Sunday, January 17, 2010

I went to Vietnam!

One of the perks of living in Japan, for me at least, is it's proximity to my homeland Vietnam. I have been twice before, the first time when I was about 9 (1994?) and then again in college (2003?). This was my first trip to Vietnam without the complete guidance of my parents (ok....soooort of) which was both exciting and scary. Our trip started in HCMC/Saigon, 5 days in beachy Nha Trang, 3 days in Hanoi with a 1 day trip to Halong Bay, then back to Saigon for a day and a half. My mom and sister were also visiting VN so we fit in a fair amount of family time too, which is always A-Ok with me. Aside from seeing a dead body on the street (bike accident), a cooked dog (in the North...which is still common) and a bout of killer food poisoning, the trip was perfect.

I'll get to the food in some other posts, but this being my third trip in 15 years, I wanted to share some thoughts about how the country is changing...from my perspective at least. The first time I went to Vietnam, I was pretty young which was kind of a blessing. Vietnam was still trying to rebuild itself and it's people. Viet Kieu, Vietnamese people who have left the country, like my parents, were coming back to the country for the first time since they left. Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City was an absolute zoo. Eager families waiting to be reunited with their loved ones waited in a frenzy outside the baggage terminal. For my sister and I, this was the first taste of Vietnam. Oppressive humidity and lots and lots of hysterical Vietnamese people crushed up against a barricades. I remember the streets being stuffed with mopeds and it being hard to breath. Humidity plus ground level pollution - lethal combination. We made our trek to Soc Trang, my mom's hometown, a small village in the south near Can Tho. It was a very long trip but we got to see the country side - the colorful floating villages, The Mekong Delta and the people. Our western fashion clearly stuck out as we were hounded by child and senior beggars the whole trip. I met my grandmother for the first and last time on this trip which is most memorable to me because she is the only grandparent I have ever known. She bought me ice cream with condensed milk on top everyday (kem) and I enjoyed just sitting around hearing her talk to my mom, even though I had no idea what she was saying at the time. My cousins who had stayed in Vietnam were happy people and living a cushy life - 4 story house, a garage full of mopeds, with maids and cooks at their disposal. What I know now is that this isn't the portrait of your average Vietnamese family. Our family was and still is very lucky.

My second trip came in college, again with my parents, but not with my sister. I was eager to go back now that I was an enlightened and supposedly educated adult. This was a very different trip. In need of a real vacation, I begged my parents to take me to the beach town they had been bragging about for years, Nha Trang. Flights to Vietnam were cheaper now since more airlines were adding it to their international routes and tourism was growing. Saigon was a little glitzier this time around - mopeds were still overcrowding the streets but there were still a lot of new things to see. European style cafe's, big chain hotels and cleaner streets. Saigon looked like any other big city...sort of. We took the reunification express to Nha Trang. Holy jesus, it was slow it was about a day and a half to get to Nha Trang, which is a 45 minute flight from Saigon. But again, we got to see some country side views and I'm glad to have had the experience. This train won't be around for much longer. Vietnam Railways with some aid from Japan, is building a high-speed rail line with Shinkansen (bullet train) technology connecting HCMC and Hanoi that will cut down the travel time to around 5 hours. It currently takes about 36 hours. Yikes! Nha Trang was mind blowing. I had no idea beaches like these existed in Vietnam. I thought it was just another made up story my dad told us to make Vietnam sound cool! We stayed at the nicest resort in town, the Ana Mandara. LUXORY! It felt a little wrong to stay in a place so nice, in a country where people made less than $100 a day, but at the same time I welcomed the idea of westerner's coming to VN to see that it is a lot more than a war. There was so much development happening on the main street, Tran Phu. I remember wondering what it would look like a few year's time. (Foreshadowing...)

Fast forward to the present. Here I am in Tokyo, unpacked from my latest trip. It was an invigorating trip that made me really feel proud of my heritage. The streets are cleaner and the people are friendlier. The airports were calm - no barricades out front anymore. Saigon was a little quieter (if you can believe it!) and trendy cafe's and boutique hotels lined the streets. You could tell that many Vietnamese were coming back home after year's living in the West and were setting up restaurants and businesses in the city. The standard of service is much higher in the fancier areas, but even in the markets, things just seem to be a little calmer. One of the biggest changes I noticed was the lack of street beggars. Sure, we got a few people trying to sell us lotto tickets, but there just weren't as many gaunt children running around trying to get their hand on a dollar. When we did see kids, they were usually in a school uniform grabbing an after school snack. That's a good sign. Nha Trang has changed a lot as well. We once again stayed at the Ana Mandara but ventured out into town as much as possible. The main tourist area in Nha Trang was...kind of disappointing. It's overrun by cheesy western bars offering pizza and hamburgers. Some of the smaller hotels with names like the "Seaview" no longer had sea views because the new Novotel was erected right in front of their building, blocking their view. It's only natural that these things happen and I don't mean to sound cynical about the westernization of Nha Trang or Vietnam in general because in many ways, it is a really good thing, but I can't help but feel a bit sad and embarrassed that local business people are being pushed out by Australian, Swedish and American chains.

Up to Hanoi for the first time ever. What an experience! My dad's family is originally from the North so I was really happy to finally see what it is all about. We had been warned that the North and South are very different and that showed in almost every interaction we had. The northern accent is pretty much unrecognizable for me. I don't speak Vietnamese, but I can understand about 70% of what is being said. With the Northern accent, my comprehension takes a dive down to about 10%. Northerners are more buttoned up than Southerners - even the cyclo drivers wear blazers. No pajama parties up here! (In the south, most women wear pajama looking outfits called Ao Ba Ba) I guess the most critical thing I have to say about Hanoi is that it is colder, both in temperature and attitude. It's not a very smiley town and service with a smile is very rare. I don't take it personally, but people in Hanoi are just very serious and cold. That aside, I really liked Hanoi. I think I like it more as a city than Saigon because of all the historical preservation. It is a very charming city and I hope more people get a chance to see what it has to offer.

There are so many images from my trips that stick in my mind but from experience, many tend to fade as time goes by. That's the great thing about food - you always remember the food and the food will always lead you back to those fond memories of when you first had that dish. I always associate ice cream with condensed milk with my first trip to Vietnam, and Nem Nuong with Nha Trang. When I lived in New York, every once in a while I'd pass a hot dog vendor burning his pretzels and the smell would take me right back to a busy corner in Saigon where the sidewalks were filled with street food. So now that I've shared my memories with you...on to the food!

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