Not counting countries where I never left the airport/military base, Vietnam was the 10th foreign country I have visited. (The others were Canada, Japan, British West Indies, Thailand, China, Austria, Hungary, Afghanistan, and Malaysia). In terms of favorites, Vietnam landed pretty close to the bottom of the list. Second-to-last, which is, in effect, the bottom, since nothing will ever displace my distaste for Afghanistan.
While I hope I never have to visit again, I did at least take away some interesting stories and inspiration for future writing.
The trip started well. Between my train to the airport and flight, I managed to write a whole chapter in my novel. The airplane even had The Hobbit as one of its movie options- I am so out of touch with movies, I did not even know it was out- but I think the movie lost something in the transition to a seatback size/ quality screen and airplane headphones. Specifically, it lost most of its colors colors and the left-side audio. In the final scene where they look out and see the Lonely Mountain for the first time, all I saw was a wash of white static. Ooooh. If that was a spoiler for you, get off your ass and go read the book.
Yes, I took a paragraph to talk about my train and flight and how nice they were. I wanted to have something good to say about the trip.
Ho Chi Minh City
I felt like a star when I left the airport at Hanoi with 2 million in my pocket to meet the chauffeur holding a sign with my name on it. This is exactly the life I imagined when I decided to become a writer. Except that 2 million Vietnam Dong (I’m really struggling to avoid the easy, tasteless puns. . . about North Korean rockets) is about $100 US and my name was one of several on the sign for an airport shuttle. That’s a bit more realistic. Travel to the hotel and check in went well. At that point, I was still under the impression that I was going to enjoy this stay.
Before I managed to escape the lobby, however, I got roped into going downtown with one of the professors on my trip for sightseeing and shopping. I would have rather stayed in the air conditioning and worked on the novel, but I have a lot of trouble saying no to people above me unless I can come up with a good excuse. Some scenes in my novel share this problem. I sit there, typing away, waiting to the scene to end itself or for one of the characters to get up and leave so that I can move on. I’m exaggerating a bit, but I harbor the hope that when I finally learn how to end a scene in decisive fashion, that ability will carry over to getting out of real-life conversations and avoiding social obligations, too.
Torture by Traffic. So, after an all-too-brief sojourn into the air-conditioned oasis of my room, I got in a cab and fastened my seatbelt for a half hour of torture by traffic. I thought I’d seen bad traffic in Bangkok, but no, Ho Chi Minh City was far far worse. It’s the motorbikes. There were thousands of them weaving between lanes- including between lanes of traffic flowing in cross or opposite directions- and riding up on the narrow sidewalks. I am shocked that I didn’t see a single accident during my visit. Lane markings, crosswalks, and stoplights have little or no meaning. I saw guys on motorbikes force their way through six lanes cross-flow of traffic at an intersection. I saw bikes going down the middle of the wrong side of the street like a car chase scene from some action film. And there were bicycles mixed in, too, veering wildly across lanes without ever a glance backwards. Our cabby seemed pretty calm about it all, but I had white knuckles and a twitch by the time we got out.
On to the Market. The market we visited was everything I expected from a Southeast Asian tourist trap. Vendors grabbed at us from all sides as we slid sideways between the streams of foreign shoppers. Shopkeepers hawked their wares in Japanese at the professor then shifted to English for me- quoting their prices in both currencies, but not in Dong. As usual the prices got progressively lower as we walked away, but I wasn’t interested. I’ve already bought a lifetime’s worth of market trinket crap in China and Thailand. At least the aisles in Vietnam were wider than the Jatujak Market in Bangkok, and the vendors less aggressive than the Tomb of Qin Shi Huang (terracotta warriors) in Xi’an, where I think the vendors try to encourage you to buy their shirts by ripping your current one with their grabbing paws. Enough tourist location name-dropping for now? Ok.
Sightseeing. After realizing that neither of us were actually interested in buying anything, and succumbing to some stinging smoke from the food section of the market, we headed outside to try some sightseeing. Our tourist map had a mark for “Notre Dame Cathedral,” which sounded promising in a city occupied by France for so long. It delivered precisely what I ought to have expected from 40 years of a communist government’s maintenance of a structure built by a former occupying power. I’ve seen “crumbling brick facade” in works of fiction before, but this was the first time I saw it in person. Wind and rain had eaten away corners of most of the bricks in an almost uniform pattern. In some places, entire sections of brick must have corroded away. All that was left was haphazardly applied concrete. In its underlying structure, I’m sure the building was better constructed than the teetering, layer-by-layer concrete of the surrounding apartments, but none of them looked like they would endure even a weak earthquake.
The professor, a specialist in environmental economics, explained that the haphazard housing construction was a cultural function. Multiple generations of families live together and, as their living space grows too small, those that can afford it simply lay another floor of concrete on top of their existing structure as they need it. There are no building codes that a bribe can’t make disappear. I’m sure there’s a story idea or two in there.
On to Hanoi: A Miserable Journey
All things considered, despite the lackluster tourist experience, my time in Ho Chi Minh City went well. Things started going down hill the minute I began my journey to Hanoi. I didn’t expect much from HCMC airport’s domestic terminal. All I wanted was a place to eat. I had come straight from the Study Abroad Fair and hadn’t had my afternoon snack. A hungry Travis is a grumpy Travis. There was one eatery in the waiting area, but its dozen seats were full by the time I arrived and remained that way until my delayed flight finally left. I settled for an ice cream cone (consolation prize!) and some writing time. Fortunately, despite it being only a 2-hour flight, there was food on the plane. Otherwise, someone might have died that night. Probably the cabby.
Every Nice Thing I Might have Said about Vietnam Goes Poof: Between the half hour delay and the 45 minutes I spent waiting for my baggage, my airport shuttle driver in Hanoi had apparently called it quits for the night. There was nobody waiting when I got there. On the other hand, two of my traveling companions ended up leaving the airport at the same time as me, despite having booked a flight an hour later (they had made the wise decision to use carry-on baggage only, a choice denied to me by the mass of promotional materials I had to carry). The three of us decided to split a cab into the city and hopped into the first one we saw waiting on the curb. In retrospect, that was a mistake. Apparently, you’re supposed to arrange cabs through the airport information desk. I highly recommend going that route.
According to the guidebooks and Google Maps, it’s a 40-minute/350,000 Dong ride from the airport into the city. After an hour, roughly 15 right turns, and a series of suspiciously small streets for a capital city — did I mention there was zero traffic? — our driver pulled over and asked to see our destination again. It’s anyone’s guess as to where he was headed up until that point. We eventually reached my colleagues’ hotel and I tried to explain to the English-speaking bellman that I needed a different cab to go on to my next destination, since the driver was a thief and had driven us around in circles. That led to a lengthy middle of the night argument, after which we negotiated a flat rate to be divided amongst us after he delivered me to my hotel (a few blocks away). Another half hour later and that negotiation was out the window, as he tried to elevate my portion of the price by a factor of three and refused to open the trunk for my luggage until we settled on a new price. I wanted nothing more that to beat his head in with a rock, despite the fact that we were arguing over the equivalent of $2.50 US. More importantly, from my perspective, we were arguing over the hour or so of sleep that he had cost me.
If I am ever so unfortunate as to have to visit Vietnam again, I will make triply sure not only to arrange an airport shuttle but to get the driver and hotel’s phone numbers to call in case of delays. I will probably also never leave my hotel. It’s just not worth it. Even just thinking about that damn cabby makes me want to punch someone, so I’ll stop with the travelogue here.
Food in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi was decent, but my conclusion about Vietnamese food is that it’s generally much better if you don’t eat it in Vietnam. The meat is tough and chewy, the vegetables consist mostly of sprouts and leafy greens (raw, and loaded onto the plate by a bare-handed waiter), and the rice leaves a lot to be desired. The flavors were excellent, so with some quality ingredients, it would make a tempting cuisine. Perhaps in a rural community, it would be better. My experience in Southeast Asia , in general, is that the cities are irredeemably horrid but the countryside is where you find the country’s character and charm. If you’re eating in the cities, you really may as well go with Burger King or with the hotel buffet, if it’s a hotel that caters to foreigners.
Drinks Being a coffee “fan” (read: addict), I was excited to try the local product, but I walked away quite disappointed. That’s not to say Vietnamese Coffee is bad, it’s just not for me. I like my coffee black and flavorful. I’ll drink straight espresso if it’s a good brew. But my experience with Vietnamese Coffee made espresso seem like a breakfast blend by comparison. It’s quite impossible to drink without loading the cup with milk and sugar- my Vietnamese dining companion laughed at me for even trying- and, if you’re adding milk and sugar to your coffee, well then, you may as well be drinking one of those Starbucks fru-fru-paccino things.
The local beer was surprisingly decent, though. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was the highlight of the trip. I’d say that Hanoi Beer can hold its own against any of the Southeast Asian Beers I’ve tasted, including the produced-under-local-license Heineken that I drank occasionally in Thailand, and even against some of Japanese and American labels. Everyone-but-Sam-Adams-Yeungling-and-Fat-Tire, I’m looking at you.
I used to be pretty tolerant about different cultures and ways of life, but after a year each of living in Afghanistan and Thailand, I’ve had my fill of chaos and incompetence. I never tolerated thieves, regardless of their circumstances- I was the guy who cheered for Javert in Les Miserables. I think I can still understand the perspective of other backgrounds- I can even understand where that cabby was coming from. But instead of the “What can I do to make this system better” perspective that I held when I was younger, I try to determine “What does this sneaking bastard want, and how can I get away.” In my stories, competing interests create the complex conflicts that I like to bring to life, but outside of my books, I’m the only hero and other people’s stories just don’t interest me any more.
This travelogue has been a long time in the writing. Next time around, we return with your regularly scheduled content. Until then, even if I don’t care about your “story,” feel free to comment below!