So I’ve been thinking. When something doesn’t set quite right with me, I do that. And Vietnam doesn’t set quite right with me. It’s time to set the record straight and finally put into words how I feel.
I said before that I thought Vietnam had nothing for the locals. That it was lack of culture (which I took back and made exceptions for as soon as I had said it). That everyone was after my money. And I said that it had a completely different feel than any other place I had been to.
So let’s try to figure out why. Vietnam is a country that has fought off imperialism for thousands of years. First it was China, then the French, then Japan, then the French again, then America and the Soviet Union. How does this affect a country, a culture and a people? How does this affect Vietnam’s place in the world order?
I first compare this with China. When you go through China, you see temples, palaces, statues, monuments to people, restaurants and cultural icons – a fair proportion of which are sometimes hundreds of years old. Sometimes even thousands. They have books from Confucious (Cong Zi in Chinese) and a unique writing system.
And in China, they will bargain. When they give you an exhorbitant price, you give an equally rediculous price on the low end and you meet them somewhere below half. If you grind on them and they wont budge, you have found their bottom line. Here in Vietnam, they give you a price and if you aren’t happy they will walk away calling you a bad person about 80% of the time. And that’s only if you are smiling and joking. If you are serious, that number jumps up to 95%.
So how does all this fit into what and how Vietnam is?
When you drive around Vietnam, you see beautiful French architecture. You see a western-like alphabet system. You see pictures of Ho Chi Mihn and the communist flag everywhere you go. Nothing here seems to be more than 100 years old. There are no cultural icons here (from my superficial viewpoint) other than Ho Chi Mihn (again, this is from the past 100 years) and it’s almost like everything started over after it became communist. That’s my theory. People just keep coming along and resetting Vietnam. China occupied this place and there were constant squirmishes. You see Japanese bunkers in the hillsides here in Vung Tao (where I’m staying with my mom and stepdad right now). This place was bombed until it looked like the moon not 30 years ago. And it’s poor and all its government is corrupt.
So as you walk around, of course it feels different. It’s one of the strangest things you’ve ever seen. About 10 years ago I saw this Oprah episode where she was talking with these kids that had this disease that caused them to look about 60 years old when they were really only 7. Here it’s the opposite. You walk around saying, “Where’s all the old stuff?” It seems like everyone is after you because they really have no other options. They are trying to make some money. I’m sure that if a person could find something much more intellectually stimulating than sitting around and asking people if they want to sit on the back of his motorbike so that he can take them down the street, they would. A woman charged my mom 3 bucks to use the bathroom at the boat terminal. I’m sure that made her day but you would never have that happen to you in New Zealand. The person wouldn’t be able to live with herself. Socrates once said that it is nearly impossible for a poor man to be a completely honest one. What if you needed to steal bread for food so as not to starve to death?
The effect is that you walk around Vietnam feeling like the culture has been muted. Instead of the loud and resonating culture you see everywhere in China, you instead feel like someone is screaming at you from beneath a pillow, which is muffling their voice.
Compound this with a poor education to begin with and you have a bunch of people in poverty without the means to escape it. I talked to a man at my hostel who said the place across the street charged him 7000 dong for a 7-up and the place down the road charged him only 4000. “I will never go back to that guy again. Doesn’t he realize that???” No, he doesn’t. Hungry and ignorant people don’t look that far ahead. It’s all about the here and now and day by day. Only once one is secure can he afford to even consider looking ahead.
But I still don’t get the no-bargaining policy. I wanted to get weighed on this electronic scale people cart around here and the guy wanted 5000 dong. It should only be 2000 and so I offered him 1000. He said no and wouldn’t budge on the price: 5000 dong for me. So I walked away. We were both left with nothing. Why not just give me the local’s price? Something tells me this guy isn’t driving home in a BMW. People tell me (and believe me, I’ve asked a lot of people) that maybe he just didn’t need the money. I find that highly doubtful. And if that is indeed the case, then I speculate that he will remain poor for the rest of his life. In China, they would come after you saying “okay okay okay! 2000!” when they saw that you were leaving. Let’s keep in mind that in 100 years, we will probably all be speaking Chinese.
Visible aspects of Vietnam’s culture have long since been bombed away. I’m sure the people aspects still remain and of course, have all been influenced by abroad – but it’s important to keep in mind the fact that this is true for any culture. Even the respectively culturally devoid America (itself only 300 years old). Everyone is influenced by everyone and with the prevelance of the Internet and satellite TV, this propagation of (especially American) culture happens at break-neck speed.
Food for thought, eh?
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.
The long dreaded time has come – getting shots. The poke you then want all your money. Something doesn’t make sense here – those bastards should be paying me! Anyways, I got a TB test, then a Hepatitus A shot and I now have a prescription for Malaria. I have to get my Yellow Fever shot tomorrow and some blood work in a few days.
I hope I survive!