Just as soon as I arrived in Kuala Lumpur it seemed that it was already time to go. Of course that was my own doing, and I cannot say that I was disappointed to leave. The haze continued to worsen, closing some local schools and producing an effect on my physiology roughly equivalent to chain-smoking for days on end. The cough is lingering but at least the headaches are gone.
Before continuing on to Vietnam, I want to address an observation I had in the last post about Malaysia’s flag. Upon further examination, it is apparent that the flag has fourteen red and white stripes, representing Malaysia’s fourteen states. The red stands for courage, the white for purity. The blue is for the unity of the diverse peoples of Malaysia. The yellow of the star and the moon are for the royal color, which is yellow. Interestingly, each state still has a royal family. The political system is designed to allow each provincial ruler power over the whole country for five years, at which point a new ruler will get to have a go on the political carousel. It has worked so far.
Another interesting tidbit that I gleaned from a fantastic (and free!) tour of Merdeka (Independence) Square is that in the 1940s, the Japanese invaded the Malaysian peninsula on bike and had the whole region on lock-down in a matter of weeks. Talk about pedal with some mettle.
Now, on to the latest musings. I have been in Vietnam for a solid twenty-four hours now. Yestserday I rolled off the plane and through customs with no difficulty. The whole pre-arranged visa is a crapshoot. Some holiday-makers got waved through without any previous arrangements while others were left to the mercy of an agonizing scrutiny of all their documents. I had the paperwork required and was given no hassle (except that the agent didn’t want to give me $15 change out of the $60 USD I had to pay. “People have been paying you all day – I know that you have change back there!” He relented and paid up.) and the next customs agent didn’t even look at my approval paperwork. It was worth doing for the peace of mind at least.
Bag collected, and off to find a way to get from Point A.irport to Point H.anoi. I saw a backpacker couple and suggested we share a ride to the Old Quarter, which is the hive and hub of Hanoi backpacking culture. They had reservations already, so I went to their hotel to get a map (where I happened to run into one of the girls I went snorkeling with in Nusa Lembongan – seriously, it is a small world) and directions to the nearest cluster of hostels.
The map was poorly marked and proved useless, as did my efforts to enlist the help of local people in placing me on the map. No luck. Until…! It was getting dark and I looked lost enough for someone to stop and offer assistance. A local? Who speaks English? With an iPhone to shed light on the hostel (never hostile) situation? Glory be! Her name for English-speakers was Ariel and she walked with me all the way to Backpackers Hanoi, which is a ritzy hostel with a lively crowd in the bar/lobby all day. Just like that, welcome to Vietnam!
This is proving to be my favorite place so far. Hanoi is a bustling city, with a strong local pulse that drums on even with the tourist presence. My observatons thus far…
Those conical pyramid hats that everyone thinks of when they think of Vietnam are not just tourist accessories like I thought they would be. They are a part of the daily attire for a large number of Vietnamese, especially laborers and the ladies walking the streets with a pole over one shoulder supporting a flat basket on both sides, balancing like scales of fruitty justice. Earlier today I quite unexpectedly became encumbered by one, with a hat to boot. The lady offered to take a picture -“no money! No money! Picture for you!” which I accepted. She then demanded that I buy some cut-up pineapple for 180,000 dong, which is about $6USD for some warm, slightly spoiled fruit. Highway robbery! I resisted, though a the bag of fruit (yellow as its contents) was not allowed to leave my hands. Finally, by dint of exasperated refusal, I was able to get away by parting with a more reasonable 30,000 dong. Some of the pineapple turned out to be okay and one of the pictures she took is actually pretty awesome (if I may say so myself), so all in all it worked out.
But, as a tourist, there are tons of scams here. Like I know the taxi driver gave himself a nice tip despite the meter when he brought us to the wrong place (which was thankfully at least near the right place) and dragged his feet about making change. Some places will also ask that you pay in USD and they give change in Vietnamese dong. In this case you are at the mercy of the exchange rate of the merchant, which is never in the savvy shopper’s favor.
In each new country, while contending with each new currency, I know I am getting ripped off. But I am learning quickly (I hope). Like the old adage says: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Nonetheless, there is a great energy here and I am dancing to the pulse of it. An ad in the elevator is asking for a tour guide, and I am seriously considering making an enquiry. I am taking my time and reveling in the indulgence of travel. Museums, new food, meeting fab people, no 21+ agism. At this pace, I am probably not going to reach Thailand for a month. The “plan” is to mosey down to Ho Chi Minh City over the course of a couple weeks, then from there weave up through Cambodia and Laos. Depending on the vibe, I am expecting to spend a week in each country…? Then cross into Thailand, grab a bus to Yasothon, and spend a week or so making the rounds there. Then… Myanmar. I don’t want to rush there either and am thinking of taking at least two weeks to check it out. So that brings me into… at least the middle of August? I was hoping to spend a solid month in India volunteering at an orphanage, but at this pace who can say? The only thing that is certain is that I will be at Oxford on September 24th and will hopefully be home for Christmas. Dad, shall we make a tradition out of last year’s events?
But all that talk of the future is getting ahead of myself. Right now, I am in Vietnam, sweating like pig and witnessing a pink lightshow on the clouds outside the fifth-storey hostel window. For the sake of time (I am meeting some new friends in an hour) I will revert to list form to share some more observations:
– Some women, particularly those who are riding scooters, wear long jackets with sleeves reaching past their fingertips. The jackets and matching facemasks are in floral prints that wouldn’t look out of place on dollar-store shower curtains from 1995. That’s a fashion statement even I will take a pass on, though they seem to pull it off.
– Songbirds hang in ornamental cages outside many storefronts. Old trees line the streets, and if it weren’t for the whiz of the traffic many places would be quite serence with the addition of sweet avian voices.
– But the traffic! Honking is constant. There are seemingly no rules, though people generally seem to drive on the right side of the road. Besides that, it is a free-for-all. I am already used to having scooters whiz by passing within a few inches of my person. (Hold onto your purse! Don’t be a target!) Crossing the street can make me think about reaching out to Jesus or Buddha or whoever happens to be in the neighborhood. I went across a five-lane thoroughfare today that was a bit of a doozy. But I’m alive! Sometimes you just have to go and hold a steady pace so that you are predictable. Unpredictable pedestrians, like unpredictable drivers, are more likely to invite accident. Still, I kind of feel like the grandma in Mulan who tests the luckiness of a cricket my walking across the road carrying it with her eyes closed. That’s pretty much how it happens here.
– Outdoor seating is common, though the seats tend to be no more vertically gifted than a big-boned chihuahua (speaking of anatomy, not Dogopoly). Drinking in the streets is not technically allowed, so when the police make the rounds all of the illicit watering holes mysteriously dry up only to refill (sorry, not on the house) a few minutes later.
– My museum for today was a Vietnamese History Museum, which got me all riled up. I could still use a clearer picture but my goodness these people have been subjected to a lot in the past couple centuries. I learned that the socialist party was formed and active in the 1920s, making our mission of “containment” forty years later seem like a load of baloney. Drs. Parssinen, if you are reading this, know that I am looking forward to your Spring 2014 class “America in the 1960s” even more now. In the meantime, I shed some tears and thought about the documentary Hearts and Minds.
– As an American, I was wondering if there would be any animosity towards me since the generations have not completely cycled through. Some of the old ladies sitting on the chihuahua stools could probably say more than any museum exhibit. But I have felt nothing but warmth here, which is a relief. I am seeking out the Vietnamese perspective in the museums (HCM City has a lot of them) but am using interaction with locals to learn the language and customs instead.