Oh, Vietnam. A country I've grown up hearing about, but not until I arrived did I realize I knew oh-so-little. Actually, what knowledge I can conjure up from my formal education is primarily from my senior English class (Thank you, Mrs. Graham if you're reading this) and not so much from American History class (sorry, Mr. Houghtaling). But as diligent a student as I was, there are still many gaps in what I can remember. For example, it took me three museums to figure out that Ho Chi Minh had something like 4 different names throughout his lifetime. I thought I was reading about a gang of revolutionaries, but actually it was all one man all along. Sneaky guy.
The Shaman and I have been working our way south through the country. Hanoi - Hue - Hoi An - Mui Ne - Saigon. Both Saigon and Hanoi have a collection of fascinating museums that impart rather consistent (I'll give it to the Communists, they are very good at developing and delivering a consistent message) information about the wars of aggression against the Vietnamese people. First it was the French colonialists, then the American imperialists. I highly recommend the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Although tough to stomach at times, it gives the best overall narrative of the war and the ecological, social and political damage the wars caused.
And a few more thoughts about Vietnam before I leave for Cambodia:
- The Vietnamese are rather musical in nature. Even their car horns sing songs. I told you already about the different times one is required to use a horn, so it makes sense to have a little melody for all that honking. We hired a Jeep one day to take us to the sand dunes and our Jeep had a little ditty for not only the horn (even the Dukes of Hazzard had that), but also the blinkers (right and left conjure up different ditties), and putting the car into reverse. One hardly needs an iPod with such melodies. Just go listen to traffic.
- The food is fantastic, especially at little street kitchens that pop up around 5 or 6 pm. You sit on little chairs (one might as well be squatting if you have these sasquatch legs of mine) and order several dishes to share amongst friends. The grilled fish with lemongrass and chilli, wrapped in banana leaf was perhaps one of the greatest meals of my life. And it cost me $2 (with beer, and two orders of noodles).
- That said, they tend to eat things that I wouldn't necessarily regard as "normal." Flipping through the menu you'll find your normal dishes: beef, chicken, pork, fish, seafood...and then you get to: frog (not actually that odd I suppose), snake, cat, and dog. Yes, Fido isn't exactly the family pet, he's more like Thanksgiving. My favorite menu so far had the following: False dog meat with noodles use pig leg. Must be the Vietnamese equivalent to Tofurkey??
- It is perfectly acceptable for women to wear their pajamas all day long. As long as you have a matching outfit, you can wear whichever PJ suit you so desire. This, I think, I might be able to get used to.
- We took a sleeper bus between Hoi An and Mui Ne. The "sleeper bus" concept is hilarious to me. You have these rather spacious (Asian standards apply here) reclining seats. They fit 40 of these onto a bus in bunk bed style. I wasn't quite sure what was happening when the guy next to me woke up at 10 pm and then hopped in the driver seat. I thought perhaps my turn was next, until I realized that the drivers take turns sleeping so they can make it through the night. And of course our "sleeper bus" (note the singular usage here) is actually four different buses. At first we changed when we arrived in Nha Trang. Then another time when leaving Nha Trang. Then again on the side of the road in Idon'tknowwhereville.
- How come all men, even those who speak literally no other English, know the word "beautiful"? It doesn't seem like the easiest word to learn, but by golly if that's gonna stop 'em! (This thought was inspired during our bus shuffle when it was just the three of us girls on a bus parked at some pit stop and that is literally the only intelligible English word either of the bus drivers could say. No, they could not tell us if it was the correct bus, or if we'd be ariving in the afternoon. But they could tell uù that we were beautiful. Aww, shucks, guys. That makes us feel so much better about this situation.)
- Perhaps my favorite moment in Vietnam so far was this afternoon. After walking around I settled with a book in a nice lush park near Independence Palace. I was enjoying my book and some people watching - to the sounds of construction for the 35th anniversary celebration of the fall of Saigon, and to college kids playing some music. The college kids invited me over to join, which I happily did for a couple of hours. They were also joined by an older gent who called himself "my grandfather" and looked a heckofa lot like Ho Chi Minh-come-John Wayne (they do love Cowboy hats here). Grandpa had a fiddle and a mandolin and actually spoke decent English (Yes, he knows the word beautiful as well. I told you, they all do). The kids had a couple of guitars. We sang both the American and Vietnamese national anthem, as well as some classics like Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, and Hotel California. All in the shadow of Independence Palace. Fantastic afternoon if you ask me.
Me and Grandpa in the park
Sunrise in Nha Trang, our 1.5 hour layover between buses
Our sleeper bus in action
Hue was home to the last Emporers, the Nguyen Dynasty. We rented bikes to go visit their tombs, which they built and would go to for vacation before they died.
Our hotel in Mui Ne, where three of us stayed for $6/each/night