Today I'm excited and proud to present you with a guest blog by my sister, Kathy, who is going to share with you some of her impressions of Vietnam following her visit there at the end of last year.
Please enjoy, share, comment and encourage!
5 things I learnt in Vietnam
So, in November, I went all the way to Vietnam. I’ve been meaning to put this blog together ever since, but, well, life (as it always does) got massively in the way. Finally, I pulled my laptop out, sat studiously at my dining room table and pieced it all together. This is my first experience of writing a blog. It’s also been a loooong time since I’ve written anything, my studying days being far behind me. But it’s been fun. Really fun. And a good way to reflect on what was, in such a clichéd way, a life changing experience.
Vietnam is never somewhere I thought I would visit, but when my sister and her partner moved there to work and travel last March, it became the place I wanted to go. Not only did I get to spend loads of time with them after nine months apart, but I also got to experience the life they had been living and after months of hearing what Vietnam was like, I could see it, smell it and taste it for myself. It was a holiday, an adventure, but it was more than that. Because they had been working and living in Saigon, I got to see the city from a different perspective. I saw it from the point of view of people actually living and working there. My sister was working as a teacher, so I got to experience her commute on a city bus, go to districts that I wouldn’t have even considered going to and met people I wouldn’t have done in any other regard. I feel that I got to see the city properly and experience a taste of Vietnamese life. I think I learned a lot in a very short space of time, about myself, other people, food, culture and another small part of the great big wider world. But I decided to narrow down what I learnt for the purposes of this blog, otherwise I think I would be writingforever! So, here are 5 things I learnt in Vietnam.
1. Safety is not guaranteed.
In the UK we constantly complain about safety measures going too far, Captain Safety being ever vigilant in all aspects of life. But after spending two weeks in Vietnam, I’m comforted by the overarching safety precautionsand rules we have over here. Never more so, than on the roads. With the cost of owning and running a car so ridiculously high in Vietnam, most people travel by moped. And this is not just your single occupant riders, couples and even whole families will crowd onto one bike, often with children squished in between their parents. What shocked me most about this sight was how often the children weren’t wearing helmets, yet the adults were. I even saw a women holding what looked like a very tiny baby in the crook of her arm, as she sat on the back of speeding moped. Plus, people are not the only thing that get crowded onto these tiny traveling devices, all kinds of goods are transported. The most surreal thing I saw was a large flat screen TV. Traffic lights are more of a guide in Vietnam, pavements a handy extra lane during rush hour and buses generally don’t fully stop when you want to get on and off them. Dealing with the traffic in Vietnam is kinda like an endurance test, you’ve got to keep your wits about you and look all ways when crossing the road. It definitely keeps you on your toes! Traveling by taxi is also an experience, one driver started off before I’d fully got into the car, and going around roundabouts becomes a moped dodging activity. I was lucky that I was with people who had already got used to (as much as you ever can!) the way in which the mopeds ruled the roads in Saigon. Many times we held hands, took a deep breath, and walked out, never confident that all the mopeds would dodge us, but having to take the risk or stay stuck on the other side of the road indefinitely!
2. I thought I had a sweet tooth and then I went to Vietnam.
I’ve always had a sweet tooth. Sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks. I thought by the time I was an adult this would have subsided, but hell no, I still eat all that junk! Vietnam is the first country I’ve visited where the regulations controlling sugar content are not as restricted as the UK (or possibly at all!). On my second day in Saigon, my sister picked me up from the hotel and we walked to her apartment. On route she took us to a street vendor to get a palm sugar drink. It was my first experience of seeing something of the traditional Vietnam, as the vendor pushed stripped sugar cane into a pressing machine to get the juice. This juice is then scooped into large cups full of ice. I took my first sip and instantly reacted, argh! It was so sweet! Too sweet. My teeth felt on edge. Fast forward to my last day in Vietnam, I was practically begging my sister to take us back to the vendor so I could get my last palm sugar fix. In just two weeks my taste buds had acclimatized to the super sweet nature of Vietnam. And at just 5p a cup, whose wouldn’t? One thing I did notice, was also how quickly I grew accustomed to the Vietnamese diet, which consisted of mostly noodles and rice based dishes. Very little bread or starchy foods were on offer and I quickly got used to noodles and chillies for breakfast! With a distinct lack of carbs, my jeans became a little loser. That all being said, on my first night in Saigon, I did have one of the best American BBQ experiences at an independent grill run by a Yank expat. But we definitely ate authentic Vietnamese food for the rest of the time. Honest guv ;)
3. Be prepared to be unprepared.
I generally approach life in what I like to call a manner of organized chaos. When needs be, I can be pretty organized and prepared, but most of the time, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants. When it came to my trip to Vietnam, the super organized Girl Guide in me came out. I had list upon list of things I needed to do, buy and find before heading off. There were so many versions of the list that it felt like my organization had gone into overdrive. That aside, I managed to pull everything together, got my injections, insurance and hotel bookings sorted and my bag packed to military precision. For safety reasons, I didn’t take a handbag and kept my purse and phone in a super stylish money belt hidden under my top. For the most part this made me feel much safer and was somewhat freeing to not have a bag. I had my travel toiletries, my mega hardwearing Doc Martens, my hat and lightweight tops. I couldn’t have been more prepared,could I? Well, I didn’t prepare for the rain. Being out of the rainy season, I didn’t expect to see much. But the one day it did decide to rain, man, did it rain. It was like nothing I’d seen before. It literally felt like someone was tipping a bucket of water over my head. It also came down when my sister and I were on route to one of her lessons. Even with my boots on and a waterproof poncho, the water seeped up my trousers in a capillary action, my phone in the danger zone and my rings felt like they were going to slide off, there was no escape! After my sister finished teaching, we had got the bus home and finally dried off, I thought, sandwich bags! I totally should have used sandwich bags to keep my phone in. Oh well, will definitelypack them next time.
4. My concept of body image was totally re-adjusted.
I guess I am of pretty average height for a female, maybe on the short side. With regards to weight, I’ve been both bigger and smaller than I am now. I feel I have reached a weight I am comfortable with (or as much as anyone ever can be!). But in Vietnam, I felt like a humongous giant. Vietnamese men and women alike, are small and thin framed. Never moreso was this emphasized to me than when we were dress shopping. We went to the beach for a long weekend and decided to go exploring, shopping, and I fancied getting a dress. While browsing in one particular shop, the assistant came up to me, looked at me and the dress I was holding up and bluntly proclaimed; “It’s too small for you.” Yep. Too small for me. This was also the case when we visited the night market back in Saigon. The stall owners constantly stating, “We have big size for you.” I would be lying if I said those comments didn’t make me feel self-conscious. But I guess that’s when you have to get your head around whenyou are surrounded by people of a different culture, and different physical norms, as a Westerner, you will always look out of place because you're different.
5. I learned the art of mindfulness and that I’m more capable of being an ‘adult’ than I give myself credit for.
Paradise, surely it's impossible to worry in such a place? Because I'm a perpetual worrier, ditherer and all out anxiety ball at points, even floating in the ocean with no plans for the rest of the day, I still found stuff to worry about. I found I just could not, as they say, ‘be in the moment.’ So my sister told me about the art of practicing mindfulness. She encouraged me to focus on the feel of the ocean or the breeze and to concentrate on just one sensation. When I went back in the water, I floated on my back and focused on my toes bobbing up above the water. An odd choice, but it seemed to work. No longer was my mind drifting off, and I enjoyed that feeling of floating weightlessly in the cool water and beautiful sunshine.
Ten years ago, the prospect of getting on a train and traveling north from Stafford to Huddersfield to visit my sister, filled me with fear. Now, after having flown to the other side of the world to see her, that two hour train journey doesn’t seem so stressful. Anyone who has travelled long haul will know, it’s a long time to spend by yourself. And not just that, but being in a confined space for eleven solid hours, sitting next to a complete stranger,cut off from the outside world, is like a test of mental endurance. How I didn’t loose my mind, I’ll never know.
Traveling out to Vietnam was not as much of a problem. Filled with the excitement of going somewhere new, nervous about flying after so long and the sheer joy of knowing that I was going to see my sister, kept me going for the near-two day journey. Add on an eight hour time difference, a whole load of sleep deprivation and two airplane meals, I arrived in Vietnam dazed, confused and hella excited. Going back was a different story. Upset at my holiday being over, devastated to be leaving my sister behind and the prospect of a 28 hour journey stretching out in front of me, the excitement of that journey out was a distant memory. I remember arriving in Charles De Gaulle airport, after nearly 12 hours flying, tired and upset at having to walk through what felt like an eerily quiet airport security. I had to take my boots off and put on plastic foot covers. It was weird and surreal. But in a strange way, if you had told me a year ago I would have done all of that alone, I would have been like, yeah right! I’m not saying I don’t still sweat the small stuff, worry about the things I have to do on a daily basis, but when I find myself getting too worked up, I think back to that moment in Charles de Gaulle. That with everything I felt, I still kept myself going, got on the second plane, the train, and finally the Megabuswhich cruised me back into Huddersfield at 2am. The fact I got myself and my stuff back in one piece tells me that I can probably deal with most things life throws at me, even when I feel tired and sad, and that I shouldn’t worry so much.
So, there you have it, 5 things I learned in Vietnam. Until the next adventure, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite snaps of the trip…