As my time in Vietnam came to a close, I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on what I would miss about this charming, colorful, and, if I’m honest, sometimes frustrating country. In an attempt to present a fair account, I will start with what a won’t miss. As we all know…no country is free of occasionally entertaining annoyances!
1) Yelling. Vietnam is nothing if not noisy. Many of the motorized basket boats (little fishing boats) have no muffler and roar through the water starting at 5AM. The streets teem with beeping motorbikes and bus drivers who do nothing but lay on the horn while swerving in and out of traffic. But perhaps the most amusing contributor to the noise factor are the people. Who yell. A lot. This is not hostile, angry yelling but rather, an efficient method of communication. In western cultures, you learn to approach someone when you want to speak with them. In Vietnam, you use a much more pragmatic tactic. Why waste energy getting up and walking over to a person when you could save time, give your lungs a work out, and holler at the highest decibel possible until the recipient of your message actually hears you? Most amusing is that Vietnamese is not a gentle language. It’s quite harsh sounding, actually, and I will definitely not miss the abrubt and robust communication that starts up outside my window right around 5 or 5:30 in the morning. Brian summed it up best while we were enjoying our morning pho one day. The woman next to me screamed something out to her friend standing across the street, thus jarring me out of my happy food place and Brian said….”Ahhh….the lullaby that is the Vietnamese language.”
2) Karaoke. Akin to baseball in the US or football in the UK, the national pastime of Vietnam is karaoke. Usually loud and horribly off key, the (not so) soothing sounds waft down the street wherever you are at every possible time of day. Although evenings are the preferred time to enjoy this activity, I’ve heard plenty of twanging, out of tune karaoke crooning while drinking my coffee in the early morning hours. Lately, the electricity has been out everyday for some unknown reason, but always comes on again sometime between 6 and 8 in the evening. Within 30 seconds of the electricity coming back on do you think people are turning on their TV’s? Checking their email? Making sure the fresh food in their fridge didn’t spoil? Oh no. Within 30 seconds of the electricity coming back on the quiet reprieve is broken and the sounds of karaoke fill the streets once again.
My “landlord” proving that Karaoke is not necessarily a group activity…
3) Feeling like an Amazon – Most Vietnamese are quite petite. And the women are super tiny. Cute as can be and absolutely wee. Finding clothes becomes an issue and if you have any insecurities about your size they are sure to reveal themselves here. The few times I looked for jeans or shorts I finally ended up pointing to my butt and say “you have big?” Because most things they handed me barely made it over my knee. While getting clothes made in Hoi An the tailor handed me a skirt to try on. I squeezed into it and he said something to the effect of “I make better” then he grabbed my hips and said “because you big here.” It’s not like I’m overweight or anything! I don’t think….
Oang (pronounced “Wang”) who ran the hotel which houses Slo Pony Adventures. She is such a super nice lady who took time out to teach me a few Vietnamese phrases. I clearly tower over her.
4) My landlord, Nha. Okay she’s hilarious but you’ve got to keep your eye on her for sure. I was warned before I moved in to make sure I kept track of my things as they tend to disappear. But it’s not the super valuable things that go. It’s the smaller items. For example, one guy that lived in the guest house had just bought a brand new stick of deodorant in Hanoi. He moved out of the guesthouse into a new place and couldn’t find it, assuming it was lost in the move. But he came by Nha’s place a couple of weeks later and saw said deodorant for sale in the little stand she has set up in front of the hotel. Hilarious! I didn’t lose anything…that I know of…but she did successfully screw me out of some money for the room cleanings. When I moved out she asked me to pay her for 5 room cleanings…but she’d only cleaned my room once! I said no and she threw a huge fit, yelling things I, luckily, couldn’t understand. I ended up paying for 3 room cleanings. Argh.
5) Electrical outages – I’m not clear on why this happens, but the electricity randomly goes out during the day and with no warning. I started to notice a pattern…off before 8AM, on after 5:30. But there were plenty of times when I was in the middle of writing an email or working on a document and bam…no more power . I’d slump in my chair in defeat. Then go rock climbing. Gotta make the most of it!
6) Spitting – this is quite common all over Asia. Men and women alike just hark one up and spit it wherever they please. Luckily, most have great aim. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sound of the hark/spit combo.
What I will miss:
1) The Motorbike -Oh the joyous freedom of sailing through the hills of Cat Ba Island on a little motorbike, wind in my hair, ipod playing my favorite travel tunes while looking at giant limestone karsts covered in jungle or riding along a gorgeous coastline. Simply stunning and one of the greatest pleasures I discovered on my trip. I loved sharing the road with goats, cows and the occasional water buffalo. If I could do one thing right now, it would be going for a motorbike ride. Although I did learn quickly to keep my mouth closed at all times, lest I suck in an insect.
I took Dena on a motorbike tour of Cat Ba first thing when she arrived!
I will never tire of the scenery on Cat Ba. No matter what the weather, it’s always beautiful.
Goats are everywhere along the roads in Cat Ba. I’m particularly fond of the baby goats, of course.
2) Unexpected things strapped to the back of motorbikes – Little did I know that the Vietnamese government discourages people from buying cars by taxing them at 100%. Therefore, the vast majority drive a motorbike and have to use it as if it were a car. As a result you see the craziest things strapped to the back of bike, such as: pigs, cows, chickens, an entire booth set up for a market, a family of five, a door. You name it, I’d bet I’ve seen it sailing past me on a motorbike.
Chickens going to market on the back of a bike
Not sure what this is…but the balancing is impressive
3) Slo Pony – An english speaking rock climbing business on a small island in Vietnam tends to attract a remarkable set of people, both employees and customers. I will miss the morning coffee on the balcony of our guest house followed by pho at a little stand around the corner, weekly poker games, and thought provoking intellectual discussions. My delightful co-workers sent me off in style with dinner and plenty of Halidas!
Adrien, Kwan, Brian, Me, Steph and Pieter at my going away party! Love them all and miss them terribly.
Zachary left before I did so he didn’t make it to the going away party. He’s officially my first climbing partner and a wonderful person to boot. This is his last day on the island, waiting for morning pho which the ladies behind him are cooking up.
Slo of Slo Pony. Always good for a philosophical conversation!
Vu is the sweetest kid with unbelievable climbing skills. He tends to climb barefoot despite the sharp nature of the limestone! And he is an amazing poker player, often winning the weekly game.
4) Noble House Hotel – The Slo Pony Adventures shop is in the Noble House Hotel on the main drag in Cat Ba. There are several girls that work there and I never tired of walking in every morning and being greeted with “Caio Chi!” (They call me “Chi” because I’m older then they are. I respond with “Chaio Em”) A couple of them tried thier best to help me improve my Vietnamese pronunciation…a difficult task to say the least. These girls work hard, serving breakfast at 7AM and closing the bar around midnight. Oang, the manager, is fun and lively. On my last day she proclaimed she did not want me to leave and intended to cook a special lunch for me and the Slo Pony staff. She’s a darn good cook.
My last meal from Oang at the Nobel House. Princess Chicken which is essentially spicy chicken on mashed potatoes covered in coconut milk. Yum!
5) Hotel rooms that cost less than $10 – Don’t get me wrong…you have to look for these rooms, possibly travel in the off season, and perhaps lower your standard a bit. But…for $7, I’ve had some great rooms in Vietnam. I don’t know how long this will last, but it sure makes Vietnam one of the least expensive countries I’ve ever encountered!
A seven dollar hotel room. Not too shabby.
Particularly since this was the view off my balcony. Minus the electrical lines…it was pretty spectacular.
6) Ca Phe Sua Nong – which translates to thick black coffee sitting atop a pile of sweetened condensed milk. Maybe not so good for you…but completely wonderful. Traditionally, they bring you a glass with the milk in the bottom and a small coffee filter sitting on top and you have to wait…as patiently as possible,…for the hot water to seep painfully slowly through the filter. It’s worth the wait. I brought a filter and Vietnamese coffee home with me but I’ve been unable to recreate my beloved Ca Phe Sua Nong. I’ll keep trying.
7) Pho – pronounced “fu”. Like “fur” without the r. The best soup I’ve ever tasted in my life. Consisting of long thin rice noodles, onions, an amazing broth, some type of meat, and fresh herbs. I’ve consumed pho ga (chicken), pho bo (beef) and pho with goat (I don’t know the vietnamese name for goat!) and they’re all delicious. The secret is in the broth for sure and the fresh herbs. I’ve found several pho places in Austin although I have yet to try one. But if you’ve got a pho place in your town, I recommend giving it a try!
Pho Bo. Need I say more?
8) Community – Vietnam is built on community and family. And I will truly miss the way the streets buzz with activity wherever you go. They don’t live inside their homes. They live out in the community. Their kids run around and play with one another, they sit out on the steps and talk to their neighbors, they have events and eat together during the holidays. I am so grateful I experienced this first hand by staying in one spot for a few months.
I was lucky enough to attend a local goat roast before leaving the island.
9) The Market – Traditional grocery stores like we see in the US don’t really exist in Vietnam. Sometimes you’ll see a “mart” with dry goods, like soda, coffee, cookies, crackers, etc. But they don’t sell fresh food in those venues. You go to an outdoor market for meat, fish, vegetables, spices, and just about every other thing you can imagine. The ladies in Vietnam go to the market every single day. They are packed in the wee hours of the morning and evening. (The Vietnamese get up SUPER early and then take a nap between 12 and 2) Seeing the town going to market everyday defnitely adds to the sense of community.
Delicious local fruit at the market
These artichokes at the market in Dalat looked amazing!
10) Ribs – I love this dog. I tried not to pet too many dogs while in Vietnam as they are not treated for fleas, parasites, etc. and rabies is a possibility if bitten. But I couldn’t resist a local dog that hung out near our guest house lovingly referred to as Ribs. When I first arrived at the guest house he weaseled his way close to my side and made sure his head was resting just under my hand for easy petting. And he runs up and greets everyone as they pull up on their motorbike. He also joined us for morning pho and probably received a quarter of my meat every morning! I would sneak it to him under the table. Truly a sweet dog.
Ribs in his usual spot under the Pho table. Half my morning pho surreptitiously ended up under the table…
11) Throwing things on the floor in restaurants – it took me a while to get used to this. But if you’re sitting at a pho place, for example, and are done with your napkin, it’s apparently considered bad form to set it on the table. It goes on the floor of course. Squeeze some lime juice into your pho? The rind goes on the floor. As a result the ground is littered with the remnants of the morning’s meals that will be swept up after everyone is done. It does require some caution when walking to your table. If you’re me, you might just slip on a lime rind and go down.
12) Copied movies - It appears that the usual copyright laws do not apply in Asia as there are a ton of places where you can buy copied DVD’s for $1 or so. You might even get a brand new released movie that someone filmed while sitting in the audience at the theater. These are particularly hilarious because you hear the audience twittering about, or perhaps the person filming the movie laughing or coughing. Other times a DVD may just stop right in the middle. So you could be totally into a flick and suddenly it goes blank or gets stuck and won’t move forward. One time while watching a movie it switched from English into German about half way through! Luckily, it eventually went back into English and, seeing as the movie was not particularly intellectual in nature, I was able to catch up fairly quickly!
13) Laundry – I’ve been spoiled. Handing off my laundry and having it come back clean (relatively speaking) and folded the next day is a true luxury. All for about a dollar a kilo. What a joy! You can have your laundry done fairly easily anywhere in Asia. No need to bring the little Woolite packets and portable clothesline. However, you may want to make sure they actually have a washing machine. I found the handwashed items to come back smelling clean, but not necessarily dirt free. Now I’m back to doing my own laundry. Woe is me.
14) Massages for $2.50 – Several gentleman wander up and down the main drag of Cat Ba offering a half hour massage, while sitting in your chair at drinks or dinner, for about 50,000 dong, which equates to $2.50. As suspect as this sounds, it’s not uncommon to see tourists getting a massage while at the dinner table. If you can block out the noise of the restaurant, it’s actually quite lovely. And ladies…if you go to the Flightless Bird Bar in Cat Ba for a drink, you can also get a manicure and pedicure for $2. Not too shabby.
The vietnamese version of a chair massage!
Dena got one too
The surprise ending is the back stretch and crack
15) Did I mention the motorbike???