Understanding Vietnam: Travelogue
By Tom

Day 3, 4-26-08

We arrived in Vietnam around 3:00 in the morning local time, which put our bodies at somewhere close to 4:00 in the afternoon at home. Despite my severe lack of sleep, I could already tell that this trip was going to be eye-opening: from the moment that we stepped into the airport in Korea, the atmosphere was different than anything I had ever experienced being abroad. Being a middle-class white male, I fall into the majority by most every socio-economic measurement in the US and Europe, but in Asia, a tall, Caucasian male is certainly not the norm. I never really felt uncomfortable, but I became acutely aware that the very shape of my eyes marked me as someone who didn’t understand the language or the culture. I became determined to change that (or at least, to try). I also became determined to save enough money to upgrade myself to a “sleeping pod” for the return flight to New York, because the 14 hours that I spent curled up in an inverted fetal position were not altogether enjoyable (though I did manage make my way through four movies).

The first full day in Hanoi was remarkably busy. Despite sleeping for about three hours, we all managed to wake up early enough to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the presidential palace, Ho Chi Minh’s former home, the One-Pillar Pagoda, the Temple of Literature, and the Fine Arts Museum. The One-Pillar Pagoda served as a great introduction to the country, as the symbolism within that single piece of architecture is immense. Simultaneously hinting at the importance of religion to the country, the harmony desired through the unification of the government under communism, and the lengthy history enjoyed by Vietnamese culture, the pagoda served as a useful starting-point from which to begin exploring the country. I also particularly enjoyed the Temple of Literature, with its huge, park-like grounds and similar amalgamation of pieces of Vietnam’s history. Much influenced by the Chinese and their Confucian philosophies, the first university in Vietnam educated its future rulers in politics and rhetoric, literature and law, all united by the guiding principles of the Confucian ideals. Beginning with that ancient school, the fierce independence and strict discipline of the Vietnamese people demonstrated themselves as having roots deeply set in the country’s cultural history.

We also managed to squeeze three enormous meals into our first day in the city, starting with a breakfast buffet at our hotel, a huge family-style lunch, and an even bigger dinner in an elaborate restaurant complete with traditional Vietnamese folk music. Perhaps my favorite moment was watching Kimal’s reaction to having his menu taken away, forcing him to try everything (or nothing) at lunch, whether or not he could identify it. I had a fantastic time at dinner, meeting two young Vietnamese women who worked for our tour company. Already I was able to make a generalization about Vietnamese women: they are supremely graceful. Watching them serve food or motioning to the waitress is a treat for the eyes, not in any sexist way, but because of the fluidity and delicacy of their motions. Very different than being thrown a hamburger at a Friendly’s in the US.

After dinner, the whole group had decided to go out to a night-market and then to a bar or discothèque. Unfortunately, we found that the market was to close in an hour after our arrival back at the hotel, and since everyone else was procrastinating and not being proactive about the situation, my friend Q and I decided to hop in a cab and to explore the market on our own.

This would usually have been a fine idea. However, after discovering that the market was too far away to walk back to the hotel, realizing that we could never find our way even if we did want to walk back, and completely forgetting to grab a business card form the hotel or remembering precisely how to pronounce its name (one of five in a chain, all of the same exact name), we soon realized that we would have some difficulty finding our way back. Oh, how we underestimated. After enjoying the market for about 45 minutes (walking arm-in-arm, fending off the men snatching at Q’s purse and my camera in my pocket), and buying nothing, we hopped into a cab driven by a clean-scrubbed young guy wearing an edgy, polka-dotted shirt, who spoke no English (nor French, Spanish, Mandarin nor German, the other languages which Q and I speak between us, none of which did us any good). We attempted to communicate what we remembered of the hotel’s name, and then decided that the umbrella Q had grabbed from its lobby must have the name printed on it somewhere. No such luck. After searching under cab for a potentially lost business card, our driver got back in, looked at us with a hopeless expression, and started driving towards his best guess of our hotel. After stopping at about three hotels, none of them ours, we became desperate. Perhaps he would have heard of the Hot Bar, a bar on our street? No. I knew that we had passed the Sofitel on the way to our hotel, so we told him to go there, hoping that being in a better area with a big hotel might provide us the chance to speak English. On the way there, however, we discovered that he had heard of the Funky Monkey, a bar cum dance floor which our tour guide had told us was about five minutes from our hotel. We arrived there, fended off about three people offering us sex, drugs, and directions through the windows of the van, and sped to a side street where we tried our next plan. We knew that there was a hospital on the same block as our hotel; of course, our driver didn’t recognize the word hospital, so Q and I mimed everything from coughing to heart attacks to cutting our wrists, and finally the driver drew a medical cross on a piece of paper, and we knew he understood. The meter now running at about 120,000 dong (for a trip which had initially taken us 40,000, or 50,000 after being cheated by the driver), our driver stopped at a hotel where he thought there may be some English-speaking management. There was someone who spoke English, who turned our to be a Vietnamese tourist who delighted in lecturing us about the fact that we couldn’t assume that everyone in Vietnam would speak our language, and that the business cards with hotel names were printed for a reason. We knew all of this, and had already berated ourselves for our spontaneity and lack of foresight. This stop, at last, resulted in directions to a Hong Ngoc hotel, though unfortunately one of the other side of the city. There, the receptionist called a Hong Ngoc near a hospital (number five), to ensure that it was the correct one for me and Q. He gave our driver directions and wished us luck, and 225,000 dong later (250,000 after my tip to our exceptionally gracious driver), we were back home. Delirious from our attempts at circumlocution to communicate with the driver, the harrowing driving on Hanoi’s crowded streets, and the jet-lag, we collapsed in the hallway in a fit of laughter. We had just enjoyed a nighttime tour of the city (albeit expensive), learned a valuable lesson about traveling (which, theoretically, we knew already), and discovered the warm, helpful spirit of the people of Hanoi (for the most part – the people at the Funky Monkey were just scary). Having read that the northern Vietnamese were cold, formal, reserved people, I never would have expected such understanding treatment from a cab driver, but I was proved wrong. It was an action-packed day, and I’m ready for tomorrow – perhaps after a long, well-earned sleep.

Day 5, 4-28-08

The last few days have been incredible, which is why I haven’t been writing in my journal, so I’ll have to catch up. The day after we returned from our Hanoi night-market adventure, we visited many more sites around the city, this time dealing less with the communist history of the country, but with the religions which play so important a role in daily life here. We started out at a Taoist temple, which was interesting to me for the way that it was built primarily as a protection against Chinese domination of the country. Although a Taoist temple, serving as a space for meditation on the way of life promoted by the Taoist philosophy, its primary duty was to ensure the sovereignty of the Vietnamese people – quite different from the Buddhist temples we would see later. Thay Trian had told us that the park-like spaces within many of the temples and pagodas in Vietnam were used as public spaces, similar to public parks in the US. Apparently, during exams, many students flock to the temples simply for the quiet, reflective atmosphere which they provide. It was demonstrative of this communal space (and pretty cool to see) a martial arts class taking place in the primary courtyard. To me, this was a perfect representation of the way that there is not necessarily a separation between religion and public life in Vietnam, at least not in the same way that there is in the US. People use their religious spaces and incorporate their religious and philosophical teachings into the ways the live their lives every day. The Buddhist temple we next visited was on the banks of one of Hanoi’s three lakes, and was a perfectly peaceful, relaxing, and contemplative setting. It had a very different feel than the Taoist and Confucian spaces, a place to be perhaps more reverent and formal. Buddhism is something that I’ve never studied formally, but I’ve become increasingly interested in it over the last few years, especially after meeting one of my best friends at Bates, who is a Theraveda Buddhist. It helped me to more fully understand the religion by seeing the altars and architecture at in real life and full-size. The stupa was magnificent, and the shrines are ornate and chaotic, but with a sense of purpose and meaning. It was especially interesting to see the twin trees under which the Buddha found enlightenment, given to Ho Chi Minh by the prime minister of India. I’m anxious to compare the differences between Buddhist temples in the north (where both the country and religion is more strict and conservative), to those in the South, which is traditionally more liberal.

The meal we ate for lunch this day was the best I’ve had so far, perhaps one of the most memorable I’ve ever eaten. I was a little wary of the restaurant when we walked in: it wasn’t particularly busy, it was sparsely decorated, and the owners appeared to have forgotten to purchase furniture on which to sit. We removed our shoes, and so I walked up a treacherous staircase barefoot to a semi-private room where we sat around very low tables on mats with our legs folded underneath us. I was lucky enough to be sitting next to thay Trian, who explained that the meal we were about to eat was in the peasant-style of Vietnam, the type of food he grew up eating on a farm. The waitresses were dressed very simply, and each course was brought out individually in a large bowl, from which everyone shared. This in itself is quite a change from Western restaurants, where many hyper-conscious germophobes would be worried about eating food touched by another person’s chopsticks. There were perhaps eight courses, a huge meal for lunch. I still haven’t been able to figure out what the main meal is in Vietnam, because we’ve been eating so much at every meal. The interesting thing, though, is that although I’ve been eating my body weight in vegetables nearly every time I sit down at a table, I never leave the table feeling stuffed and bloated – I think it’s a testament to the lighter, healthier food here. My favorite courses were the fried tofu (and I don’t even like tofu that much!) dipped in a salty lime paste, and the eggplant soup/stew. I’ve never really tasted a flavor like this soup before, at the same time smoky and sweet, served over a bowl of rice. And, I’ve finally begun understanding my chopsticks! At least I can hold them now, and I even managed to pick up a single peanut the other day. I’ve now got to perfect my soup/rice scooping motion while I hold the bowl to my lips. At the moment, all I manage to do is to fling soup against my shirt.

While we’re on the topic of food, I had my first bowl of pho that same night! A national dish of Vietnam, and I suppose about the closest thing the country’s food has to a McDonald’s, it’s a big bowl of rice noodles with a wonderful broth, and your choice of chicken or beef. Thay Trian told the table of guys I was sitting at to try the beef muscle, but when he told us that the difference between beef muscle and beef filet was a crunchier texture, we decided to stick with what we knew – I don’t generally like my meat crunchy. We also discovered real Vietnamese coffee. I’ll admit it – I’m a coffee junkie, and having worked in a coffee shop has made me a bit of a snob when it comes to properly preparing espresso shots and a good cup of strong, black coffee. The coffee we have in the hotel in the mornings is good; much stronger and darker than normal coffee in the US, it tastes more like what we consider “Turkish coffee.” The milk is always sweetened, though, and it makes for a great combination of the sweet milk and the exceptionally bitter coffee. The pho restaurant, however, did not serve this coffee. A combination somewhere in between a French press and a traditional hanging drip filter, warm water is added to the grounds which are then squeezed into a cup, which we then added ice to. The result was something like espresso without the very bitter taste. Luckily, thay Trian forbade the girls who had ordered it to get a second cup, because they were already enjoying themselves a bit too much was all the caffeine.

That night, we went to the water-puppet performance, something that I was looking most forward to on the trip since I saw it in one of the travel videos. Knowing that the water puppetry is one of the most famous art forms indigenous to Vietnam, and knowing that the performances in small towns was one of the first ways to give a voice to the less highly-educated common peoples, I was a bit disappointed to see just how commercial and touristy the performance was, though I understand that it is a necessity, considering how many people want to see it. They announced the show in three languages (English, French, and Vietnamese), and it started with a musical introduction. The musicians are obviously very skilled, and they also provided the singing and voices for all of the puppets. As beautiful as the puppetry was (it is absolutely unbelievable what they can do with sticks hidden underneath the water), the musicians seemed unenthused during the performance, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was buying into a construction set-up specifically for tourists, just one of the thousands of people who come to see them perform every day. This is true on some levels, but I’ll muse about that later. I suppose that what I took away from the performance was the beauty of the presentation, and the importance of the storytelling to a people who had lacked a voice for thousands of years under royal governments who provided them with little education.

I was not prepared for our activities on the third day of our trip (in a good way, really). I knew that we were going to go on a hike, and since I hadn’t really had the chance to exercise since we arrived, I was ready. Just after leaving Hanoi, beautiful mountains appeared on the horizon, but completely different than any mountains at home. Rice paddies stretched out on either side of the highway, and then instantaneously the rocks jutted up from the ground, covered in lush green plants and shrouded at the tops by mist – it looked like a stereotypical painting on a decorative screen in an Asian restaurant – stunningly beautiful. We arrived at a parking lot, and we saw a river filled with hundreds and hundreds of rust-colored metal boats. I hadn’t realized it, but our trip included a boat ride, an hour up a gorgeous river surrounded on both sides by hundreds of layered, round-topped mountains. We stopped at a welcome temple near the parking lot, and this is where my only critique of the day can be better explained. As soon as we stepped off the boat and rounded the corner towards the temple, a roar of laughter went up from all of the merchants selling commercialized tourist items. First of all, it’s beginning to get a little bit frustrating constantly being gawked at by many of the Vietnamese locals – I think that, for the most part, it is a simple matter of being interested in our group, as we are all pretty young, and obviously don’t look like most of the people who live here. However, coming from the US, where we are superlatively politically correct and desensitized by seeing people of every ethnic background, it seems almost rude to single someone out based solely on the way they look. I ran up the mountain by myself (just out of a desire to exercise – not to get away from the group), and I had a really nice time being by myself with the gorgeous scenery (except, of course, for the merchants – more on that later). While waiting at the top, everyone was staring at me, which I expected. One older woman was being particularly blatant about it, so I said to her, “A Di Da Phat,” which is a way to greet Buddhists on the pilgrim trail. She looked surprised, didn’t say anything to me, and then proceeded to tell her group of friends what I had said to her, who also laughed. I brush something like that off as the people being interested in why I’m there and surprised by my attempt to speak Vietnamese, but it sure can be disconcerting. Later on in the day, we saw a huge group of Vietnamese surrounding a black boy from France, taking pictures with him, presumably because of the novelty of his black skin. While this is mostly harmless, it is completely blasphemous to something like my Bates education, with its emphasis on equality and tolerance. Again, I don’t think that, for the most part, this is meant to be malicious, but it is a sign of the less global worldview that seems to be present in most of the lower and middle class citizens here.

The other thing that bothered me about the trail (and, again, my experience yesterday is already one of my favorite memories from the trip), was the immense amount of commercialization there. This sacred site is one of the holiest in the area, and attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. It makes sense, then, that people set up shops along the trail to sell offerings, souvenirs, and food, but they are aggressive and intrusive to the experience. I tried to imagine if the trail were free of the constant noise and pandering, what it would have been like to arrive at the cave shrine having really communed with nature on the way up. Even within the temple, electric lights, signs, and flashy displays somehow detracted from the simplicity of the place: the juncture between nature and religion.

I also felt incredibly honored to have met with the abbot of the monastery on the mountain, entirely thanks to his friendship with thay Trian. We climbed up the steps of the monastery, and I’ll never forget the look on the monk’s face who greeted thay Trian and listened to his request to present his students (clad in shorts, t-shirts, and hastily thrown-on shoulder coverings) to the abbot. But he agreed to meet with us, and provided us with tea in a beautiful room filled with gleaming wooden furniture inlaid with intricate mother-of-pearl designs. There were at least two monks in the room at al times watching us with the abbot, and at the end of our visit, he even gave us a book about the site and a blessing necklace. We wore the necklaces up the mountain, and one merchant couldn’t believe what we were wearing – he kept asking, “how much did you pay for those? Where did you get them from?” I had never been to a monastery, never met an abbot, never been to a temple in a cave, and never seen comparable scenery in my life. All in all, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.