Saturday, July 17, 2010

Vietnam

It's been a while since the last blog entry, and just to make up for the inactivity, I figure I’ll use the first sentence here to satisfy the July quota for adverb use, by saying that I’m just about to depart Vietnam, and I really really really really really don’t want to leave. I haven’t even boarded the flight back to Tokyo, and already I’m scheming to come back. I saw zero pagodas, zero rice paddies and zero rivers, so long as we’re discounting flooding alongside the highways. One night, I tried a fruit that actually smells like a diaper, all fecal and plasticy, with just enough squish. One day, after a two-hour motorbike ride through industrial traffic, I got so dirty that the smog stuck to my face, hardening into scales. In fact, I think the dirt actually burrowed under my skin. Days later, Q-tips still return from the depths with payloads of black. Needless to say, I love this country. Also, I loved the fruit that tastes like a diaper.

Tuesday afternoon, I stepped out of the Ho Chi Minh City airport and met my translator/friend Luan Nguyen. I say ‘translator’ because, in the pursuit of all things journalism, that’s what he did. I say ‘friend’ because, during five days of rainstorms and great food and $7 hotel rooms, that’s what he became. We’d exchanged about 36 e-mails before my arrival, and in our final exchange, Luan told me to wait at the airport pick-up gate for a young guy with a pig graphic on his T-shirt. This turned out to be the only pig of the week whose various parts weren’t promptly wedged between basil and sprouts, rolled in rice paper and dunked in fish sauce.

Right from the beginning, Luan became a brotherly partner in our weeklong mission to report a good story about education in Vietnam. And for all the fun I had this week, he’s to thank. He’s 23, a recent Dickinson grad. He has a few free months to spend in his home country before a September return to the States, where he’ll begin a consulting job, so that’s the backstory. Last night — my final one in HCMC — he took me out to meet his girlfriend and four other buddies; we started the evening at a restaurant specializing in snail cookery and ended the evening at an outdoor picnic table, sitting as all Vietnamese tend to do on one-foot plastic kids’ furniture stools. And I gotta say, the whole experience was a blast; maybe even more than that. And it’s hard to describe why, because yeah, it was just a good night out, with the temperature just right and the drinks sweating. But it was also this feeling of optimism, of possibility, of being from there and still feeling so welcome here, and this morning when I woke up in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — a country that bans access to Facebook — I’d received three friend requests from people who alter their IP addresses to circumvent the block.

(In an unrelated note, before accepted said friend requests, I brushed my teeth twice, because my breath still smelled like the diaperfruit.)

Given that this blog entry is already 500 words long, and clearly lacking in any purposeful direction, I should state here that I have no great realizations to share about my time in a developing country. In fact, I’m a bit nervous about saying too much of anything. According to Blogspot.com’s User Guidebook for Travel Blog Regulations, any resident of a fairly controlled country who returns from a trip to a fairly totally-out-of-freaking control country is advised to promptly blog about something important, using phrases like “new appreciation” and “hidden beauty,” plus maybe one or two others that satisfy the obnoxious quotient not just for July, but also for August and September. But I’m sorry. I can’t do it. During the last five days, I’ve had a lot of weird thoughts about how to measure fortune and privilege, etc., and it’s particularly poignant because I now live in a country where the trains run on time, where the water is OK to drink, and where the toilets sometimes operate with automated touch screens. And here I am now in a country with such obvious misfortune, where the average person earns about $1,000 USD per year, where fires burn for no explicable reason, where people push dusty street carts along the highway… sometimes against traffic. Witnessing the squalor in such proximity — and with such contrast to your familiar settings — cannot help but set off a lot of profound questions, none of them original to me. But for now, I’ll just say this: Even countries where the trains run on time have their problems. Even countries where the street carts run against traffic have their delights. I could absolutely live in either sort of place, so long as there’s a grocery store that stocks breakfast cereal.

Vietnamese traffic actually deserves a full blog entry by itself, but I’ll settle for an abridged version. Here are the basic things to know. In Vietnam, almost everybody owns a motorbike. Almost everybody, too, owns a keen skill for ignoring traffic lights, stop signs, and other explicit guidelines designed to limit extreme danger. People wear helmets, but according to Luan, they are traditionally tested by being dropped once on the ground, from waist-level. If they do not crack, they pass the test for structural integrity. Kids 12 and under need not wear helmets. From what I observed, full families of four sometimes ride on these bikes. Sometimes with bushels of bananas bungee-corded to exposed engine parts.

When I first met Luan at the airport, we walked to the parking lot (filled with motorbikes), and there he asked me two questions. The first being, “Is this your first time in a developing country?” (No, it wasn’t.) And the second being, “Are you ready for the ride of your life?” (Umm, umm, umm, hand me the helmet.)

Thusly helmeted, we navigated Vietnam for the next several days. This was not altogether advisable, especially given the driving distances (far) and the weather (lousy). In a later moment of reflection, Luan admitted he pushed his motorbike to limits never before tested. But a note to my mother: Our helmets were of sound structural integrity.

Tuesday afternoon, all for the goal of an interview in a rural town 80 km away, we headed out of HCMC carrying little more than two backpacks, some bottled water and some mosquito spray. The first few kilometers were pretty fun. Luan, of course, did the driving. I mostly did the sitting and looking at the driver’s neck. But step-by-step, road conditions worsened. We encountered traffic — like, 140,000-motorbikes-at-a-Springsteen-concert traffic. We witnessed the sort of road impediments that almost defied belief. Miniature Mississippi Rivers alongside the highway. Detours that led over gravel, through potholes and under rope. (It was designed to keep people out. People ducked under.) Then, as we entered an industrial zone, we encountered lots and lots of big vehicles representing companies that just sound aggressive: Trang and Cong and such. And their tires kicked up furious amounts of dirt. I’ve encountered circumstances like this before, of course, and there’s always been a solution. Wiper fluid. This time, I just tried to close my eyes.

I took two videos from the road. First, you can get a sample of the flooding. Second, you see the results of two hours on a motorbike. Watch below. It’s a little taste of my trip. Because I’ve saved you the smell, the taste is all good.

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