Travels in Vietnam
Maybe it was a mid-life crisis or maybe it was because the marriage of 30 years had lost all its magic. I don’t know what happened but I started to feel that there were many things I had missed out on doing while married and raising a family, who incidentally by then had left home leaving a hollow feeling in the house.
All through the marriage I had worked hard to make enough money to provide what was necessary leaving little over to spend on myself. My wife did not work for the first 15 years of marriage and was a full time mother. There were never any overseas holidays, weekends away, new cars, or luxuries, BUT there was always enough for the home and the necessities, but little else.
After the family left home, I was able to put a bit of cash away and was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel when the marriage started to get really bad. Separate rooms, short separations, marriage counselors, I did it all with no improvement.
Going back to the late 60’s I was 20 and got selected for compulsory 2 years national service in the Army. Conscripted men were used as cannon fodder for the Vietnam war. My posting was in another city in my country for the duration but I was on 7 days notice the whole time for overseas service if needed. We were fed all the propaganda that was current at the time to make us believe that we were saving the world from the “Yellow Peril of Communism”.
Over the years and with better information available and in hindsight, I formed the opinion that this was just a conflict between two halves of one country and that we should not really have been interfering in their politics and that blindly following the lead of the USA was not the right thing to have done. I started to think about the results of the war and what it had become of Vietnam under communism? How had the population fared? Most important to me was to see the results of the war, having heard so much about what had happened there.
By then I had started fooling around on some dating sites and came across a Vietnamese woman in Vung Tau who responded to my messages. We started chatting over the internet and occasionally by phone. When I let it be known that I was interested in visiting Vietnam she said that she would arrange accommodation for me and help with some sightseeing. This sounded good to me so I obtained a passport, booked flights and visas and then told the wife that I was going without her. Major scene but it blew over.
Never having travelled overseas before, I took off with all the bravado of the unsuspecting traveler, only to be brought very quickly back to earth upon arrival in HCMC. Armed soldiers were everywhere, non smiling immigration and customs officials, signs in Vietnamese with some English translations in small letters. I played follow the leader to get through this part. Then the shock getting outside in the tropical heat and waiting for the Vietnamese woman to arrive. She had hired a car and driver to come and collect me but she was quite late in arriving. This was my first introduction to the unimportance of time to Asian people. The first of many culture shocks I was to get.
My first impressions of Vietnam were in Saigon – very busy with wall to wall motorcycles. The roads seemed to be one long metropolitan area all the way to Vung Tau, but in reality it was only one line of shop houses with agricultural land behind. It seemed that every spare bit of land was being used for some purpose and there was food growing wherever there was space.
Vung Tau is a town in two parts. On the one side were the locals and fishing village and around the corner was the tourist area. I had been booked in to an older French Colonial hotel from the 40’s or 50’s in the local’s part of town. It was a very large room with all usual facilities but included a bath large enough to swim in. The hotel had no restaurant so all meals had to be eaten out. It cost only US$16 per night. I was deposited here and my friend said she would come back later to see me. She duly arrived with one or her employees, an attractive young girl, bearing a basket of fruit, some of which I had never seen before.
She explained that it is detrimental to her reputation and against the law for a man and a woman to stay together in a hotel unless they are married. Thought to self, is it going to be like this for the whole of my time here? Later that afternoon I was taken to her house where she conducts a business for women’s massage, skin care etc. She also did acupuncture and laser treatment of skin blemishes. She had 4 young women working for her, three of whom also lived on the premises with her and her 16 year-old daughter. I couldn’t even get up to fill my glass with water without one of the girls there trying to get it for me. I was starting the get used to having a private “harem” at my disposal, even if it was only for the service of food and drink.
Next morning I wanted breakfast. Nothing was available to eat at the hotel and the girl at reception didn’t speak any English, so I just wandered out to the street and looked for somewhere. I found a place close by where there were many local people so went in and saw they only ordered coffee there. That would do for starters. I managed to get the idea that I wanted coffee across to the waiter and in due course, along came one pot of Jasmine tea with teacup, long glass with ice, small glass with strainer on top and coffee dripping from it, sugar and spoon. WTF is that, I thought. After a few minutes the waiter seemed to sense that I had no idea about what to do and he showed me to press the top of the strainer to get all the coffee into the small glass. Mix sugar with this and pour it over the ice. That was one of the best coffees I have ever had.
My friend had said that she would be busy until later that day so I was to amuse myself. I had decided that the best way to get to know a place is to walk where there are locals and not many tourists. In hindsight I think this may have been a bit crazy knowing nothing of the local customs, but I started walking through the town. There were a few moments when I was thinking that it was not a good idea, for example, I was getting slapped on the shoulder or back by some people. This I now understand is a form of greeting or friendship. Next was the brushing of my arms, particularly by young women. It appears that they have never seen a hairy western man up close and after a few times when this happened I would stop, turn and offer my arm to them to stroke.
I did not possess a map of any sort and consequently I got lost a few times but there was always a cyclo man to take me back to the hotel for just one dollar. These days I would have had some sort of electronic map with GPS and not got lost.
My thoughts on Vung Tau were that it was the cleanest, tidiest, most friendly place I have been to. There were no beggars or scammers to be seen, but then I did not get near the tourist part of town. The locals seemed to be industrious and busy, but never too busy to try chat in English at times.
After a few days there I was informed by my friend that we were going to HCMC for the rest of the time as she also had to go there for business purposes and to see family.
This time she knew of a companion friendly hotel where we could stay without question. I did see one young foreign couple get turned away there because they could not prove that they were married. Hmmmmm.
We did all the usual tourist things, saw the French Colonial buildings, cathedral and the markets.
The War Remnants Museum (previously known as The War Crimes Museum) was the one place that I had really wanted to see. There is a room there full of photographs taken during the conflict. It showed some of the atrocities done by the Allied forces AND some atrocities by the Viet Cong. It also showed photos of some good, kind deeds by both sides. I am not going to try to describe any of the photos here as you need to see them in their entirety to get a full picture.
I was emotionally drained by the time I had finished viewing the photos, but worse was to come in the form of the displays of war materials and the after effects of Agent Orange. This is the most terrible, devastating, long lasting crime to have been inflicted on the Vietnamese people. The effects are still being felt today and will continue for many generations to come.
How much money was wasted in waging war by both sides? How much has been spent since cleaning up? How much productivity has been lost due to deaths caused by war? I have since often wondered what would have happened if all that money had been offered in friendship and invested in the country as infrastructure and establishment of industry?
I have seen the after effects of the war first hand, I have been offered food and drink by complete strangers. I have returned home with a different outlook on many things. I have made some good friends while I was there, if only for the duration of my holiday.
Her family had everything, business and home etc, confiscated by the North after the war and they were left with almost nothing. Somehow all the children managed to get university education and have managed to thrive. All have good houses and jobs and do not seem to want for anything.
That was about 6 years ago.
We kept in touch and a few months later she asked if I could meet her at the airport at home and help her get to another city nearby. I offered to take her there by car and do some sightseeing on the way with an overnight stop. We had a long time to talk and she said that she was visiting her brother and niece and to see about schooling and university there for her daughter. Also that she was to meet another man to see if she could live with him and get married with the aim of emigrating.
I had the feeling all along that this was on her mind but also that she knew that I was still married and not immediately available for marriage. We were good friends (with benefits) in any case so our friendship has endured.
I met the family there and enjoyed a meal with them. They impressed me as good people which was what I thought of the ones I met in her home town. I left her there but about a week later got a call from her while I was at work. Her niece was lost in the center of my city. She had boarded the wrong bus and come to the city center instead of the airport while her bag was delivered to the airport. Could I help? I quickly sorted that out for them.
Forward another 6 months and I had expressed a desire to see more of Vietnam and could she suggest the best way to do this. Her reply was that she would organize an open bus trip for me. I duly booked tickets and again she met me at the airport. We booked into the same hotel in HCMC for 1 night and she informed me that she was to accompany me on the trip and that it was all paid for. I only had to pay for any outings and food. This was her way of saying thanks for helping her and her niece back home.
I won’t bore you with the details of the trip but we again had time to talk. I was finding out more about her plans for the future and also about her past. She had a long time boyfriend who was married and would not divorce his wife. He was by then quite ill and could not manage the trip to see her any more. She said that no matter who she ended up with, if he called for her she would go to him. He had been providing her with cash and had bought her some land way back. There was also another man from my own country who had offered to marry her, provide for her and her daughter and pay for all education costs. In turn he needed someone to help with his aged mother. At the time she was not sure whether to accept this offer or not.
We were in a hill town called Da Lat which is one of the prettiest places I have seen and she decided to look at investment property. She found a place that she wanted to purchase and bluntly asked me to provide half of the cost as “an investment in OUR future”. By this time I knew that we would not be having any long term future together and that she was better as a friend with benefits and that would be the best outcome for us both. How many excuses can you make for not investing in any such scheme without being downright rude. I begged financial problems and that for me to get money for that purpose, I would have had to take out another mortgage on the house. As if wifey would agree to that. Never. Also I did not know about foreign property ownership there.
So what did she choose to do? She married the man from my own country who has provided for her. She now has permanent resident status there and has started up her business which from the last report is thriving. Her daughter has now graduated from university. She still has the business in Vietnam and commutes there every few months to monitor it and see family.
My thoughts on Vietnam. If you get away from the tourist areas or backpacker areas it is a completely different experience. I have been offered food and drink by compete strangers when they were eating meals in public. I have eaten where only the locals eat and have eaten their food and never been sick from it. I have enjoyed hospitality like I would never get back home. I have been stopped in the street by people wanting to speak to someone that speaks English just to try speaking in my language. Get away from the cities and the scenery, particularly in the mountains is spectacular. I will go again someday.
As for me, I now live in Thailand, but that’s another story.
You just make me want to spend more time in Vietnam more and more…