Goooodddd Moorrrnnninggggg Vietnammmmm
You can’t come to Vietnam and not recall Robin Williams famous words “Goooodddd Moorrrnnninggggg Vietnammmmm!”
I had spent one month in Vietnam – the longest in any one country yet (besides my SE Asia home base of Singapore). I had high expectations for Vietnam, I’m happy to say they were met. I expected a virtually untouched country – untouched to tourism and the western world. I was pleasantly surprised – no McDonalds or Starbucks the whole time.
I expected rice fields full of green bursting colors – I wasn’t disappointed. I thought I would go back in time to a simple lifestyle – I did. However, there were many unforseen things I encountered, and that’s what makes a trip and country memorable. There were so many times I stared out the window in wonderment, as if I were a kid arriving in Disneyworld.
In addition, this country offered something new – American History – and a torrid one at that! It was interesting to be in a country so intermixed with American History – educational and frustrating. Before I left this magical place, I decided to compile some of my favorite oddities and memories from it!
I traveled from North to South, stayed in moderately priced hotels – they all had hot water, some type of shower and air conditioning. Yet, there was always one thing missing – the shower curtain. The majority of hotels had a bathtub with a shower curtain rod and even shower curtain rings, but no curtain. I often wondered why. Why do they want us to spray water all over the floor? I asked my various guides, but I never received an explanation. I wondered if we were expected to bring our own – why else would they have those rings, just hanging there taunting me? Or were plastic shower curtains so expensive they decided they couldn’t be provided? I had a hard time believing that in the country where I could buy a beer for 30 cents, they couldn’t afford a shower curtain!
If I wanted to relax after a day of traveling – I normally would seek out a comfortable chair – one that you could flop down into. The idea of comfortable chair to the Vietnamese was one that was made of plastic, a stool, about two feet off the ground. They were everywhere – at the churches, in homes, at the street vendors (with matching little two-feet tables). Everytime I sat on one, I wondered whether I would be able to get back up from that uncomfortable position. For a country full of people who squatted like a major league catcher while hanging out with friends, this squatty chair was considered restful. Even while traveling on local transportation throughout the country, the Vietnamese sat in a fetus-like position with their shoes off, curled up on a chair. Never would I consider taking my shoes off and walking around on a train in the U.S. – ick.
Hock a Loogie
The Vietnamese women are beautiful, dainty, they wear white flowing outfits, they resemble angels. Don’t be surprised, though, when they turn their head to the side and "hock a loogie". This culture has perfected how to spit, everyone does it – babies, kids, men, old women and delicate young girls who look like porceline dolls. When I was a little girl, I wanted Santa to bring me a doll that cried. I suspect Vietnamese little girls want one that spits.
I traveled throughout the country, mostly with five people, yet everytime we went to a restaurant, we were consistently seated at a table for four. Two chairs were put on the end, we were crowded at a small table. This baffled me, especially since there were larger tables available. After a few weeks of eating around Vietnam, I concluded that the reason they made us squeeze at small tables was because table space isn't important to them. There are no plates and silverware; a rice bowl and chopsticks. You hold the rice bowl cupped in your hand, close to your face – it never touches the table. The table is unimportant.
After three weeks, we went to a more upscale tourist restaurant. They served our food on plates around a big table. I looked down at my now foreign-looking plate and silverwear thinking – this seems wrong! I picked up the chopsticks and tried to eat my dinner. After using the chopsticks with my plate full of food, I began to realize why they use a bowl – much easier to eat rice out of a bowl than from a plate!
First Come, First Serve
Restaurants also had this weird habit of bringing out food in no particular order. When it was ready, it was brought out. The concept of waiting until everyone had their food in front of them and then eating together, was non-existent. This was a bit frustrating at first, but you got used to it. In fact, I was so accustomed to it that while ordering at one restaurant, they asked if we wanted one of our items as a "starter". I looked confused and said “starter"? The shock made me fall out of my chair!
The circus is in town
In Hoi An, I was walking back to the hotel, when all of a sudden, I heard a deafening loudspeaker, it wouldn’t go away. I was annoyed, it felt like a fly following me and I couldn’t swat it away. I turned around in anger to see where the blaring noise was coming from. And there it was, a government jeep with a red star painted on its doors and a Vietnamese flag flying from it. Its loudspeaker was blasting something in Vietnamese – some type of propaganda from the government. It finally passed me. I was left with my normal hum of motorbikes and horns.
That night at dinner, I asked Huong what the jeep was all about. I described what I saw, he told me in all seriousness, “Oh, they were probably advertising the circus coming to town.” I said, “The circus? No way was that an advertisement for a circus!” He didn’t elaborate, so I dropped it. I'm sure it was some message being relayed by the government, not an announcement about clowns and elephants coming to town, either! Everytime I heard another loudspeaker jeep blaring something in Vietnamese (quite frequently), I chuckled thinking about the circus.
I woke up one morning to the sound of Christmas music. I immediately had that sense of panic sweep over me – where am I, what country am I in, what month is it? Once I realized I was in Vietnam and it was March, I was even more bewildered! For some reason in a few of the tourist destinations you often found men walking around pushing a big scale. The scale contraption played music, often a medley of Christmas songs. I have no idea how the Vietnamese got the idea that Western tourists want to pay money to stand on a scale and learn their weight and height while listening to Christmas music! Maybe the government blared it on a loudspeaker jeep.
”Westerners are obsessed with their weight! You can make money easily by letting them weigh themselves. Take advantage of the capitalist pigs!”
The Christmas scales were everywhere, followed you for blocks, maybe you'd change your mind, have a burning desire to see how much weight you had gained during vacation. In some of the poorer areas, men simply brought out a normal bathroom scale out on the street corner and tried to sell you an opportunity to weigh yourself – the getto version of the Christmas weight machine! Imagine Christmas in New York, after having a large holiday meal, you go outside the restaurant and someone wants to you. You’d probably punch him! Needless to say, I never saw anyone on any of the scales!
One of my crowning moments was when I taught Huong the meaning of road rage. I was riding on the back of a bicycle with him (very uncomfortable) for about four kilometers. It was dark, the road was crowded with motorbikes and cars weaving in and out, laying on their horn. Our little bike bell wasn’t effective. We were almost back to our hotel, my legs were throbbing from holding them up the whole way to keep them from dragging on the ground. A car came speeding around, stopped right in front of us. Huong had to slam on the brakes to keep from running into him. I said, “That’s not right! That driver shouldn’t have done that!” Huong shrugged it off. I told him that in the U.S., we'd yell at the person and give them the finger – this is called road rage. He had never heard the term before, so I tried to explain it. He still had a blank look. Maybe it was better if he didn’t understand, it might throw the whole country out of balance. This weird traffic and driving worked for Vietnam, I shouldn’t be teaching them it was wrong to cut people off, it would upset the order of things and then it would really be chaotic!
I leave Vietnam tomorrow. It will be a sad parting. When you stay somewhere a month, it gets under your skin. Vietnam went to another level and got to my intestines too, all part of the travel trials and tribulations! I know I will miss it as I travel through Europe. Strangely enough, I think I will even miss the constant questions, “Madame, you buy from me?” As with most countries, though, I will remember the people – their smiles, their hospitality and their desire to shake my hand.
Read more of Sherry Ott's travels on her blog.