Day 8 in Vietnam so far, and the initial shock of arrival has subsided. The first week has been a bit rough-and-tumble, but thanks to the efforts of my hosts, it’s been much, much smoother than it could have been—indeed, easier than I had hoped. Everyone is so gracious and friendly here. Host and national institute coordinator Quynh spent the first week helping me get settled in and see the city, giving me my first real taste of motorbike travel. The first few times riding a motorbike through the chaotic streets of Saigon was a little scary, but I feel like I’ve warmed up to it quite nicely now. The first week was full of visits to the local Baha’is, going to exotic (neighbourhood Vietnamese eateries) and less exotic (KFC, aka Gà Rán Kentucky—whatever you do, don’t compare Colonel Sanders to Ho Chi Minh) restaurants for lunch and dinner, having home-cooked Vietnamese breakfasts consisting of rice and—well, just about anything. I’m gradually starting to be able to walk on my two feet here. Although it’s definitely not yet “functional”, I’m starting to achieve a very basic command of the Vietnamese language—at least enough to be able to make basic needs known without getting beat up or slapped. Just this afternoon, I was able to secure a bicycle to get around on, thanks to the generosity of one of the local Baha’is. As well, again thanks to host Quynh’s effort, I now have a Vietnamese bank account with an ATM card, which I should be able to use anywhere in Vietnam (unlike the hoops to be jumped through/potential risks when using credit cards).
About a week into my stay here, it dawned on me that several of my cherished tools—phrasebook, guidebook, and so on—have been failing me somewhat. For example, my guidebook focuses lots of attention on Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon’s glamorous District 1, where most foreigners hang out, and many locals prefer to avoid because of the high prices. But it focuses almost no attention on the Tan Binh district—where I’m staying—which starts at about a 15-20 minute drive west from District 1. Even District 11, the home of the Baha’i Centre, just south of Tan Binh, is underrepresented. It dawned on me that these books were written for regular foreigners, those on business or simply pleasure-seekers on their way through Southeastern Asia—and that I was not one of those regular foreigners. I think I realized something was amiss when I saw the string of European and American tourists being promenaded throughout the streets outside HCMC’s famed Post Office building on pedal-powered rickshaws—cyclos—on an evening’s visit to District 1. I can’t really explain just what I felt as I watched them from the curb, besides the distinct feeling that I was not one of them. It was partly satisfying, I suppose, and partly spooky, as if I was standing beside myself, looking on quietly.
All that being said, I guess you could say it’s fairly obvious: I’m not your average traveller. Although I’m experiencing many of the same feelings as a regular traveller—disorientation, wonderment, anxiety, curiosity, excitement—regular travellers can’t always go to a faraway country and find people—like the Baha’is—who can welcome them with open arms, as if they were family. for the privilege of being here, in close contact with people, sharing the same space and eating the same food, I am so very grateful. for the chance to give back something to those who have welcomed me so warmly into their midst and into their hearts—be it a website or helping them practice a little bit of English—I am equally grateful.