From within an American bunker atop the pass on the way from Hue to Hoi An
Honking horns need translation from Vietnamese to English as much as a regular spoken phrase needs it. Horns here do not simply mean "Get outta my way!" as they are predominantly used in the States. In the States, a honked horn is akin to a four-letter word. But here, a honked horn is better translated to mean: "Hey, I'm here." And no one says it just once. The streets and highways are a cacophony of "I'm here! I'm here! I'm here! I'm here!" They sound their horn every time they want to pass, approach another driver, change lanes or just feel awkward gripping the wheel without honking the horn.
This is only a very mild exaggeration of the traffic rules I've observed in my 6 hours of being here. I couldn't spend all my time deciphering the rules of the road, of course. Sometimes I got distracted by the sights in the stores and on the streets: the beautiful table linen, the lovely purses, the random wandering bald chicken.
I've never been anywhere like this before. And I think the bald chicken sold me on this country.
...Several of us had our fortunes/palms read by a local woman. I figured I'd have a go at it just for fun. She told me that I'd live to be 85 (I sure hope I live longer, although here I'm sure that 85 is quite elderly), I'll get married at age 30 and have four kids. Ha! I think not! The next day when we were careening in a van around the winding hairpin curves over the highest pass in Vietnam, driven by the craziest driver ever, I was a bit comforted by the fact that I "knew" I'd make it to the bottom if nothing else because I was going to live to be 85.
It's strange, this feeling of great wealth -- empowering and yet burdensome. I know that my patronage of someone's shop or cafe really makes a difference, which makes me feel good -- I like knowing that what I spend helps feed a family. But it becomes a weighty decision to choose a restaurant for dinner or a stall to buy a souvenir from. Sometimes when passing one store and selecting another it feels like I am effectively selecting one individual over another to be less able to provide a living for their family. I know that I'm being a bit dramatic and that some other tourist is just as likely to make the opposite choice as me, thus together we help each shop owner. But it's hard to learn to say "no" knowing that "yes" really makes a difference.
It has become somewhat wearying to say "no" so much. I've been around many persistent vendors (the lawn of the Eiffel Tower comes firs to min -- while relaxing there I thought of writing a sign saying "Je ne voudrais rien!" "I don't want anything.") but it is nothing like some of the ladies and children working the stalls in Vietnam. Along with the honking horns, the sounds that will stick with me from Vietnam are the choruses of "Madame! You buy from me! I have your size! Many colors. What you looking for? Madame, you come into my shop! You buy something!" I do not respond well to someone dragging me by the arm just to be shown a string of beads. I wonder if they'll learn that Western tourists are put off by that? Or maybe they find their hard-sell tactics work and don't care about the tourists who dislike it.
Add to that list of tailored purchases a winter jacket and another pair of shoes. Eek! I started feeling buyer's remorse last night. Seriously? Who needs a winter jacket in Phoenix? I'd been so frugal with my spending for most of this trip that my whirlwind spending spree in Hoi An set my nerves into high-stress mode. But when I look at my budget, I really haven't done that much damage ... I talked myself out of the stress zone with the logic that I'm bound to make one big mistake in my travels, and it it's a winter coat that I can get some use of somewhere along the way (maybe I'll have to focus my job hunt to the northern states), well, that's better than a tattoo of a porcupine on my belly or a one-night stand in a hostel dorm...
...While standing next to an American bunker on top of a hill over looking the Perfume River on the outskirts of Hue, I realized why the Americans lost the Vietnam War: There is no way Americans are suited for the heat and humidity of Vietnam without the luxury of being able to duck into some air con. The other day I saw the weather report from Baghdad, and it looked even hotter than Vietnam. I'm seeing a trend here...
...I've been quick to say I'm American when people ask where I'm from. I believe it's my inherited responsibility to foster good relations with our former enemies. Tonight on the train to Nha Trang, Andrea and I walked to the back end of the train where the dining car was. The only people in there were train employees, including the manager) and the police. They asked where we were from and when I said I was American, they became real animated and did some pointing at one of the police officers. I got the feeling they were saying that he had fought in the war, but they didn't speak enough English (and my Vietnamese is limited to "hello" and "thank you") for me to understand whether they were saying he fought with the Americans or against them. He was quick to pour me a beer and offer his hand, but I couldn't tell if that was a gesture to say he'd been on our side, or a sort of peace offering. Either way, I was quite pleased to be so welcomed.
It was quite amusing to sit there and watch the conductor of the train get pissed at the back with the police. They refilled my beer (a 333 or, "ba ba ba" beer) when I wasn't looking and they kept trying to convince Andrea to have shots of vodka. But it was her turn for her tummy to feel a little uneasy, so she was the "designated walker" in our pair.
We didn't have much of a conversation outside of getting it across that we were going to Nha Trang to go swimming at the beach, all communicated by charades. They said a lot of things we couldn't understand, and they laughed a lot, and kept trying to offer us more drinks. They were really interested in my pale skin and kept pointing at Andrea's tanned arms and my pale limbs, as if amused that two White girls could have such differences in skin tone.
Night One in Bangkok 13 September
I can definitely feel the change from Vietnam to Thailand. I'm quite glad to have done Vietnam first...although, I think my perspective is slightly jaded this way. It's easy to look at all the Europeans here and feel a bit superior because I've seen a less developed, less touristy side of SE Asia. You can't turn a corner without running into some hippified European tourist here on the streets of Bangkok. In Hanoi, when you run into another Westerner, you actually make eye contact and share a bond of wonderment as you pass on the street.
I love Vietnam for its unapologetic differences: eccentricities like the motorbike driver we saw on our way to Halong Bay who was loaded up with so many chickens they were even strapped (live!) to his handlebars; the woman who beckoned me to her stall with one hand and was knuckle-deep into picking her nose with the other in Hoi An (nose-picking seems to be a national past-time there); the children eager to give high-fives and shout "hello!" as we cycle past on bikes. I'm grateful to have witnessed the marks of communism: museums that impart propaganda more than information (the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi was just a series of pictures of and quotes from the former president); community-wide radio broadcasts that come from speakers throughout the city of Hanoi at the close of the business day. As tourism in Vietnam increases, I wonder what will change.