It has been a month and some odd days since this journey began, and in that time I have learned more about how the world works and how I (prefer) to work in it. Some people like to wander aimlessly, happy as a clam without a map. Some people hop from one air conditioned bus to hotel lobby and back again. Others are somewhere in between.
For me, I have learned that I really like to have a map. In Singapore, the Pocket Lonely Planet was always by my side, complete with maps and advice. Since then, I have been relying on maps that can be found at tourist information kiosks, hotel lobbies, and on business cards. To me, these are indespensible. I guess I knew that about myself, but when I lost my map today it became top priority to get a new one even though my destination wasn’t even on it. Knowledge is power, especially when that knowledge is your geographical location in a foreign land.
Some travelers I have met never go on tours. They prefer to do their own thing on their own time. I see the point, especially because the points of interest on an organized tour are generally overrun with other tourists. This isn’t really a surprise, but can be somewhat distressing for those in search of the “real” <insert country name here>. True, going on an organized tour irrevocably makes you a tourist, but that’s okay sometimes. I enjoy the occassional organized tour because a) you meet other people! In Hue I did a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone created by the Geneva Conference 1954 which later became the border between North and South Vietnam. It was one of the most heavily bombed areas, which is evident from the abundance of “fish ponds” (bomb craters) scattered in the rice fields. Five to seven people still die every month due to leftover landmines.) and have been teaming up on and off with people on that tour ever since. The organized tour also comes with a tour guide, who can enrich the experience with their information. The factoids above come courtesy of the DMZ guide. It’s usually a good idea to ask around for reputable companies since some of them are not so good. So far, I have been pleased with the tours I have been on. Plus it is nice for someone else to do the organizing and planning once in awhile. All I have to do is pay and follow along. Yeah!
As a college student, dorms are nothing new. Here I actively seek them out because they are cheaper, come with roommates (a benefit for the solo traveler), and almost always have air conditioning, which costs extra if you are in a single room. Hurray for hostels!
Travel in Vietnam is incredibly easy. Travel companies are abundant in the major destinations and are more than happy to loop you in to the bus system. Travelers invariably go from the North to the South (like me) or vice versa. In Hanoi, I impulsively booked the open bus tour without doing research first. It has worked out, but next time I would opt to book as I go. The open bus tour brings you from Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An to Nha Trang to Dalat (optional if you book it) to Saigon. That’s all well and good, but once you book you have to pay extra if you have a change of plans like I did. Packages like this seem more convenient, but I didn’t save any money and sometimes getting to the necessary booking office in a new location is not convenient at all. The more you know – for next time! But no worries for now as tomorrow I will use my last ticket to go from Dalat to Saigon. From there it will be off to Cambodia!
As a vegetarian, food is always a consideration. In Vietnam I have been okay. There are times when I have a strong suspicion that there is the ubiquitious fish sauce (it’s everywhere in this region) in my food, but I pretend not to know. What’s a girl to do, not eat? I don’t think so. I quite enjoy sampling local food (especially the sweets!) and a satisfied stomach, along with sufficient sleep, does wonders for the traveler’s morale. Happily, I have learned to communicate that I am a vegetarian and now know that there are special veggie restaurants serving a wider variety than stir-fried rice with vegetables and tofu. Just one word, “chay,” makes the world a better place. For vegetarians and the animals they don’t eat, anyway.
As I mentioned above, at the moment I am in Dalat. It came highly recommended by other travelers, and I am pleased to have come. The drive from Nha Trang, which is on the beach, wound through mountains covered with lush trees and rogue clouds. There were even a few waterfalls. Here it is much cooler than anywhere I have been so far, which is a nice change. I am all for being hot and sweaty, but a few days in the cool mountain air does a body good. Last night was the first time in a long time that I wanted a hot shower. (Note I said wanted, not received. One thing about cheap accommodations is that hot water is not guaranteed.) I’m enjoying it before moving on to the hot, noisy, crowded, cultural Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City.
After a month on the move, there have been a few changes to what I packed as pictured in the first post. All the snacks (dried fruit and nuts) are gone. I am on my last book, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. All the others (except for the 1906 Oxford Guide given to me by my Uncle Matt) have been left in hostels or in the hands of fellow readers. However, I have learned that once this book is finished it would be wise to hold on to it since open shelves (where you can just take and leave whatever) are hard to come by in Vietnam. Books for sale are easy enough, but for free not so much. In Hoi An, I found an extensive collection curated by a Mr. Randy from the good ol’ U.S. of A. He bought $3000 worth of books secondhand (sound familiar, Meyer clan?) and shipped them over to Vietnam to start his shop. Customs charged him $5000 to do so. He says it is because the government wants to control what media is available for consumption, which is probably true. But what that means for me is that ain’t nothin’ free, bookwise anyway.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is (gasp!) Communist. Despite America’s best efforts, the Communists won. So what exactly does that mean for daily life here? I have yet to find out as poking around with questions about the government is not met with any great enthusiasm. However, from what I can see the people are aggressively capitalist. Every mama-san (and they are always mama-sans, papa-san is usually busy drinking coffee and playing cards. More on gender roles later.) has something to sell and is not shy in letting the passing tourist know about it. Prices are inflated when the buyer is a foreigner, sometimes outrageously so. It is a bit frustrating to know you are being gouged, so I try my best to barter (not always easy when the parties in question have no common language aside from their hands) and simply refuse to buy if I know the price is not correct. Live and learn.
The two-tiered pricing system aside, I am continuing to really enjoy Vietnam. It is a safe place, with inflated prices and the occassional theft being the biggest worry. Violent crime is rare and people are quite respectful and friendly. Case in point: yesterday night I was wandering/nibbling through the dizzyingly enormous Dalat central market. At one point I stopped to consult my work-in-progress phrasebook (begun in Nha Trang and containing Vietnamese words and their English translations and pronunciation keys, just like how I learned Thai) when one vendor pointed out that a piece of paper had fallen out of my purse. The map! Very important. I gave her a smile and tucked it away. Moments later as I was wrapping up, another lady gave me a tap and pointed down. My wallet! Even more important. Much thanks to both these ladies who kept my luck from running out.
Last thing to note for this ramble: just when you think you’ve seen it all, something else comes along. I tried a new fruit today! It is shaped somewhat like an upside-down pear, leaf green in color with black spots that look prickly. Some of them are quite large, about the size of a medium papaya, so I picked a smaller one and hunkered down near a trash can to delve into this new wonder. The flesh was white with black seeds, kind of like the custard apple that is common in Thailand. After a couple bites the tate began to be familiar… I had bought random juice at the Oceanic Market in Tampa awhile back bearing the name “soursop.” Lo and behold, a quick Google search confirmed that this fruit is the one and the same. Go figure. So I have had the juice before, but the fruit itself is a new experience. It looks something like this: