L’Observateur : Nam Edition

This place is crawling with VC.

There are Communist propaganda billboards and hammer-and-sickle flags everywhere. It reminds me of Cuba if you replace 1957 roadsters with millions of youths on motorbikes.

Vietnam’s economy is expanding at a rate of 7.7% per year and 26.2% of the population is 14 or under.

The mythos of “The American War” in Vietnam is inescapable, yet at the same time it’s hard to imagine it having happened here. The only evidence I saw of the war were the ruins of a few brick buildings near Danang. I can say with confidence that the Vietnamese really love the U.S.A.

I was shopping for a rain poncho in Hue, and the first one I tried on had a large, clear-plastic section in the middle. Like a crotch window. I found it puzzling until I saw someone wearing one on a motorbike. It’s for the headlight.

Forget Cairo, Bangkok, or Mexico City. Saigon has the most insane traffic I’ve ever seen. The first time I tried to cross the street, I thought, “maybe I’ll just stand here until it’s time to go home.” But alas, the guide book advises to just start walking across the street at a slow, even pace and the cars and motorbikes will gauge your position, and avoid hitting you. Et, voila! It works. After you get over the initial shock, it’s actually kind of zen, walking through what amounts to 15 lanes of traffic without stopping. Imagine being a corpuscle. Or an ant.

Honking in Vietnam is ubiquitously used as a defensive driving tool. Like, “honk honk, I’m here.” Amidst it all, I never saw a collision or accident of any kind.

Jukeboxes in Vietnam sometimes remind me of my high school cassette tape collection. Lots of hippie shit and classic rock.

Traveling alone as a graying, nearly-40-year-old man in Thailand and Vietnam is like having “I Would Like to Pay for Sex With Young Asian Girls and/or Boys” written on your forehead. It also gets you dirty looks from older adults who think that’s what you’re there for. It’s weird and gross.

The first day I was in Saigon, guys on bicycles would glide by me clicking rattles on their handle bars. At first, I thought about getting one for my velo back home. Then, the next day a succession of dudes glided past me rattling their rattles and saying things like, “boy massage?” So, I never bought a rattle.

Before arriving, I read about a scam where two hot Vietnamese women on a motorbike ride up next to you, get off, start telling you how handsome you are, and then start grabbing your crotch and digging around in your pockets for your wallet. I had been there about 15 minutes when the first attempt was made. They rode up on the sidewalk blocking the path and said, “hey handsome!” and I hot-footed it around them as fast as I could. A solo attempt happened again later that night, but then it never happened again.

Some girly Vietnamese moto helmets have a space cut out of the back for a pony tail.

Surprisingly, there is free, open WIFI nearly everywhere in Vietnam. However, Facebook is blocked unless you make the effort to use an I.P. address blocker or a proxy server or whatever it is you have to do to get it working. Most internet cafes have it, though, and the Vietnamese are prodigious Facebookers.

One day in Saigon, I took a stroll south across the river into District 4. The entire three hours I was there, I was the only white person in sight. I stopped for a small noodle bowl at a street stall, and by the time I was halfway done eating, there were no less than 10 people standing around smiling and watching me eat. Like, “Hey! There’s a big tall white dude eating at the noodle stand! WTF!?” Then, a man tried to hand me a small baby. I have no idea why, but his insistence kind of startled me, and I was afraid if I took it, he might not take it back.

I had a similar experience when I got a haircut in Hoi An. By the time it was halfway over, there were about six people standing around watching with great interest. The weirdest part was that the barber shaved my head, then talc-ed my head, and then shaved it again. Then, he shaved my ears with a straight razor.

Having planned a week in Vietnam at the last minute, I have to admit that I was woefully unprepared for the food scene. Bo bun. Banh mi. Pho. Spring rolls. Sure. But then there’s the other 95%. I had no idea the breadth of Vietnamese cuisine.

For instance, on my way to the Danang airport to begin my long journey home, the taxi passed a motorbike with two small dogs in a cage on the back. The driver said, “Dog! Woof woof!” Then, he made an “eating” gesture with his hand and said, “Very good! Very good!”

One day, I had an iced coffee with condensed milk that had three shots of espresso in it and it was excellent.

Two items from the Vietnam Airlines in-flight magazine:

“Government offices and museums open at 8am and close at 5pm. Avoid doing business from 11:30am to 2pm, when many people are either at lunch or napping.”

“The game ‘Catching the Duck While Blindfolded’ is popular among all Vietnamese villages. For this game, players and spectators group together in a large circle. Two players are blindfolded and pushed inside. A strong duck is also placed into the circle and the players must listen to its frantic movements to judge where it is and how they can catch it. Spectators roar with laughter as both the duck and players run noisily and disorderly around the circle. If it happens to be warm, some play ‘Catch the Duck on the Pond,” which is like ‘Catching the Duck While Blindfolded,’ only in water and without the blindfold.”

They sell frozen fish in bags and fresh Pho at the Saigon airport.

KFCs are everywhere.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

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