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Yeah, I’ve been to ‘Nam

My view of Vietnam has changed quite a bit since my first two posts and I will write a bit more about it when I make it to Cambodia and have a bit more to compare it with. I’ll say this, at least: It really does help to sit around and do a whole lot of nothing if you want to get an honest feel for the country and the people.

So what have I been up to? Well, as I mentioned, my mom and step dad arrived a few days ago and we headed for a little beach city called Vung Tao where we met up with Rick’s (my stepfather) friend, Terry. He’s an American vet who decided to settle down in Vietnam of all places. So we spent a few days riding around the town on our rented motorcycles and catching up. As always ends up happening, we debated a lot about a lot of things. After 6 months of weekly Economist readings, though, my stepfather has lost his ability to school me on Economic theory and usually considers the argument won when he gets frustrated and tells me that I’m wrong because 1) I just don’t know anything, although he can’t explain why, 2) I’m too young or have no life experience and therefore can’t comment, or 3) the argument is pointless anyway and doesn’t warrant talking about further because it won’t change anything. It’s funny stuff. I wonder if one day he will admit that I’m right about something.

So we waited around a few days and eventually headed back to Ho Chi Mihn to pick up Cherrie (my aunt). We spent a day in Ho Chi Mihn and then headed back to Vung Tao where we relaxed for a day before renting a van and heading to the area my grandfather was killed in Vietnam. He was in the same battalion as Terry (Rick’s friend) and Terry was able to get the story of his death (for which he received a purple heart) from the commander and actually found a woman who lived nearby who saw the whole thing go down. My grandfather and his squad were going out to make a delivery one day and no one except him took their guns. They ended up getting ambushed and he fended off the VC while the others escaped in a ditch and made it back to camp. By the time reinforcements arrived, he was shot dead. They were able to hunt down the VC later that night and kill them.

We walked down the road he was killed on – indeed, past the very spot. It was strangely peaceful and you can’t help but notice the fact that the “jungles” of Vietnam are nothing more than dense forest. The scent of burning Eucalyptus fills the air and the occasional dog barks at you from behind the safety of a dilapidated wood fence. Old women sat in their doorless houses and watched us as we walked by. Terry filled the silence with stories about what my grandfather would have been doing from day to day, how many people were on the base, where the VC was and what they did. In a place so peaceful, it’s not inconceivable that his squad would have left their guns behind that day. I suppose you get a bit complacent after a while with nothing happening and especially being so close to a huge military base. Had he not been smart enough to have taken his gun that day, however, four other families (and not just my mother’s) would have grown up without fathers.

I split up from the family yesterday and headed back to Ho Chi Mihn. They were spending a whole lot of time doing nothing more than sitting around (after all, they were on vacation) and I decided to head back to town and continue on with my trip. When I got back, I ran into Sam, an Australian I met before I left for Vung Tau and he had just returned from a trip to the Mekong Delta. We chatted for a while, found a place to stay and grabbed some dinner.

From there, my friend Leiu gave me a ride on her motorbike to my mom’s hotel so I could get some stuff I had stored in her bag that she had left behind and we went out and had coffee at a really nice bar with live Spanish music. I didn’t get much sleep and was up pretty early as I was planning on heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels – a series of tunnels that the VC had dug in the forest and were able to hide and transport arms from Cambodia within. It was a 2 hour bus trip there (during which time I ended up debating US foreign policy with a Dutch couple…ahhh, gotta love the Dutch…) and then exploring the intricacies of the Cu Chi complex with my tour group.

After watching a propaganda video (“The US Bombers came into the peaceful town of Cu Chi and dropped their deadly bombs. They killed the joyful people of Cu Chi. They killed the children. They killed the chickens and the ducks. The dropped their bombs on the pots and pans, the beautiful streams. Why??”), we headed down into the caves. What an experience…we squatted through caves sometimes even requiring us to crawl through passage ways and into underground rooms. Bats hung over our heads and flapped us in the face. Spiders crawled on our shirts. One girl said a rat hit her hand as she was crawling. At one point, I felt and intense stinging on my leg. I could have sworn it was a bat sucking my blood but it turned out to be a live wire just sticking out from a wall. I touched it and it sent another 110 volts surging through my body. It was insulated so I’m sure that’s what prevented me from frying. Seeing as it is nearly impossible to pass through without hitting it, I would imagine that someone should probably look into fixing that. Anyway, the guide hauled ass through the tunnels and left us in the dark, trying to decide where to go. We were drenched in sweat and people started freaking out. A girl behind me was nearly hysterical and her husband tried to calm her down. The guy in front of me yelled at the people ahead to keep moving and not stop.

But wouldn’t you know it? We eventually emerged on the other side, alive and well – although with muddy knees and soaked shirt. I had 6 or 7 tiny spiders clinging to my shirt which left dark green smear marks on me as I tried to brush them off but instead squished them.

Then we headed to the shooting range where people fired AK-47’s and M-16’s for 10 bucks for ten rounds. I watched and covered my ears. They had lots of random animals in cages around too, like a monkey and a 350 pound snake. We eventually all piled back into the bus and headed home.

And so here I am. I head to the Mekong Delta tomorrow and I will eventually head to Cambodia within a few days. Let’s hope everything goes well.

Some insight

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?

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.

Tidal Wave!!!

You are stranded in a sea of motorcycles surrounding you completely. Everyone revs their engines with anticipation – motorbikes slowly rock back in fourth as everyone inches forward and then rocks back to keep their engines from stalling. 500 eyes focus on the single red streetlight.

The light turns green and a blast of warm and suffocatingly moist exhaust engulfs your face from the lumbering bus ahead of you as it awakes from its slumber. The roar of the motorbikes rises with crescendo and everyone slowly lurches forward, weaving and waving, with nervously calm expressions darting in every direction. People swerve. People veer. People flow. And with that the dam is broken and the river of cycles gushes into the intersection and melts into the motorbikes still in the intersection (who paid no attention to their own red light). You simply go with the stream and pay attention to your motorbike and about a foot around it in all directions simultaneously. You brake and swerve, you take advantage of holes, you accelerate and snub your nose at cars careening toward you with confidence. You survive.

Until you arrive at your next red light and it starts all over again.

Let me tell you. Renting a motorbike in Saigon is quite an experience. Even more so, it seems, than Hanoi. Everything seems a little more chaotic here in the south. No one pays attention to lights, people drive on any side of the road and in any direction. Yet no one has any accidents. It’s crazy.

So what have I been up to (besides NOT being in any of the countries hit by the tsunami)? Quite a bit actually. The last time I wrote, I was getting ready to go on a trip to Ha Long Bay on the coast of Vietnam. That morning, I woke up and took the tour with my buddy Mike (French Canadian) there. We met a lawyer couple from Hawaii traveling with their son and a few Germans and after two hours we eventually arrived at the bay. We hopped on our boat and after sitting around for a while we were off. We spent the next day and night checking out the sites of Ha Long Bay (which is really nice, but nothing spectacular) and the “Surprise Cave” which is named “Surprise Cave” because some guy found it in 1990 and was “surprised”. Anyways, we had Christmas on the boat and we all sat around and chatted. I, of course, steered the conversation towards the international economy, the European Union, the WTO and a variety of other things. I got roped into debating American hegemony (which I’m getting quite good at) and we all sipped whiskey that one of the lawyer guys bought on the boat. The Vietnamese crew made balloons for us and the plastic Christmas tree flickered with lights. One of the ladies (who was a lawyer) pulled out a bag of pot that she bought somewhere and rolled a joint (WHERE are you from, again??) and passed it around. Mike and I passed on the weed but enjoyed watching everyone get stoned. At least they laughed more!

So the next day we headed back to dry land and eventually back to Hanoi. Mike and I spent another day on the motorcycles and the evening flirting with a beautiful girl working at the hostel and then went our separate ways. Mike to Sapa (in the mountains) and me to Saigon. Don’t worry though. The train was only 33 hours.

I was taken to the train station with my huge backpack and all on the back of a little moped and upon arrival, I found my car and introduced myself to my Vietnamese carmates – which basically entailed me saying “hello!” and offering them some candy. The next 33 hours were spent sleeping, listening to music, nearly vomiting from the food, watching the woman below me pick at the scabs she had all over her body from some sort of skin disease and admiring the Vietnamese countryside roll by. It was pretty cool. Except for the food and the scab picking.

So I finally arrived to Saigon at 4:00AM and bargained with a guy to take me to a hotel in my book for 2 bucks on the back of a motorbike. It’s strange here. Everything is given to you in dollars and then they convert it to Dong – the currency here. They try to get you on the exchange rate. But it gets pretty annoying after a while. So at 4:00AM there is nothing open. Some woman was washing carpet on the street in the front of a hotel. I pointed at it and she shook her head “no”. I put my hands up and said “where should I go?” She smiled and shrugged. So I walked through the streets of Saigon, perhaps following the footsteps of my father stumbling back to the base after a night out and ended up in a 24 hour internet café.

When the hotels finally opened, I headed to one and had to wait while they cleaned up the dorm room. I had breakfast and chatted with a Korean woman about the war in Korea (You will notice very quickly after talking with me that I get into some pretty deep conversations – but not attackingly so, just listening. Of course, I’ve perfected the art of backing off when appropriate, but at the same time maintaining maximum extraction of perspective, opinion, and information). From there, I headed to my room and took a shower before heading downstairs to rent a motorcycle for the day. I ended up running into Marie – from RIVERSIDE, of all places!

It’s funny because no one knows anything about Riverside. When people ask where you are from, you say California. When they say what part, you say LA. Only if they are from LA can you actually say Riverside. And even then I might not mention that I’m actually from Moreno Valley (Moreno what?). So I went through this process with Marie and it turns out we are both from not 10 miles away from each other. Crazzzzziness, eh? So anyways, her parents are from Vietnam so she speaks Vietnamese. We putted around with each other the whole day checking out Saigon where I checked out the hotel my mom and stepdad will be staying at in a few days. There’s no airport shuttle so I will meet them at the airport when they arrive.

Then I went back to my dorm room and took a nap. I got up just before dark and just drove around Saigon on my motorcycle – getting lost in the madness. I drove around the river, through the city, and down alleyways. Somehow, I magically arrived back at my hostel without a map. It’s a crazy city – about which I’ll write more maybe tomorrow. That evening, Marie and I got some Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and I headed back to my hotel where I had some beer and chatted with some locals at a little store on the side of the road across from the hotel. Their 25 year old beautiful daughter (incredibly so) looked about 18 and spoke excellent English, and we chatted about Vietnam. I asked all sorts of questions and learned quite a bit. She learned English from MTV and wrestling on TV in addition to school and having an American boyfriend in the past. Her parents hung out around us and smiled. They firmly patted my shoulder as we talked with a smile as though to say, “You can date our daughter if you want.” It was a really strange feeling.

I can remember having a discussion with a Chinese guy on the subway in Beijing about how westerners can get their pick of any girl they want in China, just for being western. It’s cool and trendy.

He was a bit frustrated. As I travel around poorer countries, especially in Asia for some reason, I get that same feeling. I can have a beautiful wife if I want. Drop dead beautiful. But of course beauty isn’t the only qualifier for a successful relationship. You would have to date and get to know a person. Which would entail staying in the country for a while. But you meet people for a day and you can’t stay for every cool person you meet. And I wonder, is it just my confidence that has changed which is why this feeling has hit me so far into the trip? Why didn’t I feel this way in South America? I don’t know. But soon enough, however, I’m going to go back to America and we’ll find out. When I get back, will I be just another average guy with an average life, or will two years around the world have added an edge to me that people take notice of? I thought that I wouldn’t change on this trip, but I have. I’m still a goofy and funny guy, and I don’t quite know what is different, but something has changed in me. I’ve got about 8 more months to think about this so I’m not jumping to any conclusions. But…my god…what a beautiful girl.