Expand this post to see several videos of motorbiking and traffic in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). Vietnam positively swarms with motorbikes, and Ho Chi Minh City, particularly, is known as the world’s motorbike capital.
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.
oh vietnam, you strange, noisy, mesmerizing place, you. vietnam, with your choking heat and cooling rains, your bright and lively flowers, your swarms of motorbikes, your streets lined with shops that spill their innards onto the sidewalks, peppered with price tags. friends and acquaintances tell me you have stolen their hearts. will you steal mine just as easily?
my first impression of Vietnam was from the air while flying in: an unusually dark panorama creeping in beneath us, with ghostly strings of bluish light, sparsely blotched with the aggressive orange usual in Western cities. For the most part, fluorescent light rules here. Our plane rolled smoothly onto the tarmac at Tan Son Nhat Airport and into our gate; from the first moment stepping out of the plane, I could feel the heat—strangely like the oppressive heat that overtakes Ottawa on certain (rare) summer days. passing through immigration and customs was uncanny in its ease; I’d expected more random hassles—or, at least, I’d expected them to talk to me. I wheeled my luggage out into the humid night, and surprisingly enough, found my friend Quynh—who I had thought was in Da Nang—waiting there, along with her brother Nu. they shepherded me into a taxi, which carried us through the chaotic streets and gave me my first glimpse of the notorious Vietnamese traffic. arriving outside their neighbourhood, I unloaded my luggage as we made our way down a prohibitively narrow and winding street, past thin, tall apartments with bars on their windows and doors, past a shop where, even at this late hour, people who looked about my age were working on sewing machines, making t-shirts (I instinctively felt some “western guilt” here). Arriving at a set of locked gates, Quynh and brother quickly unlocked them and introduced me to my home for at least the next month: a three-story-tall (four stories if you count the door that leads onto the roof) apartment with a steep staircase, which was a minor struggle to manage with my one bulging suitcase.
the first night in Vietnam was quick—my plane landed at around 10:45 PM local time, and I ended up in bed a little past midnight—so I didn’t have the chance to see much. rest assured, though, that the next few days were a positive whirlwind. read more soon—just keep an eye on this blog.
how to wrap up such a wonderful stopover in the mere forty-five minutes I have left in the country? japan was lovely, filled with a quiet, dignified beauty, and set apart by an ethic of service that seems to define what it means to be japanese. no wonder ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, for whom service was the only goal and desire—so much so that he took service into His very name—prophecied that Japan would “turn ablaze” when the foundations of the Faith of Bahá’u’ll´ were established there.
after arriving (and sleeping off a great deal of jet lag), I spent the next morning and afternoon with friendly and gracious hosts Lara and Eric on a picnic with the kids. several of their friends came too, and we all enjoyed an oddly cool day sitting beneath a dogwood tree eating onigiri. i should say that i no longer have any respect for the usual bento-box sushi sold in Ottawa after eating onigiri in Japan. after the picnic, Lara and I stopped by the Tokyo Baha’i Centre (unfortunately, not with enough time to linger inside) to join some of the local Baha’is on a trip to a devotional meeting. we shared prayers together, and spent some time talking about the life and growth of the Tokyo Baha’i community as well—the Tokyo Baha’is are in the midst of the first cycle of their intensive program of growth right now, so it’s an exciting time for them all. the day ended with us taking the train back home, stopping along the way to bring home some delicious ichigo daifuku.
the next day, after trying natto for the first (last?) time, I ventured out, on my own, to browse through Tokyo’s Akihabara district, known as a centre for electronics and anime- and manga-related shops. after a number of money-related mishaps (as in, not having any) I managed to get my hands on some yen and made a few modest purchases without breaking the bank at all. after even more clueless traveller-related mishaps (including erasing the balance on the Suica card I was carrying) I managed to make my way back to Lara and Eric’s place—where, oddly enough, no one was home. fortunately, I was able to grab their wireless connection and call them up using Skype to tell them where I was. I love Skype. I think when I return to Canada I’m going to cancel my home phone and just use Skype. anyway. the night ended with large amounts of sushi and smiling faces, and I went to bed a little early.
the last day went quite well too; after a more western-style breakfast of toast, sausage and (red!) eggs, we started the day with a devotional meeting with more Baha’i friends from various places around the Tokyo area. lots of children were present, so we said prayers for children. everyone sang a few prayers in Japanese, which I managed to record—I’ll post them online when I get the chance to clean up the audio files. afterwards, it was time for me to say goodbye to the family as they went to enjoy the day with another picnic. after almost missing my bus to the airport at Kichijoji station (ha ha more lame traveller screwups, although there was definitely a hint of divine intervention in this situation), I was on my way back to the airport for my flight to Saigon.
all in all, Japan is definitely a place I’d like to visit again—and not just for a few days.
I’ve slept only about three hours out of the past twenty-four. it kinda sucks. most of them were spent frantically packing my bags in my devastated (ex-?)apartment in Ottawa. I stayed up printing out last-minute photocopies and sending emails to Japan, leaving about three hours (actually closer to two) of productive sleep before waking up and making my way (thanks to mom and dad) over to the airport to catch my flight to Chicago. I’d say something dramatic like “this is where the real tests begin” but actually the tests began when I first decided to go to Vietnam. whenever someone arises to serve God in some way, tests begin immediately to prove their mettle, sometimes little by little, sometimes in huge clumps—and sometimes exponentially as that proverbial “last minute” approaches.
oh look all the pilots are boarding the plane now, clad in black
monkey suitsuniforms with pretty gold trim. appropriate enough since this flight looks very much like a class act. now the flight attendants are boarding and they too look like a class act. I’ve heard some good things about Japan Airlines and I have the sneaking suspicion those things are about to be proven right. That’s a little more than I can say about the American Eagle flight from Ottawa. that one was okay, I guess. it’s just that the plane we were on seemed to be designed and built with smurfs in mind. the Japan Airlines plane (see photo attached to this post) makes it look like a bug in comparison. in fact, I’m pretty sure this next plane eats little tiny commuter planes for breakfast with noodles and miso soup. I’m okay with that.
I should probably be catching up on sleep right about now, you know. I just don’t think it’ll do me a whole lot of good to sprawl onto the floor of the waiting lounge or stretch out onto a cluster of seats. i’ve been told my assigned seat has good elbow room; that sounds good. I’m hoping I can grab some shut-eye on the thirteen-hour-long flight across the Pacific. The Pacific seems like the perfect ocean to cross on a long airplane flight: nothing to see for hundreds of miles outside your window except, uh, lots and lots of nothing. perfectly boring, and hopefully eminently sleep-inducing. except for the offers of drinks and meals at regular intervals, of course. Instead of sleeping on the Chicago flight, I brushed up on some Japanese and practiced some phrases that should come in useful when passing through customs, you know, like “I have nothing to declare”, “thank you very much”, “may my life be a sacrifice to your ancestors”, and so on. gotta make a good impression, you know. …I guess this is what happens when I don’t get enough sleep.
time has flown by as my departure from Canada becomes imminent. there are no more second chances now, no more excuses to put things off; procrastination is deadly. even though I say that, of course, there are still a bunch of things I still haven’t gotten to on my list of Tasks Of Great Importance. one of them is to pay my last couple of bills and call to cancel my cable, phone and so on (seeing as I’m moving out of my apartment as well). yeah, that’s a lot of things to do all at once, alright. It feels like I’ll barely have the time to finish tying up all the loose ends here before I have to fly out—which happens next Friday, the 27th.
I must admit I’ve had my head in the clouds a little, anticipating the trip and visiting so many new places—that’s normal, right? Having to plan out an itinerary for myself that spans five months means that I have to think ahead… in fact, I think I’ve been doing more thinking ahead than I’ve ever done in my life. Anticipating, anticipating, sometimes patiently, sometimes not. Getting things done one step at a time, checking things off my ample to-do list as they come, adding more as I go. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve been able to get accomplished, actually. I suppose it helps that I have several people—my parents, good friends, the folks from HR at work—helping to remind me of all the things I need to take care of before going. Shots are all done, but I need to pick up a bit more medication for the trip (anti-malarials, that kind of thing). Visa’s done, and it got done surprisingly quickly at that, thanks to the kind folks at the Vietnamese embassy. Tickets are all booked, including stopovers in Tokyo each way to allow me to rest a little; thanks go to Laurie at Bytown Travel for helping me get that set up.
So what’s left? Cleaning up and moving out of the apartment, of course; doing my taxes for the past year; saying my goodbyes to friends and co-workers; packing my bags; gathering up cash, traveller’s cheques, and other essentials; contacting credit card companies to let them know where I’ll be (and to expect purchases from strange places); oh and so many other little things I was hoping to finish up before leaving but am I going to have time to do them all even if the clock is ticking down ohcrapohcrap… even with all this stuff to do though, I don’t really feel nervous yet—excited is more like it. I can’t wait to get on the plane and go, to end up in a completely different place. There’s just something about travel that’s given me a sort of permanent wanderlust ever since I was young. Not just the act of travelling, either—the anticipation. The sweet knowledge that you’re about to embark upon the journey of a lifetime, one that will lead you across to the other side of the planet for five whole months. Wondering aloud and quietly, what will this bright, bold and beautiful future bring?
With all these thoughts about the future, I have to pray just to keep myself grounded in the present. Thinking ahead is fun, but right now is where everything happens. So that’s where I am—right here at home (at the mall again, actually—hah), doing the most I can right now as my efforts and God’s confirmations will allow. As a closing note, I feel as though I’m starting to understand this concept of “confirmation”—you take the first step and God gets you running. Seeing this trip across the world come together piece by piece has helped show me what it means.