Monday, February 5, 2007


You have to strike a fine balance when posting something on the Internet—writing all your thoughts while keeping in mind that anyone can look at them. When traveling, though, you have a little more leeway, because you can say whatever you want about people who don’t speak English! A nasty trick perhaps, but such are the traits of the language barrier. I shudder to think what has been said about me in front of my face these past two weeks in Vietnam. “What’s that terrible smell? Is it coming from that foreigner? Hello! You very handsome! This just 5 dollar cheap okay!”

In a place like Hanoi, the relationship between tourists and the people who deal with them is often one of misunderstanding, anxiety, even hatred. On the street, tourists are offered products of every kind, from pirated Lonely Planet guidebooks to pastries. Sellers grab at your arms and clothes, and the constant barrage of hassling can wear the poor tourist down. The worst are the motorbike drivers. They sit on street corners and shout, yell, and wave their arms at any passing white person. Tourists, in turn, learn to ignore them or return rudeness with rudeness.

Traffic in Hanoi is lots of fun, both for the driver and the pedestrian! Most people are on motorbikes, and crossing the street involves wading into the middle of a horde of passing bikes. You must walk very slowly but steadily while they weave around you. Driving one involves constant vigilance. Only ex-pats wear helmets. The most distressing sight is seeing a father driving with his wife perched behind and their little child on his lap, all helmetless! Brittany Spears’ lapse of judgment was the pearl of motherhood compared to these transgressions.

My trip has been limited to Hanoi, where I plunged into the (relatively) luxurious ex-pat lifestyle with Naomi and her friends (for Vietnam is cheap, very very cheap); Hue, a city just south of the former DMZ; Hoi An, another city a few hours south of that; and Hai Phong, a city an hour or two east of Hanoi, whose port was mined in 1972 by American ships, which returned the next year to help clean them up. Hue was the only important city held by the Vietcong for a significant amount of time (3 and a half weeks) during the Tet offensive in 1968 (when they murdered thousands of people suspected of working with the Americans), and you can still notice traces of the intense fighting that happened there. Hue was the capital of Vietnam for a while, and it has an impressive citadel that was built in the early 19th century. In Hue, I went on a day trip to the DMZ area from the American War (as it’s called here) and saw battlefields, many of which were household names in the US in the 1960s: the Vinh Moc tunnels, Khe Sanh combat base, the Rockpile lookout post, and the bridge that “connected” North and South Vietnam. At Khe Sanh they had a couple captured US helicopters on display, which was strangely disconcerting for me. All these areas are overgrown now, which is how it should be, though in some of them huge bomb craters can be seen every few meters. There are still plenty of unexploded artillery rounds, projectiles, and mines strewn about. A fairly large number of people die or are injured each year from the stuff. It was heartbreaking to see big billboards warning children not to play in minefields or touch pieces of metal on the ground. One sign showed a child crying with his hand flying through the air. Imagine having to worry about that as a kid!

Hoi An is a beautiful little town with impressive colonial architecture that combines influences from many parts of the world. I stayed in a guesthouse in a stunning 200-year-old building, which had been passed down through the same family was inhabited by a few ladies of various ages—probably aunts and grandmothers. I didn’t see any men or younger people there. It was right beside a beautiful covered bridge built by Japanese residents in the 1590s to connect their area with the Chinese area. One of Hoi An’s most interesting features is the cultural blending that often comes with port cities—influences from all over Asia as well as Europe can be seen in the architecture around the city.

Vietnam is a big backpacking country, and a typical route has people starting in Thailand and going to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. A lot of them are shockingly vapid and incurious, and a lot of them aren’t. Backpacking is a strange product of our modern times, and often seems to simply involve Westerners traveling to far-away places to hang out with each other. The only locals they can interact with are those who speak some English. It’s an interesting subculture, and one that merits further thought.

Tomorrow I’m off to Nanning, where, to my great relief, I shall finally be able to at least partially transgress the dreaded language barrier!

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