I didn’t write about my time in Asia as I thought I might, because the time flew by and I did my best to focus on the moment. I posted on facebook that we had arrived, as it took us ~38 hours of plane rides to get to Saigon and I was sure that people were waiting for the confirmation that we hadn’t disappeared in the ocean. But for the rest of the trip, I refrained from getting online. I had dozens of moments of “stop thinking about work/home/don’t look at your phone/etc.–look at everything around you–it will be over in XX days and you’ll have wished you had looked harder”.
And now I don’t wish I looked harder, because I really took it all in. If you hadn’t noticed this before, now you will, but when you are in a new place you become very tired, and sometimes even develop headaches from examining the new environment. I was exhausted every day when I was in Asia. I slept incredibly–even James did, which was a relief. I really pushed myself to look at everyone on the streets… I wanted to watch their faces as they turned and saw a gigantic white woman dressed in black staring directly at them. It amused me. But mostly, I wanted to study their faces and bodies and clothing, not so much their reactions (which were usually a big wave and broken “hell-o”). It was such a shock to be in the midst of a sea of tiny brown bodies in muted clothing. Most everyone kept to themselves, looking directly in front of them, walking with purpose. They drove that way, too. The roads have no rules, yet everything flows better than the roads that have rules. Millions of little people on battered scooters buzzing in-between dilapidated and random buildings. They all wore face masks. Some carried three, or four, or even five people on these scooters. Passengers weren’t holding on, some even texting. People honked instead of using turn signals. Everyone cut each other off and no one got mad. We were told to “just go and they won’t hit you” while trying to cross a street.
I was never afraid. But I probably would have been had I been a small woman, or without a group or local guide. I really can’t imagine navigating that world without Quyen. Everything seemed smoother because he knew what to do or where to go. He would chat with the cabdrivers and befriend them–they would charge us a day-rate and wait outside of whatever restaurant or attraction we were at for us. When we were finished, we would slide into a clean car with a driver who was visibly excited to have us. He would have Vietnamese coffees for us and be playing our favourite music. The drivers almost never spoke english but they nodded and smiled at our attempts at saying “xin chào”, which means hello (pronounced like: “zeen chow”, but Quyen told me to say “sin jow”).
We went to Saigon first and stayed at Quyen’s family’s compound, which was located in a nice area, not very far from the city center (Quyen referred to his home-city as Saigon, and not HCMC, so out of respect for my friend, I also don’t use the new name). Most cabs cost less than ~$3, fancy meals were less than ~$10/pp, really high-end hotels were ~$40/n. We visited the Củ Chi tunnels to learn about the Việt Cộng and this is where I met a local Vietnamese woman who said to me in perfect english, “Thank you for visiting Vietnam. You could have gone anywhere in the world, and here you are at the Củ Chi tunnels learning about my history and spending your money in my country.” This woman lived in Saigon and had gone to secondary school for linguistics. She knew French, English and obviously Vietnamese. The stories that she shared were heart-wrenching. She told me about her experience living through the war and how she had lost several family members and friends. She held a lot of resentment towards America but she said “The students had our backs… we knew the US Government wanted to kill us, but the students fought them for us. I saw them on the TV with their signs and protests.”
We also visited some beautiful temples and the Phạm Ngũ Lão Street. Our last big excursion was to the Mekong River. It was a full day trip that included a two-hour bus ride from Quyen’s house to the river and a two-hour drive back. We ate traditional Vietnamese food, learned how to make chopsticks, rice-paper, coconut treats, honey… being brought from “shop” to “shop” watching them perform again and again, made me uncomfortable. We had paid $50/pp for the day and I didn’t feel like the performers were actually getting anything. Some of the tourists bought some of the treats and things, but I am sure that the tour company profited the lion-share, if not all, of the income from the tourists. I understand that tourism is a double-edged sword… some people made good money and were able to live well because of us, but I presume a lot of people are being exploited.
After Saigon, we flew to Da Nang. We stayed in a luxury hotel on the beach with a roof-top infinity pool. James and I were given the master-suite. I treated our crew to massages at the hotel (which was the best massage I have ever had (sorry Caitlin)). My little lady jumped on the table, cracked my back and ripped my body up. I think I paid somewhere around $130 for three people to have 90-minute long deep-tissue massages (at a high-end place). Everyone I encountered seemed deliriously happy to see me and any kind of tip was received with a gracious nod and big thank you. It is a very different environment from the US/Can where tips are expected and service is not top priority.
Da Nang was my favourite place out of the entire trip. We visited the Marble Mountains, Ling Ying Temple and Ba Na Hills. All three of which were indescribably beautiful. Quyen has been to the Great Wall of China and he said that the Ba Na Hills look exactly like it. The temples were as big as sky-scrapers. The Buddha statues were everywhere. And there weren’t really that many people. On our way home from the hills, our wonderful cabdriver recommended we go to New Phuong Dong… so we did… and holy mother of… it was one of the best experiences of my life. We had been out in the hot sun walking all day and I was dressed in gypsy pants and a long sleeve shirt, no make up and my hair a mess (the guys all equally as disheveled) and we walk into the nicest club I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot). All of the men were in full suits, women were in designer dresses and shoes… and they welcomed us with open arms, sat us at a VIP table and gave us our own private bartender. The table beside us bought us drinks, people were coming up to us and high-fiving us and saying hello… I just couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t have been dressed more inappropriately, yet everyone was so happy to see us.
The next night we popped over to Hội An for dinner. It was a “must see” spot, very busy, but it was great. We sat at a bar that overlooked the little river running through town, and I sat beside two men who were originally from Michigan and had moved to Hội An some 20 years ago. They were both military at one point, but are now retired and enjoy living in a place where everyone is grateful to serve you and the prices are 1/3 what we are used to.
The next day we flew to Hà Nội, which was a very crowded city. It took us over an hour to get to the hotel that was in the city center, which had many white tourists. I found out the hard way that not all white people speak english… I tried to speak to several different people and they sometimes would give me dirty looks because I “assumed” they spoke english. Our hotel was an old-school rich thing… bellhops at the front door, gold everywhere and only five rooms in the entire place (two of which we had). I found Hà Nội to be a little overrun and expensive, considering what I had just experienced in Da Nang. I bought myself a fake designer purse, new tennis shoes (that fell apart within two weeks of being home) and a couple scarves. Most of the stuff in the market was just junk-stuff and I was beginning to sour being around so many hagglers, backpackers and beggars.
We left early in the morning for Hạ Long Bay. This was my second favorite experience of the entire trip. It took us almost four hours to get to the bay by bus (which is a nightmare, knowing how frequently I have to pee). But once we got there, I felt like I had entered into a dream-state. We boarded an old wooden boat and toured Hạ Long Bay. We puttered through islands that looked like individual mountains popping out of the sea. They pulled up to one and we got to hike to the top of one. The food they served was something you would expect from a Michelin star restaurant. Again, the service was exemplary and to an unexpected level. We slept well and woke up rested, and clambered up to the deck to watch the sunrise and drink our Vietnamese coffees. They had a Tai Chi exercise, served another wonderful meal and then we headed to some caves. We were given the option to get on a large paddle boat (a very skinny Vietnamese man would struggle to row a wooden boat full of 15 plump Chinese or American tourists), or to kayak… and for whatever reason, I was the only one that opted to kayak. I ventured out by myself through caves and streams and made my way back to the main area where the larger boats were and I was greeted by dozens of boats filled with Chinese tourists taking pictures of me and saying “HELL-O! HI! HELL-O!”. I would smile and wave and they would all look to each other in amazement and continue taking pictures of me with no shame.
We headed back to land that afternoon and took another dreaded four-hour bus ride back to Hà Nội for the night. We caught a plane to Phuket in the morning, and I almost got separated from everyone because I lost my declaration slip that I had filled out on the plane and had to find another one to fill out… and somehow I got separated from the crew and no one could connect to the wifi. It was this experience that made me realize that I might have had troubles by myself, or that I had become too dependent on Quyen for “directions” instead of trying to figure things out on my own.
I enjoyed our time in Thailand, but not nearly as much as I did in Vietnam. Phuket was full of tourists. Fat white men with petite Thai girls (or ladyboys… you couldn’t quite be sure). Clusters of very loud, drunk Australian 20-somethings. More Chinese people taking pictures of me. It was a strange crowd. The servers and cabdrivers weren’t as courteous or grateful as they had been in Vietnam. Here, they seemed to expect large tips and didn’t say thank you. Our hotel here was ~$200/n and our dinners were usually about ~$35/pp (with no alcohol). I assume we paid so much because we were in the very touristy part of Phuket, but it still didn’t seem right. We stayed on the main road and every time we left our hotel we were inundated with locals trying to get us into “ping-pong shows”. We were told to stay clear of the “shows” because they will charge you upwards of $100/pp if you enter but won’t tell you that there is a charge until you try and leave–and if you don’t pay, they will throw you in jail. We went for drinks one of the nights we were there and I somehow spent $400… I am still convinced that I was scammed at one of the bars, because I didn’t have that much to drink, but either way my experience in Phuket felt scammy and slimy. I would only recommend someone come here if they were looking for an experience with a ladyboy, because they are quite proud of the “kathoey” here. This is also where James ate the oysters and for the remainder of the trip he was excreting watery, bloody stool every two hours.
Our last stop was in Bangkok. By the time we got here, I was running on fumes. The constant chattering of a foreign language, strange smells, bumper-to-bumper traffic, the honking… it started to dampen my enthusiasm. Bangkok was not at all what I imagined it to be… we grabbed a cab from the airport and it took us an hour and a half to get 10 miles. We finally just grabbed our luggage out of the trunk and walked down the congested highway the remaining ~1 mile to the hotel. We stayed at the W hotel in Bangkok, which again, is over $200. The prices were just not what I had heard about Thailand. We met up with a friend of a friend who used to live in California but moved to Bangkok to work for Uber (management level) and he took us to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and ordered all of our food, which came out in traditional Thai style… and it was perfect. I tried all the different foods that were offered to me throughout the trip. I figured if other people ate it, I could eat it and be fine. Quyen had mentioned a couple times to his friends that we met up with that “Rebecca eats anything you give her, which is impressive! Most westerners would never try any of this!”, which made me feel good. I didn’t want to insult or embarrass him, and I actually enjoyed every meal I had.
Our trip was really, really, really awesome. I was almost “not allowed” to go, due to the amount of trips I had taken in the short six months I had been working with the Hunt Team, but thankfully it was not brought up again and Brooke “let” me go. If James had gone without me, I think the jealously of it all would have eaten me alive. I know how lucky I am that I have a boss that allowed me to do this…
The entire trip changed my perception of the world (as it should). You don’t experience something like that and go back to your normal way of life with your old thoughts. I have become much more appreciate of my citizenship, my residence, my appearance, being female in this country, my job, money, food… we truly live better than 80% of the world, yet we complain like we are peasants.