Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Big Hello From Uncle Ho

Well we’ve been back from our Vietnamese adventure for about four days now so it’s time for a recap (Tim to start, Laura below). In just eight days on the trip we learned several lessons, most importantly about ourselves.

Lesson #1 Vietnamese people love babies, especially little white ones

We read about this phenomenon prior to heading over but no matter what you read it cannot prepare you for the its magnitude. Edie was an absolute rock star from the moment we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Everywhere we went she was showered with attention by complete strangers, with this attention ranging from pointing and giggling to friendly requests to hold her. We actually let many people carry her off (in confined places like the airport of course), which is a very disarming experience for a parent, but obviously something that happens all the time there. Luckily no one dashed off with her, but I had my running shoes on just in case. And of course Edie soaked up all the attention. Not sure where she inherited her love for the spotlight, it certainly doesn’t come from either of us.

Lesson #2 Vietnamese food is excellent but it helps to have someone order it for you

Luckily we had our friend Van Anh with us for most of the trip, so she was able to communicate with street vendors, tour operators, etc. She also knew all the best spots to get amazing dishes from vendors on the street where she grew up. Porridge, sweet dough balls and donuts, barbequed pork, and of course the famous pho (noodle soup) – we had it all. On the other hand, when Van Anh wasn’t with us, we made a few pathetic attempts at foraging, in one instance walking away from a vendor after she appeared more interested in Edie than serving us food, and another case where the host ended up bringing an extra main course instead of the mango drink we had ordered. Communication breakdown!

Lesson #3 Traffic and air quality are the least attractive attributes of Vietnamese cities

When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh we first thought that people wore surgical masks in the street due to fears about swine flu, since hysteria about it had just peaked. Instead, this is a common occurrence due to the poor air quality and the exposure one gets from spending any time outside, especially while riding on scooters. Of course, this problem is not unique to cities in developing countries, you need only look as far as Toronto to find a smoggy city in Canada. The severity of the problem, however, must be far greater given the population densities and the number of vehicles on the road.

That brings us to the traffic. It is absolutely legendary in Hanoi. Crossing the street is a life-risking experience. You slowly inch out into the street as scooters and the occasional taxi zoom around you. You have to have faith that all these drivers know what they are doing and aren’t going to slam into you at full speed. Add to the fact that I was carrying a baby on the front of me like a kangaroo with a joey and you’ll get a sense of the stress associated with this simple act. Strangely though, after awhile, you almost stop caring. It’s as if you enter this strange Zen-like state where you are at one with the traffic. Or maybe you just get high from the exhaust fumes.

Lesson #4 The term “developing country” may be a misnomer in this case

For all you EWBers out there, we had a glimpse into life in an Asian city that makes for an interesting case study of development. Everywhere you look there is a buzz of activity – people selling, fixing, hammering, welding, etc. Road construction was ubiquitous. But I’m not sure this would be considered “development”. There doesn’t seem to be any progression towards something. Rather it appears as though all the work is being done merely to keep things from falling backwards. The best analogy I could think of is from Fraggle Rock. Do you remember how the Fraggles used to eat the buildings made by the Doozers (the little green construction men)? Well this meant that the Doozers were constantly working but they just couldn’t get those buildings finished because the Fraggles kept eating them. In the case of Hanoi, the people would be the Doozers (highly industrious) whereas the humid subtropical decay would be the Fraggles, wearing down all new constructions so that constant activity is required simply to keep pace. I think it is fair to say that climate very much dictates the likelihood of rapid, western-style development. Australia is one of the few “hot” countries where wealth is on par with the cold countries of North America and Europe, and even here the wealthiest, most developed places are in the southeast – the tropical north is relatively untouched. In Vietnam, I don’t believe the people could work any harder, and they certainly don’t lack the brain power to find solutions, yet I wouldn’t predict a Chinese-style surge in GDP anytime soon. But hey, I study fishes, not economics, so who knows?

Lesson #5 Vietnamese people also forget to take down their Christmas decorations

In more than one place, including the Hanoi airport, there were Christmas decorations still up and operational. I don’t know whether this represents laziness (a la Canadian suburbia, which could be excused by freakishly cold weather post-Christmas in Canada), forgetfulness, or a misguided Vietnamese view of “Western culture”. I’m going with the latter because Vietnamese people are far from lazy, and they obviously haven’t forgotten because they still turn on the little blinking lights.

Lesson #6 While Vietnam has great food and wonderful people, our grand plans for someday living there were perhaps ill-conceived.

There was a time when we had grand designs for perhaps living and working in Vietnam. The allure of the people, the landscape, and the interesting ecological and development work that we could potentially do there partly prompted this recent trip. We wanted to scope out the country, and get a glimpse of how we might cope if we lived there, particularly with a young child in tow. I think it is fair to say that although we spent almost all of our short time in a single city, and thereby have a limited view of life in the country, the thought of trying to live there is unfathomable. A combination of the difficulty in communication and our total “foreignness” (if that’s a word) would make for such a steep learning curve that we just can’t afford to have. That’s not to say it is totally off our radar screen. Maybe someday we’ll make it back for a longer visit. For now, Australia is exotic enough for us.

I think that Tim has summed up the major learnings of our trip quite well, I’m going to take a hack at the not-so-easily summed up stuff.

First off, Edie is a champion traveller. She loves planes and loves the proximity to people in planes. As Tim stated earlier, we’re not sure where she gets it from, but Edie is a little social butterfly. On the 5 hour flight from Brisbane to Darwin (our first flight of the trip), she spent most of her time looking over the seat behind us to see what the people back there were doing. Literally, head between the seats, non-ashamedly gawking at the couple behind us, much to their amusement (see photo in slideshow). Later on in our journey, she enjoyed examining an older Asian lady’s face at close range, all the while checking out what was happening in front of us and behind us of course. The only problem with such a curious traveller is the fact that with so much going on, Little Edie doesn’t want to miss a beat by boring old sleep. So it’s pretty much a constant battle to keep her out of the frantic-overtired zone. It’s rather funny that most babies are cranky when they wake up…With Edie, it’s the opposite. She just LOVES being awake so most of the time when she wakes from sleep while travelling (no matter how long or short it actually was), we’re greeted by “let-me-at-the-crowd Edie”. It’s at the least, much better than a screaming baby and at the most, very amusing.

So, when we arrived in Ho Chi Min city, it was late at night. I think that any city is more intimidating at night and this was no exception. The shock of being greeted by so many people that wanted to touch or hold Edie was a titch overwhelming and then we had to haggle with the cab driver to get us into the city to our hotel (quite unsuccessfully…we’re terrible at haggling). All I really recall of that long car-ride was that a) the cab driver made a mint off of us, b) the city was just so dirty and c) there was no rhyme or reason to how traffic flowed at all. There would be construction in the middle of a two lane street which would go on for blocks, and it seemed that people haphazardly chose which side of the construction to go around. Nothing like I’d ever experienced. We stayed at a great hotel that night and were somewhat rested when we got up in the morning. I’ll say that daylight makes a huge difference on outlook, so we were feeling a bit less antsy than the night before. We left the hotel at 5am I think, and were surprised on the way to see that the parks were full of people, exercising, talking, making out, you name it. It’s such an interesting place.

Our first stay in Hanoi was at a guest house, chosen for us due to the proximity to Van Anh’s family’s place. It had the bare essentials, which was fine with us. It was also located in non-tourist Hanoi, which we also liked. So there was no hiding the struggle-for-survival mode that is truly a part of this city. As Tim mentioned, people are very industrious and will try to sell anything they can to make a living. This means that there are oodles and oodles of street vendors who wanted our attention. We ate food from a lot of different vendors but got pretty good at saying no thanks to the constant slew of requests to buy. For the first couple of mornings there, Tim and Van Anh would find breakfast and bring it back to the guest house…Those breakfasts I will never forget. Vietnamese can do anything with sticky rice and mung beans…If you ever have the chance to try the more traditional fare there, do it. It’s amazing stuff. I forgot to mention as well, many of our meals on the way to Vietnam and in Vietnam were eaten in the hallway outside of our hotel room with little Edie sleeping in the room. I tell you, she’s got us so wrapped around her little fingers.

Sadly, with the location of the guest house (as real-city-life as it was), there were some real disadvantages to staying there. For one, the fact that we were the only white people in those parts was taxing after a while, especially when Edie attracted so much attention. It was an isolating feeling. The language barrier was also tricky. For example, if Van Anh wasn’t around to help us out, we didn’t eat (or ate quite poorly). Our first meals there consisted of bread and water. But perhaps the worst aspect of it all was the karaoke bar located not too far down the street. On the third night that we were there Tim and I woke to Vietnamese karaoke which sounded like it was being sung on our deck, and later were reawoken by a thunder storm which blew our door open. That mingled with the fact that Edie was already waking up multiple times during the night, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That next morning we called it quits and moved our operations to the tourist-friendly Old Quarter. In the Old Quarter we got well-needed sleep in a great little inn on the 5th floor. Lots of Vietnamese speak English there and we were able to relax a bit more and explore a whole lot. We also found a French bakery from where we sampled many baked goods on Mother’s day. I hope I never forget how lovely my first mother’s day was.

As you’ll see in our photos, we did take a tour to a location about an hour south of Hanoi. It basically took us through the old capital of Vietnam and on a river-boat tour to the locations of three caves which were quite interesting. Since you can see it all in photos, I won’t say much more BUT, I have to mention what kind of adventure it was travelling on the highways to and from the tour. As Tim said, there is nothing like traffic in Vietnam. There are always at least three lanes of traffic (even on two way streets) and let’s just say that everything I learned in driver’s Ed, was thrown out of the window. It wasn’t so bad for us on the way down as we were sitting in the back of the bus and didn’t get to see traffic coming at us. On the way back we sat at the front and at least 5 times I had to close my eyes and not watch what was going on ahead of us. Most of the time it was when our bus would try to pass other vehicles when there was oncoming traffic, something that happens all the time there. I should also mention that no matter where we were, it was never quiet (except on the river). There was always the sound of honking horns no matter where we went. Like Bermuda, people drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn. Also like Bermuda, horn honking is not necessarily a result of someone being angry, it’s more of a form of acknowledgement. For example, when a person crosses the street bikers will honk their horns to let the pedestrians know that they’re going to get hit if they don’t move. It’s all very friendly.

Despite what you might think based on the small stature of Vietnamese adults, Vietnamese babies are huge. Most people seeing Edie thought she was younger than 8 months, and one person thought she was 2 months. That was probably one of those miscommunication things…I hope?

To add to Tim’s thoughts about us living in Vietnam someday, it’s really having an infant that makes it seem like a bad idea to attempt right now. One week of having Edie in a developing country was enough for us. I think we were on adrenaline pretty much the entire time we were there, and it was super taxing. I’ll say we’re nowhere near recovered from this trip, but we’re so glad to have done it. As I anticipated!

So, our typically non-adventurous lifestyle was injected with enough adventure in the last week to last us a little while. We’ll keep you posted. Love to all.

I forgot to mention...If you look closely at the picture of me on the motorbike with Van Anh's mother, it would appear that I have the largest hand to arm ratio on the planet. They're huge.