Tuesday, 30 November 2010

First impressions of Vietnam

Our bags got lost on the way to Vietnam. And so we had an immediate introduction to Vietnamese service. After Chinese airport staff, who responded to questions like middle-schoolers being assigned homework, it was a pleasure to discover that this loss of baggage would be no trouble at all. They started making calls before we’d even reached the desk and located the bags before we’d finished the form. Our stuff was delivered to the hotel in a few hours. We definitely weren’t in Korea anymore.

The first thing Lacey and I noticed on the taxi to the hotel was the quiet. It felt like it should be loud – there are so many motorcycles and scooters that the cars are like rolling boulders in a fast-moving stream, and they use their little ‘pim-pim’ horns with an almost Italian regularity - but instead it was calm and, frankly, soothing. Traffic in Vietnam continued to fascinate for the whole week, and we never did see an accident. It became clear pretty quickly that, for all the apparent chaos, everyone pays an awful lot of attention to each other. While I never got comfortable with crossing the roads, riding on the back of a motorcycle felt surprisingly safe, especially when remembering Korean taxi rides. And the constant ‘pim-pim’ starts to seem polite after a while.

The second thing I noticed on the way into Saigon was that this was a considerably poorer country than Korea. The infrastructure was crumbling, with cables hung in the most haphazard way imaginable, and the people weren’t all using shiny phones and wearing brand-new clothes. Honestly, I think I would have noticed the poverty less if I hadn’t just left a country where wealth, and the show of wealth, is so important. But after trying to spend money all week, and finding that we still had half our Vietnamese dong on the last day, you couldn’t really avoid noticing that you’ve magically become a rich person. (And don’t worry, Lacey and I dug deep, and we shopped in the local markets until that money was gone.)

Like most good days, that first day ended with food. The French may not have always been popular in Vietnam, but damn they helped out with the food. It seems like these people liked good food before the French anyway, but it can’t hurt now can it? Our first meal in Saigon was at a little Indian restaurant where we were introduced to salted tea, tried our damnedest to spend more than 10 bucks each, and rolled out of there just about as happy as clams.

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