Friday 20 March 2015

A stranger in a strange land

So, I've been quiet for a time. The reason for this is that I was packing up my life to move to Vietnam for a while, to travel and work. Exciting yes, terrifying, yes. The last few weeks have passed in a blur. There has been so much to do that I've not really had chance to process any of it fully, I've just been working down a great big long to do list. The list was so long that not only did I struggle to get through it but things dropped off the end of it, because I just ran out of time. And now here I am, three plane rides later, in Vietnam.

The first few days we spent in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) and those days passed in a whirlwind of frenetic experience. Many people who have visited Vietnam advised me that HCMC was their least favourite place, so I was not sure what to expect, but my experience of the city was exceedingly positive.

The first thing that hit me when I arrived was the smell. I will struggle to explain this because I'm not sure that it can be defined adequately. The smell is everywhere and it's everything. It's not one smell but all the smells and yet it's somehow all the same. It's an organic sort of odour that consists of overripe fruit and decay, BBQ and sweat,  incense and exhaust fumes, flowers and warm dirt. But that list of approximations doesn't even begin to cover the scope of it. Sometimes it's unpleasant and sometimes is intoxicating but it's always there and it is always underlying everything. It gets in your clothes, in your hair, it's in the water, in the food, it's everywhere, it becomes a part of you. One aspect of this smell I have discovered is caused by a fruit called winter melon. They love it over here, or at least they do in HCMC. People eat it for breakfast, in drinks, in puddings and it is, to me, hands down, unfortunately, the worst tasting thing I have every tried in my life. Needless to say that it is one accent of the all encompassing smell I am not a fan of!

But the city itself is bustling and energetic, nobody is ever sitting still, everyone is selling, hustling, or speeding around on one off the thousands of mopeds that fill the streets. It really is like Bladerunner world, everything is a mixture of high technology and old world grunge. So you have street traders using upturned oil drums to cook, but they will whip out an iPhone 6 to face time their mate while doing so!

I did not find the city too daunting or intimidating, yes you will get asked if you want to buy some knock off sunglasses or have your shoes shined every few minutes, but as long as you learn to say no with a smile and don't let it get to you, it's no bother. Although it's hard to say no at points. An old lady with the sweetest face and laugh I've ever seen who was selling what I think were lottery tickets nearly had me. I would have bought one, in fact, but I could not understand a word she was saying when she took my hand and whispered in my ear. What I wanted to say was 'would you like to be my grandma?' so it's probably for the best that we couldn't understand each other!

I have learned a few Vietnamese words already. I think when you come somewhere knowing that you will be staying for a while your brain steps up a gear in an effort to try to understand the language because otherwise it would feel too alien and unknowable. The good thing is that, so far, the people have been exceptionally friendly and good humoured. The one quality I possess that I never thought of as having a value in such circumstances is my own friendliness, smiles translate really well. What has struck me I think is how quickly people will look after you if you build a rapport with them. The concierge at the hotel worrying about us paying too much for a taxi or the waiter at what quickly became our favourite eatery shooing away street sellers from us. The lady on the plane who leant me her pen or the chap sat opposite me on the train who helped us to set up our table properly. Just really helpful, positive people who have made me feel more welcome than I've ever been made to feel in a new city.

The food so far has been some of the best I've ever eaten. We've tried different places but my favourite one was this place that the locals seemed to like but tourists seemed to steer clear off... I'm not sure why, I think that maybe it was the giant fish tanks housing strange looking sea creatures that made it look a bit scary? But it was incredible. Freshly barbecued shrimps and ribs, delicious and crunchy noodles with vegetables and dips and sauces packed with flavour. Why we don't cook like this in the UK I do not know, but my general well being has been so much better since this new diet. I've not felt bogged down or bloated at any point, like I often do back home. Maybe it's all the walking as well, between that and the oppressive heat, I'm burning off more than I'm consuming and the weight is dropping away.

In terms of what I have so far perceived of the people and the way things function here, the place does seem to operate under a free market structure, despite being a communist country. Everything is for sale and everyone is out to make an empire based on their hard work. Also, a richer middle class seems to be emerging, and department stores with imported designer goods where the prices are the same as they would be in the UK are springing up. These shops are not aimed at westerners, or they don't appear to be, but at the Vietnamese who can afford the hefty price tags. For me, I'm as disinterested in these shops as I would be back home. Instead I've grown to love the markets and the bartering. At first I was a bit thrown by it, my British politeness allowing me to pay well over the odds for a fan for fear of upsetting the vendor. But when you realise just how inflated the prices are, and that even at half the asking price you are paying at least four times what a local would pay, you realise that you're a fool not to haggle. It is a game, keep smiling and be willing to walk away if you're not happy with the price. I'm glad to see that my cheap-assness is the same in any country! But at the same time, there is no need to be a dick about it, you will be paying far more than you could do even after a good barter, and it's right that you should do so because ultimately you *can* afford to pay £3 for a skirt, whereas locals can't necessarily. There is a line between being a silly western pigeon and being an arse that needs to be carefully walked.

But for all that, the effects of communism can be seen in the bureaucracy of the airports, train stations and post offices. Be prepared to fill out endless forms that ask for tedious details, join different queues for each aspect of the process and memorise your passport details because you'll need them for everything from buying train tickets to sending a parcel. I'm not a fan or bureaucracy (who is?!) and it would have been helpful if any guide book had mentioned this, as being prepared for it would have made it less stressful and meant we were ready with the correct details (hotels keep your passports so not having them with you when you're out and about can be a pain in the arse!)
The money has taken some getting used to also. I'm bad with maths anyway but thinking in thousands and then remembering that tens of thousands of dong only equate to pence has been quite confusing for me. But you learn quickly or again you end up tipping like Rockefeller or short changing shop keepers.

We're now on the move to Phan Theit, which is by the beach. I'm excited and apprehensive, which seems to be the daily norm for me at the moment. It's hard to describe, I love the adventure of it, but I miss being with the people I love terribly. I hate it that I can't do both, be there with them and be here seeing this. But that's the cost I guess. Nothing comes without a price and this is a high one. My hope is that the people I love don't forget about me, although I can't control that either way. I would give anything for those people to be here seeing these things with me, but hopefully the stories I will tell them will make the separation worthwhile. At the end of the day, I'm trying to live and work out what I want from life, and the people I love will either still want to know me at the end of this or they won't. That's the worst part of jumping off and leaving your life behind. That's what leaps of faith are all about though, aren't they? I need to remember to have a little faith.

Speaking of faith...Let me leave you with this image...In the grounds of a Buddhist temple, in the middle of HCMC, as I watched terrapins swim about in a little pool and leant on the hot stone of a bench in the blistering sun, I reached a point of real contentment and actually felt relaxed for the first time in a long time... Then a pigeon dropped the biggest crap on my head that a pigeon has ever crapped. It did not look healthy. I can now see why people say this is lucky thing to happen, because the alternative is just that a giant bird has shat on your head and ruined your zen. So yeah, I chose to take this as good karma! ;)

Anyway, that's just a bit of the story so far...

I will try and upload some photos soon too, to give all my prattle a bit of context. But for now, the beach awaits!

BTW- I've found out today that some of my e-mails to people are going to their spam folders, something to do with them bouncing off Vietnamese servers, so dear friends, please keep an eye on your trash folders! Or remember this as a convenient excuse for ignoring me, either way! ;)


  1. I love this! Wonderful descriptions of your adventures so far. I could read about this every day but then you would have no time for the adventures :). Keep it coming when you feel like it lovely - we will never forget you!
    Much love xxxx

    1. Thank you Sam! Already so much has happened since I wrote that on the train down. I will try to keep on top of the blogs as it is a great way of keeping a record for myself as well as being able to you guys what is happening. Thank you for all of your support and interest too, it means a great deal to me. Lots of love xxxx

  2. The pigeon anecdote made my day...

  3. Interesting read, glad to hear things going well and your luck re the pigeon hasn't changed. :)

    1. There were loads of people and loads of pigeons but we both know the only person destined to get pooped on that day was me ;)