacy – often family members all sleep in the same room and the bedroom and living room are one. There’s no place to escape to, no place to hide. Solitude is definitely a foreign concept.
I heard so much talk prior to my arrival in Vietnam about the unfriendliness of the people here – the rip-off artists, the scams, the terrible experiences that other travelers reported. Granted, I haven’t been here that long, less than 10 days, but my time here is as about as far away from that as I can imagine.
In my daily out and about-ness, there’ve been differences in the three countries I’ve visited that may be slightly related to what these other travelers experience. In Cambodia, everyone smiled. How can I emphasize this enough? Everyone smiled at me. That alluring, magnetic, infamous Khmer smile was truly omni-present. And there, they initiated it; they didn’t wait for me to make the contact. That’s different from how it was in Lao where they most often responded to my smile with a smile, but they rarely initiated it. Here in Vietnam, so far it’s more like Lao, but sometimes even less so, and it seems to be based on the nature of the relationship. The Vietnamese that I have some kind of direct personal contact with, either in my guest house or in stores or other such places, are as friendly as the Cambodians. But out and about on the streets, where I am just another tourist, they often take no notice of me – and this is definitely dramatically different from both other countries. They are almost indifferent when they don’t ‘know’ me; but when they do, I suddenly feel like family. I’ve felt no danger, no rip-off energy, no scam artists, nothing of the kind. That’s not to say they’re not here – they’re everywhere in the world, but they’re not predominant here in the Mekong, that’s for sure.
I’ve had the good fortune to have amazing experiences and contacts, particularly with the people with whom I’ve stayed – a lovely contrast that’s been a lifetime of education for me. I’m deeply touched and grateful for what I’ve learned and how I’ve connected with these dear people.
On Phu Quoc, I met the amazing Tim and Graham, partners not only in business, but in life. It took me about five minutes to figure that out after I met them and of course, I was delighted. They came from Melbourne, Australia. Graham is a born Australian; Tim emigrated there after being a refugee of the American war (I will continue to refer to it as such – you can make the adjustment.). I spent a significant percentage of my time on Phu Quoc in engaging conversation with them, primarily about Tim’s experience, but also of their decision to move to Phu Quoc and how it’s been for them to build a life there. Graham ran an art gallery in Australia and is a gifted painter in his own right. Tim worked in IT, but is relieved to be out of it – his warm presence shows how much of a people person he is and how happy he is to have a life now when he can connect more with people than computers.
I began asking Tim lots of questions about his early life in Vietnam and invited him not to answer them if he didn’t want to – he said he didn’t like to talk about those times too much; they made him sad and what was the point really? … and then he proceeded to talk non-stop for several hours. Even Graham, it seemed, was hearing some things for the first time in their 12 years together. Tim is 55, breezy, funny, relaxed and easy going, but his demeanor quickly took on a different tone as he shared the story of his life as a refugee. The lightness was gone – his eyes really seemed to grow darker. His family was eager to flee the country. His father had already gone missing and they never found out what happened to him. His mother didn’t want to leave Saigon, though, and he refused to leave her behind. Life wasn’t easy – they were hungry, they were in fear and they were terribly vulnerable. A few years later, she made him go – there was nothing for him here, she warned him, and he needed to make a better life for himself. So alone, at 15 years old, he traveled hundred and hundreds of kilometers, walking overland through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, ending up in a refugee camp alone, surrounded by hundreds of people. His eyes grew sadder and more serious in the telling. Tears dotted my face as I was riveted to his. After close to a year in the refugee camp where they were all near starvation and living in the most squalid of conditions, he was sponsored to go to Australia. He was one of the ‘lucky’ ones.
Fortunately he was able to return to Vietnam and see his mother again. He did this several times. She has since died, but now he has retuned to live again in his mother country; and for now, it is home in a way he never knew it to be before. I can read all the books and testimonies that have ever been written by people about their lives through war and hardship (and I will continue to read plenty of them), but to have these experiences like listening to Tim’s story, looking into his eyes and feeling the connection between us as he opens his heart – these moments are the most cherished of all on this trip.
Not all of our talks were so focused. We continued to get plenty of mileage out of how I arrived there. At one point I said, “Gee, there you were living in a refugee camp and I was all aflutter and indignant because you had no room for me, what a princess I am!” We laughed and laughed some more. While they made no mention of the nature of their relationship, I asked enough questions to let them know that I knew – and they seemed to appreciate being able to be out with me. Of course, I was thrilled!
They headed off to celebrate Graham’s birthday in Ho Chi Minh City and while they sweetly asked me to come along, I decided it was time to say good-bye to them and with hugs and kisses, I extended an invitation to visit anytime they were in the neighborhood of Hawaii. They are two men from this trip I would love to see again. Who knows what may happen?!
From Phu Quoc, I headed to the Mekong Delta, directly for Hung’s Homestay outside of Can Tho. I had read about it on Trip Advisor, a site I don’t consult much, but one which set me in the best direction I could have imagined for my entry into delta life. If it’s a glimpse into authentic Mekong Delta life you’re looking for, look no further than Hung’s Homestay. Run, don’t walk directly there – there is simply no better place to experience up close and personal the generosity and heartfulness of the beautiful people of this region of Vietnam. While it’s a dose of authenticity like no other, the ubiquitous cell phone was Hung’s constant companion – he spoke while we rode on the motor-bike, while he glided us down the river, while we stopped wherever we did and throughout dinner and the evening. The cell phone was his connection to his business and it never stopped ringing.
From the moment I arrived and he was waiting for me at the bus station, the hospitality grew and grew. Their home was in a village of about 1000 people outside the big, bustling city. There were no roads, only small dirt tracks that meandered along the river, most barely wide enough for motor bikes, bicycles and the rare walker. Hung’s family of his mother, his wife, two sons, his sister and her son all lived on the property. He explained that it’s up to the last born son to take care of the parents until their death. His father had died six years ago, so now he was taking care of his mother. Family is at the center of life here and everyone does their part unquestioningly. Perhaps it’s different in the big cities; but in the rural village life, this is how it is.
They offered rooms in their home – very little privacy, but the real deal of what it’s like to live with a Vietnamese family. They also offered bungalows, one of which I chose and was my preference over the room in their house. This way I was able to have my own space and still be in the common space of the family environment for meals and other socializing times. It was the perfect combination for the westerner in me.
Hung also offered boat tours on the Mekong and made them happen in a way that made me feel not like just another tourist amongst the many anonymous ones, but rather like I was a friend to whom he was giving the grand tour. We started at the break of dawn at the largest Floating Market in the Mekong, where right in the boat, we had a breakfast of pho (soup) served up from a woman in another boat that was the best I’ve had yet. We stopped at a rice production place where he explained the whole process from rice paddy to rice bowl, a weaving place, a rice noodle factory, a blacksmith’s (mostly for knives and scales), a rice wine place and another place where they were raising all kinds of veggies from seeds. Everyone knew him and at every place, he was welcomed like family and by extension, so was I. Yes, I was paying him for this tour, but there is where the commercialism of it began and ended. Otherwise, I felt far, far off the tourist trail. What he originally said would be about four hours extended into six. Then we returned ‘home’ for another delicious meal and he offered another excursion for the afternoon, which I couldn’t turn down. We rode through scores of wide and narrow tributaries of the Mekong, watched life being lived along the edges of it like it had happened for generations and got a full description from Hung in his self-taught and for the most part, excellent English. He laughed easily and often and was focused on making the day as good as it could possibly be. How my time here in Vietnam could be any better, I simply cannot imagine.
He brought me to the local market in his neighborhood and walked me through what was on offer at each and every stall, laughing and joking with all the vendors. He proudly showed me a neighbor’s house that was under construction that he helped to build, He remarked once to me, “I’m lucky. No one hates me here.” “No, it’s not luck, Hung. Of course no one hates you – everyone loves you – you have an incredible heart!”
In the middle of breakfast one morning, he asked if I wanted to go and see the school – they were having a picnic that day and he thought it might be something interesting for me to see. I stopped eating my pho, put aside until our return; and we were off to the local school just a few hundred meters and a short canoe ride down the road and river. We just walked right into the school and planted ourselves in the midst of their activities. Imagine that happening in a western school! How many forms might we need to fill out to make that happen?!
I asked about his business and he said that when his wife was pregnant with their first child, he had to figure out how he was going to support his family and he came up with the idea of a Homestay. That was over 10 years ago and he’s been going strong ever since. He works with only one tour company in Saigon who sends tourists his way – they only stay for 24 hours on their whirlwind tours. It’s rare for anyone to arrive independently and to stay for as long as I did and I’m pleased to be the exception. He doesn’t advertise at all – only through word of mouth and Trip Advisor – that’s the only way people can find him; and having found him has been one of the greatest highlights of my trip and certainly the most fantastic entry into life here in Vietnam!
There was another couple there for most of the time I was – a Swiss couple a little older than me who I ended up spending more and more time with as time went by. They had lived in Tanzania for seven years as teachers many years ago and their love of travel and adventure continues into their late 50’s and early 60’s. They inspired me with the way they continue to be out here in the world. We enjoyed one another’s company and extended invitations to each other’s homes.
And then there were the Polish people. While they were there for only 24 hours, they squeezed more fun and laughs into that time than I thought possible. Four of them were traveling for only two weeks, so they were moving at breakneck speed through the country. So far, having traveled from north to south, they had found unseasonably cold weather – it had even snowed in Sapa when they were there (while Sapa can often be cold and foggy, snow is almost unheard of – their news of the northern weather brought me back to the exact moment in my trip planning when I reversed my route – I remember it clearly, sitting on my futon in my sweet Kapoho cabin and realizing I wouldn’t head north until it warmed up – I’m hoping that happens before I get up there!). They were pleased to be in the Mekong where it was comfortably warm. We went to the rice wine place with them and one of them unhesitantly bought a liter of the stuff – for all of 75¢. We shared tastes of it later that evening after dinner, but after one round, I excused myself. They finished the rest of it off with Hung and I remember hearing their laughter in the distance well into the night.
When I saw them early the next morning, they told me about having visited their doctor in Poland before the trip – they consulted him about what they could do and bring to protect themselves from any diseases or trouble they might encounter along the way. The doctor suggested they bring just one thing and take it religiously each morning upon waking and each evening before sleep. So there they were in the morning with their shot glass and bottle of vodka – and they swore it was what was keeping them healthy! Imagine a doctor in the US suggesting such a thing!
Meals at Hung’s were exceptional. While I recently reported how much I love eating out and how happy I am not to be cooking, here I was at a Homestay and they had us guests making the spring and summer rolls – harrumph! Each dinner table was filled to capacity with fish and veggies and tofu and noodles and soup and of course, rice … always rice. My mostly-vegetarian diet has gotten a pounding. While I casually mentioned to Hung when I first arrived that I eat mostly vegetarian, he didn’t do much with that information. And I chose to go along with the program rather than act the dilettante. The table was always filled with chicken, pork, duck and beef, except for the last dinner when bowls of food appeared without meat. One meal even included a specialty that he said he rarely served to guests, but that was a favorite and traditional treat for the family. He had seen it in the market that morning when we were there and he couldn’t resist. It was bar-be-qued rat. Yes, rat! Ohno, not the kind that eat garbage, he was quick to point out – we don’t eat that kind of rat. These rats are rice paddy rats and yummmm, they are delicious! With all due respect, introducing ‘normal’ meat back into my diet for my stay there was enough of a stretch – I begged off the rat. He laughed and laughed.
I loved my time at Hung’s Homestay, but I also knew the time came to move on. While the place was certainly fine, I wanted to bring myself up to a higher standard for few nights. The bathroom was funky and my bungalow, while wildly perfect, was also more like camping. I wasn’t quite ready to leave the Mekong Delta, just yet though, as I wanted to immerse myself more fully into life here. I read and researched and read some more. What I knew is that I wanted to avoid the day tripper towns where the tourists from Ho Chi Minh City dash through.
My decision was made – Ben Tre was the place and the Oasis Hotel would be home. Hung helped me through all the arrangements. After email contact with Ken, the Kiwi owner of the Oasis, Hung called him, spoke to his Vietnamese wife about bus details, arrival times and such – everything was arranged. Hung took me by motor bike on a tiny little, bumpy dirt path that led to the main highway to the bus station. It was a harrowing journey and I hadn’t even reached the bus yet! He brought me right to the station, found the Ben Tre bus for me and directed me to the ticket office. Then he decided that I needed some food for the several-hour journey. He sped off on his motor bike and told him to wait for him. Of course I would wait for him – where was I going? He quickly retuned with a bag of Vietnamese treats and refused to take any money for them. We hugged like friends do when they depart from one another and I boarded the bus, headed to Ben Tre. I felt so taken care of – so looked after in the sweetest of ways.
This was a local bus – I was certainly the only tourist and a bit of a novelty. There was no air-conditioning of course, but there was also no blaring music or movies. It was a worth while trade off. Ben Tre is a town way off the tourist trail and the Oasis Hotel is brand new. The whole town is in the midst of being born with a recent bridge construction that makes contact with the rest of the Delta all the more possible. There’s plenty of money here and it’s a remarkably clean, tidy and very live-able small city.
So, from Tim and Graham’s to Hung’s and his family’s, now I’ve arrived at Ken & Lieu’s place where they live with their sons, Phong and Sam. Ken is a Kiwi (that’s a New Zealander for those who don’t know) and Lieu is Vietnamese. She had lived in Saigon with her mother who had come from a small village. When war broke out, they fled to Cambodia where she stayed and lived and worked for many years. She had four children there (she also has two daughters), met Ken, who at that time worked for the UN and together they moved with her four children to New Zealand (the now-adult girls are still there). It was just a few years ago that she rediscovered lost family members here in Ben Tre which helped them to make the decision to return here. For the first time in her life, she has a history, she has a family and she has come home.
The Oasis Hotel is a big step up and as different as could be from Hung’s. Everything is brand, spanking new and modern everything. Ken is an engineer, so everything’s done with a keen eye to the ‘proper’ way. This is not a typical ‘local’s household. There’s a microwave and a hot pot and a very modern kitchen. I’ve got hot water, air con, a frig and a TV in my room. And there’s a pool, the perfect refreshment after a day of Mekong heat. While the environment is as different as could be from Hung’s, it’s yet another taste of life lived out here for an expat and a Vietnamese family who are reconnecting with their country. The contrasts are striking and wonderful – and I love that I get to experience them all!
They built this hotel, which is also their home; and they live it out as a Homestay much more than any kind of hotel I’ve ever stayed in. I’ve eaten every meal with them as a family. Today I went out with Ken and sons Phong and Sam on errands. We checked on a piece of furniture he had ordered. We went to the ear doctor where Ken got his ears cleaned – all of us, along with other patients, were in one big room (the only room), watching on camera as the doctor (?!) removed the gook and gunk from his ears. 19-year old Sam sat next to me, translating for his dad and telling me he thought he’d be sick. The doctor refused to accept any payment, no matter how insistent Ken tried to be!
With ears cleaned, we headed to the optician – for around $25, I had an eye exam and I’ll have a new pair of glasses in the morning. Ken showed me the driving course where they test for motor bike licenses. We stopped for coffee and tea. We visited the local market and Ken gave me the low down, practicing his few Vietnamese words. I try to understand his Kiwi English and we have some good laughs. Our conversations range from child-rearing to spirituality to Vietnamese history to Vietnamese beer. It’s great fun and I feel like I’ve been welcomed so warmly into this family. They can’t do enough for me. When the power was out for almost the whole day and I was concerned about whether it would be back on in time for my planned skype call with my dear friends in Cape Cod, Ken assured me that he’d turn on the generator if need be. Help yourself to water, no need to buy bottles of water – there’s bananas for the having – enjoy, enjoy! This is not a tourist experience at all – and I love that I’m seeing life up close from yet another perspective.
The river is right outside the door; and there’s a beautiful promenade that goes on and on in both directions for several kilometers. I walked along early one morning, until I came upon a café where a Vietnamese man welcomed me in with no words, but his broad smile. I sat and drank tea (which took a little doing to communicate!) while he sat and smiled at me. I loved it.
Yesterday, there was one other tourist here, a young woman from Holland. She and I went together on a Mekong Delta tour run by a local guy who Ken recommended. We had a lovely day of riding in a motor boat through narrow tributaries, riding bicycles on threadlike pathways along the riverside, lazing around in hammocks, riding in a small dugout canoe through even more narrow waterways totally overgrown with palms and then having an excellent lunch that the boatman’s wife prepared. It wasn’t quite Hung’s style, but it was a fine day and Meryl was good company. At one point when we were cycling, I was behind her and I was struck with the likeness of Katja in front of me, Rainer’s oldest daughter. She and Meryl are about the same age and they look achingly alike. I missed Katja terribly in that moment and the loss of her and her sister in my life as a result of the fractured relationship with their father stayed with me for the rest of the day.
It’s evening now and soon to bed I’ll go. I won’t leave the Oasis tomorrow, but I’m beginning to get the feeling that the time to depart is soon. It’s interesting to me how I get the sense of this and that’s just what it is … a subtle knowing that it’s time again to move. And move I will, with the next stop, Dalat and a several day motorbike ride (complete with hired driver!) through the Vietnamese Central Highlands. At least that’s the idea at this point – who knows what’s coming around the corner?
What I do know is that in a few days, I’m coming up on two months of travel. I’ve got my traveling legs on – and for now, being out here is my life and I love it!