Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Many Faces of Vietnam

Chris and I had been looking forward to our trip to Vietnam long before we officially planned it. Stories from those who lived there, television hosts’ accolades of the country, and our own experiences with the food all had thoroughly enticed us to visit. So, I have to say, our expectations were fairly high as we boarded our plane early Saturday morning. What we discovered was that it is going to take a lot more than just a week to understand this multi-faceted country.

Our vacation was based in the northern part of the country, so we landed in Hanoi. The wild commotion of this capital city put Taipei’s hustle and bustle to shame. We quickly learned that crossing the street here was an every-man-for-himself death-defying deed. I tried to get Chris crossing here at this intersection so you can get an idea for what was involved in getting to the other side. No lights, no crosswalks, just myriad games of chicken played by every man, woman, and child brave enough to traverse the road.

Each morning, Hanoi is awoken at 7:30 by loudspeakers calling out that morning’s “news” and blasting patriotic music. Good morning, communism. Throughout the day, everywhere we went, scooters or bicycles piled various goods so high that I’m quite certain there was no way they could see where they were going. Horns hollered to go faster, stop crossing into my lane, or the pig you’ve tied to the back of your scooter has come loose! Hoards of locals and tourists clogged the streets and “sidewalks” (I use that term loosely as most sidewalks had either turned into scooter parking lots or street side cafés.) Vendors hawking everything from knock-off purses to fresh pineapple shouted prices at us as we went past.

We usually attempted to find respite from the chaos when it was time to eat. One of the more important rules that we’ve learned from our travels is that if you are trying to get a good meal, find where the locals are eating. In this city, we had the majority of our meals sitting on about four-inch high plastic stools pointing to the guy next to us in an attempt to communicate, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Each of these repasts was amazingly delicious. I don’t have the space here to go into too much detail (plus, I’m quite sure you are all tired of me trying to be a food critic) but suffice it to say that the Vietnamese know what they are doing with a ladle and some broth. When it came time to pay the bill, we tried to watch and see how much the locals around us paid and we noted rather quickly that there seemed to be a city-wide tourist tax on each bowl of pho or spring roll we ate. Not having the language abilities to argue, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it if we didn’t have exact change.

About halfway through our trip, we left Hanoi for a completely different view of Vietnam. We traveled about four hours northeast to Halong Bay. Here, we boarded a small boat that would be our home for the next two nights and bid the shore goodbye. Our first day, we saw most of the tourist sites in the Bay along with about 3,000 of our closest friends. It was beautiful, but not too different from the city crowds. The second day, however, most people headed back to Halong city while we jumped in kayaks to explore the Bay on our own. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful. Nearly 2,000 small lush green islands jutted upward from the turquoise colored waters. For most of the day, the only people we saw were our tour guide, one other couple who was with us, and local fishermen. The silent serenity was broken only by chirping birds and the gentle waves breaking against our kayak. The contrast between this Vietnam and that of Hanoi was quite remarkable.

Once we got back on board the larger boat, we met yet another face of Vietnam. We were quite familiar with the tourist side of the country and had grown quite comfortable with it. To pass the time between kayaking and dinner, however, our tour guide began to tell us a bit of his story and in this way, we were introduced to the local’s Vietnam. Born and raised in North Vietnam, he related how both parents had fought in the “American War” where his mother, a chef, had lost her arm rendering her largely unable to work. Shortly after his father was killed in a coal mining accident, our guide (Choung) had the opportunity to “escape Vietnam” and illegally immigrate to the U.S. at the age of 14. He was caught, however, in Hong Kong where he spent five years in a refugee camp. It was there that he learned English but was eventually deported back to Vietnam where he worked as a waiter and scooter taxi in order to support his mom and sisters so that they could go to school. His dream now is to be able to go back to school for two more years so that he can obtain a true tour guide license and start earning $24 per day instead of $17… a salary supporting Chuong, his wife, his mother, and two sisters. Suddenly, we didn’t feel so bad about paying the so-called “tourist tax” for local food in Hanoi.

Our last afternoon, we were back in Hanoi where we found a café and reflected about our trip. Vietnam is an incredible country with an incredible history and an incredible people. We have vowed to go back and hopefully discovery another of her faces.

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