Observations on Culture and Communism in Vietnam
04.04.2012 - 12.04.2012 38 °C
Click here to view photos from Ho Chi Minh City, Mekong Delta, and Muine, Vietnam... Or continue reading!
Vietnam was a beautiful country with a whole lot more to see and do than we could have possibly fit into a month. We flew from KL to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south and traveled north to Hanoi, totaling about 56 hours in buses and cars over the course of four weeks. Most of what we saw and did was really interesting, and we were in constant awe of the breathtaking landscape. Unfortunately, our interactions with the people did not contribute to our excitement about the country. Although there were exceptions (and we did meet a few genuinely kind people), in the best moments, we were treated with indifference, and in the worst, we were confronted with racism, lying, cheating, and stealing. We know these behaviors were directed at foreigners, and we have tried to analyze and understand why, but without much success. The xenophobia we experienced was especially disappointing for Leah, who, as anyone who knows her knows, has waited most of her adult life to travel in Vietnam and believes that the only way to truly experience a country and its culture is through fellowship with its people. Nevertheless, although we remained largely on the outside looking in, we did our best to try to understand and appreciate the culture. Below is a breakdown of what we saw and did in Vietnam, as well as some commentary on its culture.
Ho Chi Minh, like most cities, is large, noisy, dirty, and chaotic. There are about ten times as many motorbikes on the streets as other Asian countries where motorbikes are the main mode of transport (with the possible exception of Phnom Penh, Cambodia), making it nearly impossible to cross at busier intersections. Nevertheless, we did our best to experience the city on foot, navigating our way through a maze of streets that didn't seem to reflect the map, stopping constantly to ask for directions. The architecture was somewhat interesting, far more beautiful lit up at night, save the newly-built Bitexco Financial Tower, which is a bit of an eyesore towering over an otherwise low city. We were most impressed by the numerous beautifully-manicured parks and public art everywhere.
We spent an afternoon in the War Remnants Museum, which was of course fascinating and heart wrenching. Leah appreciated that the first exhibit in the museum is a wall of photos, letters, news clippings, and the like reflecting American dissent about the war. This seemed to suggest that Vietnam recognizes that not all Americans were in support of the atrocities committed during the war, which are reflected throughout the museum (unlike, for example, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, Japan, which Leah remembers as seeming to hold all Americans in a negative light).
Additionally, in HCMC, we made some new friends, went to an art show opening about motorbike culture in Vietnam, and ate some delicious foods.
Our next stop was a tour of the Mekong Delta. We generally try to avoid tours, since we don't like to be packed into mini buses, herded like cattle through a bunch of boring side trips, then rushed through the interesting main attractions, but we thought this might be the easiest way to visit the river. We signed up for a 2-day, 1-night tour, since this was the only option for visiting a floating market, which we were both the most excited about.
The tour got off to a rocky start when the guide decided that he didn't like Leah, who has developed a mild claustrophobia from being packed with 40 other people into too many buses designed for 12, for requesting to sit in a front seat. Although we had made prior seating arrangements with the tour company and even shown up an hour early to secure the seats, the tour guide handed out his own arbitrary seating assignments and was furious to have them challenged. Although it would have been a simple matter of switching two seats, the guide didn't know how to handle the request and decided instead to start yelling and threaten to leave us behind. Although this inability to think outside the box prevails throughout Asia (and we say this not with prejudice but with almost five years experience living here), we have noticed that the Vietnamese people in particular aren't good with handling special requests. Colin suspects this comes from generations of living under communism, where basically you get what you get, and the people have learned not to challenge this.
Many of our conversations have gone something like this...
Leah (trying her best to sound sweet and non-confrontational) : Excuse me, ma'am, but it says on the menu that the salad comes with cheese, but there's no cheese on my salad.
Server (in a western tourist restaurant): Salad change. No cheese.
Leah: You changed the salad?
Server: Yes, no cheese.
Leah: But it doesn't say that on the menu. And you didn't tell me when I ordered it.
Server: Okay, but no cheese.
Leah: But I ordered the salad because I wanted cheese.
Server: Yes, but salad change. No cheese.
Leah: Well, do you have cheese?
Server: Yes, we have.
Leah: Well, can I have some?
Server: No. Salad has no cheese.
Leah: Yes, but it doesn't say that on the menu. So can I have some cheese, please?
Server: No. Salad has no cheese.
You get the point. (We will have more to say on this and similar issues regarding our interactions with the people in our next post about Vietnam.)
The first day of our Mekong tour was up and down. We had a couple of silly, but somewhat interesting side-trips to coconut candy and rice noodle factories, and we got to put our fingers into a beehive to retrieve honey. We heard some traditional music, which was quite lovely. We were fascinated by the unique instruments. We saw a temple with two massive stone Buddhas. We had a motor-powered boat tour of a large stretch of the river, where we passed numerous, colorful boats of various sizes and purposes. The highlight of our day was a more leisurely rowboat ride down a smaller portion of the river. We settled for the night in a small riverside town that specializes in frog and field mice delicacies, but we opted for the pizza (at this point in our journey we were craving normal, western food).
The next morning we set out on a boat to see the floating market, which was the part of the tour that most intrigued us. It certainly made every effort at getting there worthwhile, and easily remains one of the best experiences we had in Vietnam. Early in the morning, farmers and citizens from nearby villages gather together to exchange goods, mostly produce, that is shipped in along the river. Although it has the same excitement and energy of any Asian market, it is entirely on water, which enhances the experience. Larger boats, sometimes houseboats, with massive stacks of fruits and vegetables on the decks are anchored in the water, as people come through on smaller boats to observe the wares. To make purchases, the smaller boats attach themselves to the larger boats, or the people simply toss the produce and money from one boat to the next. Several small boats that function as floating convenience stores, rowed alongside our tourist boat, while women and children attempted to sell us anything from coffee to potato chips to bananas. The floating market was a truly unique and exciting experience.
On our way back to HCMC following the Mekong Delta tour, we had one more kitschy touristy stop, which turned out to be a really interesting experience: a tropical fruit farm! We saw at least a dozen varieties of fruit, many of which we had never seen before (and will likely never see again). Although Leah took photos of all of them, we won't bore you... However, if you've never seen how a pineapple grows, you might be surprised!
After the fruit farm, we returned to HCMC, picked up our bags, and boarded an evening bus to Muine, a small beach town five hours northeast. After taking mostly local buses in Indonesia and Malaysia, this was the first large tourist coach bus we'd booked and, even though it was packed full of locals, not tourists, we settled in comfortably and unfortunately, lazily, with our defenses down. This bus, we suspect, is where our money was stolen, although we didn't notice until three days later. At one point during the journey, however, Leah thought she saw the boy behind her pulling her bag from under the seat. Though she was not entirely sure this was the case, he did look startled and guilty when she caught him. She checked her bag, but, not wanting to draw attention to the money, didn't open the wallet. However, everything in the bag seemed to be in-tact. In hindsight, the boy was probably putting the bag back after taking the money. We can never know for sure. When we did discover the money was missing, we were both really angry at ourselves for not taking better precautions, which we know to do after having traveled for so many years. This will surely never happen again.
Not discovering the missing money right away was fortunate because it didn't ruin our mini-holiday. Muine was great! We were lucky to find a quiet little $10 guesthouse with a pool on the best stretch of white sand beach the area had to offer. We settled in for a few days to catch up on phone calls, emails, blog updates, and photos, detox from the dirty cities of KL and HCMC, and recover from the fatigue of so many weeks of constantly moving and fighting our way through SE Asia. Our guesthouse offered a quiet respite, and was conveniently located just across the street from the Fairy Stream and Red Canyon, a beautiful river walk through towering red sandstone cliffs. We were also close to the fishermen's village, which added to our experience of Vietnam on water and provided an excellent dinner of fresh fish.
Please click here to view our photos from HCMC, Mekong, and Muine, and check back soon for the rest of our stories and photos from Vietnam.