Poling Past Water Palms
Almost all of the boats in Vietnam have eyes painted on the bow. This had been explained as helping the boat avoid danger, helping it find fish, or to scare away water demons. I suppose every boatsman has his own reasons for giving his boat eyes.
We've been trying to upload this Vietnam wrap-up post for weeks but it's been hard to come up with a cohesive narrative about the past four months. Two days before our scheduled flight to the Philippines we received an email from Vietnam Airlines informing us that the leg from Đà Nẵng to Saigon (HCMC) had been pushed by over an hour, which would make it impossible for us to make the connection to Manila. Airlines in Vietnam are notorious for never leaving on time. When we first arrived we spent an unscheduled four hours in the airport in Saigon due to a delay that was never explained. Not one of the many flights we took on Vietnamese carriers left or arrived on time. So it wasn't unexpected that we would need to change our itinerary even though it involved a last minute shuffle that required us to leave a day early and spend an unscheduled night in Saigon. But it did make us laugh as we were already becoming nostalgic about Vietnam, talking about all of the stuff we'd miss and ignoring the stuff that irritated us. Luckily the disorganization surrounding our departure slapped us upside the head and reminded us
to remember all of it: the good, the bad, and the confusing. Our time here was made up of all of it.
We learned to let go of a lot of our ingrained driving habits while navigating the roads in Vietnam. Western habits like shoulder checks are totally unheard of. People look straight ahead, change lanes or pull out whenever and wherever they need to, and leave everyone behind them to sort it out. At first it threw us both but we learned to slow down and pay close attention to the road ahead. After a bit of time we adjusted the way we drove and also managed to pick up many new skills. For example:
-When turning left cut the corner and slide in between oncoming traffic and the left hand curb until you can merge right, it saves time and distance and everyone does it. When turning right watch out for those people turning left who will squeeze in between you and the curb. Don't wait to turn left by deferring to oncoming traffic - just wade in, don't worry they won't let you crash into them, they will stop to let you by just in
COC 2: Hoi An Drift
If you're a bad-ass you could attempt a high-speed cattle slalom on your scooter. Sadly, we aren't bad-asses.
-Pass on the left or on the right, even if you're sharing a lane with one or more scooters.
-Enter the melee in the middle of intersections confidently and weave your way through to where you have to go - no matter if you end up in the lane going in the wrong direction.
-Pay attention to the people, bicycles, buses, scooters packed with bales of grass, pigs or other goods, carts powered by tractor engines or cows, elderly women pulling handcarts, cyclos, stray dogs, chickens and everything else on the road.
-In our neighbourhood avoid heading out at cow o'clock (between 6PM and sunset) when farmers drive their cows home down the streets.
-Use your horn as a friendly way to say "I'm on your left" or "I'm on your right" or "I'm right behind you" or "I'm coming around a blind corner get out of my way" or "Hi!" In fact, use it pre-emptively, all the time. If you recognize a neighbour or like someone's scooter or are just feeling friendly, pull up next to someone and start chatting as you drive along side by side. If you are on a scooter
and see a friend on a bicycle, pull up next to them so they can grab your bike and you can give them a tow to where they're going.
-Finally, if you are driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street, be considerate and stick close to the curb.
By letting go of our rigid ideas we learned to follow the flow of traffic and adapt to the local rules of the road. Something that really surprised us was how relaxed drivers were with sudden obstructions or problems. With this many scooters weaving in and out and around one another there are bound to be misunderstandings and near-collisions. Cyclos and handcarts slow everyone behind them way down. But we didn't witness even one act of road rage. In our four months in Vietnam we did not see one driver yell or swear or raise his voice or fist at another driver. They just found a way around the obstacle, even if it meant taking a detour onto the sidewalk. That's pretty cool.
Matt has always had an entomological bent but my time in this country helped me to finally overcome my struggles with creepy crawlies. In
Bat on Blinds
Probably as surprised as we were when I just about put my hand on it to draw the blinds
Vietnam huge cockroaches cruise down the street calm as you please. If you get too close they will turn around and stare you down. Because of the heat houses are open to the elements all day and mosquitoes, bugs, rats, frogs, bats, geckos and other manner of generally unlikable creatures are all a part of life here. The message the universe sends is "Get over it." And I did.
To follow in that vein, even though Matt and I aren't squeamish eaters, our ideas about what we'd define as food were challenged here. Vietnamese people eat rats (field, not city) dogs and cats. It's something that the media sometimes bandies about for shock value but even though Matt and I don't want to eat any of the above, we just can't seem to get as riled up about it as we're told by western media we should. Anyone who knows us knows we are animal lovers. We've both volunteered with various animal welfare groups and have always had pets, but we do eat meat and so can't justify eating one animal and condemning someone else for eating another. Of course there are all kinds of nuances to the discussion
Crazy For Pho
This pho place we found on Le Loi Street was ridiculously good. We would stop there literally morning, noon, and night, whenever we were nearby (and often when we were not).
that can't be addressed without a much longer post like how the animals are killed, and the couple of times we did see dogs crammed into a cage on the back of a scooter going to market made both of us sick with sadness. But seeing men and women in their 70's or even 80's bent over in the scorching sun weeding rice paddies also made us feel ill. It's logical rats and frogs that congregate in the rice paddies are harvested. I don't know the history of eating dogs and cats in Vietnam but I can understand that they may have been an essential source of protein. Nowadays the practice seems to be much less prevalent than it was in the past and many people keep dogs as pets, though cats are rare. But even that is confusing as long term ex-pats told us that there seem to be far fewer dogs around after Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration in February, as dog is one of the traditional dishes consumed at this time. In the end, we just aren't knowledgeable enough about the practice to weigh in with reasoned opinions.
After 7 months away there
Sugar Cane Juice Stand
Fresh sugar canes (in bucket) are passed through the press (right) to squeeze out the juice. Mixed with lime and mint it makes a surprisingly refreshing drink.
were definitely food items from home that we missed. Things like cheese, good bread, coffee, chocolate, and more. You can find these things - either exorbitantly priced because they are imported (and usually stale) or a facsimile made locally, but they are not quite the same. After one or two attempts to find a taste of home we made the decision to give up and embrace what we could find locally. Restaurants helped us explore the local cuisine but on an extended trip you can't eat out all the time. Luckily the open-air markets in Vietnam are packed with locally grown food. There is one in every neighbourhood and they are open 7 days a week. We waded in and trusted our chosen grocer, Hai, to tell us how to prepare something when it was completely new to us. So instead of pining for items we couldn't find we reveled in what was available that we couldn't get at home. That isn't to say that we won't eat ourselves into a cheese coma when we return to Vancouver, but meanwhile we've managed to expand our culinary horizons.
The evening before we left we ran through the rice paddies for
the last time and watched the sun set over the newly sprouted rice shoots. We'd observed an entire cycle of growth and harvest. After the hard work of bringing in the rice the fields were drained and burned to clear out the old stalks and aid in decomposition. A week earlier they opened the irrigation ditches to flood the paddies and planted new rice, and already the charred landscape had disappeared under the luminous green of young leaves of rice. We talked for the last time with all the neighbours we had come to know on our route - mostly men herding ducks into yards and cows into shelters and women walking their babies up and down their courtyards, feeding them dinner outside in the cool evening air. They'd long grown used to us passing by at dinnertime. Afterward we rode our bikes to some friends' houses to say good-bye.
Before packing we culled our belongings once more and mailed another box home on the slow boat. We left Vietnam lighter and ready to take on our next adventure: a month freediving on the island of Cebu in the Philippines.
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