“Is that a baby riding on the back of a motorcycle?!”
So begins our arrival Vietnam. Families of five on motorcycles zipping in and out of other motorcycles, paying no interest to the lines on the road, or even the side of the road for that matter. There are no apparent rules, and also no apparent physics to abide by. Honking your horn means “Hello there, Here I am”, and whatever stack of babies you have on the back of your motorcycle better move over in a hurry. Welcome to South East Asia. People here are on the move.
(Motorcycle passenger personal favorites so far include: two men and a giant pane of glass; one man, one woman and an IV pole attached to the man’s arm whilst he is driving; a man and a tree complete with roots and leaves; a woman, two toddlers and a newborn…it is a rubric’s cube of possibilities.)
Vietnam is intoxicating. A kaleidoscope of colours and smells, left-over colonial French architecture surrounded by ramshackle homes stacked on top of each other, glimmering rice paddies and beautiful women in conical straw hats riding push bikes. It made us feel at once alive and exhausted as we navigated our first developing country. Our first stop was in Hanoi, the cradle of Vietnam’s history. It is a great mix of ancient history, colonial remnants and a modern Vietnam that is still finding itself. We spent most of our time just walking around, eating street food on squatty plastic stools and discovering the many wandering bits of the Old Quarter. Street food culture in Vietnam is pretty fantastic, even though it definitely gave me some serious “Asian belly”. You can divide the Vietnamese food regions into thirds: the traditional North, the spicy centre and a sweet South. So while in the North around Hanoi, we mostly enjoyed pho and spring rolls.
We did not enjoy people constantly hawking trinkets or constantly having to barter for everything (like everything, even water), but I guess you could say we just got used to it. I suppose it is part of being a foreigner in a market economy where the market is supersaturated and margins must be razor thin. I can sympathize, I just can’t stand still or make eye contact for too long if I’m not willing to buy.
From Hanoi we headed North still to our first of three UNESCO sites in Vietnam, Halong Bay. It was breathtaking! We slept on a private-ish island in bamboo bungalows, kayaked around all afternoon with new friends, and enjoyed seeing the floating homes scattered about. It was a really nice reprieve from the constant folderol of Hanoi. From here we made our way down to Hue in Central Vietnam on our first SE Asian train experience. Some valuable lessons learned here: 1) Vietnamese people are in a crazy hurry to get on the train! Like bonkers pushy. Why? I couldn’t tell you, there are assigned seats that are constantly being monitored by the train staff. We just had to embrace the elbows and get ours in there too. 2) Don’t assume the train will have toilet paper or soap or drinking water. 3) I will get motion sick, all the time. This is an ongoing lesson that has been the hardest thing in SE Asia for me hands down. But all things considered I did really enjoy the train system, we ended up using it quite a bit. Thanks France and colonialism!
I’ll save our favourite experiences for subsequent posts (CAVES! TAILORS!) because that’s just too much at one time. The rest of our time in Vietnam can mostly be summarized by precarious bike rides in varying levels of heat and traffic; continuing our food journeys from the spicy to the sweet (details can be found here ); antibiotics; searching for hipsterness in Ho Chi Minh City; fine tuning our bartering skills; and constantly trying to explain to curious locals why were weren’t married with tons of babies, ha. And while Vietnam has had a very sad history, and continues to struggle especially in its rural areas, we saw a lot of positive action taking place. I found the Vietnamese to be a resourceful and resilient group of people. I hope the strides they are taking in education, social activism and poverty-reduction continue to improve.