Five days ago, a speech writer of President Aquino earned the ire of tech savvy Filipinos after she had committed a huge diplomatic faux pas. Her comments about wine, Vietnamese men and the streets of Hanoi which she culled while attending an ASEAN celebration were brazenly shared via Twitter. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t as pissed as everyone else. These types of mistakes have repercussions which people often miss. They leave the dirty work to those in charge of tourism and foreign affairs when really, it’s a responsibility that ought to be shared by everyone. What is a country after all if not it’s people?
Ranting aside, I really just wanted an excuse to talk about Vietnam. I visited it in July of this year accompanied by a friend whom I met in French class at Alliance. Zizi, who is Brazilian with an insatiable taste for life, agreed that we should travel together. So, when the tickets to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon, for the uninitiated) appeared dirt cheap months before, we wasted no time booking flights and planning dream itineraries.
See, what the guidebooks don’t always tell you is that it’s unrealistic to be gone for five days and travel from the South to the North and back. Of course it should be obvious. Moving anywhere that doesn’t involve paying huge sums of money to fly will undoubtedly be slow and while I’m all for slow travel–the kind that keeps you in a place long enough for you to get to know it–five days is awfully short. To be stuck in the city is also a bit of a letdown. People will sell the idea that cities are different and perhaps they are. But when you’ve lived in one too long for nearly your whole life, waking up in another city is just plain boring–unless your in Brunei or in some Muslim country where prayers travel through the air, loud and live. (Obviously, I can say this because I’m not Muslim and regardless of what people might say about these prayers being belched city-wide–because I hear it can get annoying–I’m lulled by it and comforted by the thought that entire cities, huge spaces often stripped of religion and bowing only to the gods of commerce, make time to pray.)
Contrast that with the first Vietnamese morning which we spent visiting a war museum and being cheated by two Cyclo drivers. The cages shown above were for prisoners. I couldn’t keep my hands still while taking this photo and I wasn’t able to read the signs anymore because my morning bowl of Pho threatened to escape through my mouth. A war museum for breakfast is clearly not a good thing. Tiger cages, fetuses in jars and giant images of Agent Orange victims can easily make you want to rush past Vietnam’s motorcycle filled streets. It’s suicide alley for the outsider but the secret is one that is so evident in Vietnamese culture. Keep calm. That’s what they do and that’s why they move forward. Ms. Mislang should have crossed the street. I doubt if she had the time. But I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn trust while traveling. Crossing the road is the one true way to connect with the Vietnamese. Their language is hardly speakable. There are about six different tones employed such that a word like ‘si’ can have six different meanings depending on how it’s said. As if that weren’t confusing on its own, Vietnamese sounds like the older, stricter brother of Chinese. There’s hardly any music heard in spoken Vietnamese and you’re more likely to hear the seagulls than you are the sea. But if you try (armed with a small phrasebook) some ladies in the market and their children will definitely take time to teach you. Just keep calm. Be patient.
And you don’t learn it by thinking either…once I was crossing a huge thoroughfare after hitting the market. The green lights went red just as I had jumped off the pavement and I nearly died, frozen in my tracks by sound of all these seagulls –the roars of motorcycles and an angry Vietnamese woman who later gestured toward the other side. Just walk. In a split second I had my eyes on a tiny sliver of sidewalk barely visible from where I currently stood. They say you ought to walk calmly from one side to another looking only at what’s before you and never stopping for anything until you reach your destination. I smiled often when I was given this advice because part of me thought that they were joking. I had been lucky to encounter streetlights everywhere which told me when to walk and when to wait.
But on that heart-thumping stroll from one sidewalk to another, it’s as if I walked through an artery of the Vietnamese heart. The motorcycles move around you as you walk and when marked with chalk, you’ll see their paths forming a cocoon around you. For all my earlier misgivings about this country with the hard tongue, wily drivers and haunted past, I can’t deny the safety I felt traversing it’s streets.
And this is why–again–Ms. Mislang should have crossed the street.