Culture shock and cultural highlights in North Vietnam
Just before we left New Zealand, Pete’s mum and dad bought us this fabulous book:
First-Time Around the World: we highly recommended this book if you are considering a trip of your own.
We love it! It’s full of great advice and has been invaluable on more than one occasion, so thank you, Pat and Joe. I knew I was going to enjoy reading it immediately, ‘cos the first thing I found when I was skimming through was this:
A friend of mine would never leave a place until he’d had a good time there. Another friend would not leave a destination until he had learnt something encouraging about the people and their culture. Both are currently stuck in Brisbane.
Cruel, but funny.
Anyway, I mention this book for a reason, bear with me…
First Time Around the World has this to say about Asia:
To some travellers, Asia is the home of the most exhilarating natural landscapes on the planet. To others, it’s a collection of frenzied cities and remote cultures connected by rough local transport through countless terraced rice paddies.
I have to confess that when I first arrived in Vietnam I was very definitely of the latter opinion. In fact, for the first couple of days I positively hated it! It was just so different from anything I’d experienced before, and I really wasn't prepared. From the moment we passed through customs and into the main lobby of the airport, everything was an all-out assault on the senses. We were followed by crowds of pushy locals trying to get us to buy stuff or hire their services, the traffic is just insane (and warrants a blog entry all of its own), and the cities are noisy, crowded and dusty. Two days in and I was already planning my escape.
Pete, quite rightly, was having none of it. For a start, we’d just paid $300 (US) for two expedited visas, and he also wanted to see the country before we went elsewhere. But he is a sympathetic fella, my Pete, and, seeing how stressed I was, he suggested we leave Hanoi a.s.a.p. and head for somewhere quieter.
He didn't have to ask me twice!
Pete at the one tourist destination we visited in Hanoi: a shrine in the middle of a lake.
We had an interesting time leaving the city. Vietnam runs a series of ‘open buses’ which are aimed at tourists. They are relatively cheap, so we thought that this would be a good way to get to our next destination, Ninh Binh, some hour and a half away. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The open bus that collected us was taking other passengers on a day trip. Once the guide realized we just wanted a one-way lift to town, he took us off the open bus, hailed a local Hanoi bus and told us we were going the rest of the way on that. This was kind of annoying: the local bus was crowded, so we couldn’t get proper seats, and there was absolutely nowhere to store our enormous backpacks which got in everyone’s way. Plus, we’d already paid the more expensive fare for the open bus. It wasn’t so bad in that we got there in one piece, but I still have bruises from that trip. It’s not really an experience I want to repeat.
Things improved considerably once we reached Ninh Binh. It is a smaller town, so there was less noise and fewer people, and we also got lucky with our hotel. We hadn’t pre-booked, just chose the first decent-looking place we came across. It turned out to be a really nice establishment. They also ran a series of day trips, complete with English-speaking guides, which were excellent value for money.
We took two tours:
The first was a river boat ride through three famous grottoes (Tam Coc), followed by a couple of temples, and a look round Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ancient capital. The following day we visited a rescue centre for endangered primates, explored a really stunning cavern in the mountains, and had a motor boat trip to see traditional Vietnamese life in Kenh Ga floating village. (Kenh Ga = chicken canal, so called 'cos there used to be a lot of wild chooks in the area.)
Our guide was wonderful. As well as the history of each place we visited, she told us local myths and legends, so we came out of it with a mixture of names and dates, plus stories about dragons, kings with 1000 wives, treacherous priests, star-crossed lovers and Buddha, who reaching enlightenment sitting under a tree. She was also a great entertainer - like Robbie Williams, eh, Joe? (*) - instigating games when she thought we were getting tired and singing songs. At one point she taught us a children’s song in Vietnamese, the only word of which I can remember is “quack” ‘cos it’s the same in English.
Me with our fabulous tour guide. I can't remember how to spell her name exactly, but it's roughly pronounced 'thou', as in the word 'thousand'. That's what we called her, anyway. If we got it wrong, she didn't seem to mind.
Once we actually started going out and doing things, my attitude began to change. Vietnam is actually an exceedingly beautiful country, and I have finally started to appreciate just how different it is from anything I have seen before. There are still aspects of the Western culture that I miss, but I’m learning to think less about that and concentrate on the good and positive stuff here. There are things that you just don’t get to see in the West. Yesterday evening we were enjoying a beer at a café when we saw half a dozen cows wandering down the middle of the road. The locals didn’t bat an eyelid, just swerved round them and carried on their way. The amount of stuff that people manage to pile onto their motorbikes is also amazing. Bags, boxes, whole families, you name it; they all somehow manage to balance it all and still drive. (The dodgiest thing I’ve seen is two guys balancing several large panes of glass between them. You’ve just gotta hope that they didn’t get into an accident!)
So, the upshot is, the worst of the culture shock has passed and I no longer want to go home. I am missing Western food terribly (heaven help the person in Europe who tries to get between me and a granary loaf!), but I am also enjoying the novelty of Asian culture. You might remember that in Japan Pete and I started playing the Mystery Food Product game, buying random, unidentifiable items from stores. Well this has been taken to the next level here in Vietnam, where we are now playing Mystery Menu Items. We recently left a beach resort called Sam Son (more on this later). It was a nice enough place, but unfortunately it is where the Vietnamese go for their holidays so it’s not really set up for Westerners at all. Very few people spoke English, and none of the menus were in English either, so we simply had to make educated guesses and select things that would hopefully turn out to be edible.
In the end we got smart. We booked an hour at an Internet cafe and made a list of all the common foods and their Vietnamese translations. Now we are able to at least identify the main ingredient in each dish (and avoid the less appealing ones like frog, dog and snake!) We've added a dozen other useful words and phrases, too, and I reckon that this page is going to be one of the most read pages in my notebook. I wish we'd thought of it sooner.
(*) Pete's dad has never forgiven Robbie for butchering the song 'White Christmas'.