A Buddhist funeral, a family reunion, and the memory of a war
Vietnam… where to start? A country full of contradictions, beauty and ugliness, love and hate, peace and war, a country at odds with itself, yet oddly comfortable with all of it.
A couple comments on the country before I get into the details of our trip. I’ve been here before, 1st in 1999 and the 2nd time in 2001. The first trip was hard for me, I was not used to the food and the culture shock was tough for me as a young man. Abject poverty was everywhere and I was odd man out. There weren’t a ton of white folk visiting in 99 and I quickly developed ‘beggar fatigue’ and grew weary of feeling a bit like a freak in a carnival display… Only two years later though, it was clear the country was changing for the better. The misery and poverty I witnessed in 1999 was a lot less obvious and people seemed less stressed and a little more relaxed. Contrast that with what I saw on this trip and you’d wonder if it was the same country. Since the US normalized relations in 1995, business has exploded. Nike moved in and built a huge factory, others soon followed and the groundwork was laid for what I saw this time. The country is under construction. I mean the whole damn place. I have not witnessed growth on a scale like this ever in my life. I can’t describe it other than to say there is so much new construction going on it just boggles the mind. Everywhere you look. One site along the highway in North Vietnam was 2 or 3 miles long with 50 or more construction cranes in every direction you look. Hotels, factories, private homes, NICE homes, asian style. People look well fed. There are more cars, 55 million motorbikes (the countries own estimates not mine!) and tourists everywhere. People keep pets now, I saw well cared for dogs and cats everywhere. I think that clarified for me how much improvement there has been. They are very welcoming of foreigners, especially americans. I think we’re their favorite. LOL. Edit:(according to wikipedia Vietnam is the most pro-american country in Asia with 83% viewing the United states favorably) Nowhere more than in the south of course. Old friends I suppose. I found it a little strange the first time I went how much they like americans, but of course, like many things in life, a contradiction.
Vietnam has a long history with struggle. It’s kind of like ‘everyone has screwed us over, you’ve screwed us over the least’. Life still ain’t easy here though, people work long hard hours, and will aggressively vie for your business, to sell you a meal or a trinket. You get used to the aggressive sales tactics pretty quick though, It’s all friendly and they’re just trying to make a buck. Everywhere you go you typically hear ‘Helloooooo, you buy something? Take a look you buy? You want something madaam? What you want buy? I give you big discount! You come in you liking you buy!’
On this trip, I had an absolute blast, as my Vietnamese is the best it’s ever been (maybe 2nd grade level?) and they are generally stunned by any white folk who can pronounce their words with any kind of accuracy. I’ve been slowly picking up words and phrases for 20 years now and it was a bit weird after being there a couple days I felt like my understanding of the language shot up about 25% overnight. Anytime a sales interaction would start, they would use English and I would respond in Vietnamese and 100% of the time I got the hugest smile, laughs and sometimes utter shock and then the interactions would be all in Vietnamese. Interested bystanders would drift over to hear the white boy speaking their language. I had so much fun with that, the doors it opened were great and it really just enhanced the whole experience massively. Any time you can pick up some of the local language before visiting a foreign country by all means do it.I will wrap up these general comments with this, if you’re interested in visiting, do it. You are welcome there and will have a blast. It’s super cheap, the food is amazing and it kind of feels like a party every evening in the cities when people pack the street side cafes and sidewalks to eat, drink, and socialize before packing it in for the night. $1-1.50 is super typical for a huge plate of food or bowl of soup with all the extras. Throw in another buck for a couple beers and you’re stuffed.
First up: Saigon area. My wife’s grandmother died one year ago and this trip was planned to return her ashes to the country she loved and do the Buddhist festival for that, and to place her ashes in the Saigon river. That’s how this trip came about, and it was nice to have a year to brush up on my language skills. Entering: If you come, get your visa ahead of time. It takes time and you have to send off your passport but it’s worth it. Getting in is slow and a pain in the ass. You have to deal with their version of the TSA, which to me feels like communist party cadres who hired their lazy stuck up cousins to process every foreigner entering the country. We did VISA on arrival, (you have to get s pre-approval letter before arriving in country) which meant waiting in a long line while bored, haughty ‘authorities’ process your application. Meanwhile the line for immigration behind us reached the back of the room, I would estimate there were 1500-2000 people in that line. We were a little distraught realizing after travelling 30+ hours that we would likely be standing in lines for HOURS before we could set foot in country. But we caught a break. After about 40 minutes of standing around, our names were called and we approached the man behind the counter. He spoke to my mother in law first. She still has a Vietnamese middle name on her passport and the man said something to the effect of… you’re Vietnamese aren’t you? in English. Then he switched to Vietnamese and asked her if she spoke Vietnamese. My mother in law softly replied ‘Biet’ (“know”) He said something illegible to me to her and she just smiled in a self deprecating way. Then she asked him if we had to go thru the giant line behind us still to enter the country. He said yes. She then asked if there was ‘any way’ to skip the 2000 person line behind us. A grin came to his face and he pointed at a guy in a military uniform across the way and said ‘ask him’. I quickly caught the drift. Bribe time. We walked over and addressed the man and asked if he could process us, as his friend said he may be willing to do for a small ‘tip’. He looked us over and said how many people? And then walked over, opened a new line for just our family. I was first in line and slid a 20$ bill in my passport and handed my paperwork over. 5 minutes later, and we were all successfully past immigration. And the newly opened line, closed again. Awww communists. Is there any problem a little bribery won’t fix? I don’t recommend trying this unless you’re a native speaker. My mother in law told me she had to ask in a careful, super nice way to not offend anyone. I warned my other sister who was still en route to the country to be prepared for a long wait and informed her of what we had encountered. I’m glad I did. She ended up waiting on the VISA for a LONG time, and meanwhile some american guy had a meltdown and started screaming at the guys behind the counter, which promptly got him arrested and drug off by Vietnamese police. Not a situation I ever want to be in folks. Apparently he thought since he had a long layover he could just apply for a visa and waltz in and hangout for a day and when it didn’t move fast enough for his liking he thought he could get pushy. Not too smart. If there’s a universal lesson in life, it would be don’t antagonize people who have the authority to arrest you…
Anyway, it was now about 1:00 o’clock in the morning. We were met by some friends of family outside the airport whom we had hauled some stuff in a giant plastic bin in from the US. No idea what was in it…. Anyway, they weren’t letting us do them the favor without some Vietnamese hospitality. They handed us SIM cards for our phones, grabbed a car and we drove about 25 minutes away and ate Pho at 2 in the morning. It was an excellent way to arrive. I had a couple beers and by the time they dropped us off at our first airbnb we were all exhausted. We spent the next few days exploring the area, doing grandmas ceremony, shopping the local street markets and eating and drinking.