Views on Vietnam

I don’t like it when people don’t take no for an answer. If I have said a polite ‘no thank you’ to the person who wants me to buy a fan (‘two dollar, only two dollar… I have a baby…’), fried noodles on a street corner, or a ticket for the tuk-tuk, I want them to back off.

It’s very difficult to walk away, however, when you’re on a boat on the Perfume River (in Hue) and you are the only two people on board, other than the captain and his mother (or possibly grandmother).

I position myself next to the open window in the vague hope of catching a slight breeze. The heat often causes me to tense up and cause a knot in my stomach so I am immersed in my thoughts and concentrating on my breathing.

I am distracted by a tickling on my left arm. The old woman is holding up a red silky blouse. It’s the first thing she wants to sell me. I decline. We politely browse the cards, pictures, bookmarks, wonky wooden toy animals, fans and other assorted souvenirs.

We don’t want to buy anything. I nearly buy a card but the price she asks for is mad. I have read that you should halve the first price they say and then go from there. I am not in the mood to do so because it is not something I want. I agreed to a boat journey with them, not being forced to buy something I don’t want.

Also, it doesn’t half concentrate the mind when you are travelling for six months.

But as all these thoughts filter through my mind, I start to feel bad. I feel grumpy because I have said no, and then I admonish myself for being grumpy.

I wanted to be able to decline, not feel obliged to buy something just for the sake of it. I was trying to be in the moment when she interrupted me. But, of course, on reflection, this was the moment!

As she gathered up the items and put them back on a side table, I decided I liked a couple of cards well enough to buy them. They are, after all, still very cheap by any standards. Hopefully I made her day, even if I was a tough customer. At least I felt better for it when we got off the boat.

We are coming to the end of our time in Vietnam. Just three nights in Ho Chi Minh City and we will be on our way to Cambodia.

I am writing this while on the train from Danang. It was a little difficult getting the train booked and I was worried that we would be in the cheap seats, which wouldn’t be much fun for a 17-hour journey.

‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ is a phrase we are well used to asking ourselves. Now that I am in my cabin, which has four berths and not six as had been suggested at one point, my worst fear is that my back will seize up.

On this six-month journey I could never have carried a backpack that young 20-somethings can. I recently read someone’s blog about their perception of the difference between backpackers and tourists, and we like to think that at our age we are a hybrid of both.

We do want to see some sights but we also want to wander the streets and talk to people we meet. The travelling days – i.e. taking a long journey by train, bus or boat – are part of the journey itself. It’s admittedly a bit different when you’re on a two-week holiday and you’re keen to get somewhere fast and pack it all in.

I feel guilty if I don’t eat the local food but sometimes chips or pizza is a lifesaver.

It’s also a matter of embracing the differences, and observing the good and the bad, without wishing it were any different to what it is or imposing our views or standards.

We also like the fact that not everyone speaks English. We don’t expect all street signs and cafe menus to be in our language – and they often aren’t. A bit of difficulty communicating is part of the fun. Mind you, we met a lovely young woman at the Cao Dai temple in Danang (I had never heard of the religion) and she didn’t speak much English but she whipped out her iPhone and tapped out a few sentences on Google Translate.

Hanoi

Hanoi left an impression on us, in no small measure due to the location of our accommodation, an AirBnB just outside the Old Quarter.

Entry and exit to the Cartoon House (cartoons on the walls suggest it was a nursery at one time) was via padlocked shuttered doors. From the hallway you could borrow a Vietnamese hat, umbrella, motorbike…

As soon as you step outside, the heat hits you. The street is already alive – it has been since dawn. Women selling fresh meat, chickens in a basket, a few fish in a tin bowl.

One man is selling baked sweet potatoes, they look like they have been there a while but occasionally a fresh batch comes out and you wonder if he sells all he bakes.

Fruit sellers set down their bowls which are still attached to their shoulder poles. You can only imagine the weight as you watch women walk down the street, getting in to some kind of rhythm to walk, and looking like they can’t quite stop until they reach their destination.

All kinds of fresh fruit, and I mean fresh, not packaged in plastic, but the juiciest tastiest mango, watermelon and pineapple and plenty other fruit that we don’t get at home – longan, mangosteen, dragonfruit.

A mobile street seller pushing a cart or on a bicycle might have a little loudspeaker offering their wares.

In ‘our’ residential district, we walk past open doorways at all times of the day. Life, it seems, is very much out on the street. It is very much a community. We are assured it is safe here – and it feels it too.

As we walked to the Pirates Den for a beer one Saturday evening, about 7 pm, everyone’s doors were open, families had gathered together for a meal (as many as a dozen filling the floor of a small room), sitting on the floor and sharing the food.

The church was holding a service, the congregation spilled outside, everyone young and old sitting on small plastic stools on both sides of the narrow street, allowing just enough room for motorbikes to get through.

Apart from the Aussie who runs the Pirates Den, we seem to be the only western people ‘this’ side of a highway which divides us from the Old Quarter, a mere ten-minute walk away.

Over there, streets are grouped according to what they sell so you’ll find party supplies in one place (known as Party Street), glass vases or building supplies.

We are told that the Vietnamese work seven days a week, they eat eight times a day, go to the market three times a day.

They get up early and go to bed late. A fruit seller might go the wholesale market at 2 am, ready to sell at 6 and she might still be away from home til 9 pm if sales are slow.

All shopkeepers seem to expect slow sales. They sit around chatting outside their narrow store or lie down on anything for a siesta. Outside most shops, apart from a lot of parked motorbikes blocking the pavement, are small red and blue plastic stools for adults to sit on.

The traffic is crazy. You are supposed to drive on the right, but crossing any street you have to expect a motorbike to come from any direction on any side of the road. We have seen everything possible carried on a motorbike – a family of four (with young children), a babe in arms, a dog, panes of glass, 20 ft poles, large boxes of goods, huge plastic bottles, a grandmother with a bunch of flowers.

Most motorcyclists don’t wear helmets and many are on their phones. But they either slow down slightly for a pedestrian (particularly a western one) or they will go round you. The pedestrian cannot assume that a zebra crossing means they’re any safer. All you have to do is observe the traffic, to see if there is a slight break in it, pick your moment and go for it – confidently. No hesitation. If worried, you keep walking and put your hand up slightly as if to say ‘Thank you very much, I am crossing here.’

A new hazard in Ho Chi Minh City – the motorcyclists jump the traffic by going up on pavements!

We have had no near misses and we have seen no road rage. That said, on average one person is killed on Vietnam’s roads every hour – usually a motorcyclist.

In Hoi An we met two Londoners who had matching burns on the inside of their ankles. I had to ask. Turns out they had been passengers on a motorbike and their ankles had been resting on the exhaust for a matter of only five minutes. They didn’t notice it happen but when they got off the bike a layer of skin came off. They learned that there is a name for it – the Asian tattoo.

We went on a motorbike very briefly, as we were picked up for a bicycle tour. Fortunately we were given helmets and it felt very safe – this was Hoi An, not Hanoi.

That tour, which included a 9 km cycle ride, gave us an insight into rural life in Vietnam. It was particularly scary to see markers on the walls of houses showing how high the water level has been when there has been flooding.

Characters

Vietnam has given us our three best characters so far – Ho Chi Minh (see previous blog post), Thang and Sexy Lady.

Thang was the owner of our hotel in Hue. It looks like he may have been electrocuted as his long blonde hair is sticking up. Maybe he is stuck in the 1960s, and maybe he still smokes something from that era. As we passed by, he showed off his scrawny seven-year-old chicken. Then he gets out a homemade paper sign and hangs it around the chicken’s neck. ‘Fuck KFC,’ it reads. The next day, another sign. ‘Death to KFC.’

Sexy Lady looked harmless enough when we met her. She guided us to the river where we were to try steering a small coracle made from bamboo and cow dung.

On the short walk a few of us were bothered by insects flitting around our necks and ears. We batted them away. I thought I had something like a large butterfly stuck under the rim of my hat. It turned out that Sexy Lady was the joker of the pack, tickling us all from behind with a soft leafy sheaf of something.

That was nothing compared to what was coming. She showed us how to get in the boat, standing on one leg, spinning in a circle and then dancing and singing to the tune of Gangnam Style.

She would take away a paddle, or hold the boat from behind so you could paddle as much as you liked but you would get nowhere, jump in the boat with you or transfer between two in the middle of the river. It was like she had a different trick for each person who got in a boat. All effortlessly, and all very amusing.

She was 66. Priceless.

Vietnam, I love you

I have just felt moved to tears again! It strikes when I least expect it. Sometimes I think it is just Menopausal Woman* at work. Sometimes it is simply the joy of travel.

I had been dreading this train journey, I admit. We have had good experiences of two long train journeys but, as I said earlier, we had had trouble booking this one and it was the longest yet – 17 hours. The agency had said first class was fully booked and we might be in second class. That in itself we didn’t mind but when he said it might be six berths, not four, to a cabin, I was slightly worried it would be too hot, cramped and claustrophobic.

It is not, it is air-conditioned to the point of being cold, but I have a clean blanket as well as my scarf for my shoulders so I am happy.

The other potential hazard is the toilet, but it is clean, has toilet paper and fresh air, with the window open. The door also has a tendency to be open as the lock is broken but I don’t mind that. I have a spare hand!

I have just taken the chance to stretch my legs. It’s 3 pm and the journey is flying by – I have already updated my diary, written a blog post, read my book and dozed off. Some people like reading a book by a pool – I like reading a book on a train, I have discovered.

My mind has not been on the movement of the train or my environment, other than to delight in it.

I stood in the corridor just now and watched the world go by.

We moved out of a small station. We first pass the barriers across the road which let the train pass by – dozens of motorbikes waiting at the front of the queue, a few cars behind them. Then we pass open green paddy fields – such bright light green; occasionally one person in the middle of the field, wearing the famous conical Vietnamese hat which is ubiquitous – not just for tourists; tall palm trees planted in rows; houses built in rectangular shapes, shaded open area at the front, washing hanging out, a parked motorbike or three; many ramshackle areas but also some lovely houses; quite randomly a small cemetery, with colourful square-shaped memorials; some hazy low hills in the background breaking up an otherwise flat vista; a lone brown cow (we don’t think it can be a Jersey as its neck is too baggy); water buffalo – the simple delight of seeing a small water buffalo calf in a wet field.

The temperature is only 24 degrees, according to the display in the train. If it means that’s the outside temperature, it is welcome for it has been hitting the 30s, and feeling like much more with the humidity.

Initially I was feeling a bit hard done by on this train journey as the woman in the lower berth immediately shut the curtains, turned over and went to sleep. It was like we all had to respect that. The curtains are still closed even though her husband and the child they are with (maybe grandchild) are now all wide awake.

But they are friendly enough, even if they speak no English.

And then there are the people who do want to speak to you, just to practise their English. I had a lovely conversation with the receptionist at the hotel as we were checking out at Hoi And and then again today with a young student at the railway station. She was just returning home to her village but she had come to Danang to bring her younger brother to hospital after a motorbike accident – he had one arm in plaster, the other was heavily bandaged. She was quite quirky, and was wearing her orange motorbike helmet, I presume because she couldn’t be bothered to carry it. It was my next question but we had had so much to talk about and she was so sweet I had no time. Before I knew it, she was off to catch her train.

At the next stop, I will get down from my bunk and stand in the corridor and look out some more.

I have returned to the cabin now because Mango Man needs to pass by – he has a trolley of eggs (hard-boiled, I presume), fresh mango and bananas. Such healthier snacks than Mars bars and cheese and onion crisps. He has a deep resonant voice as he calls out ‘mango’ or something in Vietnamese as he walks down the corridor.

We are hoping this bodes well for our experience of trains in India.

For now though, I can conclude two things: I love Vietnam, and train journeys can be great fun, even very long ones.

*How do you know if you’re having a hot flush when you seem to be having exactly that from the minute you get up to the minute you go to bed? It is so hot and sweaty most of the time that it is difficult to tell and, besides, you are so busy and see so much that it is impossible to think about how you are feeling… other than ‘hot and sweaty’. David says he might be Menopausal Woman as well because he too feels hot and sweaty all day.

2 thoughts on “Views on Vietnam

  1. Very descriptive, I could see it through your eyes. And feel the heat because we are having the same heat here. So looking forward to Switzerland and cool clear mountain air.

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  2. What an amazing experience you are having and soaking up every aspect of the places you go and people you meet. Hope the rest of train journey goes smoothly and looking forward to your next blog post. ( have been reading your others but haven’t got around to commenting yet!) xx

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