Following a lot of reflection and consultation after my pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Centre in 2006, I ended up in Vietnam, where I helped create a website for the Bahá’í community, and where I met Quynh, my wife. Together we’ve visited Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, China, and the list will go on…
greetings from behind the Great Firewall! At this very moment, I’m coming to you live from the city of Guangzhou, known as the shoe wholesaling capital of China (the world?). there are literally thousands of shops here, all packed into huge buildings and complexes, selling shoes at wholesale prices for buyers that come from just about anywhere in the world. it figures that someone who intensely dislikes shopping for shoes (such as me) would pick a place to go that is internationally famous for selling shoes. isn’t that right? of course it’s right. and that’s okay.
all sarcasm aside, after several months hanging around Vietnam, I’m taking a break for a short trip into China—I figured, why not swing into China for a week since I’m in this part of the world anyway? So I hopped onto a flight from Hanoi to Hong Kong this past Friday, spent a few days hanging around in HK getting hawked by Indian tailors, and just yesterday grabbed a train up the Pearl River to Guangzhou, one of China’s bustling commercial cities. I… don’t know how I feel about China yet. I haven’t been here long enough, and I’m still under the shock of arrival. The first thing I noticed is that I can’t read any of the signs, since they’re all in Chinese (duh). Since I’m visiting a friend while I’m here, I got him to teach me some of the more common Chinese characters, and now at least I know the difference between, say, the Heavenly Cloud Five Gold Shop and the regular Five Gold Shop. (????) I managed to at least buy a bottle of cola and get back some change in Chinese yuan, which is something.
uh, so yeah, shoes. right now I’m in the downtown part of Guangzhou, which is stuffed to the cracks with shoes, shoes spilling out of every street corner basically. they’re gathered here from many different factories in the area and in China as a whole, shown to international buyers, and shipped off by the crateful to shoe stores in Canada, Japan, America, Australia, wherever, you name it. I’m not especially knowledgeable about wholesaleing but these people seem to have gotten it down to an exact science, or rather, made it into a bustling national enterprise. No wonder China’s economy is doing so well. It’s just too bad I’m not so crazy about shoes—if they were wholesaleing, say, smurfs or something that’d be pretty awesome. I’d pay to visit a smurf wholesaler. there must be one in China, I can feel it. Smurf City, here I come.
coming from a northern country with a cool, temperate climate, I’ve never really found myself wanting or needing a siesta in the afternoon. Canadians don’t really have such a concept; we work from 8:30 to 4:30, with a one-hour lunch break. Not so in Vietnam, a tropical country with a hot and humid climate to match, where people walk around with tans, parasols and conical hats, and where a lunch break of at least two hours is de rigueur. At first, it was funny seeing everyone go to sleep at two in the afternoon, or seeing a children’s class pause from 12:30 to 2:30 and seeing the adults follow suit with their younger counterparts. Now that I’ve been here for a couple of months, though—and having made the mistake of taking walks outside with the afternoon sun beating down on me—I can definitely see the value of naptime.
I love how spambots are finding my blog posts about travel and leaving non-sequitur comments like “I wish I could go there!!! I wonder how I can find cheap tickets!???!1/” and leaving URLs like ez-cheap-asia-tickets-for-real.com thinking that I won’t catch them and delete them. from now on, whenever I get comments like that, I’m going to edit the author name to something awesome like Funky George Washington or Blazing Mushroom Jets and add my own comments to what they write (read: autogenerate), for the benefit and amusement of my (actual, i.e. human) readers.
I’m in Hanoi right now. I think I’m taking about the same time getting used to it as it took in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, but Hanoi definitely has a rougher edge than the others. Dirtier, less glossy, more polluted, and definitely as noisy and chaotic as Ho Chi Minh City. At the same time, Hanoi has a lot of beautiful landmarks, like the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum (yes, they really love Ho Chi Minh here), Hoan Kiem lake, and so on. There are a lot of trees lining the streets here, much like Da Nang. Inexplicably, I haven’t tasted the pho here yet—which is supposed to be the best in Vietnam. Actually, the fact that I haven’t tried it yet may be mainly due to the incredible hospitality of those families hosting me, meaning that just about every meal I eat is homemade Vietnamese cooking (which is more varied than I ever could have expected).
the Vietnamese—especially from the North, I think—seem to have the same concept of politeness as Persian tarof; whatever the case, they must provide hospitality to those they meet, even if it hurts. that is, if you show up unexpected to someone’s door, be prepared to be treated like a king and offered tea and sweets and fruits several times, but also be aware that you may be eating your hosts’ dinner for the night. The reverse is true: if you’re invited to dinner and you’re really not hungry, you’ll have to expect to be invited many times in succession even if you refuse each time. If you do go to dinner, you’ll have to expect your hosts to keep offering you more and more food, even if you’re full. The general rule of thumb is: if you seriously want to say “no”, you have to say it at least three times. If you refuse an invitation three times, they’ll generally understand that no, you don’t want anymore squid/tofu/water spinach/corn/fish/weird pickled things. Thankfully, having grown up in a Baha’i community full of Persian friends, I managed to get a bit of the inside scoop on tarof—institutional politeness.
If you’re staying with Vietnamese friends, understand that they will probably refuse having you pay for yourself, i.e. when it comes to helping with the food, electricity, internet, laundry, whatever bills. You’ll have to insist (again, probably at least three times) if you seriously want to contribute for the impact of your stay. However, that doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t appreciate the help; they’re just very polite. Some sort of gift during or at the end of your stay is well appreciated; gifts for a family’s children are especially well received. Something that relates to your country of origin is also a good gift idea.
Since this post is largely about politeness, maybe I should write a bit about the proper use of Vietnamese pronouns, since the way you address someone here plays a huge role in politeness. Unlike the English language, which uses only the words “you” and “I/me” as second- and first-person pronouns, Vietnamese pronouns are myriad and change depending on a person’s age, your relation to them, the formality of the occasion, and so on. For example, the most common pronouns I use in addressing someone of my parents’ age (~45-65) are “chu” (uncle) and “cô” (auntie). When speaking with them, I’m required to refer to myself as “con” or “châu” (child). Since I’m almost 30, I can probably get away with addressing people of my brother and sister’s age (~31-40) as “anh” (older brother) and “chi” (older sister), and I would refer to myself as “em” (younger brother/sister). I can call anyone younger than myself “em” as well—they would call me “anh”—and I can refer to myself as “chu” to children or junior youth—they would refer to themselves as “con” or “châu”. Confused? I sure was. I’m still getting used to it. Every time I found out about a new pronoun, I buried my face in my palms in despair.
Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to be a little more introverted is that I don’t adapt too well to formality, or, at least, it makes me uncomfortable. I’d much rather refer to everybody as “dude” and address them with a simple “yo”. But, to quote the guidebook I left behind in Saigon, when you’re in Nam, do as the Viets. One of the challenges of living as a visitor in a different place is learning to be humble and to show respect to the local culture and its customs. Isn’t respect one of the signs of love?
if travelogues are supposed to be comprehensive descriptions of places one travels, touching on such pertinent information as top attractions, demographics, geography, social and cultural overviews and so on, then I think I’m pretty bad at writing them. most of what I’ve written so far seems to be accounts of me taking a motorbike ride from one end of a town to the other, to do such-and-such and visit Uncle So-and-so (no, not Uncle Ho-and-Ho). I guess that’s just what I feel comfortable writing about: what I’ve seen and experienced, told from off the top of my head as if I was speaking about it in my own rambling, roundabout and (hopefully) amusing way. if any of you have been expecting Lonely Planet, please accept my sincerest apologies.
after putting so much effort into keeping my Twitter feed up to date, I stopped and realized that I’d been neglecting my trusty old blog. (I really need to add an automated twitter widget to this thing.) I suppose my recent work on the official website of the Baha’is of Vietnam is mainly responsible for that—most of my spare brainwaves have gone into solving all the web design puzzles needed to make it a reality. It was featured at the Vietnamese National Convention—which deserves another post entirely, of course—and received hearty rounds of applause from all pleasant. I went: d(^_^)b
after my first week in Vietnam—which was basically a write-off due to exhaustion and jet-lag—it seems like it’s taken the rest of the month of April for me to start getting remotely comfortable. confidence, as you may have guessed, has been building steadily as I try new things: shopping for my own groceries, cycling through traffic on my own, building my Vietnamese vocabulary bit by bit. curiosity, a sense of wonder, and openness to new experiences have helped me immensely in adapting to these new surroundings, with its particular culture, geography, climate, and so on. I basically tossed my guidebook—sorry, Lonely Planet, I still love you guys though—out the window and entrusted my life to my Baha’i hosts and their warm, friendly and welcoming family, who took it upon themselves to take care of me and show me the ins and outs of Ho Chi Minh City and, now, Da Nang. I got a great sample of Ho Chi Minh City’s hidden cafés, tucked away into the side alleys of Phu Nhuan and Tan Binh Districts, Districts 11, 10 and 3—all with wi-fi for me to carry on with my web design work without the nuisance of weekly power cuts. I was able to visit Baha’i pioneers along the riverfront in District 2—basically a residential haven for expatriates from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and the like—and marvel at the opulence so near to the dusty, beat-up streets of the inner city. I was able to scour the markets around Districts 1 and 3—Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown—ending up at Dan Sinh Market, a veritable gravesite full of dusty (and mostly fake) relics from the American War: reproduction helmets, uniforms, patches, even zippo lighters all greased and beat up to look their most authentic. I’ve gotten caught in Vietnam’s torrential downpours, forced to huddle under the back of a poncho as we zoomed (or attempted to zoom) back home on our trusty, rusty motorbike. And yes, I’ve had the chance to sample a wider variety of Vietnamese cuisine than I’d ever imagined existed—from four different kinds of noodles to baguettes to curry to all different kinds of meat, thankfully excluding such delicacies as dog and rat (to name a few).
there’s something undeniably appealing about Vietnam. my first impression was that of being plunged into a chaotic matrix of motorbikes whizzing past me on every side, surrounded by fluorescent shop signs in a mysterious language, with smells of gasoline, fish, incense, flowers and (???) breathing from every alley and corner. while it was foreign and frightening the first few nights, it seems to have become familiar—and slower, making the endless stream of motorbikes seem less like a frenzied race and more like the smooth, steady chaos of droplets coursing through the city’s bloodstream. the people here are friendly, and not just fake friendly like in Canada, but sincerely friendly, good-natured, happy to see you, ready to invite you in. Maybe it’s wonder that seizes them when seeing someone of my size walking through the narrow, winding streets—at 5’11”, I tower over most Vietnamese: men, women and children alike. the Vietnamese people are expressive, straightforward, and sincere; excepting social taboos, they are entirely unafraid of asking you any question or telling you honestly how they feel about any subject—including how ugly or handsome you might be. Vietnam teems with life in every shop, around every corner, from the city and the countryside alike. life is loud here—from the honking of horns and rumble of motors on the streets to the crowing of roosters, to the laughter of children and the shouts of shop owners, to the creaking of poorly oiled gates and the whine of machinery in impromptu factories—but once you get used to it, it gains a strange, familiar musicality, like an unwritten, de facto anthem.
a month into my visit to Vietnam, I’m already in love. will I want to go back to Canada at the end?
Day 12 in Vietnam. Those who’ve been following my aforementioned Twitter feed know that I’ve already started to take my first few steps into independent living, including borrowing a bicycle from one of the local Baha’is—which brings me into closer contact than ever before with that most omnipresent feature of Saigon/HCMC: traffic. Thanks perhaps to my maverick bike riding style (think Paperboy), I’ve managed to do pretty well for myself in the chaotic weave of motorbikes. The video game metaphor is actually quite apt, you know. If you’ve ever played one of those games where enemies are coming at you from all directions at the most ridiculous frequency and wondered who in their right minds would create such a difficult game, you might want to come ride a bike in Ho Chi Minh City, to realize that, in fact, there actually are such places in the real world. and to think that, until last year, there was no such thing as a helmet law in Vietnam…
Speaking of bikes, I biked down to the Baha’i Centre yesterday in order to make some calls—home internet got cut off for some reason, and my newfangled Vietnamese cell phone is on the blink (bad battery, I think). Once there, I cooled down for a few minutes and then made plans to meet Tahirih, my contact for the National Spiritual Assembly’s website, in about an hour to discuss things. Where? Well, why not District 1—downtown? Sure. Except that it appears that the trip from the Baha’i Centre to District 1 is about half an hour long on a motorbike (hence, even longer on a bicycle). Oops. After a little while’s worth of thinking, I ended up asking for a motorbike ride from Chi, one of the Baha’is at the centre, and managed to get there in time anyway. We met at a nice little French bistro—yup, French influence in Vietnam is still strong. Tahirih brought along her kids, who ordered pizza and ice cream and played with Chi while we talked web design and determined what had to be done in the next week or so, before I leave HCMC for Danang next week. After the meeting was done, we motorbiked back through considerably thicker traffic to reach the Baha’i Centre once again, and after taking a few more minutes to cool down, I biked back home on my little one-gear clinker, doing my paperboy schtick through a throng of motorbikes, cars, buses, carts, horses(!!), and just random confused people.
I think I love this place… but it’s a strange kind of love.