Wednesday, June 1, 2011

At Long Last... Vietnam

Best meal of the trip was street noodles (Pho), although who knows what type of bugs I might have in my stomach right now...

I have had next to no school in the past month. Part of that is my fault (vacation, which, if anybody is wondering, was unpaid), but the other half has been a mixture of vacation and overall apathy. There have been a ton of vacations days, including the four days we get off for Easter and the two days this week for national holidays (WWII Victory Day and St. Andrea’s day). But there have also been a lot of random lacking of students at school.

Look, Vietnam has awesome weirdly shaped fruit as well!

This is a village school, so it never surprises me when I come to school, hang around for an hour, and then get told that most of the students are in church (this was the case for all three days leading up to the Easter holiday, during which I had maybe two lessons), or they were all practicing for upcoming singing/dancing/sporting competitions (as was the case this week). The sporting competition is actually tomorrow in Martvili, which will involve me participating with a bunch of my younger students in carnival games (three legged races, potato-sack races, tug-of-war, etc.). Should be a blast.

This picture reminded me of Georgia... come to think of it, any random farm animal sighting might make me think of Georgia from here on out.

In the meantime, I’m stuck in Bandza on a Friday night, which leaves me two options: cow tipping or blogging. I chose the latter in order to finally catch up on some log-jammed travel thoughts. I think Vietnam is a good place to start, at least before I completely forget everything I remember about the country.

Speaking of similarities between Georgia and Vietnam, the complete absence of such a notion as 'safety.'

One of the reasons I love Georgia is because it’s so unique (they may get old, but it’s true) and I think that was the reason I enjoyed Vietnam so much. After trudging my way up the Southeast Asian peninsula and only encountering the familiar (even if for the most part, it was thoroughly enjoyable); it was nice to come to a place that seemed so different.

This was purty, notice the completely gray but one-dimensional sky in the background that always hung over Ho Chi Minh City.

To be honest, before going to Vietnam, I didn’t know what to think. When I let my family in on the news that I’d be traveling through Asia instead of enjoying the wonders of the rustbelt Christmas, I got an email from my Uncle Mike with words of encouragement. But he also expressed some mixed feelings on viewing Vietnam as a tourist destination, since he was of the time and era when you did not want to go to Vietnam. He had had friends die there, and understandably would always view Vietnam from that perspective.

I had the same apprehensions. On one hand, I could make those Back when I was in ‘Nam jokes I’ve always wanted to drop (hell points!), but on the other hand, this is still a place that has some fairly recent bad history with the States. But I’d also heard only positive things from people who had traveled there. Plus my Mother and I would be meeting up with a family friend who was teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. If Americans taught English there, it couldn’t be that bad?

This is good old Uncle Ho' (as the commies called him) who Old Saigon is currently named after.

I was right. I never felt any sort of hostility during my five days there. Looking back right now, it seems even silly to have even entertained the notion. A few of the museums I went to definitely had an anti-American perspective, but that’s to be expected in any country that was occupied/invaded by another nation. But going to the War Remnants Museum gave me a small notion on what it must be like for a German enter a WWII Museum (in no way am I comparing the War in Vietnam to WWII or the few atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam to the Holocaust; I’m only saying that they produce the same shocking or guilty feeling).

These are the Cu Chi Tunnels on the outskirts of HCMC, which are always a hot topic with locals (they believe the current tourist attraction is fake).

Anyways, it’s been far too long to really summarize anything, so I’ll just hit some highlights.

* I had heard how Bangkok was twenty years ago from certain people and books, and how it’s been ruined by the excess amount of tourists. Well, I would guess the backpacker’s district in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City, which is where we spent all our time) is much like Koh San Road was then. It’s a small eight square-block area that is packed with guest houses/hostels, bars, and small stores selling knock-off anything and everything. They had knock off DVDs, backpacks, and photocopied books. My biggest purchase was a North Face winter ski jacket for $50. It’s bright orange, which would be fine anywhere but Georgia, where everybody wears black and/or grey.

Anyways, there are tons of places that will rip you off, but there are also a few gems, like a couple of spots on the main street that sold beer (and only beer) at one of the cheapest prices you can find anywhere. They had small plastic tables set up outside with even smaller plastic chairs to sit in, which made for some uncomfortable but tipsy evenings. It was a communal drinking atmosphere and you were almost expected to be social if you sat down.

This was a Vietnamese bazaar, which is the same as a Georgian bazaar, except people don't walk through, they ride their motorbikes through.

There were a few locals that would invite you to join and talk your ear off. One of the guys was a university student who only came to the backpacker’s district to work on his English (take note Georgians). But those nights also gave me an opportunity to meet fellow travelers who would tell you where they’d been, where they were going, and any suggestions as for other places in HCMC.

There were also a few sleazy Vietnamese guys who would ask you why you weren’t talking to the beautiful Vietnamese girl sitting next to you. But I knew those tricks.

* Speaking of tricks, the prostitutes would ride up right next to you on a motorbike and solicit themselves. The multi-tasking facet of it was actually quite impressive, if not a bit sad. You could also pick out the bar/brothels by the amount of old Poms (that’s Englishmen for those that don’t know) that had two young Vietnamese girls on each arm. That wasn’t sad, more so disgusting and pathetic.

* And speaking of motorbikes. Good lord. So I am always getting one upped in my search for the place with the craziest traffic and drivers. First it was Italy, then Peru, and then Georgia, but Vietnam (HCMC in particular) has the craziest traffic you will ever come across. There are eight million people who live in HCMC; guess how many motorbikes there are? Five million! That’s fuckin’ crazy! You literally cannot be near a city street at any time of day without there being a thousand motorbikes flying by, and when I say there are no rules, I mean it.

Traffic in HCMC, F'n crazy.

Crossing the street is an art. There are no crosswalks or safe times to do it, you just have to plunge out there like Frogger and pray. The best strategy is to keep at a steady pace that will help the bikers avoid you. If you’re lurching around in a precautious but indecisive matter, you’re more likely to cause an accident. All in all, Vietnam has the craziest drivers I’ve ever come across, although I’ve heard Jakarta is crazier.

* Getting around Vietnam by foot is a pain in the ass, mostly because of the traffic and the fact that everybody parks their motorbikes on the sidewalks. There’s really not too much to see tourist wise in HCMC, so it’s not that big of a deal. But the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get around if you must is on the back of a motorbike. Basically, there are guys sitting on their bikes at every corner that you can hop on the back (they have a helmet for you) and ride you to any destination. I did this once (I was still a bit apprehensive following my motorbike crash in Thailand) and it was quite the perspective, if not a bit heart wrenching.

The new big high rise in HCMC, with a sign in the foreground wishing us all a happy New Year...

* All those motorbikes cause some concerning pollution. Half the days we were there, the city was enveloped in a sort of overcast density that made it feel like the sky just wasn’t there. That had to have been my biggest complaint. Well, that and the fake Cu Chi Tunnels whose only worthwhile attraction was being able fire off a couple rounds from an AK-47 (still waiting on those pictures, Mom).

* One of my favorite aspects of Vietnam was the currency, which was the Dong; yeah, I know, hilarious for those with the minds of fifth graders, myself included. When I was there, the Dong was 30,000 to one Dollar. That meant everything and anything cost some absolutely absurd amount of Dong. Kind of made me feel wealthy. Well, really, it kind of made me feel like I had a wealthy Mother.

Other than the dong, I really appreciated the intense badminton pickup games. Displaying dominance.

* I’m a big fan of coffee, and Vietnam takes pride in their coffee. When I was there, I couldn’t find a street block in the city without some old Vietnamese woman selling street made java. But there’s also a lasting French impression that has led to a nice cafĂ© culture in certain spots. All in all, a good place for coffee.

Another European import was Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of HCMC. Not very SE Asian communist, is it?

* Most major international cities you visit nowadays all look the same, have the same tendencies, and are constantly trying to outdo their local rivals (think Tbilisi/Baku/Yerevan or even Chicago/NYC). And though I got a small whiff of that in HCMC (they did have KFC, while there were just putting the finishing touches on a giant UAE-type skyscraper), the everyday character the city has retained despite the influx of tourism and money made it really stand out to me.

And I have a feeling that when I go back to explore the rest of Vietnam, the entire country will share in the same unique identity.