I’m behind on my blogging because of our fast-paced, travel-intensive schedule, but I’m going to try to briefly run through the places Adam and I have been since meeting up about a week ago…because this country’s long and winding story (and even longer landscape– Vietnam is over ONE THOUSAND miles long top to bottom) deserves to be told.
HO CHI MINH- The City
…or Saigon, was amazing in its millions of food
stands, motor-bikes, and bars. We couchsurfed with some English-teachers who
took us to a Vietnamese
feast and an awesome hip-hop show at a local bar, and we made
friends with some other couchsurfers from San Francisco. The city was amazing and stimulating, the food smelly but delicious, the streets
jam-packed and the air diesel-filled, but the atmosphere rich with history and the night-life casual and fun. I pretty quickly got tired of the smog.
We visited the CuChi tunnels used by the VietCong to escape and counter-attack American and its Southern Vietnamese puppet government armies, and it became quickly apparent how unfamiliar home-soil fighting and guerilla warfare is to Americans of my generation. The intimacy with which they knew their land, and the overexaggerated communist nationalism that the Viet Cong developed as a reaction to the country’s history of Western imperialism , felt foreign yet also important to understand as an American. Though Adam and I have had a few serious conversations since then about how Vietnam, as compared to other countries we’ve visited, feels hostile in some ways– the people and cities seeming to coldly return our curious smiles… life as a tourist is very problematic, frustrating, and embarassing, even as it yields cultural understanding and historical context for our own existence as international citizens within the globalized world paradigm. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a whole other can of worms… most upsetting to me were the photos of the children of victims of Agent Orange and the replicated torture cells, while the most uplifting were the photographs of anti-war protests in soliarity with Vietnam from all around the world.
MUI NE- the Beach
It rained in Mui Ne, the lazy little beach town Adam and I arrived at late at night. So far, Vietnam had been hectic, polluted, and exhausting, so it was really nice to alight somewhere that has yet to be touched by the traffic and smog of development…though the tourist economy associated with any resort-destination brought up a lot of internal strife for us, as did having a personal driver who spoke no English. Our first day, we paid one dollar each for breakfast (well, I paid three because I ordered two huge plates of food), and four dollars to lounge around by the pool at an oceanfront hotel. We swam in the waves too, and the ocean was warm like Hawaii! Our vast air-conditioned room (with TV, wireless, a spacious bathroom, and two beds) cost us $10/night and was right across the street from the beach. Enormous cocktails at the restaurant we had dinner at cost $1 each. It blows my mind each time I convert the Vietnamese price in dong to dollars, and I arrive at a stunningly low number. Yet Adam and I were the only customers in the restaurant, which we sat in four hours because we were trapped by a tropical downpour, and we had a personal service staff of about twelve people!
The next day, we paid some teenage boys to guide us in dune-sliding, like sledding– only on sand, and sent our “personal driver” on his way because of our discomfort and conflicted feelings about the dynamic of having what essentially felt like a paid servant. Our final night we wandered down the beach and had dinner watching sunset, drinking a bottle of local Dalat wine and discussing love, life, travel, family, academia, food, and Judaism.
DALAT- the Highlands
Most Westerners don’t make it up to the Dalat highlands, but I am beyond ecstatic that we did. It is gorgeous up here, cool weather that feels delicious in this hot South-East Asian summer, and greenery for miles and miles and miles surrounding the town, which has French influence screaming out of every piece of architecture and plate of local cuisine. The bus-ride here was my favorite part of the trip thus far. I sat in my cramped seat next to the open window grinning like a maniac as we pummeled our way through the countryside, with the Grateful Dead blasting in my ears and my shirt tied around my head middle-Eastern style to block out the scorching morning sun. As I watched the sights fly by, they watched me back. Men, women, and children, babies, old folks, and dogs– they all seem to make up a country of watchers… whose daily lives pretty much exist as a fluid dance between backbreaking work in the fields and lazy porch-dwelling from their roadside houses. Everything in Vietnam seems to be right up on the road, so that nobody will miss anything, and nothing will remain hidden: Privacy doesn’t seem to be a primary concern here the way it is in the U.S. As our bus jolted and careened around corners, up the bumpy, muddy, pothole-ridden road to Dalat, honking at motorbikes and zooming dangerously close to bicyclers, I felt my heart lift at every passing sight. Low-land swamps hosted by blazing neon fields and backed by faroff forest-green mountains, cows/ducks/chickens/goats roaming free and happy (my existence here as a meat-eater is far less guilty than it is at home), the oxen-pulled carts and neatly hoed roes of cabbage, the banana trees and fresh air, the road to higher ground put me in an elevated mood for the rest of the day.
Until nighttime. I sat in our hotel room, queasy, alone, feeling aimless/useless/homesick and like an intruder. What was I doing here, and why? I’ve never believed in tourism as a good thing of its own accord– yet here I was, with nothing to give– just taking.
Adam came back at my lowest point, and I thank God for his companionship because we had a great conversation about the merits and demerits of visiting a foreign country (too detailed to go into here), and ended up laughing and promising to try harder not to speak English quite so doggedly at our confused Vietnamese counterparts… “If we can’t communicate what we want in THEIR language, then we starve!” This, in response to my realization of how unsettling it would be to have a Vietnamese tourist come into Oliveto and self-servingly expect me, as the host, to accurately interpret his or her unintelligible foreign babble, stubbornly accompanied by bizarre hand motions.
I want to write about our motorbike ride through the countryside today with the Easy Riders, older Vietnamese men who know endless information about the history and economy of the Dalat region, but I’ve already written too much here. I’ll post more pictures soon. Mom/Dad/Nanny: I think your hearts would stop to see me flying in and out of traffic on the back of a sputtering Honda motorcycle up the winding hills of Dalat wearing only a helmet and an insane smile for safety, but I’ll just say that it’s been one of the highlights of my 22 years of life so far.