Romancing Vietnam

They’d warned me about Vietnam.

“It’s not like Laos, you know. They’re very grabby. Very… commercial.”

Some were more explicit.
“It’s just constant hassle. They try to rip you off all the time. The 5,000 dong bottle of water suddenly becomes 15,000 dong. You have to pay tourist prices for everything, and they won’t let you take the public buses.”

I’d already got stuck in the Lao border town of Savannakhet, waiting five days for the Vietnamese consulate to process my visa. It was twice as expensive as all the other visas I’d got (and I flip proudly through my passport these days). They make you specify an entry and exit date—tough luck if you change your mind and delay the start of the trip. Not a service economy, I noted.

In Savannakhet, where Vietnamese outnumber ethnic Lao, I developed an attitude that was only barely sweetened by the delicious custard donuts. The dogs, so docile in the rest of Laos, barked and chased me. (How do dog memes spread? In one town, they’re groveling wretches, in the next, snarling predators.) Shopkeepers were surly. I was overcharged for my breakfast noodle soup. By the time I caught the night bus to Hué, my Vietnam-related persecution complex was such that I willed them to be mean just to prove me right.

And that bus was everything I dreamed of. It was filthy, falling apart, and jammed with box upon box of chocolate coins. There was nowhere to put my feet, and the seat fell out of my seat when I tried to make it recline. I perched pathetically behind Alice, an 80-year-old Swiss-German lady whose fortitude stopped me dissolving in a puddle of self-pity.

“I lived with my muzzer in Basel and we went to Spain for our holiday every year. I was sixty years old when she died, and so then I decided to trawel because I vanted to see the vurld!”
She’d gone all over Central and South America, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Russia, and India.

“And you know here they have no running vater in the toilet, but there is no smell, or hardly any smell! In India, there is also no running vater in the toilet and the smell is very bad. Even the Indian ladies, they say ‘Oh, the smell, the smell!’ But India is very beautiful and there are many temples in Mysore…”

Alice kept up a happy monologue for much of the trip, despite the bus staff, who exceeded my expectations in their meanness. Every bus I’ve taken in Southeast Asia has two or three men who are responsible for loading all the freight and fixing the regular breakdowns (in Burma, where the buses are ancient left-hand-drive Japanese imports, part of the job also involves hanging out the door to tell the blindsided driver about traffic coming in the opposite direction). One of these charmers literally shoved frail, hunch-backed Alice into her seat whenever she stood up. Later, as he slept on the boxes beside my feet I aimed a few accidental Timberlanded kicks at his skinny arse. Next morning I wished I’d kicked harder when I realized he’d chosen that temporary sleep spot in order to reach my bag, from which he had taken the rest of my Thai currency and my sunglasses. He smirked and walked away when I challenged him. There was nothing I could do—they still had my backpack on the roof—so I entertained  revenge fantasies as we waited at the border for four hours so the creeps could load and unload more chocolate coins.

When I finally got to Hué, filthy and bloodshot after sixteen hours, I felt like a million dong, as they say. I limped out of the bus-station looking for more opportunities to mutter complaints. Vietnam was an evil place full of thieves and granny-bashers, and now I had proof.

But then I was seduced.

Hué glows. Lemony colonial villas look built just for this light. I couldn’t find a taxi, but for the right reasons—this is a Honda-and-bicycle town. A bicycle culture is already morally and physically superior to a car culture, but in Hué they bike with style, too. Women glide past in high-heeled mules and bootcut pants. Schoolgirls float by in white ao dai costumes. Schoolboys chat to the pal balanced on the back carrier. Everyone shouts hello. The cyclo touts, whose lives are hard, shout “Maybe tomorrow, yes?” to each polite refusal.

Little old ladies dish out magnificent fresh spring rolls and spicy baguette-and-paté sandwiches for pennies. The ice-cream carts play Jingle Bells and Happy Birthday to You. Internet access is 20 cents an hour (though unfortunately that works out at about a cent a byte). I am grateful for the Roman characters on street signs after months of squiggly Thai, Burmese, and Lao scripts. In the Café Violon, a trio performs smoky, sexy jazz sung in Vietnamese.

And the sunsets on the Perfume River…is this getting too much?

This morning I sat in an another café drinking strong, strong coffee and watched men watch Britney Spears, who is apparently still not a girl, not yet a woman, though time marches on. Where were the Vietnamese women, I wondered, at 9.30 in the morning? Then I saw them, leaning out of small tin boats to tend the paddy field opposite while their men played Go, watched Britney, and looked after the kids. If I could overcome that little issue, I thought, I could live here. I could learn Vietnamese and raise a brood of dark-haired kids who would play boules and bring me strong coffee with my breakfast croissants.

It is a shame that Americans got into their worst messes with the people who are most like them in energy and freewheeling spirit—the Cubans and the Vietnamese. If Hué is Vietnam, then Vietnam is wonderful.

2 thoughts on “Romancing Vietnam”

  1. Hi. I surfed over here via nobody-knows-anything.com.

    _(in Burma, where the buses are ancient left-hand-drive Japanese imports, part of the job also involves hanging out the door to tell the blindsided driver about traffic coming in the opposite direction)_

    This is rather pedantic, I know, but left-hand drive actually means that the steering wheel is on the left-hand side of the *vehicle*, for driving on the right-hand side of the road. Right-hand drive, conversely, means that the steering wheel is on the right for driving on the left.

    Anyway, I read that Burma/Myanmar drives on the right because some time in the 1970s the dictator Ne Win’s astrologer told him that ‘the right would prevail in all things’. Apparently Rangon still has old (and non-functional) traffic lights on the left-hand side of the road.

    Ne Win was similarly inspired to replace all the banknotes with denominations based on multiples of nine, which had the beneficial side-effect (for him) of pauperising most of the population by making their cash savings worthless.

    Do all the vehicles in Burma have the steering wheel on the wrong side, or is it just the buses (where you presumably have the added thrill of stepping out into the traffic)?

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  2. Many of the vehicles are old Japanese and Korean exports. There are a startling number of white Toyotas on the road. So yes, those all have steering wheels on the right. Traffic is bad in Yangon and Myanmar, but out the country there are very few cars. I’m not sure about the banknotes in multiples of nine–I seem to remember they were normal denominations–but Ne Win could certainly have brought that about if he were so inclined.

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