Thursday, November 18, 2010

Trying to ‘Get’ Vietnam

Note: Pictures from today’s post can be found in the album titled, “Vietnam: From Hanoi to Hue.”

   *Subnote: I have not captioned these yet… wifi is incredibly slow here!

It’s Thursday evening and I’m struggling with my reactions to Vietnam so far. With the exception of Halong Bay, I can’t say as I’ve really enjoyed myself so far. It’s not that anything particularly bad has happened, or that I’m feeling unwell, or anything along those lines. It’s just… Hanoi was crowded and hot and it felt like every single sales person was trying to gouge me on prices. I can understand a higher price for tourists, but I can’t understand trying to get away with charging me up to twenty times the normal price. As I’ve headed south, it’s gotten hotter, muggier and more half-built / half-decayed. Today, though, I had the slightest of epiphanies. Whether it helps me to cope with and understand Vietnam at least a little remains to be seen.

Let me start with Tuesday, though.

Tuesday, Nov 16, 2010

Slow morning waking up, showering, re-packing and getting ready for the day. I had to be at the travel agent’s office by 5:30pm, but otherwise had no commitments. The first thing I tackled was checking out of the hotel and this was my first challenge: First, they conveniently forgot that I’d paid a deposit. When I produced my receipt (which I’d had to insist upon them giving me), they wanted to suddenly up the exchange rate for the dollar on me. You see, the Vietnamese have learned to quote prices in USD, then when you don’t have USD to give them, they tell you how strong the dollar is these days and do the conversion rate accordingly. At first look, this seems to be advantageous for me, but then as the amount of dong I owe goes up, I see how they get their extras. All of the sudden,instead of the steady $1USD=19,000VND, the hotel staff insists that today the dollar is stronger, so that $1USD=21,000VND.

Before you say, “Oh, geez, that’s less than a dime! What’s the problem?!” Just realize that every single person seems to do this, plus at minimum doubling the price – and sometimes going up to twenty times the appropriate price – and so a dime over the course of a week can get quite costly. Especially for someone trying to keep on a lower budget.

Anyway, they tried this conversion thing first and I refused, asking them to show me on the internet what the exchange rate was. They backed off and agreed on the afore-agreed-upon price at the appropriate exchange rate, but when I needed some change from them, they insisted they didn’t have it. I told them to give me the money back so that I could go get change, and they tried to give me a bottle of water instead of the change (making that the most expensive bottle of water in Hanoi). I refused and started to get upset and finally someone magically found the appropriate amount of change.

I mean, really. Can’t a girl just check out in peace?! I left my pack in their lobby and headed out. The first place I visited was just across the street: a propaganda poster shop. IMG_0273 It was pretty interesting to see some of their stuff, especially from the Vietnam/American War timeframe. I took a good twenty minutes going through the two rooms full of posters. Some encouraged wartime efforts such as rice farming, or participation by women, or joining the forces for freedom. Sound familiar? Then there were those showing a US bomber plane falling out of the sky, with the number “4,000” printed on it, showing how many planes the Vietnamese had downed. There were shadows of manacles being broken and other symbolism of breaking the bonds of tyranny. Very interesting!

I headed out and decided to eat an early lunch at Pho 24, a chain restaurant that is apparently pretty prolific in the south of Vietnam, although I only saw two of them in Hanoi. The pho (beef noodle soup) was pretty tasty! Also, I met an Australian girl there who’d just arrived from Cambodia. She talked up a tour she’d been on there through Gecko Adventure Tours and got me thinking about possibly booking with them. Good thing to look into, anyway!

I decided to walk around a bit after this, and was pressed pretty hard by a woman street vendor to buy some of her fruit. When I declined, she smiled really big and held out her baskets to me, beckoning to my camera. When I hesitated, wondering if I should give her my camera, she plopped her hat on my head and gestured again at the camera. So, I did the tourist thing and played street vendor for thirty seconds. She snapped my photo and then took her things back, holding out a bag with two bananas and some slices of pineapple in it. I sighed and asked her how much. When she quoted me six times the price I was willing to pay, I haggled her down, walking away until she agreed on the price I’d stated.

Next up a motorbike ride to see the War Museum, an eclectic, somewhat disorganized collection of wartime artifacts from throughout the ages in Vietnam. Some dated back IMG_0275 several centuries and some was from their 20th century struggles. For me, it was completely disturbing to walk out into the courtyard to be greeted by US Air Force planes shot down and then salvaged. There was also an odd pile/sculpture of B-52 bomber scraps. I wondered if I should feel angry or sad or personally affronted, although I didn’t feel any of these things. It did bring home, though, how the countries we get involved with become proud of the things we condemn them for. And I have friends today who are over in Iraq or Afghanistan. Will their planes, or vehicles, or uniforms, someday be on display in an Middle Eastern ‘war museum’? That is the thought which gave me the chills.

My motorbike driver was waiting for me outside and we zoomed on over to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and complex. I didn’t go into the mausoleum, but I did check out the front of the One Pillar Pagoda, which was a model, I believe, of his home, that people respected for it’s simplicity. Actually, I didn’t go in, because there seemed to be a religious ceremony going on. I then walked up to a huge building which turned out to be the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Curious, I paid the entry fee and went inside. There I was greeted with the most incredible museum comprised of art, craft and history, mixed in pretty interesting ways. I didn’t understand all of it; certainly, there was incredible symbolism I had no idea about. I would love to go back someday and learn about what it all meant.

Here is one of my internal struggles with Vietnam: all my life I’ve been raised with the American education of “communism is bad,” and my recollection of any history education on Vietnam has just left me with the idea that Ho Chi Minh was bad as well. Yet here I was, in a museum revering him with statuary, photos, art and poetry all in his honor. The representation of him here, of course, is of saintly good, of a man for the people who brought the country to independence and who insisted on education for everyone, technological progress and so forth. How could this be bad?

I left the museum impressed and bemused, found my motorbike driver and asked him to drive me to the area of my hotel. He tried to get me to agree to a motorbike tour of Hanoi, but I declined and he took me to St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which is just up the street from my hotel. There, he insisted that I took too long at the museum and that I owed him more than our agreed-upon price. I refused, feeling downhearted once more. It took five minutes before I could turn and walk away. I don’t like treating people like that, but my fuse is getting shorter and rather than get visible and audibly upset, I figured it’s better to walk away and ignore them.

It was time for an early dinner, so I stopped at La Place, which was just adjacent to the cathedral, and had cha ca, a Vietnamese specialty of grilled fish with shrimp paste. It was quite tasty and filling! Afterwards, I just relaxed, reading a book on my iPod and letting time pass. Finally, I decided it was time to grab my bags from the hotel and then take the ten minute walk over to the travel agent’s office. On the way, I ran into Judy and Dan, the Vermont couple I’d met in Cat Ba. We stood and chatted, discussing our various reactions to Vietnam and trying to make sense of it all. Finally, we said a last good-bye and good luck, and went our separate ways.

Later, I caught the sleeper-bus to Hue. It was quite the trip! First, a minivan picked me up to take me to the bus station. It started out with just me, but soon filled to capacity, and then beyond capacity: there were four people standing crammed next to the sliding door! We were released in front of a row of shops, one of which was the bus stop: a one room, half crumbling place where they glanced at your ticket, stamped and tore it and pointed outside with a grunt. I’d decided to just go with the flow because I had no idea what to expect. There were several others in the same frame of mind and we all giggled and shrugged as we were herded to a large bus.

IMG_0287The sleeper bus was made of up three rows of beds, one row on each side by the windows  and one row going up the middle. Each row had an upper and lower bunk. In the back of the bus, where I ended up, there were five across on both the top and bottom. These beds are made for Asian sized people, which at first seemed good for me, since I’m short. They’re narrow as well, though, and don’t leave a lot of room for stretching out. Most of the beds have a cubby where you stick your feet, in fact. I was IMG_0286 in an aisle bed, meaning I had someone immediately on my right and immediately to my left. Good thing I’m not claustrophobic because it was quite, quite cozy. The first picture to the left shows my bottom-bunk, back-of-the-bus cave. These were the three people to my left. There was one person to my right. The second picture to the left is a picture forward from my bed. I think there were about thirty beds in all on the bus. We filled the entire thing in Hanoi and then began our fourteen hour trip to Hue.

The overhead lights were kept on until about 9:30pm. We made one rest stop that evening and another in the morning around 8am. I had an incredibly difficult time getting comfortable, but finally figured out that lying on my side was my only hope. The last row of beds were slightly more inclined than the others in the bus, and oddly proportioned to boot: the inclined part of the bed was maybe five feet long, and the flat part where the legs go was about a foot long. My butt kept sliding down, no matter how I’d push myself up, which would force me to bend my legs quite a bit, and push my feet against the metal "footboard.”

Until the lights were turned out, I decided to attempt to write postcards. My apologies to those who get these… my handwriting is pretty terrible. It seemed as though the bus driver were aiming for only the deepest potholes. One time, the bump was so bad that everyone flew out of their beds a couple of inches. Since I was sitting up, my head slammed into the upper bunk. After that I lay down and tried to get comfortable. I did actually get a little sleep, interrupted by the occasional bump or swerve. I swear that at one point the bus leaned tremendously to the right. Whether it actually went onto two wheels or not, I can’t say: my eyes were tightly shut as I swore to myself.

If this description reminds you of the Harry Potter night bus, well… it should! That’s exactly what was in my head the whole night.

Wednesday, Nov 18, 2010

We arrived in Hue the next morning around ten thirty am, just an hour or two later than expected. We were greeted by rain and a crowd of touts who started shouting and grabbing at us as we exited the bus. In the next five minutes, I was shown a room in a hotel, offered water, offered a motorbike tour, begged to switch hotels and had no less than three pieces of paper advertising city tours. When the guy who’d shown me the hotel room asked me for my passport to check in, I held up both of my hands, palms forward, and said, “Give me ten minutes. Please, stop, give me ten minutes to just… just…” And then I walked out. I was tired, sweaty, grungy and somehow also mildewy. I needed time to wake up and figure things out.

First, I went to another hotel that Dan and Judy had recommended. I was followed for three blocks by a guy pedaling a bicycle with a basket in front, until he finally understood that no meant no. The hotel looked nice, but was twice the price of the first hotel and not that much noticeably nicer. So I went back to the first hotel and checked in, promptly locking my door and sinking on to the squeaky, noisy bed. I took more than an hour to get myself organized, decide on what I wanted to do for the day, which wasn’t too much but involved finding lunch, locating the place I wanted to have dinner, and then just walking around a bit.

For lunch, I really wanted pizza. There was an Italian place mentioned in my guidebook, so I set out to find this, shaking off the dozen sales pitches for water, cheap lunch, motorbike rides and tours of the city. I found a different place and settled there, having my slice of mediocre pizza and a mango shake. When I left that place, I immediately spotted the Italian place I was aiming for… go figure! The place I wanted to go for dinner was described in my book as having traditional music performances in the evening, so I went and found it, looked at the menu and confirmed the music details. Then I decided to head back to the hotel for a nap.

IMG_0297Before I had gone a dozen paces, though, I saw what seemed to be a women’s craft center. I went in to take a look and am so glad I did! The atmosphere was serene and the artwork was incredible. My favorite was the silk embroidery pictures, which ranged from portraits to animals to landscapes, and were exquisite. 

There was also a clothing shop with wonderfully embroidered pieces, the conical hats famous in Vietnam, and silk pajamas. I didn’t buy anything, but it was a struggle! I must have spent about forty-five minutes in the small complex, admiring the work and watching a room of women as they worked at the embroidery.

Finally, my energy flagged almost completely and I headed back to my little hotel. I napped for over an hour, which I must really have needed because I awoke feeling more like myself. I putzed around on the computer for a bit and then decided to head for the dinner place. It was dark out, though, and I felt unaccountably nervous about walking to the restaurant by myself.

This is another feeling I haven’t had so strongly as in Vietnam: unsafe. Again, I don’t quite know if this is because of actual signals I’m getting from my environment or if it’s my foggy understanding and accompanying discomfort of being an American in Vietnam, but there it was: I felt unsafe being a single female walking around after dark.

So I promptly flagged down a motorbike and negotiated a price (probably too high, but worth it to me). On the way, he chatted me up and tried to get me to agree to a night tour of Hue via motorbike, but I declined somewhat nervously. No Vietnamese has ever made a move that makes me feel vulnerable or physically uncomfortable, but still… he could just drive into the middle of nowhere with me hanging onto the back of the bike!

This didn’t happen and I arrived safely at the Tropical Garden Restaurant. I was early for the dinner crowd and was seated at a table for two off to the side of the massive dining area. It wasn’t air conditioned but was cool anyway, thankfully. I ordered a pineapple juice and then read my book on my iPod until other diners started to trickle in, primarily tour groups. Then I ordered a set menu, treating myself to an expensive meal (expensive being IMG_0311about $15USD). It was fascinating and, accompanied by the traditional music, was quite enjoyable. The only downside was that I was alone. It was a decidedly lonely evening, surrounded as I was by tour groups chatting amiably amongst themselves and couples at other tables. However, the girl bringing my dishes was very sweet, smiling at me each time she passed and taking great pains to explain what each dish was to me.

Also, the traditional music was just awesome. I had a front table seat, so I had a great view of the five musicians. There were four women and one man and each played something different. The girl closest to me played a stringed instrument like a guitar which rested on her lap and had many more strings, which she plucked with her fingers. The next girl played a stringed instruments with two padded sticks. Next was the man, who played a stringed instrument that had a thin handle which, when manipulated, would make the sound warble. Next to him was a woman who used two small wooden sticks to keep a beat and make different sounds when tapped against each other. And on the end, an older woman had what seemed to be two porcelain teacups in each hand. She would rattle these together in a jingly way, making them sound at times as if they had bells inside! Here is a video of them playing:

After dinner, I caught a ride home, showered and went to bed. Whew!

Today, Thursday, Nov 18, 2010

Today I went on a city tour of Hue, taking in all the tombs of ancient monarchs as well as the Citadel, a former city center where huge ceremonies would take place and the king, IMG_0345 queen, concubines and other royal personages lived. The tombs were pretty, being actual areas that the monarchs would design, then stay to relax there, and eventually be entombed there. It was the Citadel, though, that gave me pause. So much of it was in ruin, with a structure here or there having been recently revitalized. It hit me near the end of our quick Citadel tour that Vietnam is still recovering from it’s 20th century struggles. Both France and the US beat the hell out of Vietnam through bombing, assaults and all kinds of other warfare. This means, essentially, that many landmarks and city areas were destroyed or at least partially ruined.

Even though that all ended about thirty years ago, it takes longer than that for a country to recover. First the people must recover and rebuild their basic living means, and I suppose that the people themselves had to repopulate a bit as well. Most of the renovation being done at the Citadel was due to it’s being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and being given funds.

IMG_0444 Somehow this struck me and made me ashamed that I’ve been so unimpressed with Vietnam. Of course it’s not booming and modern! And of course there’s an odd contrast between old style and new. It only makes sense when you think that they have been dealing with other things, as an entire country, than keeping up living standards and technology. They’ve been struggling just to catch up to where they would have been had they been free to develop.

I don’t know if my minor insight will help me to enjoy Vietnam more or to understand it better, but at least I feel like I gained some kind of insight. It took seeing the Citadel, ruins next to rebuilding, to really understand. The effects of war don’t end because peace accords are signed. It makes me wonder if I’ll ever see an Iraq or an Afghanistan that isn’t ruined. All these countries have places that are – or were – really old to begin with, and preserving them would be difficult. Then have them bombed or shot at or attacked… it’s incredible that heritage is actually preserved!

Well, it was interesting and a tiring day. Tomorrow I head to Hoi An in the morning – just a three hour bus ride, hopefully! For now, I’m going to venture out to find some dinner, repack, and head to bed.


1 comment:

  1. I'll confess one of the reasons Tim and I didn't end up going to Vietnam on our RTW trip was because we were pretty worn out by that point. We didn't think we'd be up for the constant haggling and what not. And since backpackers seem to either love or hate Vietnam (much like India!), it seemed to be a good bet to save it for another time when we could come to it bright eyed and bushy tailed. :)

    You mentioned going to Cambodia next (yay!) and possibly taking a tour there. I wasn't sure if you were thinking about a tour in Cambodia because of your experiences in Vietnam so far? Or maybe you're in the mood for a tour right now for other reasons?

    Sometimes it can be great to do a tour: it can give a much-needed break from constantly having to figure everything out and it's a fun way to meet other travelers. (Yay!) But if it's because of Vietnam, for what it's worth, I wanted to mention that Cambodia is a super easy and incredibly friendly country to travel around in. And although, again, I haven't been to Vietnam, my impression is Vietnam and Cambodia are world's apart when it comes to the everyday but very important things that traveler's look for (i.e. being able to check out of your hotel room promptly while paying the agreed upon amount).

    During our two visits to Cambodia (for a total of 6 weeks), we were never once hassled or taken advantage of and we never felt unsafe. (Granted there are two of us traveling, but even when we wandered by ourselves we never felt unsafe.) And - unlike many countries around the world - when someone approached us in Cambodia they were always just wanting to practice their English (instead of just selling something). (This, of course, isn't always true for the more popular tourist places like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, but of the rest of the country we found it to be very true.)

    Anyway, for what it's worth, I just wanted to mention that. :) And tour or no tour, I can't wait to read what you think about Cambodia! It remains our most favorite country in the world. And, if/when you go there, I highly recommend visiting some of the more rural places too. We enjoyed Phnom Penh and Siem Reap tremendously, but they're a bit different than the rest of the country. And some of our most favorite moments in Cambodia were just going on walks in the rural villages and meeting people. My fingers are crossed you'll have many happy memories there too! :)