Thursday, February 02, 2012

Remembering Vietnam

I arrived later in HCMC than the rest of the group. I flew from California and the others on the culinary tour departed from Toronto or Vancouver. I spent my first morning alone - not a bad turn of events as I was jet lagged and exhausted. The Friday night flight from Tokyo was filled with young Japanese people headed to HCMC for clubbing, partying and shopping. They were rambunctious and noisy - no sleeping on that plane.

It was 2002. God - a decade ago. Clearing customs in HCMC was a difficult experience. The wait could be a couple of hours when you were in-bound. Visiting Vietnamese had to bribe the officials in order to get their papers approved - many of them were coming from the US or Japan for their first visits back in twenty years.  The bribery was simply a fact of life for them. Standing in line, they were stuffing their passports with cash and consulting with each other about how much the unofficial fees would be. They were bullied and poorly treated by the officials - often thrown out of the line and sent back to try again, that is add more money to the passport or papers. The Japanese and me (I think I was the only non-Asian on the plane) were just stamped through, but we had to wait in the long bribery/thievery lines. Last time I was in the country in 2007, the process had modernized. You could even get a visa "on demand" at the airport with little or no hassle. The bullying officials were gone replaced by passive civil servants much like the customs officials in the rest of the world. 

The hotel my tour had booked was directly across the street from the famous Ben Thanh market, a perfect location for a culinary group. The next day after a wonderful buffet breakfast - fabulous croissants, home made confiture, delicious fruit and strong French press coffee, I set out for a morning wandering the market, tasting the exotica.

Outside on the street, I realized after a few minutes surveying the scene that getting across the road wasn't going to be easy.  I couldn't find a crosswalk or a light after walking a respectable length of the perimeter.  Motorcycles and cars went whizzing by at break neck speed. Was there a speed limit? I don't think so - everybody simply went as fast as they could.

Vietnamese people were finding their way across the street through the crazy traffic, sure footed and calm as could be. I stood there for probably half an hour thinking there had to be a break in the flow eventually but there never was one. Finally I walked up to a couple with a baby and tagged along right behind them, heart pounding and hands sweating. It was terrifying but I realized after several crossings that the drivers are experienced at dodging the pedestrians. One just walks out into the middle of the stream of traffic and they weave around you. You have to trust this system in order to get around HCMC or stay on the curb all day staring at your unattainable objective across the street or work out a way to get around the city without ever crossing a street.

Later that day, I met Diep our Vietnamese tour guide and later in her home city of Hanoi she took me along with her on a visit to her herbalist.  Of course, we took her bike. Arms wrapped around her teeny ninety pound body I felt like a huge clinging baby chimpanzee on her back.  We flew by Vietnamese families piled five on a bike. People whizzed by with enormous loads of construction materials - refrigerators, beds, lumber, bricks lashed to their small vehicles.  Diep wove her way through the thickest of traffic and pedestrian-thronged streets, cool, calm, collected and so expert that even though we were bobbing and weaving at high speed,  I was able to relax and surrender to the situation,  enjoying the wild ride.

It has always been amazing to me that the Vietnamese were not passionate about traffic and territory on the road, like we North Americans are. There seemed to be no such concept as cutting somebody off - everybody weaves in and out like a motorcycle dance and you deal with the flow. People cooperate to keep everything moving and the danger down. The most perilous thing that happens is when a "green" tourist stops in the middle of the street, looking like a deer caught in headlights, struck still with terror. The flow collectively must adjust to the stationary object and you can feel the hiccup and adjustment in the stream.

Four trips to Vietnam later, I was an old hand at the traffic terrors and could shift over to worrying about some of the other really scary how to make a poodle dog out of a couple of pomelo (large grapefruit). Arf!

1 comment:

  1. Sepia Saturday's theme this week is "dogs". Maybe you should join in even tho this isn't sepia. What a great story!