12.04.2012 - 18.04.2012 35 °C
On communism & culture:
Most notably, there are signs and billboards everywhere, which serve to remind the people of their social responsibilities, as well as laws and newly-acquired privileges. In more remote areas, we saw billboards informing the people of their rights to home ownership and marriage. Many display just text, while others contain images; most incorporate the sickle and hammer, as well as Ho Chi Minh's likeness. One popular billboard is an illustration of several smiling citizens of various ages standing behind a stern but protective-seeming soldier gazing into the distance.
Similarly, there is an obviously strong sense of nationalism. In addition to being a very seemingly-proud people, the Vietnam flag flies on almost every street corner. In one village we passed, there was a flag hanging on every single door.
There is a strong police/military presence, especially in the south, though they do not always carry weapons. While they're not particularly friendly, the police are also not intimidating; they are just simply there.
Vietnam seems to be more than compensating for past criticism from the international community for stifling religion. There are churches and temples everywhere, many of which are newly-built and have become major tourist attractions. The people seem to be hungry for religion as well. In the central highlands, we passed Christian churches so overflowing with people trying to hear the sermon that they were standing in groups by the hundreds on the grounds or streets outside.
There is little deviation in architectural style (which may also explain why religious buildings, which tend to be fairly elaborate, are popular attractions). Most government buildings -schools, hospitals, military centers, etc.- were built in a similar style. Likewise, houses, although the style varies from village to village, are all relative in size, color, and style.
Most of the smaller towns and villages are centered around massive loudspeakers that blare daily messages or reminders. In more remote areas, they play soothing melodies periodically throughout the day.
Although commerce seems to drive society, and many people have fallen naturally into the role of the entrepreneur, there does not seem to be a lot of competition amongst businesses or business owners. Whereas in other countries multiple people will harass you simultaneously to buy goods, in Vietnam, they tend to back off if you're already talking to someone (that is to say, they don't try to steal business from one another, although they do like to work together to try to cheat the tourists).
While they're not always particularly warm to outsiders, there is a strong camaraderie amongst the Vietnamese people. Especially in the smaller villages, where there is an even stronger sense of community, the people seem to share most responsibilities and rewards. Although the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child prevails throughout Asia, it seems to be a daily practice in Vietnam.
Vietnam Part 2
If you have not read Vietnam Part 1, click here.
Click here to view our photos from the central highlands (unfortunately, they're out of order again... perhaps photobucket was a mistake!), or continue reading.
On the bus ride from the airport in HCMC to our guesthouse, we remarked in awe about the cleanliness of the city, the large number of swanky cafes, restaurants, and boutique shops, and the presence of international brands, like Gucci and Samsung. Colin, who traveled in Vietnam six years ago, noted that the city had undergone many changes toward development. Although the government's goal to industrialize by 2020 had seemed far-reaching, Leah was worried that, as with Korea, sudden rapid development had destroyed the cultural nuances that make a country unique (and perhaps, like in Shanghai, China, left a giant corporate mall instead). Of course, as noted in Part 1, HCMC is not as sparkling and refined as the airport perimeter would suggest. Furthermore, overall,Vietnam has a long way to go in its development. As such, we were able to get a proper taste of the "real Vietnam," particularly in our travels through its mountain villages and towns.
From Muine, we boarded a bus to Dalat in the central highlands of Vietnam. This was the starting point from which we would travel through the mountains, as far off the beaten path as possible, to try to get a sense of local village life. Dalat was a lovely little town with cool temperatures, good pho, and locals who weren't interested in pestering us to buy useless trinkets. There were a lot of foreigners, though significantly fewer than Saigon and Muine, but we wound up meeting some really great people. We stayed only two nights, allowing ourselves one full day of exploration. Dalat itself had quite a view tourist attractions, but they all seemed too kitschy for our tastes; not wanting a repeat of Malaysia, we decided just to rent a motorbike and cruise through the mountains, enjoying the stunning views. At one point on our journey, we did stop at a waterfall. After we'd paid the entrance fee, we discovered that the waterfall itself was fairly small and unimpressive, and the park where it was located was decorated in an American cowboy and Indian theme. After that, we avoided the tourist spots. We wound up resting in a quiet tea house with incredible views.
From Dalat, we took a local bus through the mountains toward Lake Lak. Luckily, our seats weren't too uncomfortable, and we had the front window view of the beautiful landscape. Although the journey was bumpy, we enjoyed every minute of it; the aesthetic of the central highlands is quite unlike any mountain landscape we've seen. We wanted to take photos, but pulling out cameras on a local bus is never a good idea.
When we arrived in Lake Lak, we knew we were moving away from the touristy spots because we weren't greeted at the bus by fifteen guys on motorbikes offering to take us to this or that hotel. Actually, we were the only ones that got off our bus, and we quickly discovered that there was no one else around. We walked for awhile until we came to a rather large tourist "resort" on the lake, which was overpriced and seemed empty of patrons anyway. However, they were able to confirm that there was a traditional longhouse available for rental further up the lake. It started raining, but we set out anyway, walking over 2 km around the lake. Again, we were disappointed that we couldn't take out our cameras, because the lake was beautiful in the rain and everyone we passed, mostly farmers and men and women bundling grains that had been spread across the road to dry, warranted a photo. Eventually we came to a little restaurant, where we would also rent the longhouse, and they ushered us inside and gave us hot coffee. When the rain stopped, we were driven on the backs of motorbikes 500 meters up a road lined with traditional houses to the one that we would be sleeping in for the night. It was exactly as you would expect, a long, narrow house made entirely of wood. Inside, were several mattresses on the floor covered with mosquito nets (Lake Lak is a malaria hotspot so we were thankful for the nets and applied bug spray constantly). Although not the most comfortable accommodation, especially given the creepy outhouse, which crawled with various insects and lizards (or at least significantly more than usual), it was fun to stay in a traditional house in a local village.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the lake and exploring the nearby villages. Lake Lak is absolutely stunning, and the rain only enhanced its beauty. The colors were so vivid!
Most of the homes were in the similar longhouse style. Children played with sticks and balls or cycled through the streets. We watched a spirited football game for awhile in one of the fields where cows had been grazing earlier that day. Older men and women sat on their porches, while the younger ones worked in the fields or markets. Most people didn't seem too bothered with us wandering around, though we always try to remain respectful and not snap too many photos.
One particularly interesting and very friendly man, whom we suspect was probably intoxicated, followed Colin for awhile, blathering away in Vietnamese. Eventually, we pieced together that he was inviting us to dinner, but we declined since he was clearly not in the right frame of mind. We wound up having a dinner, which was meant to be "traditional and delicious," back at the restaurant where we'd rented the longhouse; it was okay, tasty enough but a little overpriced and not necessarily authentic. We probably should've stuck with local street food.
The next day, we continued our exploration of the central highlands by moving onto Buon Ma Thuot, a small city deeper into the mountains. The longhouse had directed us to a guesthouse there, which was fortunate, because we probably would not have otherwise found a place to stay. Although the city is quite large, it is not touristy. In fact, we only saw one other foreigner during the two days that we stayed there. This town is famous for its coffee, so, upon arriving and settling into the hotel, we set off straight away in pursuit of a cup. What we got was not coffee so much as liquid crack. It was literally a thick, almost gel-like substance that could have easily been the equivalent of 8 or 9 espresso shots. This was probably the first cup of coffee Leah has ever declined to drink. Colin, on the other hand, polished his off, then spent the rest of the day feeling jittery and uneasy.
We really enjoyed the little city. Again, the people did not seem too bothered with us, but they were not unfriendly. The night market had a lot of energy. We found a "make your own spring rolls" restaurant where we ate twice, really enjoying the heaps of various greens and fresh vegetables, tofu, and pork rolled in rice paper and dipped in homemade peanut sauce. They were delicious!
We spent a day once again exploring the nearby villages. Because many of the villages require permits to visit, we were limited in our options and wound up in a slightly more touristy village (although there weren't many tourists), but it was enjoyable nonetheless.
Following Buon Ma Thout, we continued through the highlands to a small town called Pleiku. Here, we had planned to meet a couple of friends who were also traveling in Vietnam. Choosing Pleiku as a meeting place was based entirely on its proximity from where we were coming from in the south and where our friends were coming from in the northeast. In fact, everything we'd read about Pleiku was that there is absolutely no reason to go there, but we figured being that far off the beaten path would give us a taste of the real Vietnam. It certainly did! It wound up being a great little town and an unusual experience.
We met our friends at the bus station and asked a taxi driver to take us to any hotel nearby. He wound up driving for ages, passing by numerous hotels and ignoring our efforts to make him stop. Eventually, he brought us to a hotel in what seemed like a lively enough area. We were satisfied that there would at least be food options. We checked in, then went straight into what appeared to be the town square for dinner. We of course selected an outdoor street restaurant and had an excellent pho. We hung around the square for awhile, drinking 40 cent beers until one by one the restaurants closed up and everyone seemed to disappear. This was disappointing because it was still early and we weren't ready to call it a night. We wandered around the town for while, finding another street side watering hole and temporarily adopting a cat, which we rescued from a sealed bag under the table at our restaurant (we're not sure what it was meant for, but the woman seemed happy enough to give it away, dropping it into a plastic bag like a bunch of bananas... Needless to say, we set it free). When we were finally convinced that there was nowhere left to go in the seemingly dead town, we set off back toward our hotel; at this point, it was about 12:30 am. When we rounded the corner to the town square, we were surprised to see a bustling produce market had appeared seemingly from nowhere. The area that had previously been scattered with restaurants was now covered with individual stalls containing heaping piles of fruits and vegetables run by little, crooked, old women. Like the floating market, this one had a lot of energy, but was unique because it ran from about midnight to five a.m. Despite what the guidebooks say, a stop in Pleiku is definitely worth it for the experiences of the night market and street restaurants alone... Unfortunately, we did not have our camera with us, so no photos!
Please click here to view our photos from the central highlands, and check back soon for the rest of our stories and photos from Vietnam.