Buzzing mopeds, fluttering honks from large trucks, household karaoke blasting from a few blocks away, someone welding on the sidewalk, a chorus of people horking up loogies in a public bathroom…
My very first impression of Vietnam were all the sounds. Trying to navigate through Ho Chi Minh City was overwhelming to say the least. As we were trying to exchange our Riel and USD to Dong, I realized that even though we only drove a few kilometres to get in, we were in a very different place.
That culture shock has since passed and it’s gotten easier to do everything. Ordering food and drinks is less intimidating now that we’ve learned a few words. In Thailand and Cambodia most of the places we stayed at were tourist oriented, so many people helping us out spoke English, or tried very hard to. Once I saw that all the billboards, restaurant signs, and menus were all in Vietnamese, I knew we were going to have a tricky time. Thank god for google translate though, whenever we get stuck all I have to do is whip out my phone, type what I want to say, and instantly they can read it. Sometimes the translation doesn’t come out exactly what we said, but most of the time they can figure it out. Looking back I feel like we were a bit babied in the other countries; they’re so dependant on tourism that so many customer service workers try very hard to please the foreigners. But here in Vietnam I feel like they don’t give a shit about us. Everyone is still very friendly, but the general attitude is different. If you can’t speak Vietnamese then ah, sorry I can’t help you.
It’s been enlightening, actually. This new anxiety of mispronouncing words or standing out too much at a local coffee shop offers some perspective. What if we had to escape our country and our only safe refuge was here? Thankfully that’s not the case, and the locals are quite welcoming and kind to us tourists. But also, why do some people back home have to be such dicks to people who don’t speak English? It’s a hard fucking language and jesus christ they’re only people trying to get through their day just like you. Hey entitled white people: it’s not always about you.
Anywho, Ho Chi Minh City was a bit of a disaster. The place we booked online turned out to be some kind of brothel? Can’t confirm. It was a cheap place with a lot of… furniture.
We then headed south to Can Tho. Much quieter and laid back than HCMC which was super nice. We hung out there for 10 days and did a lot of nothing. It was a lot of moving around up until then and we were desperate for some time to just reset ourselves. We spent a lot of mornings reading at a coffee shop, and looking around for food I like (I’m super picky). Eventually we went on a boat tour along the Mekong river. It started at 5am, and the sun didn’t come up until we reached the first floating market. It was basically a wholesale food market, but everyone’s stock was on their boats. Whatever they had for sale (pineapples, potatoes, mangoes, bananas) one piece was tied onto a long stick that rose above all the boats so you could see where to buy your items. Then we stopped at a rice noodle factory. The rice paste is heated on a large drum, only after a few seconds you use a giant whisk to carry the rice patty out to the sun where it is dried. Then that patty is taken through a shredder to then make the rice vermicelli noodles. Our boat driver (who didn’t speak any English) got us to do all of these steps ourselves and it was super fun.
After Can Tho we headed north to Cat Tien, a small village right next to the National Park. This park is known for its wildlife sanctuaries particularly for the Gibbon monkey. There’s not many let of them in the world so it was a lucky thing for us to see them, even though they were in cages (getting rehabilitated back into their society). We had an amazing place for a couple nights that had a patio looking over onto the river, on the other side being the National Park. First thing in the morning we could hear the Gibbons calling out their loud screech to establish their territory. It’s super loud and can be heard from super far away. I forget exact numbers…
The most memorable part of Cat Tien was meeting a local family who had a tiny restaurant and loved our company. The restaurants by our place were overpriced and mediocre, and we knew by then that the best food had to be scoped out. A ways down the main road there was a house with a small sitting area under what looks like a car garage of sorts. There were no signs or menus so the only way we knew they served food was by the chairs and hammock set up. It was cooked fresh for us and the lady who lives there knew enough english to have some conversations with us. We ended up eating most of our meals there, either prepared by her or her sister who also lived at the house. One evening after the dinner we ate they had some more of their family over and invited us to join. We were served rice noodles and a big spread of meats, veggies, and a hot chicken soup. Plus, they served us their homemade rice wine (actually made from fermented bananas, the process seemed complicated) and it tasted like mild whiskey. They served it to us in very tiny shot glasses, about half the size of ones we’re used to. But they gave them to us one after the other, we had probably over 10 “shots”, we had to accept to not offend! Thankfully it wasn’t as strong as it tasted. That night they invited us to join them in a family evening out to KTV the following night. We accepted, of course.
KTV is karaoke but it’s way way way more popular here. It’s something I think everyone does, sometimes on a daily basis. So, the next day we went to their house, had a delicious meal, hopped onto the back of their scooters, and rode down to the local KTV hub. They basically just have a TV in a room and hook up their phones via bluetooth/Airplay or whatever and stream karaoke videos from youtube. And then crank it up full volume. Neither of us are big into karaoke and I think they expected us to be, because they just picked random english songs and then handed us the microphones and we had no idea what the song was. We just improvised, they didn’t seem to care about quality cause it was really quite terrible. I think they liked the idea of seeing english speaking people singing english songs. But I have no idea really, it was weird. We chose a few of our own songs, had some beer, danced like crazy and had a super fun night.
After Cat Tien we went to Nha Trang, a bit more of a touristy area mostly filled with Russian people for some reason. Our main motivation to stay there was to find a western pub that served a nice turkey dinner for Christmas. We did find one and it was a dream come true, so delicious and it was a nice comfort to have when we’re so far away from our families. For New Years we found a rooftop hotel on the beach and spoiled ourselves with a few fancy cocktails. As we slowly move up north we’re realizing we’re not in the tropics anymore… it’s getting quite chilly! And by chilly I mean a low of 18, on the most cold days. I’ve been so used to constantly sweating that a cooler wind will make me feel chilled to the bone. I had to find a sweater and long pants and that has been my main outfit recently. Living out of 40L doesn’t offer much room for wardrobe variety, but it’s actually kind of nice to not even have to think about what I will wear in the day. It’s always the same and it’s awesome.
So then we escaped the big touristy city to a small town called Tuy Hoa which definitely doesn’t get many white people. I could tell because everyone stared at us and shouted hello constantly. It was hilarious entering the local mall where groups of young girls would stop whatever they’re doing and stare at us, we would wave and then they would shrink into a fit of giggles. Everyone seemed so giddy to interact with us it seemed like we were really lame celebrities. Walking down the street one day I saw a kid actually gasp at the sight of us, although I’m pretty sure it’s because of Dustin’s red hair. We took it easy there, found a delicious pizza place, and rented a scooter and made it to the top of a small mountain not far away from the core.
From there we had a short ride to Quy Nhon, another fairly small city. Again we rented a scooter and ripped around the area. It was actually quite cold that day, and riding around made it colder. I’m glad I brought my rain jacket from home. We zipped across a 17km bridge, where there were wind gusts that I felt could almost knock us off the bike. We found a giant white Buddha statue towering over a small town and when we made it to the top there was a spectacular view.
Transportation here is cheap but I find we get into bizarre situations often. To buy a bus ticket you would think we would just have to go to a bus station to buy it. So we did that, found a bus station on a map, and walked there. Posted on the boards are lists of all the places you can go from there. We decide to go to Da Nang, we whip out google translate and ask the lady at the front for tickets to Da Nang. She says no, and points to the street. Ok, not sure what that means but maybe there is a sign by the street that says something about Da Nang? Walk around… don’t see anything. We go back to her, type out what is hopefully a more detailed question “can we buy bus tickets to Da Nang?”. She says no, takes a piece of paper and writes what I guess is a bus company name (even though a board right in front of her is advertising tickets to Da Nang… like…???). We’re directed to the same street as before, look around a bit more and across the street is a little office with the name of the company. Sweet! Go in there and get our tickets fairly easily, the lady at the front speaks English thank god. She tells us that tomorrow morning we have to go to that office where we will be picked up and someone will take us to the actual bus station. Alright, this has happened before so we know what to expect. Next day we get there on time and let the lady know we’re there and ready to be driven to the bus station. We wait for a while and a man on a motorcycle stops in front of us and asks “where you go?” we say Da Nang, but we have tickets already and we’re waiting for a ride. He points to the bus station across the street and says we need to go there. Assuming something’s lost in translation we assure him that we have tickets, and we’re just waiting for a pre-arranged ride. He keeps pressing so Dustin goes into the office and asks the lady at the front who the hell this guy is. She comes out and they’re yelling at each other in Vietnamese (not really sure if it’s angry yelling but to our ears the language just always sounds angry) and then she eventually says, yes, go across the street. Kinda confused, we go across the street (where we originally asked for tickets but were redirected) and low and behold we see our bus getting loaded with people. Was motorcycle man our ‘ride’ to the bus station? Did he work for the same company? Who was he??? Almost every time we move places there’s some kind of weird situation like that. I wish I wrote them all down because I have no idea how transportation companies operate in Vietnam and it’s fascinating.
So now we’re in Da Nang and it’s been pretty eventful for the short time we’ve been here. It’s a pretty big city and there’s so much to see, on the south end of the city there are marble mountains that we explored. There were a few caves and another sweet view from the very top. Just last night we decided to check out Asia Park, their amusement park that has one of the tallest ferris wheels in the world. I think it’s low tourist season here because holy moly there was hardly anyone in the entire park. Maybe 50 max. No lineups, the arcade was free, and we could have beers from the concession. I went on the ferris wheel and oh man that was stressful. I’m bad with heights and I’m also claustrophobic and once we got to the main entrance of the ride I froze up. It didn’t take long before I forced myself on, my desire to enjoy it overrode my panic (at least for a moment). Once we got past the highest part I felt much better, and I’m glad I went on. We went on a couple easier rides, then I had to muster up the courage all over again to go on a really cool looking roller coaster. I let Dustin go on first as I watched and assessed the situation, then again I forced myself on as I tried to regulate my breathing. Again, I’m really happy I went on because it was so fun. Went on that twice! And did the ferris wheel again also, which was less scary but still terrifying.
Looking forward we’re just making our way up to Hanoi. No real path set yet, there are a few places we want to check out but we have until the end of February to do it all. And hey we might even extend our visas cause it’s so incredibly cheap here.
That’s a lot of words, and who knows when I’ll post the next entry. Next week? Next winter? The suspense must kill all 6 people who read this. But thank you if you do, really.