Some Impressions of Vietnam

Here’s basically what happened: we took a bus that took about ten hours from Kep, Cambodia, through Ha Tien, Vienam, up to Saigon, Vietnam. It was a pretty wild ride . . . met a couple British girls along the way, and we ended up joining forces and eating pho together at one of the few rest stops for the sleeper bus, and then we ended up in District 1 and got a dorm-style hostel together. They were nice though a bit arrogant, making vast generalizations about all of Vietnam. But aside from that distinct flaw in their personalities/perspective, I thought they were nice and helpful–very courageous and very good at bartering with the taxi drivers.

We were supposed to get a plane from Saigon to Da Nang the night we arrived but of course we missed it by about two hours, so we ended up staying the night. Jason immediately went to sleep and the girls immediately went on the computers at the hostel and went onto Facebook. I was like “I need Viet Dong [the local currency] now!” so I went off in search of an ATM. I stumbled onto the seedy “Bourbon Street” of Saigon, in District 1, which was only 5 minutes from the hostel. The place, which is comparable to similar streets in Siam Reap and Phnom Penh, had all manner of drunken white people, bars, clubs, street food vendors, and of course lots and lots of prostitutes. There were also military/police type people on all the corners, which I found incredibly unsettling, like parents watching their children at birthday parties. But it’s okay. I walked back, we woke up the next morning, and caught a plane to Da Nang.

Da Nang was great. Just, simply great. We spent one night there. We ended up going to this huge computer center I found (thank the SEO gods) on Google because I need a laptop and now that we’re done all our trekking and island hopping and rainforest adventures I figured it would be a good time to get one. Cambodia doesn’t have any reputable shops (fakes of everything) whereas Da Nang, the third largest city in Vietnam and the original base for American troops who had to get to the inland Ho Chi Minh Trail area during the war, has significant stores. Everywhere says iPad and iPhone–kind of obnoxious, but there is a section of town that’s for all tech needs. I ended up getting this laptop at this place where no one spoke English (the company, Phi Long, was 5 stories tall). After you choose a computer and pay at this small desk in the back (opposite the obnoxious USA cashiers at the FRONT of the store all in a line and all fast), they make you wait an hour. Why? Because they’re installing the operating system and making sure everything works. We were sketched out at first, but once you realize that this company is simply operating on a different wavelength, it’s fine, and actually cool. Instead of the instant gratification of getting your expensive product (my laptop, which probably would have been a couple hundred dollars cheaper in the USA, was $600 USD), you get to wait for an hour and muse over the rest of the store. They also give you a coupon for two free drinks at the cyber cafe on the top floor, which was awesome. We climbed floor after floor (avoid elevators at all costs!) and entered this dark, mysterious room where there were couches and chairs all over the place. And screens. Maybe 30 large screen televisions were scattered around the room. The chairs and sofas could have probably held around 300 people at max capacity and there were probably 200 people there in total. But it wasn’t noisy because they were playing the greatest hits of Britney Spears. Yes, you read that right. And guess what they were playing on all of those screens? The remake of the Last House on the Left, the brutally graphic horror movie. Look the movie up, watch the trailer, and then imagine it with the pop music and Vietnamese subtitles. Absurdity, hm? And then, to top it all off, the “repair center” for the laptops is in this rectangular room in the very back, so there is a stream of parents and teenagers bringing their laptops in to be serviced, and they have to walk through the whole place to get to the center, and they end up seeing all of the brutally graphic scenes of violence in the movie. Meanwhile, young people are drinking iced coffee (always served with complimentary green tea which is actually an orange color but called green tea) and smoking cigarettes. Yeah, pretty much everywhere we’ve been has allowed smoking inside–everywhere but hotels and fancy restaurants, basically. So they gave me the laptop an hour later just as expected, and it came with a mouse and carrying case, which was great.

The thing about Da Nang is that it’s a huge city but like Saigon most of the people live around the city (in the metro) and not actually in the city proper. So a lot of people visit Da Nang on the evenings and weekends and they come from what we expect to be very non-tourist places. But Da Nang is the closest airport to Hoi An and thus a lot of people travel through Da Nang but don’t spend time in it. We even met people in Cambodia who were basically like “Da Nang sucks, there’s nothing to do there.” Dumb people. The bridges in Da Nang are worth seeing alone, and are some of the coolest modern bridges I’ve ever seen. The highlight is this bridge that’s shaped like a dragon which glows different colors and breathes actual fire. Look it up. Pretty amazing. Here’s another moment of absurdity: as we walked the bridge, all of these Vietnamese people from outside of Da Nang who were visiting with their family would come up to us and ask us our name and then ask to have a picture with us. It was like a thing. It happened once with this guy and his family: he asked us to pose with his wife and son and he took a pic of us. We were surprised and he knew a lot of English so we had a pretty basic conversation with him. He was so happy. But then we continue and basically every ten steps we get approached by someone else. In some cases entire families. In some cases boyfriend/girlfriend couples. And in one instance this man was with his son and he asked us to hold the son while he took a picture of us all! Wild! That level of trust and excitement and cultural exchange would never happen in the USA. Jason and I felt so happy about it… everything we hate about American tourists and American ignorance and stereotypes was put on hold while we represented our culture and ethnicity with a magical degree of pride.

Da Nang’s waterfront is also something to talk about. With the lights of all the buildings being dazzling, and the three bridges (one of the two I didn’t mention has a very Space Needle like quality to the middle of it) lighting up the water, and endless party boats (non-drinking party boats–but party boats with loud music nonetheless) in their neon trim making a really nice ambience to the water, there’s also the lights in all the trees along the water. Hard to concisely describe the image, but it’s nice. We strolled up and down only a small section of the city-side of the river (the other side is walkable too, for miles it seems) and watched kids do tricks on rollerblades (similar to skaters in the US), families hanging out with children, numerous Futurist-esque sculptures, and vendors of all kinds. Aside from one Brit, we saw no other white people in Da Nang, which is incredibly crazy. Okay, I lied–there were a few at this bar we went to, called Bamboo2, which is themed after 70s rock music and has cheap beer (Larue and Saigon are the two Vietnamese beers on draft everywhere, or in bottles), and is three stories tall, includes an overlook of the water, has graffiti on all the walls, and has Foosball. A highly fun spot after walking up and down the river.

The next day we were stumbling around looking for some espresso after lunch and were approached by a couple of the “Easy Riders,” this collection of tour guides that take small groups around Central Vietnam on those old school motorcycles–just like in the movie Easy Rider. They approached us on the street and we thought it would be fun and cheap to get a tour from them. They took us to Marble Mountain where we saw amazing views of the beach and too many Buddhas to count, and then to this tailor in Hoi An (which was extremely pricey, but the clothing is damn good, and I needed work clothes for my internship anyway). Once in Hoi An, we arrived at the Ha An hotel, which had flower petals over everything, fresh fruit (including a round type of pear and dragon fruit), and access to free bicycles. We’ve been taking it easy here over the past 30 hours, trying to do some cycling, visit some of the local shops, and eat delicious food. Food in Vietnam is, like Cambodia, very cheap and very fancy. Service here is impeccable and the coffee beverages (espresso, anyway) are some of the best I’ve had in my life. We went to a bar called Cheap Drinks or something like that last night, and played pool and met a guy from New Jersey and an angry Slovenian who was also all about free love. This town is quieter, much friendlier and oriented towards tourists. After Angkor Wat and Siam Reap I would say this has the most tourists I’ve seen–mostly older folks, too.

Tomorrow we will have half a day and then we fly down to Nha Trang, where we will be a whopping three nights. We’re hoping to take it easy there at the beach before heading down and ending our touring in Saigon. I will either go up to Hanoi before heading to Phnom Penh (for a couple of days), or I will save my pennies and get settled into Phnom Penh a week and a half before my internship is scheduled to begin. I can easily see myself returning to Vietnam in the near future. I definitely want to go into the Ho Chi Minh trail and the mountains–Da Lat, especially. I also think Hue is worth checking out. But it’s a big country and, like Malaysia, deserves multiple visits to really get the gist of what’s going on here–in terms of tourism and in terms of the local cultures.

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