It’s easy to see now how naive I was. I pictured Vietnam as the wide smiles of Thailand, but with pho and banh mi instead of Pad Thai. Friends’ tales painted a picture of a wondrous place, a rainbow happy land I’d fall in love with. Maybe it’s a place we’d even want to retire to. Exotic and lemongrass-scented, a tumultous but fascinating history, Vietnam beckoned, already poised to become my Favorite Place Ever.
Then we landed in hot and crazy Hanoi. The visa agent scammed us on our payment. Withing five minutes of leaving the airport we saw bus hit a motorbike, and send the guy crashing to the ground — and keep going. A scooter buzzed by bearing a rack of roasted dog carcasses. This was not the Vietnam I imagined. Hot, dirty air swirled about and into the car as a maelstrom of traffic immediately showed us anything goes. Brian and I looked at each other, fairly speechless. We got to our hotel room, and after moving from a sunny room with a view that reeked of cigarette smoke to a mildewy interior room with no window for the same price, I barely wanted to step out into the chaos. This wasn’t Thailand. This was crazytown. We’d stayed at The Peninsula in Bangkok, my surprise treat to Brian for his 40th birthday. Cocooned in luxury and bliss high above the metropolis, we weren’t prepared for this yet.
But I didn’t come this far to be a chicken, so we set out, learned to cross the street, and explored Hanoi, then Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island, and on to Saigon. With each day I grew more conflicted about Vietnam. I wanted to love it, and wanted to be the kind of intrepid traveler who could embrace the chaos, the filth, the challenge of people constantly ripping us off and my inability to communicate. The disappointment to find that maybe I’m not so adventurous after all stung me. And at the same time I realized what a pathetic first world problem this was, amidst millions of people who live on a fraction of what I’m privileged to earn, to want so earnestly to like these people, to be more to them than a cash dispenser.
I wanted smiles and caramelized fish in a clay pot. I got ‘no’ everywhere I turned, and food poisoning. I wanted exotic. I got squat toilets, trough style with a stench that gagged me. I wanted adventure. I got confusion and bewilderment, people ceaselessly trying to sell me things I didn’t want and “tourist” prices on par with western Europe. Frustration and disappointment warred with guilt over having any kind of negative thoughts about people who’ve been through the atrocities they’ve suffered at my country’s hands. When the cyclo driver doubled our agreed-upon price I was just sad, sad that we were no more to him than a few bucks. But I can’t even imagine his life, so who am I to begrudge him those few dollars? At home I live in a house of about 900 square feet that my mom calls tiny. Our motorbike tour guide, a local man 50 years old, took us into his home — a dark, cramped shack of corrugated metal perched on stilts above a reeking river where he’s lived his entire life. My home is a grotesque excess of space and things compared to his. My complaints about the water pressure and wifi in my $37 a night hotel were quickly made shameful and embarrassing.
At home, as long as I choose not to watch reality television, I don’t have to see pain in other people’s lives. Life in Vietnam is lived outside, turned inside out onto teeming streets and crowded alleys. Men with stumps for limbs, or sightless eyes, thanks to the American War, peddle lottery tickets, waving them in your face – and no wonder! As a form of welfare, people with no way to really work can purchase the tickets in the morning and sell them all day. If they don’t sell them all, well, then they just lose out. It’s a business. A harsh one, like so much else about life in this country. This is no Paris of the East. This is no delightful vacation of frolicking and tropical drinks. This is a place that forces a traveler to confront ways of life and realities about the world and themselves they’d maybe rather not.
But amidst the searing heat and frenzy and disappointment in myself were glimmers of joy, little pieces of Vietnam I could grab hold of to love. An inky black iced coffee poured over creamy sweetened condensed milk. A little boy running out as we zipped by his Cat Ba home on scooters, to give Brian a high five. The giggles of women who wanted to ask questions about my hair, so unlike theirs, and who said it was “pretty, very handsome,” and compliment from one who liked my sharp French nose in contrast to her own flat one. The gnarled old lady who didn’t have the exact right change for the cutting boards I bought who just gave me chopsticks instead. The cold bliss of fresh coconut juice. The perfection of a banh mi from the guy on the corner. The surreal moment when the monk in a temple at the end of a dirt road, on the banks of the Saigon River, read my future and told me to be calm, just calm down. The serene beauty of a lotus pond on the Mekong. The haunting echoes of a death prayer and joy of a wedding chant. The discovery that I love the custardy rich goodness of durian.
And best of all, the pure, beautiful smile of a woman we made a small gift to. Outside our hotel in Saigon, in the alley, like in a million alleys around the country, a family opens their home to sell food to travelers and locals alike. The nearest one to our hotel did a booming business with locals, so we knew it was good, and spent a lot of time perched on plastic stools watching life go by, wondering at the seemingly endless array of things people can carry on one of the nearly six million scooters in the city, waving away the also endless vendors who approached us with sunglasses, fans and tourist knick knacks for sale.
One afternoon, when I was nearly reeling from exhaustion – I don’t sleep when I travel and it had caught up with me — a young man appeared with a massive smiling Buddha for sale. It was so unexpected and absurd I just dissolved into laughter. And couldn’t stop laughing. Tears streamed down my face and I feared I’d wet my pants I laughed so hard, as he continued to punch numbers into his calculator, lowering the price. Evidently a hysterical Western woman with wild blonde hair laughing like a lunatic is the key to bargaining. Without ever saying a word, he got down to 250,000 dong – about $12. Feeing guilty for laughing, fearing he’d think we were laughing at him, or disrespecting the Buddha, I gasped to Brian that we had to buy it.
One of the ladies of the house, who’d shared the smiles I so coveted with me earlier in the day, showed a keen interest in our purchase. With a couple of her handful of English words, she asked how much. We told her what we’d paid, and jokingly, Brian asked if she wanted to buy it. We certainly couldn’t take the thing home in our backpacks. She got a pen and newspaper, and on a corner wrote 300,000. She wanted the Buddha! “You can have it,” I said. “It’s a gift.” She didn’t understand, nor did my sign language explain. A somewhat cranky-looking woman who spoke English appeared to buy something. She asked what was going on and I explained that we wanted to give the Buddha as a gift. “She doesn’t want it,” she said. Dismayed, we left, carrying the heavy Buddha.
All day the next day I thought about it. I knew she wanted it. We decided if nothing else we would just leave it on their doorstep and go. The following morning, our last day there, we went down with the Buddha in a large grocery bag and took our stools. Windy, the woman’s soft-spoken niece, who liked asking me questions about our life in America, welcomed us. “Iced coffee with milk?” she asked. I liked that she knew our order. We placed the bag on the table and Windy’s aunt came over and saw what was in the bag. Her face lit up. “For you!” I said, pointing from myself to the Buddha, to her. This time she understood. And the smile that bloomed on her face made the dreadful flight around the globe worth it. For that moment I could forget the challenges, the frustrations of Vietnam, as my Grinchy traveler’s heart melted under the glow of her smile. Everyone who stopped by for their breakfast was treated to the same smile as she showed off her Buddha and excitedly told them that we gave it to her. She took the Buddha and put it in a place of honor in her house, which we could see of course, as we were sitting in the alley outside her living room. Windy refused to let us pay for our coffee or my banh mi. “You are nice people,” she said. “Good luck to you.”
I’m still sort of trying to wrap my mind around our experience in Vietnam, but I’m grateful that it ended as it did. I’ve never given a gift to anyone in my life at home who showed such pure joy and appreciation at receiving it. What’s funny is I’m sure she doesn’t realize the gift was really to me.