October 13. 2015
By the end of my pho my eyes are watering from the chillies so badly that the food inside the big bowl appears clouded. I reach for a napkin which is actually just a role of toilet paper covered by a plastic box. It’s dark outside, just past six o’clock and I’m sitting in a plastic picnic chair in an alley of Saigon Vietnam, presently called Ho Chi Minh city after the president leading the country out of the Vietnam-American war. A plastic chair is an upgrade compared to the low stooped plastic stools at many street cafes that even the elderly are perfectly apt to crouch on. This is just the baseline arrangement for street food and considering my meal costs 1usd I can’t complain. Pho is good for a few reasons: it’s cheap, it can be intensely spicy, and it’s filling. It’s basically just noodle soup with meat broth and rice noodles, sprouts, fresh herbs and chillies to garnish. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Behind me are a group of men playing some kind of chess game. They snap the pieces down on the table loudly like how they play cards, in a way that states they’re confident about their next move and can’t be combated with. In front of me down a bit is a small bakery filled with baguettes safeguarded by a couple dogs laying in the open entrance. A small man just left on his bike, attached with 2 huge baskets full of banh (bread), to be delivered to vendors selling baguette sandwiches, typically Vietnamese style with cucumber, pate, onions, meat, and chili sauce. I like it here but it’s hard to imgine living and breathing it every day. From a western perspective things seem chaotic. But it’s really not so I call it controlled chaos. It’s a traditional society. Sometimes depending on where I am it feels like I’m somewhere in the past. Looking up I notice the silhouette of someone rocking back and forth in a hammock on the second floor balcony of the bakery. In more rural communities you’ll find locals sleeping on hammocks in all sorts of places, usually in the afternoon, when the air is balmy and the sun is burning hot. Meanwhile the tourists are bustling about, sightseeing or laying out at the beach. The opposite of the two cultures is evident. Women from Vietnam dress conservatively while westerners wear short shorts and tank tops. Women do not smoke or drink, their husbands do. Some of the men chew on beetlenut and it dyes their teeth bright red. Many women buy heaps of skin whitening products, use umbrellas when the sun shines, and wear nose/mouth masks, especially while driving motorbikes. Both genders work an equal amount, if not harder the women.There is diversity here as the country consists of several different traditional tribes/villages in combination with a few modern cities. There are many ethnic minorities especially in the north, such as Hmong and dzay tribes, still cooking over an open fire, dying and hand making their own clothes, picking rice by hand. The creativity of the Vietnamese people using what they have to get a job done is something to be remembered and admired. If I had a dollar for every bizarre object being transported on a motorbike…I would be rich, in Vietnamese living standards, which are considerably lower than developed countries. To the average first world tourist this country is poor and our money can stretch if we set our mind to it. I can get breakfast and coffee for 1.50. A bus all the way to Phnom Penh Cambodia costs 10. My last hostel was 3.50/night. It wasn’t a five star resort but it wasn’t at all an uncomfortable place. There were clean showers, AC, and the Vietnamese guys who worked there cooked us amazingly delicious food. Despite the poverty, most of the people are provided for and seem content, confident and proud of their culture. There is a surity in them that I didn’t notice as much in the other places I’ve traveled. I think it’s because they’ve been through a lot as a nation. The language barrier is pretty big but you get used to it, learning what words you can to get by. Sometimes I wish I knew what they were saying but I have no idea. All I hear is lab da bin xi wong. The mystery is good. The zoning out is good. The quieting of your own voice is good.
After three weeks here I’m leaving tomorrow because my visa expires. I’ll take a bus across the Vietnam/Cambodia border and see what I can of Cambodia and it’s many temples before going back to thailand. It’s been rural mountain villages, caves larger than stadiums, beaches, islands, crazy cities, broken conversation, water puppet shows, war remnants, empty alleys past midnight, pagodas, ponds with lilly pads and lotus flowers, boat rides, markets, unlimited green tea, motorbike rides, getting lost and finding my way back time and again, crumpled maps, sleeper buses and overnight trains, festivals, cows in the road, rooster wake up calls, bike rides, sweet strong coffee, dinners with locals, falling down waterfalls, and almost getting run over by oncoming traffic on a regular basis
I had a dream a couple weeks ago that woke me up because in it I either lost or got my camera stolen. A couple days later my camera was actually lost or stolen. So I don’t have as many pictures of vietnam as I would like😔