Before I Forget

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection." —Anais Nin

I read a post on Sandblower about keeping a journal during one's travels, and it made me realize how much stuff is fresh in my mind about my trip now that will fade over time. I kept an actual journal during the trip, and my travel companions contributed to it too, plus I posted here a couple times. But there's so much more that's impossible to capture, so here I'll make my "before I forget" entry, all the little details that didn't necessarily fit anywhere else, in the order in which they come out:

Working Vietnamese women have a uniform. When you walk into a hotel, store, restaurant, or any other professional or upscale establishment, all the women will be wearing the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, a long-sleeved silk dress in a solid color worn over white silk pants (Trinny would so approve). The dress has high slits on both sides so it's very graceful and drapes elegantly without looking constrictive. Men actually wear them too, but the men's version has a shorter dress/shirt so it doesn't look quite as striking or distinctive.

There are Vietnam Airlines offices EVERYWHERE. We were told when planning our domestic flights that you're best off buying your tickets once you arrive, as prices are fixed no matter when or where you buy and that there are travel agents or VA offices all over the cities. It's no joke: We arrived in Saigon, checked into the Rex Hotel, looked across the street and saw a VA office. What luck, we thought to ourselves and trotted over to buy the tickets. Little did we know that there would be a VA office across the street from every other hotel where we stayed, and that there seemed to be a VA office across the street from pretty much any business we went to. They were everywhere!

Vietnamese businesses are fabulously overstaffed. The above-mentioned VA office had no fewer than 15 ticket agents, each with her own kiosk. You walk in, take a number, and are immediately called to a counter. This was true at hotels. We were travelling in a group of 4, and usually when we showed up anywhere, we each had our own attendant. We couldn't figure out whether this was because the country is ramping up for more tourism and we happened to catch it at a particular time in history, or if the culture is particularly service-oriented. Either way, you know these people come cheap. We heard that a hotel employee earns $25 a month.

Vietnamese people love to do stuff on the street. They eat, get manicures, get haircuts and shaves, drink beer, sit and gossip, watch TV, feed their kids, play badminton, fix their motorbikes, etc. all on the street or sidewalk, right in front of their storefront or houses.

The Vietnamese are the kings of small business. All they need is a product or service and a patch of sidewalk, and they'll sell it to you. I've already mentioned how some of the country's finest restaurants actually have no structural elements other than an enterprising individual colonizing the sidewalk (bring your own chopsticks!). But this concept extends way beyond "street food." Jeff saw a guy with a laminating machine and a sign; that was his laminating business. Buy an all-in-one fax/copy/print machine and an extension cord, open your front door, voila! Kinko's Vietnam. Plus, your sister/daughter/effeminate son can do manicures and pedicures while the fax is transmitting! So now it's a Kinko's/Supercuts combo. We kept joking about the various types of businesses we'd have to open out of our front doors when we got back. Of course, there are real businesses too with proper retail spaces and infrastructure, but the amount of wheeling and dealing that takes place right out on the city streets is impressive.

The scooter is a member of the family. One of our guides shared with us a little saying: In the old days, all a man needed to be happy was his wife, his house, and his water buffalo. Now he needs the wife, the house, and a scooter. Yes, that picture shows a family of four zipping around Hanoi on their iron horse. The most we saw were FOUR children and an adult on one scooter, the kids all lined up by size. (I wish I'd gotten a photo of that one, but the scooter pix are hard to catch because they flash by you in an instant.) All I can think is the kids must love it. When it rains, the parent wears a poncho with a little plastic window in it the kid can see out of.

The Vietnamese seem to feel inordinately safe on their scooters. Some of the stuff we witnessed either driving or being transported on a scooter: babies (held by women riding side saddle on the back); a pane of glass about 5 feet by 2 feet; a dozen plastic bags filled with water and koi fish; a 27-inch TV in the box; a women sending a text message on her cell phone; 3 live (we think) pigs; oh, god, I'm already forgetting, but you get the point... I think the key is that they drive pretty slowly (my estimate is 10-15mph) so they can slow down quickly to avoid obstacles. But the side-saddle thing just cracked me up and terrified me.

And they don't wear helmets. On the freeway outside of Hanoi, some scooter drivers do wear them, but in the city it is a rare sight indeed. We didn't see any accidents until our last day, on our way to the airport. That's when we drove by a big truck, which had a woman lying very still in front of its front wheel. She was wearing a helmet.

Both Nick and I rode scooters at one point. In the little town of Hoi-An, we actually were there long enough to befriend some of the locals, who for a variety of reasons offered (at separate points) to give us rides home. I really thought it would feel more dangerous than it did...

Nick had a lot of fun pretending he was Australian. He said "G'day" to everyone—even other Australians. He had an entire conversation in which he told a local he was from Sydney, y'know, the neighborhood by the Opera House. There are tons of Australians travelling in VN, so people are already inclined to think white people there are Aussies.

When we went on our tour of Halong Bay, Nick had been really looking forward to asking the following question to the guide: "How long is Halong Bay?" I stunned our group by beating him to the punch, and he still hasn't forgiven me. (By the way, it's 175 meters, according to our guide.) Nick also enjoyed singing "Halong, Halong" to the tune of the U2 song "Vertigo" as in "Halong, halong, I'm at a place called Vertigo..." He regaled us with the tune pretty much throughout the trip.

Vietnam was the only country any of us had been to that had no McDonald's.

Drivers in Vietnam also honk a lot. They're not really saying, "get out of my way" but rather just "hey, here I am!" And I'm not sure anybody listens.

Crossing a Vietnamese street isn't easy. There's just so much traffic, and the vehicles never seem to stop. We learned that you basically have to cross the street slowly, giving the moving vehicles enough time to swerve around you. You must act resolutely. Once, in Hue where the streets were totally flooded, I walked out into the street and then shrunk back in hesitation. This was the closest I ever came to causing an accident, as the bicycle and scooter that had been reflexively swerving around my forward motion then had to correct their courses suddenly, throwing the whole street's assumed traffic pattern off. It was terrifying for all concerned.

We did, however, see a dog cross the street. Walking. Between his two owners. Without a leash. He did not get hit. And I've already covered how insane crossing the street is in Vietnam. It was an amazing act of dog survival that, I'm thinking, can only happen in a country where THEY EAT DOGS.

Have I mentioned that THEY EAT DOGS in Vietnam? Apparently, eating dog meat around the full moon chases away bad luck. Naturally, this led to a lot of jokes in our group, whenever something not so wonderful happened, about the only way our luck can change. Also: chihuahuas as diet meals and poodles as the choice for true gourmets. Hey, I didn't say they were good jokes!

I'm sure there are many more bullet points to come but that's all for now.


Elizabeth said...

Your trip sounds wonderful. And I love that quote.

Unknown said...

and i love anais nin. she was part of my nanowrimo pen name once.

Anna said...

Thanks for updating us about your trip. It sounds great.

Mary Tsao said...

Great list. Glad to see "How I got bird flu" wasn't on it!

Anonymous said...

Jenny- fun and interesting reading all your observations, big and small! Thanks for sharing it.