Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vietnam - The Not So Good and the Good

Vietnam is definitely the toughest place we will be this year. By tough I mean we couldn't drink the water and we needed to be careful with what we ate. There's also bit of culture shock given the crowding, the smells, and how very different everything is from home. As adults we knew what to expect (it helped that we were there in 2003), and our coping mechanisms are as developed as they will ever be. However, for two young prairie kids, Vietnam may as well be on another planet in another universe.

However, they survived, and they will have some fond memories that will hopefully overshadow the bad.


The water: I always find it such hard work when it's recommended that you not drink the water. It's so easy to slip up with brushing your teeth, bad ice, or uncooked fruits and vegetables.  Eamon and I were both sick our first week there. We think because he brushed his teeth with the water. I think I had some bad ice. We did ok with greens after our food tour guide said they were ok to eat where we went. I'm just glad that we were each only laid up for a day, and that we were really only a little sick compared to what could have been.

Not well enough to jump and get out, but at least well enough to check out what was on tv.

The food: I love Vietnamese food. We are fortunate that at home we have a few very good Vietnamese restaurants, and we have a couple of excellent Asian markets. I assumed the kids would love it as much as me. What they have tried at home they have liked. However, that wasn't really the case here very often. Yes, there were a few big hits, but frequently, 
they were not big fans of the food we tried. 

He ate it, but he made sure to let us know he didn't like it.

Undoubtedly, some of the cultural differences got to Eamon as well, like the cooking in the shop front and crowding around little tables and stools to eat. But he didn't starve!

The smells: We knew there'd be smells - especially in the meat markets or fish markets. But there are also some not so pleasant and unfamiliar smells that seem to hang around and punch you in the face as you walk through them. The smells bothered Eamon, a lot. So did the dead animal markets. Once he realized what was under those roofs, he steered clear. Poor Eamon felt a little bit like he let us down by not going into these markets. He didn't at all. I was thrilled that when I told Dad about Eamon, Dad grunted in disgust and said he couldn't stand looking at all that raw meat in China, and that it did smell bad. Hearing those words made Eamon smile and feel mighty happy that he's not alone.

The imprisonment: No we weren't actually in prison, but I'm pretty sure that Eamon felt quite imprisoned because either Kerry or I held his hand just about the entire time we were outside the hotel in Hanoi. The only two places we didn't hold his hand outside was around the lake in the tourist area, and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. That's so hard on an 8-year-old boy who only wants to run and jump and make a bunch of noises. Outside of Hanoi, things were better, but the memory of our firm grip upon his hand lingered.

Yes, that is a mighty wide sidewalk. You can see the road on the left.
You can also see motorcycles zipping along ON THE SIDEWALK!
Yet again, someone needed to hold Eamon's hand so he didn't dart out in front of one.

The censorship and propaganda: I don't think there is censorship in Vietnam to the extent there is elsewhere. However, it is a communist state, that has at various times blocked Facebook, and who knows what else. We could only access Twitter through an app, but not on its main website page. When Kerry asked one of the people working at the front desk, he said that Twitter wasn't blocked, it was just a problem with the IP address. Ummm, like maybe that it's a Vietnamese address and Twitter is blocked?

Also, this same fellow said that they could post whatever they wanted on Facebook, except for criticizing the government, just like in other countries. Yikes! Kerry was stunned into silence. 

The Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton) where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War, have a display on how terrible the French treated the Vietnamese when the French were controlling Vietnam. Through the next door, you then see how much like summer camp, in fact, better than the best summer camp ever, the prison was when the Americans were held there. We know the truth in both cases is not quite as stated. There are other examples too, but I think the prison on its own sums everything up quite nicely.

Yet, I have hope that this will change. As more people travel there the locals will learn that things outside of Vietnam are different. A woman I chatted with on the beach was Vietnamese, but had moved to the U.S. after the Vietnamese War. She returns to Vietnam periodically. I have no doubt she tells her family what her American life is like.

Also, the communist state and everything that comes with it, results in a creative and enterprising population that very successfully works around the rules, the corruption, and the communist state. I admire that kind of adaptability.


The food: I love Vietnamese food. I could really just walk around all day eating. We did two very different food tours in two different parts of the country (Hanoi and Hoi An).

In Hanoi we had a young Vietnamese woman named Sam. As soon as she zipped up to our hotel in her Honda motorbike and Hello Kitty helmet, we knew we were in for a great tour.

The biggest surprise: we ate the fresh lettuces and herbs and didn't get sick. We'd been avoiding any type of fresh produce that didn't follow the 'Boil it, cook it, peel it, or leave it' rule. Yet here was Sam adding greenery from the bowl on our table to what we were eating. The tour had good TripAdvisor reviews so Kerry and I shrugged our shoulders and ate. 

A rice paper pancake wrapped in lettuce with herbs, bean sprouts and a Vietnamese hot sauce.

I'm so glad we did. Not only did it add some much needed nutrients to our diet, it also added some flavour and crunch. 

In Hoi An the food tour was as good and we ate a whole lot of food and treats that were quite different from Hanoi. 

This kid didn't go hungry.

So much great food. Meaghan found a few things she did enjoy and will look for back home. Eamon now says that he liked nothing, but there were a few things he ate a lot of. I've made note and will try to find them at home as well.  

The markets: This didn't make Eamon's list of good things, but I love them: the people, the food, the activity. They also make for some terrific photo opportunities. Given the chance, I could easily take hundreds of photos with each visit to a market. My favourite photos end up being the ones with women in them. When I worked with the government I had a photo in my office from our last visit to Vietnam of a woman sitting in a market selling some fruit. On my bad days at work, I would stare at her and remember how lucky I was that even my worst days were still pretty good.

Even though I do love the markets, I did find this particular look a little off-putting.

My Khe Beach: We figured that we might need a bit of break at some point so we booked a hotel in Danang along My Khe Beach, which the Americans called China Beach.

It was a great swim area patrolled by two or three lifeguards.

This lifeguard sun protection is brought to you by 7up.

On crowded days, one lifeguard would hang out in the water in a Vietnamese round boat.

Anything went on that beach. It didn't matter what you wore or how you wore it: high heels, glitter, jeans, winter jackets. You name it, we probably saw it.

You can see the heels, but not the glitter on the front of her dress.
Yes, that is fake fur around the collar of the jacket slung over her shoulder.

We saw this guy more than once. I can't help but think he's an American who stayed behind in the jungle when the war ended.

Separate from the life guards were the beach police who appeared towards the end of the day. Eamon encountered the different rules (or, in his mind, stupid rules) of no playing with a ball on the beach. I guess he shouldn't really complain because the police did let him and Kerry continue playing provided they stayed close to each other, yet he shut down the Vietnamese people playing. 

The Reunification Express: We rode an overnight train from Hanoi to Danang over the Hai Van pass between Hue and Danang. Because it was Tet and the regular train seats were snapped up quickly, we booked our tickets with Livitrans, the tourist train that has a carriage at the end of a regular train.

We were awake a chunk of the night because the train stopped a few times. Plus, it's a bit loud. But the four of us were in one cabin with two sets of bunks. We crammed our bags in under the bottom beds, mostly they fit. The bathrooms left a bit to be desired, but we survived. 

I'm likely make it sound worse that it was. We were offered tea and coffee at night and in the morning. We were given instant noodles for supper. Bananas were in our cabin when we arrived. There was a conductor (at least that's what I think he was) who made sure everyone got off at the right stop.

From the outside looking in.

Most important of all, the kids loved it! They had their own private world on each bunk and were thrilled to be on the bunk. Unbeknownst to me, Meaghan peered out the window from her bunk at various points in the night. She saw a variety of lights and activity, but the highlight was definitely the Snoopy Christmas lights!

Our hotel in Danang: This is maybe lame. Well, no maybe about it; it is lame. But we were a little trapped in Danang with the end of the Tet holiday and then my four days of dental appointments. But the hotel saved the day. There was a little indoor play area for kids: small slide, bowling pins, some kind of video game. Eamon loved it. A lot. It gave him time by himself and the woman worker played with him every time he went.

It had terrific food, both western and Vietnamese. It had a fantastic breakfast that satisfied us, and the throngs of Chinese tourists that had descended upon the hotel.

The deli just off the lobby became a great place to do school work most every morning. We'd all order mango juice or passion fruit juice and the kids would work away. After a couple of days some of the workers mustered up the courage to come over to investigate why on earth the kids would be doing math in a hotel lobby.

Math, Mango juice, and Music.

Best of all, our room was like a small two bedroom apartment. It is so fabulous to have living space when you don't have a backyard to release the kids into. 

The motorbikes: I've always wanted a Vespa. Being in Vietnam didn't change that. In fact, I think it made me want one even more. I would have to figure out how to get everywhere though without riding on the freeway.

The people. The fame: Most everywhere we went Eamon and Meaghan were like little superstars. I guess fair hair and freckled skin stands out. People talked to them, touched them, and posed with them for photos. One old woman even handed Eamon some lucky money during Tet. The kids took it in stride, though Meaghan preferred when people didn't speak to her because she never understood anything they were saying. When I told her to pretend she was famous, she pointed out that famous people had bodyguards and would be protected. 

The parents of this kid pushed him in with the kids for a photo. I adore his look of total disgust at their actions, and at having to pose with foreigners - proving that kids everywhere are the same.

Even though Vietnam was not the huge hit with the kids we thought it would be, I'm pretty sure that we won't regret taking them there. Exactly what they'll remember, or how they remember it will become apparent in the months to come. I just hope that somewhere in those memories they appreciate home and the things we take for granted: safe drinking water, space to move around safely, the ability to play in public spaces, and unfettered access to the internet. And maybe that a Vespa would be pretty awesome to zip around on.

1 comment:

  1. Unpleasant experiences can teach just as much as pleasant ones. Great adventure.