the first two days
Vietnam – it’s a place most often associated with a war that left a bitter taste in the mouth of recent American history. But simply being here reminds me that this country is so much more than a war zone. It is a place with its own incredibly rich cultural and religious and political history, things that are not easily forgotten by the Vietnamese people… it’s kind of difficult to forget one’s presidential past when every day school age children are paraded hrough the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where they get the chance to see their former president’s embalmed body. (Government history is exciting, right kids?)
Anyway, Vietnam certainly has its own heritage, and self-awareness, and personality, and of course personality quirks.
The first couple days here have been very much marked by these quirks, making for a pretty hilarious time so far! Our very first impression of the country, right as we stepped off the bus, was witnessing a vehicle pass by that looked like it belonged in some sort of psychedelic festival parade… very unfamiliar music playing, very bright flowers waving, moving parts that didn’t seem to make any sense. As a group of twenty Americans coming across this Eastern float, we had to crack up. Turns out the day we arrived was the first day of the UN Festival of Vesak, the week-long Buddhist celebration that we happened to stumble into.
We’ve been stumbling into a lot of things these last couple days – a humidity that makes me wonder if a shower is really going to do much good, gutters that could use some love, streets filled with more motorbikes than I have ever seen in my life, a cacophony of loudspeaker/incessant honking/engines revving/people speaking a very tonal language, a quaint-looking market street that just happens to be dedicated to dog meat, a communal life that happens almost entirely outdoors, and definitely a lot of tourist traps. I have to give them credit though – after years of perfecting the art of snagging naive tourists, they’ve got it down. I’m learning to perfect our art of the counter-attack, mostly an “I’m sorry” in Vietnamese, which sounds like “KA ZOI!” There are others in our group who prefer the more direct “DAT QUA!” complete with astonished hand gestures, a sure sign that the ‘tantalizing’ items are way too expensive.
I guess my most overwhelming response to these first impressions of the country could be one of relief. Thank goodness that not everybody has bought into the concept of the American dream. I was a bit afraid that the people of Vietnam might have done that very thing, and that globalization might have taken its toll in the form of Westernization to the point of not really knowing who the Vietnamese are anymore. But so not the case for this place. Eastern identity has not been stamped out by any means. And it’s not just the pagodas and temples and pho and tofu and incense and cyclos and lotus flowers that make it so, although those have all reminded me of a beauty that is far from my own Western experience. Its Eastern identity is something that I am so excited to learn more of in the next three weeks, getting a glimpse into the workings of somewhere completely different than my comfort zone. I am relieved to see that much of our trip will come as a surprise.