The day started off with a Virtual-Doug blog research trip, with Doug and one of his students visiting some of the people that you see every day here in Vietnam. People such as the bicycle repair men, the street vendor, the cyclo operator, and the bread salesman. Doug was doing research for one of his blogs, so I won’t steal his thunder on the specifics, but it is always interesting to me to find out more about the people that work on the margins of society. One of the reasons I enjoy coming to countries like this is it reminds me of how little we really need to get by.
I could fill pages of how cheap things are here. Beer for $.25/glass or the expensive beer for $.75/bottle, serviceable modern hotel room for $4/night, a dang nice (better than Holiday Inn!) hotel room with A/C for $11/night, 4 hour personal moto driver and guide for $10, and hour long massages after a sauna, soaking tub, and shower for $8. However, all things are relative. Most of the folks that Doug is talking to make around $1-2/day. Seven days a week and 52 weeks a year puts that at around $400-$500/year. Sobering. Yet, they make it happen.
As a traveler, I am always wanting to discover the true essence of a country, trying to soak in the culture as I pass through by going as local as possible without going crazy. This means trying to connect with locals as much as possible, avoiding many of the haunts of backpackers, and venturing out to where there may not be any tourist sites but where I can see the "real" Vietnam. But, the problem is always deciding what is the real Vietnam. Is it the young students learning for the first time how to think for themselves? Is it the veterans of the wars still trying to silence the ghosts of combat? Is it the party member with the important job and nice house? Is it the newly entrepreneurial factory owner churning out clothes for you and me? Is it the farmer who struggles with weather, avian flue epidemics, and foreign competition? Is it the 30 year old who is caught between idealistic capitalistic youth and entrenched communism? Unfortunately, it is all of these and more. Vietnam is going through change at an incredible rate, and it will be interesting to see how the people adapt to a world that is more modern, but also more cruel in demanding personal responsibility.
Doug and I were discussing today about how hard it is to teach what a foreign culture is, as part of understanding the culture is living in it and being a part of it. Much like a foreigner gradually loses their awareness of differences after a few years, I think the traveler is on a similar curve. After a while, the adjustments come and you stop noticing. It is all relative, and I’ve enjoyed comparing notes with Doug and Cindy regarding the difference between living and traveling in a foreign country. Somehow, knowing that you’ll be back at home in a few weeks stops you from having to deal with some of the finer (and often most exasperating) points of the culture.
I’ve enjoyed my break here, as I’ve been able to relax a little bit of my discipline about immersing myself in the culture. For example, after my long bus trip from Hanoi, I was waiting for Doug and Cindy at a local cafe and I indulged in what I call travel comfort food: M&Ms and a Diet Coke. Somehow, it helped ease the stress of being in a strange place, not being able to speak the language, and not having taken a shower for 36 hours.
Regarding the language – I can now count, say hello, goodbye, thank you, and I’m sorry, give simple toasts and say "bottoms up", and actually recognize enough food items on a menu to not starve. I’ve managed the streets as a pedestrian, a bicyclist, and a moto driver. And I haven’t pissed off anyone in a uniform yet. Things are looking good…