Venturing Around Vietnam – Part 2

Hello friends and family!

In the past two weeks I travelled to the central Vietnam cities of Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An. Hue is home to the Imperial Citadel where Vietnam’s last dynasty ruled, and it’s also where I ate the best regional cuisine during the whole trip. Da Nang is rapidly developing into a luxury beach town for Korean and Chinese tourists, who dine at seafood restaurants where you can pick your own meal from a hundred tanks of nightmarish creatures: monstrous fish, three-foot-long lobsters, and crabs that look like Jurassic-era tarantulas. Hoi An has been described as a Disneyland version of Vietnam because it’s so cutesy and touristy, but I found that watching lantern boats paddle along the dark river was still beautiful even if there were thousands of other tourists watching alongside me. I then returned to Hanoi for a few days to eat more delicious food and drink more coffee (egg coffee, salt coffee, yogurt coffee, avocado coffee – if you can dream up a kind of coffee, the Vietnamese have already created it).

Hoi An at night

I tend to struggle with the idea of having “authentic experiences” and “seeing the real [country]” when travelling abroad. The real Vietnam is not accessible to tourists, perhaps not even to expats. Even when I ventured off the usual tourist track, visiting attractions that weren’t in the guidebooks or walking along dusty backroads in nowhere towns, I wasn’t immersed in any sort of authentic experience – I was still spectating, gawking into the open apertures of others’ lives. A lot of travellers complain about crowded photo ops and the harassing souvenir shop owners and the oversaturation of foreigners in the places they stay and eat. They want the grittiest experience, the most remote locales, so they can show their friends and followers that they aren’t mere tourists. But I think it’s easier to accept the reality that I will never know or understand any place I travel to. I wasn’t invited here. I am a tourist and I am grateful to even visit.

I think of it like this: when a busload of Chinese or German tourists descends upon downtown Toronto, they don’t even exist to me. They are in a parallel city, the tourist city of landmarks and tour guides and expensive attractions, and the only time their city and mine overlap is when we bump into each other on the sidewalk. So I was not in the Vietnam of the vegetable seller or the bus driver or the motorbike repairman. I interacted mainly with Vietnamese people whose livelihoods depended on pleasing me: the restaurant owners, the tour guides, and the hoteliers. They were uniformly friendly and helpful, but that does not mean that I can make any categorical conclusions about Vietnamese people as a whole. Most people just ignored me as I bumbled my way through their streets, lost in my parallel world as they laboured in theirs.

Instead of chasing authenticity, I like to sit and watch and wonder. I stay in my parallel world and appreciate the beauty without condescension and observe the ugliness without judgement. Who am I to judge a cage of crying puppies or a bone-thin hunchbacked old woman or a mother slapping her child in the street? I try to be grateful for my time as a visitor, even if my experience is not an authentic one. How could it be? For one, I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese, although communicating across a language barrier has gotten easier. I sat next to a spa owner for a half hour while Tyler got his foot calluses sanded off with a power tool and we chatted quite easily through Google Translate. She showed me every single photo on her phone, describing each customer’s nationality, length of stay, and what service they purchased at her spa. Germany, three days, massage. Canada, two days, facial. France, one month, foot rub.  She ended the conversation with a high-pressure request to leave a Google review, a common tactic of local business owners to dominate the competition. (I soon learned that the restaurants with the most 5-star ratings were usually the overpriced, average-quality tourist traps that literally begged for Google reviews.)

Squint and you’re in Paris

The language barrier can also be an opportunity. On our first night in Hanoi, a little kid approached us at Hoan Kiem Lake and sat next to us on the curb. He peppered us with questions in decent English and looked at our phones and leaned in close to us, so close that we assumed he was trying to jack our stuff. In other countries I’ve travelled to, little kids operate as pickpockets serving some Fagin-like master, so after a while I made some excuses and we ditched the kid, checking our wallets. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized that he, like most Vietnamese children, was just eager to practice his English with native speakers. I couldn’t walk past a group of kids without each of them nudging their friends and shyly offering a “Hello, where are you from?” When I encountered a busload of kids on a field trip at a Confucian temple I must have said a thousand hellos in a row, feeling like a celebrity floating through a crowd of admirers.

Colorful offerings at the Confucian temple

My only interactions with the parallel-world Vietnam were with old men (no surprise there). Old men in Vietnam wear army helmets and suit jackets and nap lying down on top of motorbikes. They exist in the real Vietnam, but they cross over to my tourist Vietnam occasionally to flirt with me. The old man running a café in Hue grinned at me from across the room, refilled my tea cup assiduously, and dropped off a note as I was leaving that read “see you again!” in Vietnamese. The ancient man running a vegetarian restaurant stood over our table grinning, giving us double thumbs ups as we waited for his wife to come out with fresh banh cuon and warm beer. He kept pointing at me, making an exaggerated tracing of his nose, and giving a thumbs up until I realized that he was telling me that he liked my big nose. I also grew very fond of the old Buddhist monk that I sat next to for a 13 hour flight from Tokyo to New York. He spoke no English other than “Coca Cola.” His long white beard kept getting tangled up in his robe and blanket and seatbelt and headphones. He was so bewildered that I hired myself as his assistant, ordering his drinks and making sure he got his vegetarian meals and pretending to understand his attempts at conversation. The only one I understood is when he pointed at my beer and said bia – Vietnamese for beer – and grinned more wickedly than a monk ought to. He watched Bend it Like Beckham over my shoulder and we took a few naps together. I still wonder if he ever made it through the hard-asses at American customs.

Cute note

Every time I walked around by myself, men would stop their cars or motorbikes and offer me rides. I’d decline, they’d insist it was free, and follow me a bit down the block until I made it clear I wasn’t going to clamber onto the back of their motorcycle. It wasn’t menacing; in fact, I experienced no street harassment other than a few lingering looks, which was really wonderful. (When Tyler walked around, men on motorbikes would offer him an array of illegal drugs, listing their products in cartoonish whispers. That was more menacing.) At first I thought that Vietnamese men liked blondes, but now I’m starting to think that they just like women with big noses.

It’s not that big, is it?

I’m home now. I brought back tea and Tiger Balm and some old Communist propaganda posters, as well as a nice tan. It’s nice to be home; it’s nice to be able to flush toilet paper and use a credit card and walk down a sidewalk again without winding through a maze of motorcycles and puppies and garbage. And I’m excited to try my hand at cooking some of the amazing meals I tried: pho ga, bun bo nam bo, banh mi, nem lui, com ga, banh loc, bun cha, and banh beo. But I already miss the cheap food, the fresh beer, the sweet coffee, the warm nights, the riot of colour and light. I’d happily go back tomorrow to explore all the places I had to skip over. And despite everything I said above, I still fantasize that next time, perhaps, I might venture further into the real Vietnam, and leave my parallel world behind.  

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