Travels in Vietnam, Part I
The other night, I slept fitfully. I kept waking up, looking around in the darkness and wondering what big, messy hotel room I was in. It wasn’t until about 4 a.m. that I figured it out and got up for good. Half awake, I realized I was in my own bedroom. I just hadn’t been there in almost a month.
I’ve been back from Vietnam for a few days now, and I’m not sure what feels more like a dream — being here again or my memories of my three weeks spent over there. Part of me wants to write down every little thing that happened, every strange smell, every good taste, every long bus ride. I want to savor everything and wrap all my experiences, good and bad, around me like a blanket. I’ll be honest that at certain points on my trip, I couldn’t wait to get home and revel in my favorite comforts, from a boyfriend hug to a bacon cheeseburger. But now that I’m finally here, I kind of wish I had stayed for another three weeks. I cannot believe how incredibly hard it was to get out of my everyday life — and how quickly the normal settles back in.
The differences between here and there are so striking that it seems impossible to know where to begin. I suppose I could start when I landed, sometime after 10 p.m. on a Saturday in Ho Chi Minh City. After more than 20 hours on airplanes, I was ready to be anywhere, but arriving was still a shock. Even at night, the wet heat was so intense that my whole body jolted as I walked the short distance from the curb to the taxi. It was a 20-minute drive to my backpacker-friendly hotel, but I can’t really remember what I saw. When I arrived at Madame Cuc’s 64, I went straight to sleep in my white, windowless cell (which came with cable and a mini bar, which are standard amenities in Vietnam, regardless of how cheap the digs are) and didn’t wake up for 10 hours.
The next morning, I went for a walk, which sounds simpler than it really is. In this other world, crossing the street is part art form, part survival technique and all the way like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. There are no rules on Vietnamese roads, especially not in its biggest, busiest city. HMC looks pretty modern, with wide thoroughfares and plenty of tall, faceless buildings, but its traffic situation is downright medieval. At every intersection, an unending stream of motorbikes, many loaded down with entire families, waits to overtake everything in its path. Nothing is certain — not stopping at red lights, not going the right way on a one-way street — except forward motion. No one ever stops for crosswalks, so all you can do is slowly move toward your destination while the motorbike army, peppered with a few buses and taxis, swerves around you.
After my first real go round, I was so stunned that pretty much all I could do was duck into Pho 24, a nationwide chain that serves all variations of that noodle soup I could not get enough of all month. As I sat there, devouring the beefy contents of my steaming bowl, an Australian lady chatted me up, and I couldn’t believe how grateful I was. It was like I was the new kid in elementary school, sitting alone timidly in the cafeteria. I felt nervous and vulnerable and completely undersocialized, and when she invited me to visit a string of Chinese pagodas with an older Kiwi couple, I couldn’t agree to it fast enough. Later that day, after walking through many ornate buildings filled with Buddhas, dragons, incense and stray cats, we all drank beers together. I was elated and sure that making such easy connections would be rare in the weeks to come. I had no idea then that I would be meeting lovely new travelers literally every day.
It’s funny how now all those people are actually what I remember most about the country, even more than the intense scenery, fantastic food and fabulously cheap prices of everything. Vietnam is all about overstimulation, from the constant buzz of motorbikes to the onslaught of shopkeeps aggressively beckoning you into their stores. Meeting brand new buddies was a safe harbor from all that, at least for a while. I fell in love constantly, the platonic way I do when I make a fast friend who feels right. In the coming weeks, I would connect with Fran and Jamie, Londoners starting off on more than a year across the world, and Dave and Adrian, Canadians who were on a seven-month Asian journey and who dearly missed their Saskatchewan steak. Steph and Tyson were Australian newscasters looking for a bit of adventure and some tailored clothes, and Cathy and Wes were young professionals from California who were traveling after spending a few weeks in China learning Cantonese. There were more, many more characters, and nearly every single one was a joy to spend a day or even just a dinner with.
But I had no idea any of these people were in my future as I tentatively explored my new world in Ho Chi Minh. After just two nights, I gave up on trying to acclimate to it and decided to escape north. I boarded an overnight bus to Nha Trang, a beach town I had never heard of until I bought the ticket. As I took off my shoes and climbed into my reclined, second-level seat (which looked like the love child of an airplane seat and an uncomfortable bunk bed), I had that pang of excitement that comes along with doing something absolutely uncharted.
Ten dark, bumpy hours later, I arrived at a place that kind of reminded me of Myrtle Beach, in some alternate dimension. I quickly settled into my $12 hotel room and promptly watched a few hours of HBO as I let the impact of everything continue to settle into my bones.
I had only been on my trip a few days and already my North Carolina life felt like the distant past. Even though I was surrounded by tourists and hotels and a city full of Vietnamese people going about their daily lives, it seemed like I was on the edge of the earth. I felt intimidated and nervous and unsure of myself — and so fortunate. Tiny ants were marching across my stiff mattress, and some bad American movie was playing on my TV screen, but whenever I thought about where I was, I could not stop smiling.
For part two of this story, be sure to check out next week’s edition of The Guide. For more pictures and essays, visit Stina’s blog at www.stinasieg.com and The Mountaineer’s website, www.themountaineer.com.