I have been asked by somebody the give a bit of a biography about how I came to understand Vietnamese culture, and where I have been in my travels. I will write a little about that today and add some of the contents to the About me page.
Before getting involved with the Vietnamese, I was involved with the Chinese, and was once close to getting married to a Chinese woman. The family I was involved with at that time mostly spoke no English and because of that, I was forced to learn some Chinese language to communicate with them. There is no better way to be introduced to a culture than by learning the language, and before long I began understanding things that were oblivious to me before. The family structure, the culture and how much of it revolved around food and face. I enjoyed the food and the social structure, and soon began to fit in. I even learned how to play Mahjong with the pro’s. I actually got pretty good. In the end it did not work out and back to the western world I went.
I did now have a somewhat unique understanding of Asians and had Asian friends, so I only lasted so long before I became involved with them Again. I met Mai about 2 years later and within 3 month of meeting we were flying to Vietnam to get married. Wow!! I never saw that coming!! People were afraid for my security as back then there was very little tourism and a foreigner attracted all the needy as we represented wealth. So in the late 90’s I disembarked from the plane after rolling down a pot holed runway with big Russian missile clad helicopters on each side. Down a rolled up staircase we went to a waiting bus that is as big as a mobile home. Back then, the airport was still primitive and military police armed with AK47’s were everywhere. My wife seeing family members for the first time ran off to be greeted by them leaving me alone with suspicious looking armed men watching me with disapproving looks…… anyway, I am getting side tracked a bit. Back to the tale. We left the airport and I was hit by a wave of hot air and culture shock at the same time. In the hottest climate I had ever felt, I was surrounded by New family members, curious people who had seen very few if any westerners, and women and children pressing ice gold bottles of
water into me. It was all overwhelming and it came almost as a relief when the 11 Family members and I squished into a small passenger van for the 14 hour drive to Nha Trang. Yes!! It took 14 hours to drive the 350 km or so. Back then the highway was mostly under construction, and I could not probably describe how bad the road and drive was. I know there are some readers who are chuckling right now because they have been there, done that. My first encounter with Road side restaurants and the local Vietnamese toilet was on that drive. I also experienced the how dirty a person could get. My face was basically red dust with a couple of blue holes for eyes. After the 14 hours of noise, heat, and bouncing on dusty roads we arrived with me all cramped up. It was my first lesson on travel in Vietnam, and I remember it to this day.
The family (now us) have a house behind the Ponagar Cham ruins. A room was set up for us and my Vietnamese experiences began. Mai and I were married in a small traditional wedding in the family home. Back then, there was no tourism to speak of and in the 6 weeks I was there, never found another western English speaker. There was also no refrigeration or air-conditioning back then (at least where I was), and living without cold drinks was difficult. I was finally able to find a rare cooler that smelled like fish, and everyday, my niece would guide me by hand to purchase ice to keep drinks cold. That is when I discovered how good some Vietnamese beer is. Back then I discovered, It was illegal for a foreigner to stay in a Vietnamese household, but I was fortunate enough and still am to have a sister in-law that works for the government. A small fee….. and everybody looked the other way. Except for the guy on the motorcycle who was charged with keeping an eye on me. I always thought he was watching for his big chance to get at my wallet, but was told many years later he
was there to watch and keep me out of trouble. I tried and spent some time looking for an English book, or some English speakers to talk to, but no luck, so I just started observing and trying to learn to fit in with the family. Vietnamese think very different from us westerners, and after observing for a while, like the Chinese, I started to understand. With a little more confidence, I decided to cut the boredom of just being around the house and get a trip to somewhere happening. We decided to take a bus to Dalat as a starter. We drove into the mountains sitting on ammunition crates in a vehicle that should be junked. We stopped at most of the waterfalls on the way. Back then there were no facilities or aides to get to the sights, just some difficult trails and stone staircases. Nearing Dalat a person was treated to stepping fields cut into the side of mountains. Sadly, today those same fields are covered by tarps of plastic to aid the crops, obscuring those sights. Back then, people there were quite hostile towards me and I became a bit discouraged to do anymore travel in Vietnam.
Thus was my first experience. I decided that Vietnam was not for me and I would never come back.
Well…… So much for not returning….I returned a number of times over the next 10 years and began to travel the country with different family members. We always travelled as the Vietnamese, stayed where the Vietnamese stayed. I was getting a perspective of the country and the attractions from the Vietnamese viewpoint. I was also starting to learn a little bit of the language. With the Vietnamese I visited Dalat, Hoi An, Hue, Danang, Mui Ne, Vung Dau, Tay Ninh, Qui Nhon, Doc Let, Deep into the Mekong, Hanoi, Cambodia and a few other destinations that I cannot recall. In 2006 I finally noticed a big change in the country. People were becoming receptive to westerners and Vietnam was charging full steam ahead into the modern world. I had decided that Vietnam was now a good place for tourists to go…… I had no idea that tourism was already developing, I was still not aware of any tourist areas even though they now existed. In the spring of 2009 I returned again with friends and co-workers in tow and toured the remaining sites I had not been such as Chau Doc, Halong Bay, Nin Binh/Tam Coc, Dong Hoi, and others. I also returned to popular destinations such as Hoi An and discovered for the first time a tourist area. Even in my city of Nha Trang, I had no idea that there was a tourist area until a year and a half ago. I have now traveled to many places many times and will do so
again. My new mission will be to find and experience the same places I have been multiple times from a fun loving tourist’s viewpoint.
Currently I still live as a local in the midst of the Vietnamese where I feel safe and comfortable. I now head off to speak English and visit with new friends in the tourist area. I am surprised that many of these people, some of which have been here many years, have never really ventured much out of their own neighborhood and know very little about what I like to call the real Vietnam. Of course, speaking the language (even poorly) helps and I have none of the difficulties with the aggressive street sales persons or motorcycles guys that others do.
Being totally immersed into Vietnamese life without any foreign influences has given me a unique perspective. I can see some things from the Vietnamese viewpoint, but better yet, I understand what is really going on. Not just the foreigner’s perspective of what they think is going on. I also have family in many different areas and trades that has been a wealth of information over many years. I will never claim to be an expert on things Vietnamese (I am sure others can do that) but it seems that whenever I talk with people who have been here a long time, I am constantly surprised at the false information they have or have been told, A lot of it based on stories told to them and taken as fact, when the truth actually is very different.
I know there are others out there in similar situations to my own and look forward to conversing with them in the future.
I found that writing this, I got side tracked a few times….. I guess it is that autobiographical part of me trying to get out
Wow!! Look at that, I am way over my self imposed word count.