I recently went to Vietnam, it was my first real trip outside of the US — I don’t count my college trip up to London, Ontario as that seems like cheating. No offense, Canada, but back then I didn’t even need a passport.
Anywho, a lot of people were encouraging/harassing/demanding that I write something up about this and I thought I’d post it here and focus a bit on some of the aspects of the trip related to my research. That said, this will be a bit uncharacteristic in terms of my blog content.
Without further ado: Thoughts from Abroad OR Avoiding Traveller’s Diarrhea and Eating Street Food OR The Awkwardness of Being American Abroad
Lush with greenery, the view on my flight into Hanoi — after basically a full day of travel — piqued my interest from the start. The water buffalo, fields of farmland, and tall, slender homes struck my fancy and I couldn’t help but wonder what drive in the American psyche forces us to sprawl our homes (and maybe unintentionally, our bodies) outward rather than upward? Vietnam’s towns and cities appeared built up rather than out — which, as I understand it, is a common trend outside the US, and is often tied to political and fiscal histories involving taxes and land laws.
Hanoi was our first stop and it was truly a city unlike any I had been to before — and by this I don’t mean to exoticize or provincialize it. The majority of the city’s streets were narrow and lined with home-owned and run shops. Nearly all business seemed local, with some major exceptions in the tourist staples of restaurants and hotels. The strong presence of small, local business enamored me with the city — and would have probably blinded me to the city’s lack had I not headed South to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
HCMC, the former capital of South Vietnam was a bustling Capitalist metropolis — a seeming paradox given the country’s communist background. I was at first frustrated with the plethora of international and transnational high end businesses abounding in the touristy downtown area. Maybe because I was raised in a pretty working class household, or maybe because I’ve seen how unevenly and unfairly wealth and resources are distributed, but I’ve never been comfortable in areas full of expensive luxury goods. After Hanoi, HCMC seemed too familiar to me, at first, but once I got outside the tourist-trap part of town, the city’s facade unraveled, revealing a really cool city with several local vibes. I didn’t get a chance to see enough of the city, but once you make it outside of the touristy area, the city’s vast history appears before you in snatches and starts — statues encircled by hundreds of riders on scooters and mopeds, French colonial architecture rising abruptly out of the streets, pagodas and temples surrounded by homes and businesses in the middle of streets, the city a cipher that’s complexity only continues to grow.
Picturesque descriptions aside, it was a really eye-opening experience, on a number of fronts.
Those of you who know me have been waiting for this — and those of you who don’t know me but know my love of Beckett might be waiting for this, too — travel poops.
Having rather, ahem, sensitive bowels as it is, I was living in terror of the dreaded Traveler’s Diarrhea. “Don’t eat the produce, don’t drink the water” they say. As I sat at a streetside, impromptu soup restaurant in Hanoi, watching the proprietor wash glasses in a bucket full of water and limes, drinking from one of those glasses, those words went through my head repeatedly. In the end, I had an absolutely delicious meal, and I didn’t get sick.
In fact I never got sick, despite eating street food four or five times, and eating fresh vegetables in and on several dishes.
This experience, though, made me think a little bit more about how we both regulate and approach our food. My reflections were further spurred when I heard that there were no McDonalds in Vietnam because they refused to source their chicken locally.
Sometimes we are afraid of the wrong things. As I sat there, thinking about bacteria that might or might not be in water that might or might not be on my glass, or in my soup, my perspective was — forgive the phrasing and the pun but I can’t help myself — shit.
Seeing how wealthy and privileged I was in that country made me ashamed of myself.
Shame was a feeling I knew well while abroad.
I saw a lot of other tourists. Stepping behind velvet ropes to touch ancient statues, correcting the English of local guides, bickering of prices, asking to shop where the locals did, and I knew shame.
There was a presumptuous sense of privilege, of right, that this country they were a visitor in owed them something. Wealth and resources are not distributed evenly, and I learned that you have to remember this when you travel, because wherever you are travelling, it is not the same as where you are travelling from.
So let me take this opportunity to offer my gratitude to Vietnam (and my tour guides and new friends!) for hosting me, and my parents and my home country for giving me the resources to spend my life thinking and writing about culture.
I’ve left out a lot in this post — my visit to Ha Long Bay, a trip to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, a trip to the Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda, a trip to a Chinese Temple, to several markets — I’ll circle back and reflect on some of those things in the future, but I thought I’d start with some broader thoughts.
Thanks, dear reader.