Friday, 15 July 2011
Vietnam – full of Vietnamese
Vietnam – From Hanoi to Phu Quoc Island
I shot a furtive and subtle glance over my right shoulder to Helen, sat at the back of the minibus, that I hoped conveyed the message ‘this is not what it looks like, although I don’t really know what this is’.
The skinny and feline man who was sat next to me had, sighing contentedly, snuggled sleepily into my shoulder and was gently stroking my arm hair. We’d spent the previous 45 minutes in a game of eye spy, both of us incapable of understanding the other’s language, but committed nonetheless to exhausting the possibilities of our surroundings. He’d showed me his I-Phione (sic), a glorious rip-off that even had the Apple apple on start up. I’d shared with him some vacuum-packed dried fruit I’d pinched from an Air Botswana flight and had kept for emergencies (this, I felt, qualified). He showed me his tattoos, I showed him mine. We swapped cigarettes, and I read aloud the Vietnamese government health warning on the side of his package, much to his delight, although I’m certain I heard a snigger from one of the other passengers who, quite fairly, was wondering what the hell we were up to. I was wondering the same. I showed him the world map on the inside page of the book I was reading, a chapter of which was dedicated to Vietnam, and we traced our fingers across the different names of cities, repeating them to each other. He pointed to my copper bracelet and struggling to explain that it was from Zambia I resorted to pulling an old postcard from my bag, never sent, with pictures of a Kenyan safari emblazoned on the front. What’s the correct African country between new friends?
Eventually, he pointed to his arm, and simulating an injection, rolled his eyes to the back of his head. I finally got it. This guy was off his face. And who was I to ruin his buzz? Although I stopped short of stroking his hair and singing him lullabies (“I felt the needle and the damage done…”) I did slump a little and turned the pages of my book slowly so as not to disturb him from his opium dreams. It was the least I could do – we had a relationship now.
It’s these mini, transient, relationships that often deliver the most joy when travelling. I’ve written before that it’s the people, and not the places, that inspire. This is why I was disquieted by the Lonely Planet Vietnam guidebook’s very short opinion-piece on what they consider to be a ‘worrying development’ in the relationship between travellers in Vietnam and the Vietnamese. It suggested, in its brevity, that travellers simply don’t trust their hosts. Such vagueness is often the calling card of the Lonely Planet – a small box of text outlining a spurious sentiment that raises far more questions than answers. Lonely Planet are generally reluctant to express firm opinions outside of the stay/eat/do category, but given these guides are written by intelligent and adventurous types it is somewhat inevitable that esoteric opinions do, on occasion, slip through. For me, however, this is the ‘worrying development’, and I think the aforementioned opinion piece neatly captures why. It fails to mention why there is a tension in the relationship, what opinions exist on both sides of the supposed tourist-resident divide, and how the tension manifests itself. ‘There be monsters’ it vaguely implies. One is left to fill in the blanks of this story, entering the country, as I did, with an ill-defined sense of unease, and a ‘no smoke without fire’ logic painting vivid tapestries of distrust, scams, and simmering hostility. Would I feel about as welcome here as I would if I walked into an alopecia clinic?
It made me wonder just how many tourists read that opinion-piece and, just like me, enter Vietnam with a barrier held high, a silent mental refrain saying ‘I don’t trust you, I don’t know why, but I just don’t’. It’s bad news, and it’s not like me. Contrary to what you may have taken from previous postings I do actually like people, and happy as I am to spend time in my own head, I struggle without meaningful human contact. I try hard to assume the best of people, try even harder not to judge people too quickly (because I need to try, this does not come naturally), and I firmly believe that everyone has an interesting story to tell, you just need to ask the right questions sometimes. I’m not naïve so I don’t automatically trust anyone, but I do want to trust; that door is open my friend, I’d really like it if you walked through it, but I’m not coming to you.
You can probably tell where this is going (no? you’re not following this stream of consciousness claptrap? Come on, keep up). I shouldn’t have been worried, and I resent the Lonely Planet for triggering this worry, but not as much as I resent myself for assuming the worst. People, to be bland, are people. Some are nice, some are devious, some are helpful, some are calculating, some are clever, some are daft. Most are a combination. I shuddered a little when a girl we’d met had advised us ‘not to go to that beach, it’s full of Vietnamese’. I refrained from replying ‘well, we are in Vietnam, you weirdo, and while we’re being open and honest you can tell your boyfriend that despite being charming and interesting and intelligent and someone I’d like to have a beer with he looks like a COCK with those dreadlocks and that stupid hair band and it is because of this that I am being cold towards him, yes I called you a weirdo’. Contrary to guidebooks and lazy generalisations the Vietnamese people we met were lovely and however brief and transient our relationship may have been with them, it was a good one.
There was Mr. Dung, our motorbike tour leader who led us safely across the Hoi An pass (video below), who was gentle and kind and out of chivalry never allowed Helen to carry her own rucksack. His chivalry also extended to me. He sat next to me after I’d changed into my swimming shorts to have a swim in the Elephant Falls, just south of Hue, and gently stroking my arm (yes, that again) he quietly said ‘you’re a very handsome man Mr Ian’ proving he was a benevolent liar, and prompting a response of ‘um, thanks’? He would later hand over his cap to me after I complimented it, insisting that I took it from him, and causing a banknote battle as I offered to pay and he refused – I won, boo yah!
There was the hotel receptionist in Hanoi who took time out of his day to patiently tutor me on how to say, in Vietnamese, ‘good morning, please can you take us to the bus station’? I assume that’s what I learnt although it could well have been ‘good morning, I am a fool, please switch your taxi meter to rip-off mode’. Whatever I actually said, not helped by Helen’s giggles at my sing-song pronunciation, we got to the bus station. This generated what I think was a completely justified smug raise of the eyebrows from me to the still-giggling Helen.
There were countless other people who would stop to smile and help, explain what was in the tea we were drinking, and gently tolerate our remedial attempts at their language. Even the security staff at Danang airport were friendly, allowing me to run back through the metal detector clutching my swiss army penknife, walk straight past the check-in desks, and stuff the penknife into our chucked luggage that was still sitting on the conveyor. All these people had a bigger impact on me than the atmospheric cities and beautiful countryside that this country offers up in spades.
So for those of you who are disquieted or concerned by the welcome you may receive in Vietnam I have a simple message. Go – it’s full of Vietnamese.