Monday, September 26, 2016

Part 3: Vietnam

Social awkwardness and tiredness (it was late) are a doozy. Step out of the luggage area in Ho Chi Minh City's airport and right into the street. No lobby, no waiting area, just a mass of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, fighting for taxis and buses and a ride to wherever they're going. We stupidly got in an unmarked taxi that made us switch to a marked taxi in a dark alley that then took us to not quite the right spot.

Vietnam is chaotic. 90% of the traffic on the road is made up of motorbikes. While cars may have to follow the rules of a one way road, the bikes don't, so even on narrow one lane streets they come flying down in both directions. Sometimes, they even hop up on the sidewalk, barreling down as if the sidewalks are merely a second road. Traffic lights are few and far between, and are followed precisely never. Crosswalks serve no purpose. Roundabouts become a sea of cutting across people and honking horns. The horns. Constant.

Vietnam was a country that tried to rip us off a lot. Scammers on sidewalks tried to upsell us by 1000-5000%. A woman began talking to me as I sat on the curb to try to distract me while a man would come by and try to steal stuff out of my pockets. Men on corners tried to sell marijuana, hurriedly saying the word, some of them dressed in official security or police garb. It is an intense experience. Between the constant noise, the pervasive smell of auto fumes, the onslaught of people targeting the 'rich tourist', it is not a place to visit for the faint of heart.

It is a country caught in between two worlds. You are just as likely to find a club or bar pumping nationalist tunes as you are America's latest hits. Chains have begun their steady encroach onto every block and corner, but markets are still the king of the arena. The main downtown area has fully embraced the modern capitalist adage of "the more tall buildings that light up, the better." The view can be stunning.

But I made friends there, some who I still stay in touch, who want me to come back, so that they can show me more of their country. After a few minutes on a bike, you learn to let go of the trepidation and just enjoy the wind on your face and seeing the city from outside an enclosed vehicle. And it's easy to enjoy many of the other little things. Vietnamese coffee. Reasonable portion sizes. Cheap as hell everything. Maybe I'll be back, maybe I won't. the country will continue to change. It is on a trajectory that can not be stopped. That trajectory is largely good, as it means less poverty, less crime, healthier citizens. But it also will eventually wear down the local customs, end the markets, the bikes, the little idiosyncrasies that made Vietnam, Vietnam.

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