I flew out to Vietnam on September 13 2001, when the world’s eyes and hearts were very much in New York. Being on a plane so soon after 911 was a terrifying experience – and that’s speaking as one who is always terrified of being in a plane no matter what the occasion.
I didn’t encounter much in the way of humour amongst the Vietnamese, but the little I did was immediately upon arriving. An airport security dog was barking loudly and aggressively at an American passenger. Its handler just laughed and said, ‘No worry, he all time angry, name Bin Laden!’
Way, way too soon.
Two things overwhelm you on stepping out from an air-conditioned hotel in Vietnam, the intense humidity (which obviously targets my already mad hair and turns me into some sort of yeti / yak hybrid) and the inability to master the usually simple task of crossing a road.
My friend and I had and walked only a few yards before we came to a giant round about, not far off the size of the Arc de Triumph in Paris. There were no traffic lights filtering the onslaught of trucks, cars, buses, motor bikes, bicycles and tuk tuks, which kept coming in a steady, relentless stream. We waited patiently for a gap, aware that the local pedestrians were just stepping straight out, demanding expert swerving from drivers. No fist shaking or shouting accompanied the manoeuvres as this was clearly the norm.
We must have been waiting a good 15 minutes, too scared to jump off the kerb’s precipice, before a stall holder sitting just behind us got up, took us both by the hand and strode out into the traffic with us in hot, panicky pursuit. No-one hit us, we got to the other side, didn’t die, it was fine.
Journeys of any kind proved to be challenging in Vietnam. I’m sure it’s a different story today but back then the infrastructure of the tourist industry was in its infancy.
There were companies who operated solely for the purpose of transporting tourists around the country in mini-vans, some of the journeys being quite lengthy, even overnight. So the last thing you want is to find that the seating has been designed with the average Vietnamese person in mind – ie people who are much more vertically-challenged than the average Westerner. It’s not that I’m a giant but, at 5’ 8’’, I was considerably longer in the leg department than my kind hosts.
Concertinaed in THE most uncomfortable position for hours on end on bumpy roads with no leg room whatsoever is not something I’d recommend. The only good thing about them was the relief from the humidity.
You’d think I’d have been grateful for some breaks and roadside stops. However, at times, this in itself was the root of the problems.
On one particular day, we’d bought minibus tickets to take us on the very straight forward journey from Hoi An to Da Nang and jumped in with a load of other fellow ‘farangs’. There was confusion as to what time we were due to arrive at our destination but it soon became clear that this was because we’d all been sold totally different trips.
Half of us were expecting to get there in one fell swoop, the other half had been sold some kind of magical mystery tour that comprised stopping off at places of interest every mile or so. Each stop allowed them an hour to explore the area, which they obviously made good use of, while the rest of us sulked on the bus and refused to get off.
We’d brought no food with us as we imagined being at our destination long before lunch and the sulking worked up a substantial hunger. So when we made our 5th stop of the day I was forced to get off in search of a cash point and a hot bowl of pho. The helpful motorbike taxi drivers were on hand to explain that the nearest bank was 5 miles away in town. Hence, on an already bizarre journey, it became all the more odd as then I raced off on the back of a bike – my fellow bus trippers believing they would never see me again. I was grateful for the crash helmet which provided some protection to anyone within six feet of my ever-expanding hair.
Even by the time I returned, replete with cash and food, the magical mystery tourists had still not got back on the minibus. Despite the withering heat, my ‘Come on, let’s GO!’ team managed to rise above the listlessness to demonstrate growing anger with the other ‘scenic route’ team.
Very grumpily, we eventually set off again but, barely 10 minutes later, our next stop was at a village where a number of home arts and crafts merchants welcomed us with shouty, aggressive, open arms.
Less hungry and, therefore, considerably less miserable, I spotted a tailor with some cool items hanging up and decided to put the sulk on hold to check out what he had.
I was in a make shift ‘changing room’ which was the size of a telephone box with a flimsy curtain shielding my dignity as I tried on a pair of trousers.
If I learnt one thing on this trip it was what an utterly stupid idea it is to try on a pair of tight-fitting trousers in a confined space when intense humidity coupled with the stress of knowing the eyes of an entire bus are staring and willing you to hurry the freak up.
Having managed to get them on, there was now no WAY they were ever coming off, they were attached steadfastly to my sweaty legs. I’m no scientist, but it seems perspiring does not help material slide off you, but instead acts as some sort of sticking agent.
After a good 15 minutes of struggling in various positions, the tailor threw open the curtain to find me writhing on the floor, fast losing the fight with his trousers. With no English, he stood me up and yanked at them for a further 10 minutes, doing his utmost to pull them off.
But they weren’t budging.
I ended up having to buy them and retreat to the bus still with them on where I found a third ‘team’ had now formed. It was a team of one, I was the only member and no-one from the other teams was speaking to me as a result of my having delayed the trip unnecessarily by almost a further hour.
Like some mythical half yeti half trouser-clad creature, I sat quietly for the remainder of the journey with my perspiring legs bent double under me having been banished to the worst and most cramped seat on the bus as punishment.