My first Saturday night at home in what seems like ages.
That’s not 100% correct, to be honest. I was home last Saturday night. But last Saturday I was packing for my trip to Vietnam, my third international trip in five weeks.
Over the past five weeks I’ve been to Korea (Seoul), the US (Chicago) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City). All were business trips and while I didn’t get a chance to see much more than the hotel in Chicago, I got the chance to explore a little bit of Seoul and a little bit more of Ho Chi Minh City.
For the most part, what I saw of Seoul looked pretty like any other big city. Granted I never really walked beyond a three-block radius of my hotel, but with the exception of the temple I visited on my last day there really didn’t seem to be much that was exceptional. It even had a Bennigan’s. And a Pizzeria Uno! I mean, come on. We’re not talking an authentic ethnic experience at Pizzerio Uno. In Korea.
But Ho Chi Minh City. Wow. From the moment we drove away from the airport it was obvious that we weren’t in Kansas any more. Scooters were everywhere. They flowed like a river threatening to overflow its banks. There was a helmet law for adults, but it obviously didn’t extend to children. They sat perched in front of their parents, oblivious to the sea of humanity around them.
While we were there for a regional conference, we had an excursion or two which let us see a bit of the city. In addition to things like the scooters, women wearing traditional hats while they carried fruit along the streets, etc., the two things that made an impression on me were the Rex Hotel and the night markets.
The Rex Hotel was where the US government held its press briefings during the Vietnam War: ‘The Five O’Clock Follies‘. We had dinner on the rooftop bar where military officials and war correspondents had once drunk themselves into a self-medicated stupor. With the band playing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ it was easy to imagine what it would have been like, sitting there in the stifling humidity in 1973 as the war rambled on.
About eight of us went to the night markets after the Rex. I had actually decided just to go back to the hotel, but I decided that given that I was on this once-in-a-lifetime-trip Vietnam I really shouldn’t spend the evening in my hotel room watching CNN. The markets were in some respects exactly as I had imagined. Vendors crying out ‘Madame! Madame!’ as they tried to lure you to their stall, hitting you with a cheap bamboo fan at the same time. Piles of silk tops and lacquer boxes.
But what I wasn’t really prepared for was the filth and the poverty. Walking from the bus we passed a tiny mouse, calm making his way out of the sewer while Western tourists squealed and jumped over him. It was pointed out to me later that he was more likely to be a baby rat, but he was cute and didn’t really phase me.
Until I imagined him running over my foot as I stood in a crowded stall in the market… It didn’t happen of course, but if I tried not-so-very hard I could convince myself it was going to.
A vendor sold food cooked on a small stove perched on top of a cardboard box, next to a pile of garbage. People sat in open store fronts, trying to escape the heat while they watched the French Open on their widescreen TVs even as children lay on the sidewalk, hoping for money from a guilty tourist.
“Don’t look,” my friend said. But I had to. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and I felt like even though it was out of my comfort zone, it was so much more authentic than my usual hotel-room-focused trips.
I finally feel like somewhat of a traveller and I would love to go back. Maybe to Hanoi this time…
I could get to like this.