Vietnam: A Travel Narrative

In the summer of 2014 I planned a 5 week trip to Southeast Asia with my roommate and her cousin.  At this point in my life I had been to a whopping 2 countries and was celebrating my biggest life accomplishment to date: completing grad school two months prior.  So, needless to say, Asia was good. It was a break from reality and a learning curve all mixed into one big adventure.

On this trip we traveled in five countries, largely hosted by friends or family or friends of family.  So, what I learned from this experience doesn’t compute into a lot of ‘how-tos’ or literal connections for you.  Instead, it was learning to travel more efficiently (we ‘backpacked’ part of the trip), flexibly (we booked hotels upon arrival), and fully (less with culture shock and more with interest).

Upon review of the trip we all agreed that Vietnam was our favorite country.  When I try to describe this to people I always start with the traffic.  Mostly because it was insane and entertaining all at once.  What makes traffic entertaining, you ask?  Well, motorbikes and vague driving laws are a start.  Imagine a four lane highway of cars between a four line highway of motorbikes.  And the motorbike lanes are 3 bikes deep.  Now imagine that there are families and furniture and luggage traveling on these motorbikes.  To add to this, the general rule for driving in Vietnam is to merge.  Merge on ramps, merge between lanes, or (my favorite) merge through intersections!  Have I painted an entertaining picture yet?  Needless to say, if our taxi got stuck in traffic, we didn’t even mind.  We just took more pictures.

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The motorbike lane, 5 bikes wide.

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Goldfish transported by motorbike.

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Fits a family of four: ✓ Check

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Can we carpool? ✓ Check!

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Yup.  One time, I got to be part of the craziness and catch a ride on the back of a bike.

This leads naturally to the Vietnamese fear of the sun.  Yes, that’s right: sunlight.  It is quite evident in the customized layering of socks and skirts and sleeves and masks and hats on hot summer days that Vietnamese people do not want to come in contact with these intense rays.

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In fact, we spent one day chaperoning a ‘pool day’ that included only two hours of pool time and about 4 hours of in the shade games.  Because of the sun.

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My ‘team’ at the pool day.

I also really enjoyed that Ho Chi Minh City (where we were for our week in country) was fairly easy to navigate.   Upon arrival we were given a map by our hosts and general directions to the bus station.  We took the bus ourselves on the first day there.  We also learned to keep the business card of our hotel handy to show taxi drivers our destination.  Those two things and learning to be brave when crossing the street gave us a taste of independence and normalcy.  You have to be brave when crossing the street because there are no cross walks and, well, I already told you about the traffic.

All that summarizes to the fact that we loved Vietnam because it’s its own place and it doesn’t need us Americans in order to maintain its own identity and culture, which is great because Vietnam is such an interesting melting pot of a place.  Colonized by the French, you may be called ‘mademoiselle’ by street vendors while buying your breakfast egg sandwich on french bread.  It’s writing system is also interesting as the words are written in “English” letters but sound Chinese when you read them aloud.  And then, many people learn English from Australians, so imagine that accent on some Vietnamese influenced English.  Just so interesting!

More things Vietnam just does its own way:

  1. Street food.  This is a pop up restaurant outside our hotel.  It popped up and stacked up every night.  I mean, where else do people eat on little chairs on the street?

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    Pop up restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

  2. Market bartering.  Yes, marketeers around the world barter.  But I think Vietnam was the only place we were pulled and persuaded in arm tugs and laughter.  Here we are enjoying a meal in the restaurant portion of the market.

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    I think we had rice twice a day.

  3. Currency.  The exchange rate is so extreme, it’s easy to be a millionaire in Vietnam.
  4. High culture. One night we went to a production of Broadway show hits at the Opera House.  The most memorable thing that happened: the chair I was sitting in broke and I dropped a good three inches.  Talk about startling!  Definitely the fanciest chair I’ve broken!  And I didn’t even know who to tell or how!
  5. Random French history.  I don’t know the context for these things.  This was before I knew about free walking tours.  But we did walk by the Notre Dame and a great big post office.
  6. Local history.   The last interesting thing we did was a tour of the Ho Chi Minh tunnels.  We had an excellent tour guide who was sensitive to the fact that we were Americans who lost this war and did a good job of explaining the events with sensitivity.  And we crawled through a few meters of pitch dark underground tunnel.  Pretty unique tour destination.
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A guide, modeling a typical tunnel entry.

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Erleen, modeling the tour tunnel entry.

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The three of us, in the jungles of Vietnam.

Why you should go to Vietnam:

  1. It’s nothing like America in a very refreshing way.
  2. It felt safe to travel, even as just 3 women.
  3. They have the best flan (according to my roommate).
  4. And, if you can’t tell, it’s my favorite.
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