Vietnam

VietnamMarch 2009

NOT a daily diary of our encounters and travelling experience. More of an overview really. We enjoyed the experience and hope to return. Hope you enjoy this insight.

Let’s face it, for the Westerner the attraction of visiting an Asian country is the sheer foreign-ness of its customs and culture. And Vietnam doesn’t disappoint. Consequently, the opportunity to snap “oddity” photos presented itself right from landing at Ho Chi Minh airport. Even the creative way they use their motor bikes to transport all manner of goods is eye-popping. Add to this some intriguing architecture, fishing structures and agricultural methods; rampant exotic flora; strange fauna and foodstuffs; a cloying, tropical humidity; incomprehensible chatter bursting fourth from smiling faces; and over all a palette of vibrant tropical colours – and you have a melange that makes for a different and interesting world.

Here we encountered an industrious and enterprising people willing to flout laws, rules and regulations whenever necessary. A colourful people in more ways than one, they appear to collectively cock a snoot at the authorities, making their own way, working things out themselves: something we are increasingly being denied in our own over-regulated society. The latent lawless streak in me found this refreshing.

But it took me about a week before I could bring myself to take a photo and I couldn’t write. I didn’t want to relate and photograph only the oddities, the unusual, the freakish and the bizarre. Yet that was all that was registering and as in India and/or Morocco, many of the sights cause you to do a double-take. Too many travellers have already recorded these differences, sometimes as shock-horror exposés – the Vietnamese’s penchant for eating dog meat for example – and the glossy travel magazines have captured the colour. I too have written at length on our experiences in India, Malaysia and Samoa, tropical countries that have much in common with Vietnam. Fortunately though, there is plenty that is uniquely Vietnamese. But first . . .

Dried Fish, Vietnam Drying Fish, VietnamDrying Fish, Vietnam Fish Transport, Vietnam

The Heat

Rivulets of sweat coursed down my body and for the second time my forearm slid off the edge of the table. The table was so smooth and my arm so moist I wasn’t noticing the gradual slide. On the wall above us a small fan whirred away ineffectually. It was another seriously warm day. The staff of this small restaurant looked irritatingly comfortable – acclimatised I suppose you’d call it – and although the food was good and we were ravenous, the experience was somewhat dampened by this discomfort. Granted we’d been walking about the city in the pulsing, midday heat when all sane locals were having a siesta and most businesses were shut up, and it didn’t help that our systems were still coursing with potent Vietnamese coffee. But we enjoy checking out a new place on foot anyway, it gives you a more down-to-earth, nitty-gritty feel for a place. Sometimes it can be difficult; often malodorous, but it’s their reality and that’s what we came over to experience.

It’s the humidity, not just the scorching heat that does me in though. Vietnam lies between 8 and 24 degrees to the north of the equator and at sea level, even in coastal towns, there’s surprisingly little relief from the humidity. I found that difficult at times. During that month of March I passed more water through my pores than I would normally drink in a year, or so it seemed. However, on the bright side, as a bi-product of this enervating climate, we often encountered gorgeous butterflies on our walks through areas of bush. Brightly coloured wings would flit and flutter about us. Mostly much larger than our butterflies, some were even jet black; others were a vivid electric-blue. Now and then they would pause on a leaf enabling us to get a good look. There was one type that was like a large dragonfly with a colourful butterfly’s tail. Given that there were a lot of dragonflies hovering about, it struck me that they may well have been cross-mating. Hmmm. For the orchid lover, a fantastic range of exotic orchids are cultivated and thrive in this tropical climate. Orchid nurseries are another arm of the tourist industry. Bird life is more prolific and colourful in Oz though. Perhaps because . . .

Eating and Drinking

The Vietnamese, along with other Asian races, share with Mediterranean and North African people a preference for eating natural, unprocessed food. They also have a tendency to eat out frequently, at little cost, in modest cafes, restaurants or at any one of the hundreds of basic demountable roadside stalls which appear each morning afternoon and evening: this popular trait ensures quick turnover and therefore, really fresh produce. They make a very early morning start to their days and tend to take a midday siesta, and their tendency to congregate outdoors in the evenings, socialising, snacking and drinking at attendant vendors, restaurants and bars is also remarkably akin to the Spanish custom of the Paseo.

Meals would consist of any of the following ingredients: glutinous or plain steamed rice, rice noodles, eggs, patès, petit baguettes, chicken, beef, pork, fried fish, shrimp, fish sauce, soya sauce, shallots, garlic, lime, lemon grass, tamarind, chilli, salt and sugar, fresh herbs such as basil, coriander and mints, and chicken or meat broths. Again like the Spanish, the Vietnamese have a gastronomic preference for diminutive creatures. Take for example a miniscule and colourful shellfish the size of a shirt button. These are thoroughly rinsed, boiled off and sold in little plastic bags. The shell’s colourful appearance makes them look like sweets and the tiny morsel of flesh, winkled out with a toothpick or pin, is delicious: reminiscent of a cockle. On visiting a quiet, off-season seaside resort just south of Quy Nhon we were offered a plate of what appeared to be deep fried sparrows – with the heads on, and a platter of some indefinable, very smelly sea food. The language barrier was in place but we managed to decline, settling for a couple of beers; the word for which is “bia”. We had encountered the sparrow sized birds served up as food in Spain. As it is not and never has been our desire to experience extreme exotic cuisine, for our Vietnam visit we stuck to fowl, seafood (identifiable), pork, beef and or vegetables.

I fail to see the point of drinking snake blood, or drinking wine from a bottle with a snake in it, but fortunately, the Vietnamese make creditably good beer. Even the draft beer served from roadside stalls at a ridiculously low price could match one or two of Australia’s old bulk brewers. Along with rice wine, grape wine is also vinted here, the grapes being grown up in the Central Highlands. But quite honestly, the climate does not lend itself so well to the drinking of that beverage. Their coffee, also grown up in the Central Highlands, is excellent and a big export earner for them. They tend, as in Malaysia and Singapore, to enjoy it filtered, an acquired and perfected habit that lingers from French colonial days. They commonly fortify it with sweetened condensed milk, a sweetener I am not averse to as I was raised with it.

There being no refrigeration in their wet markets, beasts are slaughtered and presented in portions for that day only. Fish, crustaceans, frogs and fowl are all kept live and still move about. Were they dead, they likely wouldn’t find a buyer. The variety of fish was way beyond our ken. On strolling through a crowded vegetable market one day we were drawn by our noses to bunches of fresh carrots. We could smell them from several paces away: that beautiful, sweet and earthy smell that I recall from my father’s garden. I can’t recall when I last smelt that in any “fresh” vegetable shop back in Perth. Notably, there were few flies around the produce in the wet markets we visited. Nor were flies a problem at the many roadside food stalls where we ate a lot of rice and noodle dishes – and a lot of little snacks which I won’t be able to identify by name until we buy the definitive Vietnamese cook book. They just looked good (and popular), so we’d point and order them, sitting down on their dolls-house size plastic stools. These stools are no higher than the length of your standard chopstick. Another common seat, a mini plastic armchair, has you sitting about 30cm off the ground. This low, almost squatting position while eating is surprisingly very comfortable and I wouldn’t be surprised – given the historic and collective Asian love of food – that the position is good for digestion.

They have set times for their meals, rising very early to eat a substantial, hearty breakfast, and after taking a siesta may start to eat again from about 2pm, when any and every dish and snack type food is available long into the night. This is all so Spanish. We didn’t last long into the evenings but the young petted, smooched, played vigorous, friendly team games and snacked well into the warm nights. So many young couples canoodling would explain all the babies and young children we encountered who, incidentally, seem to be well loved: they are so cute too. We saw no evidence of the Vietnamese indulging in binge drinking late into the night in either clubs or bars as is hinted at in that ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide book. I suspect it is mainly the foreigners who practise this with any seriousness, the booze being comparatively cheap and it being such a relief to be able to talk drunken bullshit with someone who speaks your own language and can also relate to your traveller’s angst.

A Seafaring Folk

Vietnam’s east coast is washed by the South China Sea from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Mekong Delta, and then south west around into the Gulf of Thailand.

From time immemorial generations of its fishermen have landed catches of protein-rich seafood for the Asian table. However, encountering a coastal city today with its broad, palm-lined boulevard, promenade, golden sand beach and countless high rise hotels and restaurants, you could be forgiven for thinking it was always thus; unaware that whole fishing villages have been demolished and populations of fisher folk squeezed out in order to pander to their past coloniser’s European ideals. Then there was the disruption of the American invasion, and latterly, the economic demands of the Tourism Industry. Working fishing villages still exist in spite of all this, many fisherman using craft, techniques and methods that have remained unchanged for centuries. Happily, the Government’s Tourism arm realised that the local fishing industry adds to the visual appeal we foreigners seek, and there has developed a form of co-existence: resorts, hotels, restaurants and tourists monopolising one end of a bay, and the fishing village going about its (often messy) business at the other. For me, the many fishing boats anchored off the beaches in the daytime, and the fleets of brightly lit squid fishing boats operating offshore at night was a visual treat, and I’m aware that others find it so too. I was also fascinated by some of the ancient boat designs and fishing techniques: vast prawn nets for e.g., stretched out on corner poles anchored into the river bed, raised and lowered into the river by a person sitting on a platform over the water. By pedal power, they raise or lower the net with a pulley and rope system attached to the poles. When they feel inclined (there didn’t seem to be any pattern to their doing so) they will paddle out to the platform, raise the net then hop back in their little boat and work their way under the net to its centre where they untie a knot, allowing the catch to empty into their boat. This is an ancient, technically simple but brilliant, ecologically sound system.

Our Transport & Some of My Travel Philosophy

We chose to travel within Vietnam on buses rather than train or by air. Leaving Saigon – a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City – after 3 days of sweaty exploration, we headed to the compact and cooler city of Da Lat up in the Central Highlands. Directed by our hotelier, we had used one of the many Open Tour buses. It carried mostly other foreign travellers and . . . well, let me confess at this point to mostly wanting to avoid these folk when I’m overseas. I’m not alone in this. I think there is a little of the “intrepid explorer” in all of us who choose to travel on an independent basis, and finding yourself in the company of other travellers, especially tourists, shatters any illusion you may be clinging to that you are on a “voyage of discovery”. Noticeably and for the most part, the feeling is clearly mutual. You would be surprised at the number of travellers who adopt a calculated aversion-to-eye-contact pose. Even when we would pass on the street, very, very few foreign tourists or travellers would return and hold our gaze. Sometimes, the situation can be comical as they desperately and clumsily avoid looking at you. This would leave Rachel and I giggling.

On the odd occasion something about another traveller would appeal to me, and me to them at that moment: their open demeanour, or a certain bemused look on their face perhaps? Then, a conversation may take place, or just a friendly nod and chuckle of agreed amusement at the bizarre situation or surroundings we find ourselves in. And then we would go on our way, pleased with the brief contact made. An analogy I could draw here is that of when you are ambling around at a zoo. An animal’s behaviour can sometimes momentarily draw the spectators together in a “shared moment”.

When you are young, single, footloose-and-fancy-free with no plans or schedules to limit you, it is markedly different. In those years of idle, on your big “OE” perhaps, you are much more receptive to social bonding, however fleetingly; but predominantly within your peer group. It is the time of your social and self discovery as much as being about travel. For the rest of us – those “on holiday” – there is a noticeable social discomfort and disconnect when we are thrown together. Whatever socio-economic, cultural, educational or age difference keeps us apart back in our home towns simply transfers itself to these confined situations. Travelling in large, disparate groups is always going to be problematic. Much as I may even want to get to know in more depth the odd one or two people who appeal to me for various reasons, younger and/or older, there are gulfs that cannot be bridged in the time given: immutable schedules, existing relationships to be protected, and our own interests and experiences. These latter guide, and to a large degree determine our journeys’ directions.

Ah yes, there is a lot to be said for those days of idle.

The massage. We stayed in Da Lat four days, eating our way around the town and wandering its lanes and back alleys. It was here we began to appreciate their coffee. In the morning it was served in a shot glass, heavily sweetened with sweetened-condensed milk of course. Delicious! I’d love to return, next time to hire a motor bike to explore its interesting surrounds. There are vast coffee and tea plantations up there, a serious industry and export earner, and many unadulterated wooden houses decorated with intricate fretwork which I regret not photographing. Oh, and it was here we chose to avail ourselves of the famous Vietnamese massage. An interesting experience. I still can’t rid myself of the image of Rachel lying on the bed near me, straddled by a mere slip of a girl in ‘light’ clothing working her way up and down Rachel’s body in a most . . . err, physical and personal way. It was an intriguing picture. I was fascinated. For myself, I had opted for the foot massage with the other slender young Vietnamese maiden – which soon transformed itself from a thorough brutalising of my tired feet and calves into a finger pulling, muscle knuckling, ear snapping, forehead pinching hour of pain and pleasure, leaving me perplexed and exhausted. The energy expended by these gorgeous little creatures was awesome, and the strength in the grip of their tiny hands a source of wonder to me. The language barrier was fully in place, and as we were preparing to go downstairs to pay madam at the door, the girls tried valiantly but in vain to convey something to us. I’ll never know what other options were available to us up there; I doubt a phrase book would have been adequate. We paid a hefty sum to the boss lady, and I only hope the girls were paid a good slice of it for their hard work. We probably should have slipped them some money too, but being at this early stage in Vietnam quite naïve, had no clue as to how much would have been appropriate, and not insulting. And I doubt we would have got a discount from the hard faced bean counter at the door anyway. Sadly, I have to report, neither of us noticed any immediate or lasting benefit: we were probably in too good-a-shape to start with.

Our second bus leg, from Da Lat to Nha Trang further north on the east coast, was on another Open Tour bus, but the trip was only of about six hours duration and was scenically extremely interesting. Nha Trang, once a small, tranquil fishing village, is now a bustling city of considerable size with a pleasant and broad, palm-lined seafront boulevard. While negotiating our way across some road works here Rachel said in a disparaging tone what I thought was “There’s one of those open sewers.” I sniffed and looked around me only to see a bus lumbering by with “Open Tour” written large on its side. You hears what you want to hear eh. Tourism features large in Nha Trang’s economy. For our third leg to Hoi An, we chose to travel on another Open Tour bus, this time with bunks. A custom-made sleeper bus. The very sort we had travelled on from Pune to Goa in 1996 – and had sworn we would never do again. Once again, it was full of foreign travellers, and once again, as on the “Goan Queen”, sleep was fitful.

We determined to use local buses from then on, buses on which we were more likely to find ourselves amongst the Vietnamese. This proved to be the case, and we found the other passengers only too willing to enlighten us whenever we found ourselves confused or confounded by their culture. There were always one or two who spoke English, usually from living in America, and a few of the older ones spoke French. It would, I agree, be a great thing to learn their language prior to visiting the country – but, fluently. I agree with the North American travel writer Thurston Clarke, who derides the use of language phrase books. The use of specific foreign phrases may cause many a mirthful moment in your travels and can sometimes be appreciated, but just as often it mires you in a tangle of misunderstanding. It struck me as curious too, that the Vietnamese had great difficulty understanding my sign and/or body-language, something that has worked well for me over the years in European countries where I couldn’t speak the language.

The last sector of our journey, from Quy Nhon to Saigon, was overnight. This time it was one of the MaiLyn Group buses and I wish we’d used them from the start. If airline cattle-class had recliner seats like these, air travel for us would be blissful. The other passengers on this modern and well equipped bus were all Vietnamese and the very cheap ticket included an evening meal. This meal, in a large roadside rest-stop complex was one of the best we had had. The meal was typically communal (because Vietnam is a Socialist Republic ha ha) in that the food was shared between those at our table. The tea, on a small side table was also drunk from a shared cup. This was typical of many of our eating experiences. “Bottomless” Tea is supplied complimentary with any meal, and every coffee. A very civilised habit and we drank heaps of both. I indulged myself with their beers too and on this trip, after years of her shunning the hop, I managed to get Rachel to drink beer again. I blame Vietnam for this corruption. Apart from in Dalat up in the Central Highlands, where the temperature was more bearable and where it even rained on us on a couple of occasions, it was just far too hot for her to even contemplate drinking wine. Beer was called for, and being really affordable, more beer was called for. Oddly, neither of us felt the urge to pee as is usual when drinking beer; because there was a continual outpouring of fluid from our pores perhaps. For those who may think I’m a lost cause with the alcohol, it was mostly in the late afternoon and evenings that we touched alcohol. In the daytime our moisture-replacement-therapy involved pausing at a roadside vendor and purchasing for a pittance some freshly crushed sugar cane juice – with a small orange added to the crush – on ice. Bliss. Our other favourite tipple wherever and whenever we can find it is coconut juice, served straight from a freshly opened nut, and it was here aplenty. Oh, they also blend a delicious avocado smoothie…

Mmmm I love those drinks.

Again, as in India, we find the kerbside Barber plying his trade.

This popular enterprise, often so casual it consists of only a mirror propped up on a wall at the back of the footpath along with a reclining barber’s chair, is well patronized, and I saw very few bad haircuts. Equally well patronised is the kerbside Ear Groomer. Oddly, those who indulge themselves with this intriguing service are inevitably male. Usually, the customer is fully reclined, a blissful expression on his face, while the groomer pokes, strokes and prods in the nether regions of the aural channels with tools which reminded me of a dentist’s. We had encountered a version of these tradesmen plying their trade to travellers in India. Here though, in Vietnam, they seemed to have no shortage of local customers. Call me squeamish, but I couldn’t see any signs of any necessities for sterilizing the tools, and I didn’t want anyone else’s ear wax and germs to mix with mine.

Motorbikes

Not much over 150cc in power, and currently the most popular form of transport, motor bikes are used to carry every conceivable manner of goods. Frequently perilously oversized and precariously loaded, you can’t help but smile at the audacious picture they present. Just as in India, whole families manage to squeeze aboard: though I’ve never seen more than five persons on one. We hired one on a daily basis in Quy Nhon and it extended our range phenomenally. It is the ideal mode of transport in any tropical country, giving you access to narrow village lanes as well as highways and bi-ways in a most affordable, unobtrusive way. Easy to park, economic on fuel, and as we discovered in Goa, forcing you to feel, smell and hear the environment. Not a bad thing. The majority of tourists travel in a protective, air-conditioned bubble; their senses muffled from the reality of what they are experiencing: they may as well be watching a travel documentary on a screen. However, it was good to see many westerners of my vintage, and older, tootling around on motor bikes. And in cities like Saigon, that takes a certain . . . confidence. Some visitors choose push bikes, but it was far too hot for us to expend that kind of energy.

Bicycles

There are Bicycles by the million, of a type I haven’t seen since my childhood, and they use them like I did in that time too, carrying friends and family around. Didn’t come across any modern mountain-bikes, and racing bikes were rarely seen, usually in small groups racing along the waterfront drive in the early morning – most likely ex-pats.

School girls make a pretty picture in their white Ao Dais. A stunning local style of dress anyway, when you see these high school girls in their pure white Ao Dai uniforms, especially in groups on bicycles, it is a memorable vision to behold. It’s funny, but I don’t remember the school boys, or what they wore or rode.

It’s not unusual for cyclists to ride on the wrong side of the road, especially school girls. Opposing traffic just compensates – as it does when entering incredibly busy intersections. What appears at first to be a totally chaotic traffic situation inevitably resolves itself efficiently and effectively, with mutual cooperation only, not rules.

This adaptability and cooperation is typical of the Vietnamese general attitude, and I dare say necessary for survival in their intensely crowded cities. They are an impressive race, for the most part gentle, kind and helpful to strangers too, but I can certainly understand should there be any lingering hostility towards foreigners. They’ve had a pretty harrowing past, and tourism can sometimes have the effect of making the inhabitants feel they are creatures in their own zoo. Now, free from colonisers and occupying forces, as the country rushes to modernity, their communist based socialism is transforming into socialistic-capitalism, which will probably mutate to rampant consumerism with all its failings. I hope they don’t change too much too soon.

Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009

Cedric & Rachel
August 2009 Perth

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