The void

For the first time in nearly a year, I am relaxing. Funny stuff, huh? I realized yesterday that even though I had a place in Beijing, I never really got the opportunity to relax. I was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week and Sundays were usually just to recover. And with 6 months of that, it was time to get back on the road – a tremendously energy consuming task. And so now, in Saigon, I sit around waiting for my mom, stepdad and aunt to arrive and it is so nice doing absolutely nothing. I don’t have the energy for much of anything anyway. So now, I’m trying to recover. In all honesty, I’m not so far all that impressed by Vietnam (I’ll explain why) and so you need to be careful not to burn yourself out when you’re lacking intrigue and energy. We’ll see how this all plays out.

So how about Vietnam? Well, Hanoi was an interesting place. Lots of little lakes and rivers, interesting people doing interesting things everywhere you looked. The streets were chaotic, but not nearly as chaotic as Saigon. And there are tourists EVERYWHERE. You see, backpackers like to consider themselves as better than tourists. We like to think that we are intrepid explorers venturing into virgin territory. And when we see lots of other travelers, especially old people, we are confronted by the fact that what were doing is neither dangerous nor challenging and our egos get bruised. But that’s not what really gets me about the two cities I’ve been to here in Vietnam just yet. What is most disheartening is the fact that it seems that nearly everything and everyone here is someone getting the tourist buck. You can’t trust advice because someone is getting a cut. For example, your hotel will probably tell you that you can’t get a train ticket for that night because they want an extra night’s stay. When people talk to you on the street, they want money for their services like taking you for a tour of the city on “Motoby” (motorbike) or something like that. You just walk around with the thousands of other tourists walking around feeling like a piece of meat surrounded by a bunch of amiable lions. And they are good. Really good. If you didn’t know any better, you would think everyone was your best friend.

But that’s life. Everyone wants something. I haven’t made any sort of discovery and I’m not that naïve. But here’s the kicker. EVERYTHING here revolves around you. It’s almost as if no one here has their own life. All the stores are for you (with exceptions, mind you) but it’s like a big crappy city here in Saigon with nothing (it seems) for locals. I take that back. There are restaurants and key copiers and stuff like that, but it has a completely different feel to it than South America. I actually can’t put it into words but I feel like Vietnam is devoid of any visible culture other than transporting unimaginably large and random objects on motorcycles. Now, I’m sure that’s a pretty ignorant thing to say. How could I get to know the culture after a few days passing through? I can’t, but you absorb the culture in other countries. You see it everywhere you look. People go about their lives and you just kind of hitch-hike along. Here, people go about your life. You can’t walk 5 feet without someone sitting on the street offering to take you for a ride on their motorbike or cyclo (a bike taxi). Or old ladies in those crazy pointy hats trying to sell you bananas. Or guys selling you naked lady Zippos or fake Ray Ban sunglasses from a huge box strapped to his neck. And of course, beggars (most of them, surprisingly, are crippled).

How can this be? I’m not a random naïve traveler just off the plane. I’ve actually seen quite a few countries. I know this is something different. I don’t know if all parts of Vietnam are like this, or the rest of Southeast Asia for that matter. But it’s sad. Vietnam has been occupied by China, France and America. They have been bombed to shreds and fought many wars. They have been washed and scrubbed and told what was “civilized”. And they are poor. They need money somehow, eh? A guy on the street told me that he can make 300 bucks a month selling fake sunglasses. Considering the fact that you can eat for 20 cents a meal and my HOTEL is 3 bucks a night, that’s pretty good living here. So anyways, how do you get to know the “real” Vietnam, then?

I take this question seriously, because I really want to know. This is a challenge. So I take to the streets. I walk around and I talk to people. Yesterday, I met a motorbike driver that showed me that he also had a job making furniture for an Australian guy. I had him give me a ride to a noodle place for lunch, bought him coffee and we chatted for an hour about Vietnam. Before the war, after the war, how it was now. What he does.

What life is like. Things like that. When we were done, I paid him some money for the ride and continued on. Most of the motorbike drivers have nothing better to do so they will chat with you (for free!) and are very friendly. So are the cyclo drivers. I’ve met quite a few and keep running into them over and over as I revisit parts of town.

I went to the clothing market and decided that I wanted to find out if they could make me a shirt that said “DON’T WANT MOTORBIKE OR CYCLO!” so that I could make a few tourists laugh when they read it (seriously, it gets very annoying and it’s hard to keep politely saying “no, thank you” with a smile). So I chatted with some girls at a stall and joked around with them. They said I had to make 10 shirts, not just one. And it would be close to 50 bucks. No way. I visited some others. Now they were pretty bored to and I was the center of attention. I had to draw things, explain things, find translators. No one else would even entertain the idea. I explained how well shirts like this would sell here in Vietnam. They could make 10, sell me one and the others would sell like hotcakes. They would have nothing of that. I left the clothing market with still determination in my heart. I walked down the street and asked motorbike drivers. I asked store owners that looked like they might know. I was really bored, as you can gather. And then I finally found one. He would make me three for about 3 bucks each. I just had to supply the blank t-shirts (which is a bigger challenge than one would think in Vietnam). I eventually wrangled those up after another 45 minutes of searching and went back to the printer. His daughter translated for me. We all had a great time and I was so getting my shirts made! I picked them up today and they are incredible. Beautiful.

I think this is how you have to do it here. You just have to walk around and talk with people. You have to laugh and smile and appeal to people’s humanity and you can get past the tourist dollar varaciousness. Almost. They are of course still hungry.

So here I am left with nothing to do in Saigon. I bought a hammock and hung it up on the balcony (my roommates love it). Don’t worry about me. I’ll survive.

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