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0040 A Very Warm Welcome to Vietnam (Vietnam 001—new)

Vinh Travel Blog

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A couple of guys at the park...

Day 027: 20 hours, 12.4 kms         

Back in Vientienne, I decide to go ahead and book my ticket to Vietnam from a travel agency in town, since the prices look very reasonable.  I get myself cleaned up the best I can in a hotel restroom and hop in a shuttle van to the bus station. 

This is definitely not a tourist bus.  It’s crammed with working class Vietnamese--  most likely heading home from Thailand.  Their shabby luggage is crammed everywhere--  under the seats, in the aisles…

There are a couple of tourists, including a couple of Swedish girls that don’t stop whining about how dirty and uncomfortable the bus is… I’m really, really getting irritated at these folks that come here, pay pennies for their food, lodging and transportation and then moan endlessly that they don’t get the same service that they have in their own countries…

Please, please,  just stay in your so perfect country and don’t spoil the adventure for the rest of us…

Finally I manage to tune them out, and get back into the groove of the moment.

  This is a one in a lifetime experience:  My Crossing Into Vietnam.

Vietnam has always intrigued and haunted me.  My father has lived a troubled life and I’m started to wonder in recent years if perhaps the time he spent in Vietnam may have had a part in that.  Even if not, even if he was only a supplies pilot as he claims,  as an American citizen, I’ve always felt a bit soiled by the dark and sordid mess of that war… much of which still hasn’t been resolved and clarified to this day.

That’s why, from the day I first heard that Vietnam was again open to tourists, I knew I had to go there and face my family and my country’s demons.  And now that I’ve started this Playing Music for All the World Project, it’s clearly time to make that trip.

  Now I feel I have something to give to the world.  Something to give to Vietnam…

So the journey continues on into the night.  We stop at a scrappy little village in the middle of nowhere for supper… There I see a black guy… the son of an American soldier, perhaps?  I don’t know…

We reach the border early in the morning and I try to squeeze my way through the crowd up rowdy immigrant labourers to get my passport stamped… It takes a long time to process everybody, which gives me plenty of time to soak in the moment.

Enormous posters of Ho Chi Minh are a quick reminder that the past is not forgotten.  And there is a brisk, no nonsense attitude about the border guards.

  This is still a Communist country, remember.  I get a bit of a rush when my passport is stamped and stroll into Vietnam.

The border station is perched on a high mountain pass with misty jungle mountain ridges as far as the eye can see.  This is the perfect way to enter Vietnam:  across the mountains, after three days of adventuring in exotic Laos… now the fulfilment of a lifelong quest.

Finally we are off… and the bus snakes its way down the endless switchbacks of a one way “highway”, if you want to call it that.  Down, down, the mountains…

Finally we reach the real Vietnam.  The mountain cliffs abruptly end, and the rice paddies begin… farmers in their cone hats guiding their water buffalo using the same millenniums-old methods and technology…

We reach a village… a single file parade of schoolkids riding bicycle head to school--  the girls wearing their poetic flowing white dresses with pajama bottoms… It’s everything I ever dreamed that Vietnam would be…

The towns are a bit different from Laotian or Thai towns.  For one thing, there aren’t temples and shrines everywhere.  In fact, I don’t see much of any religious structures any where.  And the houses, even in the small towns have an odd design: very narrow and long, each hardly wider than a hallway.  Some of them are 5 or 6 stories high, towering like skinny walls over the other houses.  I guess the logic is that every house should have access to the main road--  and to the farmland in the back--  and as little space as possible should be wasted on urban area to save as much land as possible for farmland…

The journey continues past more farms, villages, parades of schoolgirls in uniform, and jagged cliffs… feeling more like a dream or a vision. This can’t actually be happening…

Then, suddenly I’m jarred out of my trancelike state.  The bus jolts to a stop and I peer out to see a body lying on the bloodsplattered pavement.  A poor fellow on a scooter was hit by a truck.  As schoolkids walk past, a couple of locals come and haul the bloody body away… and traffic starts up again nonchalantly, as if nothing happened. 

I try to grapple with what I just saw, and what significance this has for my journey.  It’s my chilling first glimpse of death in Vietnam.

Arrival in Vinh

 My bus is actually going all the way to Hanoi.  But after 20 hours on the road, I’m not going to wait any longer to get out and explore.  I get off at the first major city:  Vinh.

I’m dropped off at an unremarkable intersection.  On one side is an enormous park,  on the other a rather monotonous row of shops--  not a lot going on in the hot hours of the early afternoon.

It seems that, in Vinh, if you own a scooter, you own a taxi… and dozens them stop to offer me a ride.

“Where you from?” Someone asks me in broken English.

“Canada” I lie.  I’m going to play it safe until I find out how folks really feel about Americans here.

Finally  reach a denser part of the city and start looking for a place to change money and a cheap hotel.  This is clearly not a touristy city--  which is fine with me… I want to experience the “real” Vietnam.  The neighborhoods I go through are quite modern, with your typical furniture stores, cybercafés, and noodle soup joints.  No temples or exotic architecture though. I find a couple of banks and money changing places, but they’re closed… Finally find a hotel that is fairly reasonable and drop off my stuff...

A bit further down I reach the bus station where there’s a money changing counter.  A stern looking woman wearing government uniform exchanges my money.  I count it and find that I’m short.  I tell her, and she looks at me without flinching and hands me the rest of my money.

OK, I’m learning how things work here…

I head on back to where I find a park and decide to go ahead and rest in the shade and play a bit music.  I’m soon joined by a couple of friendly fellows who don’t speak English--  but they seem to enjoy my songs.

I’ve done it.  I’ve played my songs in Vietnam. 

I head back to the hotel to take a short rest.  It’s been a very intense last 36 hours and I need some time to let it soak it.  But not now, I’ve got to get back out there and explore the city some more.

I wander through some rather unremarkable residential neighbourhoods, in search for the “Old City”. I guess I’ll admit that I’m not too impressed with my first Vietnamese city.

 Suddenly two teenage girls in flowing Vietnamese school uniforms on a bicycle stop beside me. 

“Our parents want to invite you to dinner” One of them says to me in perfect English.

I look at her and quickly assess the situation.  I’ve received spontaneous invitations before--  some of which have been sincere hospitality--  but never from teenage schoolgirls! I was hoping that I would be welcomed here in Vietnam, but this almost seems surreal…

I run through my checklist… prostitutes? Unlikely. Thieves, beggars, or con artists?  They don’t look the type… I rack my brain for a reason for the invitation, and the best I could come up with was that these girls just wanted to practice their English…

So I accept and follow them along wondering what sort of situation I’m getting myself into.  We reach the house, but it turns out that their father isn’t home yet--  so it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to let me inside…

Obviously this invitation was not their parents’ idea… That’s just something they said to make it sound more respectable…

We go to the office where their mother works. Phong Ahn, the girl who made the invitation chats away, clearly excited about this chance to use her English.  She tells me all about her family, her parent’s jobs and her dreams for the future.

Suddenly, she starts talking to her sister in Vietnamese… then she turns to me again...

“Sir… do you eat dog?” She asks with a totally serious look.

I try my best not to crack a smile…

I’ve had the experience a couple of times in India and Morocco when young folks are overly eager to show hospitality--  only to find out that their parents didn’t share the same sentiment…hopefully this will not be the case…

It’s not.  Their mother, who works for the government, seems happy to see me, and we converse a bit, using Phong Ahn as an interpreter.  Finally they say their father is home, so we head on back to the house.

I want to do this visit right, so I insist on bringing something, asking Phong Ahn what would be appropriate.  Since the Tet Festival is approaching, Moon Cake is the thing to bring, so we go to the store to buy Moon Cake…

We reach the house, what seems like a middle class apartment.  The living room is fairly nicely furnished… and they even have a computer… The father comes out and seems to be a very cheery fellow and we chat for a bit via our translator…

It’s actually happened.  I’ve been invited into a Vietnamese home.  My reception into this country couldn’t be any more perfect.

Finally, it’s dinner time.  We, along with two other guests, sit around a table loaded with dozens of little dishes and bowls with all kinds of interesting samplings… I watch and quickly learn how it works… Of course, rice is the base and with that you just grab random meats, vegetables and don’t-ask-what-that-is to give it flavour… A totally unique eating experience for me…

After dinner, we browse through the family albums, giving me a glimpse into middle class Vietnamese life. There are pictures of picnics and trips to the beach--  all the fun stuff that typical Western families enjoy…

The girls insist on hearing some music.  Unfortunately I left my guitar at my hotel room… so Dad offers to take us all on his scooter back to the hotel to hear some songs.

So we do… I play a couple of songs… we exchange photos, and they head on their way…

I’ll never forget that experience for as long as I live.  I’ve been invited into people’s homes many times during my travels--  but none quite as exceptional as my evening with the Nguyen family in Vinh…

All my weariness is gone, and I ready to go out and explore some more.  I head out again, this time heading back to that enormous park where I’d first arrived.  Alongside it is the “drag strip” where the youth of Vinh cruise up and down on bicycles and scooters…

Inside the park is a mini-amusement park and a lake which seems very popular for young lovestruck couples…

On the other side of the park is an large, empty square and statue of Ho Chi Minh which has much more of the stereotypical Communist feel to it…

And then, finally my First Day in Vietnam comes to an end…

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A couple of guys at the park...
A couple of guys at the park...
Vinh
photo by: sweettangerine