11 hours into a 16 hour plane flight across the Pacific Ocean I found myself thinking 'This trip better be worth it'. On my last extreme flight headed to Bangladesh I had been in Business Class with Qatar Airways, and was definitely missing the plush accommodations. Grumbling, I shifted in my seat, ordered another drink and put on the fourth movie in a row; yes, I decided, visiting Vietnam was going to be worth the pain to get there....and boy was I right.
We landed in Saigon at 10am and headed straight to our hotel (before I continue I must mention that Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City are completely interchangeable; we asked many locals who said they use either but sometimes prefer Saigon because it's shorter). The heat hits you like a bonfire. Every day the temperature topped 100 degrees with over 50% humidity. I don't believe I've ever sweat like I did there, and unless I go back I probably won't ever again! The traffic is best described as contained chaos but with less variety of large vehicles and animals than Dhaka, Bangladesh or Islamabad, Pakistan. I was told that in a city of 12 million people there are 7 million motorbikes. In Saigon they twist through the streets and roundabouts like a giant school of fish. When you must cross the road you step off the curb and walk at a steady pace forward (never stepping back!), and trust that they will part around you like water around a rock. If you need to cross you have to take the initiative, no one will stop and let you cross otherwise. One of the first things I noticed was that almost all of the women I saw were completely covered up by sweatshirts, long skirts and face masks. I started wondering if they were more conservative than I had been told until I realized that it was an effort to keep the soot and dirt at bay and save their skin from the sun. I'd like to say they had their health in mind, but covering up also means that their skin will stay whiter. White skin is prized for its beauty in Vietnam, and almost all of the lotions and even the deodorants in drugstores are whitening. As a light skinned person constantly seeking out the sun to look more tan, I thought it was an interesting cultural difference, one that I've noticed in many of the Central and South Asian countries I've been to. If only we could all be satisfied with the beauty of our own skin.
On our second day we traveled by train to Mũi Né, which is an ocean village northeast of Saigon on the South China Sea. We bought tickets in the inexpensive “hard seat” car, with no air conditioning and open but barred windows. The car was almost empty except for us and a few local people, and we watched the passing countryside thin out dramatically into farm land as the city receded behind us.
The one good thing about jet lag is that it gets you up early in the morning (at least for a couple days). Being 12 hours ahead, Zoe, Kimber and I were getting up every morning around 4:30. On our second day we used this as an opportunity to walk five miles into a nearby fishing village to see what the morning catch was like when they hauled it in at 6:30. The working beaches there are strewn with trash and suspicious looking mounds of foul smelling “earth”. Seashells of every size and color that would normally make me squeal with excitement were cast aside into piles or ground into the sand. The people paid us no mind as we walked through their early morning market hustle. The beach presented quite the idyllic scene with the brightly painted boats scattered about the harbor and women squatting down over their bounty, scaling fish or separating crabs and scallops into different piles. Most Vietnamese wear the traditional conical hat during all daily activities. The hats seem cumbersome but after donning one myself I realized how effective it is at protecting your face and neck from the searing rays of the sun, as well as keeping you cool underneath.
After getting our fill of the fish market we stopped by a banh mi stand to grab breakfast and coffee. In the States the banh mi sandwich is known as a dinner or lunch item,whereas in Vietnam it's a traditional breakfast or snack food. The Banh Mi we got there were all delicious and fresh, and you can order them with egg inside for a morning treat. Traditional vietnamese coffee is extremely potent almost like expresso, and is normally sweetened with a healthy dose of condensed milk. Of course when you travel to countries with high instances of water or food born illness you are advised to not consume ice or foods that come from street vendors, but after a couple tentative days we dove in to eat foods from a variety of places and couldn't pass up ice due to its delicious coolness. I can't say there were no uncomfortable consequences of that choice, but it certainly made our time there more tasty.
After our short beach trip it was time to start our work with the U.S. State Department. We did the usual large concerts with local musicians, but like many of my past experiences, the most special interactions came from working with children at a variety of schools. Before we played the Festival of Hue in the central part of Vietnam we appeared at a community called The Peaceful Bamboo Family. PBF is a co-operative like school for people with debilitating mental and physical issues. We arrived there and settled in to a teahouse where we were served cookies the kids had baked and tea from their gardens. The “youngsters” who live there are encouraged to learn how to do different things like making incense, embroidery or beautiful shellacked paintings, all of which they sell. They also work in the gigantic biodynamic garden harvesting all the vegetables and herbs that they eat every day. The founder who showed us around insisted that teaching these kids how to work and giving them fresh healthy foods had a huge positive impact on their wellbeing. These kids weren't medicated and confined to a room with a TV; they were encouraged to be grateful and take control of their own destiny. As a result the kids we interacted with were vibrant and seemed like they were on the road to being integrated into society. When we sat down to lunch and held hands, the kids sang a song about being grateful for each other and the food they were about to eat. I realized how important it is to have a loving and well rounded community for people with mental disabilities. Too often, in many of the places I've traveled, I have seen orphanages filled with mentally challenged kids who have been cast out of society and considered broken. It is a tragedy, considering what these kids can teach us about life, love and kindness.
The festival we played in Hué was a melange of dancers and musicians from all over the world. We attended a lunch where there were performances from Russia, Japan, Columbia, Israel and China, amongst others. It was touching seeing these young dancers and musicians flocking to each other's tables and making friends with people that they might never associate with in day to day life. It gave me hope for the common ground of the future.
We flew home after an eye opening experience in the Imperial City of Hué with the knowledge that the Vietnamese have an incredibly vibrant and fun loving culture. They are willing to joke and laugh with you even if you don't speak a common tongue, and any initial gruffness is replaced quickly with a smile. The shadow of the Vietnam war still looms but it seems that, especially with the recent visit from President Obama, we have fully started the healing process. I would recommend Vietnam as a fantastic, safe, delicious and beautiful place to travel for anyone looking for something a little different. And in case you decide to take the plunge, Xin cháo (pronounced: sin jow) is how you greet someone in Vietnamese!