Backpacking Through Vietnam: Part I cover

Backpacking Through Vietnam: Part I

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My backpack was heavy. An inexperienced backpacker, I could hardly anticipate that a hair straightener would be needless, flip-flops and a sports bra invaluable. The science of packing for a trip to a third world country was less complicated than I thought.


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Arrival

Arrival

My backpack was heavy. An inexperienced backpacker, I could hardly anticipate that a hair straightener would be needless, flip-flops and a sports bra invaluable. The science of packing for a trip to a third world country was less complicated than I thought.

Earliest Hours

As I stepped into Ho Chi Minh Airport at 3:35 a.m. the backpack was weighing down my shoulders and spirit. I was exhausted.

I had missed my flight in Shanghai, and spent most of the night waiting for another. The entrance Visa I had prepared was an even bigger nightmare. I handed the drowsy-eyed, wrinkled-shirt employee my passport praying that it wasn’t a scam. Shaking off the fatigue, I watched him like a panther until he collected my $25 U.S. dollars and waved me through. As tired as I was, I wasn’t about to have my identity stolen.

In the earliest hours of morning, and with a second wind coming on strong, I found myself in the quite of a city that had a reputation of pick-pocketing, drugs, lady-boys, and some of the best food in southeast Asia. I turned to Mike (my traveling accomplice) and knew we were going to find at least one of those things this first night.

District 1

We were starving, and for anyone else who has ever walked the streets of a city at four in the morning, if you’re not drunk, you’re hungry.

The only source of life was down a shady street I had caught sight of as we took a cab into District 1. So we backtracked on foot to an eatery spread open to a patio and spilling out onto the street. Two men were merrily playing guitars from chairs that were clearly meant for small children—these little plastic tea-party-tables are apparently standard in Vietnam—we opted for an adult-sized table inside and relieved ourselves the heavy loads.

The space filled with Abbey Road and John Lennon, as a man with long black hair howled like a coyote into the night. The interior was simple. Nothing lacked purpose and everything had lost its esthetic long ago. Though not the only patrons, we were greeted swiftly and kindly by the young boy serving the tables. Beer. We need beer.

Vietnamese Fair

Vietnamese Fair

Fried tofu with lemongrass and fennel.

Food and Song

He brought over two lukewarm Tiger Beers, a brew I would learn to love on this journey.

We toasted our first victory and held our breath, hoping the meals we had pointed out in the menu would come out looking familiar and edible, without pig heads or cat meat; neither of us could handle that at this hour—at least not sober.

The food was heavenly. Fried tofu with lemon grass and fennel seeds was the perfect salty dish to accompany the beer. Peppery and light, I felt myself relaxing as the hunger vanished and was replaced with ease as the warm beers started to take effect, my worries over the long day of travel abated. We had made it. We were here.

Family Business

As the morning crept on, the restaurant slowly became a living room.

The service boys started to take their clothes off to get more comfortable. Shirtless and without shoes or socks, they walked around serving us beer, sitting down occasionally for a misunderstood conversation.

By the end, we were the only people left eating, so the family of cooks and servers settled in for the night. Some woman appeared from the back and sat next to us, perhaps curious whether the foreigners had enjoyed their cooking. The family sat close, playfully smiling and laughing as we tried to talk to them, the young boys pushing each other towards me in jest.

Vicarious Travel

In the spirit of backpacking, I had done something I would never dream of doing back home.

I hadn’t booked a single room, train ride, tour or flight, which for me was both terrifying and liberating. What if we can’t find a room? Will we be forced to walk the streets and dance for change? What if the train is full? How will we get to Da Nang? My family will never see me again! For being so cool I have a tendency of getting really worked up about details. But I did my best to trust in my company, who had done far more traveling than me.

Go 2 Bar

At about 6:00 a.m. we walked into a club called Go 2 Bar, a popular spot among foreigners, or people just passing through.

It was a cocktail of foreigners and Vietnamese girls in blonde wigs on the third floor. Normally, this is my kind of party. I love loud music and dancing and I particularly love any party that involves wigs and cross-dressing, but I had hit a wall, and I was somewhere between sleep and a bad ecstasy trip.

A few more warm beers on the bar patio away from the noise, the sky started to reveal cloud patches in a soft lavender hue, and so ended my first night in Vietnam.

Danger in the Road

Danger in the Road

Motorbikes zipped through intersections, up onto sidewalks, and down alleyways. Are they honking at me? A friend had warned me about crossing the streets in Vietnam, and within the first 30 seconds of seeing the chaos I understood why. As we dodged, stopped and ran our way from sidewalk to sidewalk, I wondered what else in Vietnam would exceed my expectations.

Ben Thanh Market

We were wandering about District 1, the most expensive ward in Ho Chi Minh, when we stumbled upon one of the city’s notable crossings: Ben Thanh Market.

There was nothing comfortable about shopping in this fair. People were everywhere, pulling and pushing us to buy trinkets and knickknacks of every variety. The air was hot and unfamiliar smells lingered around every pile of souvenir t-shirts. The bustle was lively, foreigners and local merchants mashed up against each other, shouting prices back and forth in a sticky cloud of noise. The makeshift booths were all so smashed together I could hardly make it through an aisle without my backpack taking down a tower of knock-off sunglasses.

Seafood

Through the maze of fabrics, jewelry, and wood carvings, we finally came to one side of the building that opened to an outdoor aquarium.

The alley smelled of dead fish and other ocean life still swimming in tubs lined up along the walkway. Mud colored fish, squid, and crabs where splashing around as men and woman cut and cleaned unidentifiable parts—washing the guts down onto the floor and into what I assume was a sewer. I saw rats the size of possums ducking in and out of view as I clicked away on my camera. In the adjacent building the same seafood was being prepared in steaming bowls of soup, rolled into rice paper, and layered into fresh baguettes. It was time for lunch.

Sanitation Standards

Sanitation Standards

I’ve always been pretty adventurous when it comes to cuisine, but the adventure in Vietnam surely begins with a lack of sanitation. It doesn’t smell like Lysol and lemon, no one wears gloves, and you feel like an asshole for privately thinking: how can they serve food like this? But they do, and it’s delicious.

Lunch Break

We looked through the dingy plastic display cases for something to strike us, and after a few rounds about the different bar top kitchens, we sat and pointed to our lunch.

One bite in, and I quickly stopped caring that the woman behind the counter was washing her dirty dishes in a tub on the floor with water that was cold and questionably without soap. I resolved that this would be good for me: I’m training my immune system to withstand third world bacteria. Plus, the earthly sweet spring rolls and peanut sauce were too delicious to stop eating.

Vietnamese Che

For dessert I was immediately drawn to a counter serving what appeared to be hot-pink and acid-green in a glass.

What is this? Though found in other Asian countries, Vietnamese Che is known for being particularly sweet—a blend of coconut milk, molasses, yogurt, and a rainbow of exotic fruit. I was feeling bold and asked for the durian, a fruit known for its pungent smell and acquired taste. A woman poured and layered her way to the top of the glass. It was heavenly. The soft fleshy body of the fruit was custard-like, and complimented the crushed pomelo and banana oil chilled with shaved ice. The drink/dessert looks amateur but has an elegant taste and texture—refreshing and fun.

Rolling with the Punches

Rolling with the Punches

Sweet spring rolls and peanut sauce.

People Watching

Happy and full from our tour through Ben Thanh Market we decided to take a break in a dark, smoke-filled café with free WiFi.

This is perhaps one of my favorite things to do while traveling: people watching and getting high on caffeine. And from the tinted, panoramic window it was a first-rate show.

A young Vietnamese boy was playing with his older brother in front of an electronics store. Used-looking cordless phones, alarm clocks and tape decks were spilling out onto the sidewalk like a 90s plastic flashback. The boy was maybe four or five-years-old and unusually porky. His round cheeks and cherub belly were fun to watch as he ran after his equally porky brother. They threw rocks at each other.

Then, the young boy walked to the edge of the sidewalk, lifted up his shirt, pulled out his penis and pissed into the street—fully exposed while his father inside looked on. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Memorable Moments

Memorable Moments

I’m sure there comes a time in a young man’s life when this type of display becomes inappropriate, but in this moment I was glad to be in a place where children enjoyed such an unusual freedom.

Counting Cockroaches

As evening fell, it was time to move.

We headed to a domestic terminal where we had a flight to catch to Hanoi. While waiting to pass through security, a cockroach the size of a mouse ran onto the floor, scaring the waiting people into frenzy. A man with closed-toed shoes kicked it across the terminal. Our flight to Hanoi was delayed, which again sparked my anxiety into flashing images of me panhandling in rags to replace the passport I had lost after being robbed at gunpoint. After remembering to breath, I decided to count cockroaches while Mike read his book.

Watchful Eyes

About an hour before departure we took seats in the cafeteria and fueled up with some instant noodles.

I had my feet up on a chair, hugging my knees and resting up for what I knew would be another long night of traveling. I noticed a man eyeing me from across a few tables. I was sure I looked amazing—fatigue and sweating has that effect on me. Mike went to the bathroom, and the man approached me.

“You should really get your feet off there,” he said. “It’s incredibly rude, you know. People have to sit there.”

I was shocked. Not because he said it in English, but because he made me feel like a jerk! But shock soon turned into anger. I was pissed. How could someone be angry with me for leaning my feet on a chair when there where monster cockroaches about? How dare I? How dare he!

Social Grace

Even though it’s far from the cleanest or most sanitary country, the Vietnamese have serious respect for cleanliness and social grace, at least, the outward appearance of it.

Mike came back from the bathroom.

“Did you wash your hands?” I quipped.

“No.” he said, “Why would I?”