Greetings from Vietnam

November 8, 2010

Xin ciao!

I’ve arrived safely in Vietnam, with all my luggage!  My flight left San Francisco at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning and went to Taipei, and then from Taipei I flew into HCMC with an arrival of 11:30 a.m. on Thursday.  I’d arranged to be picked up at the airport, so after clearing customs and getting my visa approved, I walked out into the din and humidity of the city.  There were plenty of people about, and plenty of taxi drivers ready to overcharge me, but no one with an i-to-i Volunteering sign.  I had been told the taxi ride to the guesthouse should cost between $7-$10 dollars American, in case no one was there to collect me, so that helped.  The first guy wanted $35 and complained that a parking ticket was $7 and no one would take me for that little.  I told him ok, I’ll wait to be picked up.

Another guy approached me and I talked him down to $15 American, and he made a call on his cell phone.  He held onto my arm until a car came racing up and he told me to get in the back with my backpack while he slid into the front next to the driver.  They talked, he showed the driver the address, and then said, “Ok madame, you pay now.”  So I handed him the $15 and as the driver started to pull away, the first guy opened his door and jumped out, with the $15.  I didn’t think that seemed quite right, but what could I do?  The taxi driver didn’t stop, so I assumed he was ok with how things were unfolding.

HCMC street traffic is a complete madhouse.  I’d been warned by all the travel books, but still, being immersed in it for the first time (after 20 hours of travel) was incredible. Swarms of motorbikes overtake all the vehicles like water rushing around rocks in a riverbed, except that the water flows in all directions at once and is constantly honking.  People all seem quite ok with it though- we’ve hardly seen any accidents, and no one gets angry, they just slow down and then move forward/sideways/through/behind/in front when they can nudge through without hitting anyone, at least not too hard.  It’s chaos, but it works.

The streets were crammed with people and bikes, and the narrow roads are lined with tiny hovels of shops that I think double as dwellings for the shopkeepers.  People were sprawled out on the cement or across chairs, reading newspapers or languidly fanning themselves in the afternoon heat.  The shops were so small and cramped and oddly shaped that it looked like the buildings had been constructed for some other purpose, and then as an afterthought, people moved in and took up residence in the nooks and crannies of the city.  Our path was winding, down narrow alleys and through crazy roundabouts, with shop after shop after shop passing by my window, all distinct and yet without making any impression on me- I had no idea where I was.  I was quite intimidated, and for all the shopkeepers waiting and watching the traffic go by, I didn’t see any customers anywhere.  I still am not sure who buys all that stuff.  The whole scene had kind of a lawless feel about it, but I’m sure that had to do with me being unsure if I was about to be driven to the edge of town and relieved of my belongings.

After what was probably 25 minutes in the taxi, we abruptly pulled to the side of the road and the taxi driver nodded to me.  I half expected him to ask for another $15, but he didn’t- he opened my door, and seeing my uncertainty, pointed at the address on the paper I’d handed him and then to the same address on the metal gate across from us.  He nodded at me again and gestured to the building, so I thanked him and shouldered my bag.  No sign.  No logo.  Just a big metal gate and an address.  As I walked up to it, not sure if I was supposed to ring a bell or bang a tin cup against the bars or what, a young kid came and opened the door and immediately pressed his hand into mine and said “nice-to-meet-you, nice-to-meet-you!”  He led me upstairs in the empty house and pointed at one of the cots, so I set down my bags.  He said again, “Nice to meet you!” and left.  After standing there for a few seconds, I decided Ho Chi Minh City was a bit much for me to handle on my own, and that I would stay on that foam mattress and eat granola bars until someone else showed up.  What in the world had I gotten myself into?

So… enough of the melodramatics.  A few hours after I arrived, an English woman named Linda also arrived, and we ventured next door together for a dinner and a much-needed beer.  The rest of the volunteers arrived the following afternoon, which gave us time to explore a bit more, accidentally walk off the map we carried, and then find our way back into the proper district and a delightful French bakery.  Before coming out of the city to the Mekong Delta where my project is, we also visited the oldest pagoda in Vietnam, which was built in the 1700’s and has only been restored twice.

The inside was beautiful but I didn’t feel right taking photos in there, so you’ll have to take my word on that.


On the flight from Taipei I sat next to a small man with a few sparse but very long chin hairs. He took off his tennis shoes and folded his legs beneath him (on a PLANE seat!) the whole trip.  In this compact parcel of a human was such a warmth and sweetness though- he was definitely an Uncarved Block, for those who have read The Tao of Pooh.  He watched a cheesy kung-fu movie on his monitor, in which the bad guys were all Americans and loud, aggressive, and disrespectful.  Of course, by the end we’d all learned an important lesson about compassion and respecting the dignity of others even if they are different from us.  When the movie ended, the man turned to me and asked if I was staying in HCMC, and I said that I was.  We talked about my project, and he shook his head and said, “That’s very beautiful!” and told me about going to visit his mother in Nha Trang.  He asked if I had friends here, and I said, “Well, not yet!”  He chuckled and welcomed me to Vietnam, and when he stood up to get his bag from the overhead bin, I saw that under his hoodie he wore the brown robes of a monk.  I guess even monks like the kitchy kung-fu movies.

My Vietnamese is coming along very slowly.  At dinner with other volunteers two nights ago, we were finally told that we were using the wrong intonation for one of our words, so instead of saying “yes” we were actually saying “gun” (or maybe “shoot” based on the waiter’s pantomime).  Fortunately we hadn’t had occasion to give enthusiastically affirmative answers in any banks or airports.

Know that everything is fine and I’m enjoying my time here after an uncertain first few hours.  We’ve just started on the house we’re building, and met the family (the man has a heart condition and can’t work, and his wife sells fish in one of the open air markets, and they have two kids in primary school), and I’m working on my initial blisters.  Everything is as it should be.

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