While it’s not the thick jungle brush you picture from the movies (in most places), Vietnam has a charm all its own. And while it’s not totally unlike Thailand (it is, after all, Southeast Asia) I can attest that there are certainly aspects which make this country unique. As buses bounce violently with little to no shocks through the dusty-but-then-suddenly-concrete-again-in-some-places “roads” I find it difficult to envision that a mere forty years ago this place was overcoming chemical warfare and mass destruction. With over 35 millions scooters shooting through the streets, water buffalo tied to random posts along both highways and in rice paddies, a smaller area (km2) than Germany but 10 million more people, it’s easy to see how this country is coming up. The development of this nation is astounding. High rises grace beachfront property and roads are finally (and literally) “on the map” – we’ve even been able to utilize Google Maps to find a temple while we, too, were on a scooter! This buzzing paradise is not so much off the beaten track anymore, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing
A Peek into Vietnam
We board the bus to our next destination and I take a seat next to a giant single-paned window. Water streaks make it a bit annoying to view my surroundings (I really wonder if they ever wash these buses sometimes – I mean, with the monsoon rains they get here maybe it’s not worth it!) but I focus on what is happening outside. A man on a scooter pulls up next to us in the crowd, close enough to touch the side of the bus. On the back of his bike is a cylindric, wiry cage filled with chickens who are one too many in the tiny enclosure. Next to him, a woman donned in full coverage (long pants, long sleeves, socks, slip-on sandals, gloves, a scarf, a face-mask, sunglasses, and a helmet) carries her toddler in her lap (who is not wearing a helmet) who is now asleep against the handlebars. Her apparel is especially impressive because it’s about 34 degrees (almost 94 Fahrenheit) and I’m sweating in the air-conditioned bus. The blaring horns of the trucks and taxis trying to get through the drove of scooters doesn’t seem to shake the toddler from her slumber. The bus begins to move.
Organized chaos is the best way to describe Vietnam in a nutshell, especially the roads. Without studying the patterns, you could very well assume that everyone is partaking in a perilous free-for-all. Red lights are merely suggestions, as are the lines painted on the street. Lanes that bear signage “ONE WAY” or “DO NOT ENTER” (well, the symbols anyway – not English words, of course) are completely ignored – but I do feel like they’re taken into consideration on occasion.
On the side of the road as scooters blaze past, a woman appearing to be between the ages of 80 and 90 pulls a heavy wooden cart filled with dirt. Her conical hat covers her head until she raises it ever so slightly so that I may see the wrinkles depicting her approximate age. To my surprise, I find that many elderly women here work as industriously as young men in the Western world … if not more so. I haven’t spotted too many older gentlemen doing the same, but it does happen from time to time.
As we carry on, we come to a red light (and we actually do stop. Buses and trucks typically abide by the lights from what I’ve seen because – face it, if they barreled forward many people would be squished!) I see a glass cylinder (about two feet high and half a foot in diameter) marked with measurements, sitting atop a rectangular metal box. Inside is a greenish-brown liquid. Protruding from the cylinder is a black rubber hose that leads to a nozzle. This, my friends, is where you can fill your scooter with petrol. You can also find petrol served in 1.5 or 2 liter bottles on the side of the road. We did find, however, that when we filled our tank with these, it was much more expensive than filling up at a normal petrol station, which appear pretty similar to those back home except for that the roofs tend to be much higher for some reason.
We pass a school where students are clamoring out of the gated area, and a man with a steamed bun cart is setting up shop. Some parents will come and collect their children on their scooters, and the older children either walk or take their bicycle home. The bicycles used by the children are always much too tall and big for them. I have yet to see a bike designed for anyone under 5 feet tall (which is a pretty average adult height here. Yay! I’m normal in Asia!)
Continuing, we exit the “city limits” (loose term in this case) and find ourselves in somewhat of a neighborhood. I mean, by neighborhood there are rickety structures about that call themselves houses. And by rickety I mean that some are made from metal paneling being held up by sticks and then a tarp is thrown over them. It’s actually very peculiar to drive through these areas because among the poverty-stricken housing there will be a random mansion among them. Like, in between two shacks there will sit a three-story western-style house with a balcony and you can see a flat-screen TV through on of the picture windows. I question how this A. happens at all, and B. affects the morale of the neighborhood. The surrounding area to the house is exactly like all the others: dirt, rubbish strewn about, etc. It makes you wonder what made the person build their house here. But who am I to question things anymore?? After what I’ve seen, nothing is a mystery anymore. Things just … are.
Oh, and before I forget (speaking of “why, why, WHY?”) – one time, when my partner and I were scooter-ing through a neighborhood, we found ourselves behind a garbage truck. As the men hopped out of the back of the truck and threw the bags, bins, random objects, etc. into the back, they would jump back in with the rubbish. Then, they would proceed to sift through the trash and then choose (at random, it would seem) objects that they did not deem worthy to be in their truck. They would throw things back out of the truck INTO THE STREET. We had to dodge quite a few materials that were the arsenal of the garbage man. We eventually passed him on the left, almost head-on colliding with another motorist (this is completely normal).
Back on the bus – Once the neighborhood is behind us, we enter the famed jungle that is iconic of this region. The beautiful rolling green hills and waterfalls are astounding to say the least. Winding roads and tunnels bring us through mountainous regions that seem to be no-man’s-land, except for the occasional structure of bamboo with a tarp thrown over it. (Still not sure what those are.) Rivers flow happily through these areas and make for some amazing photos – and yet… It’s a constant disappointment to know that nothing I have ever seen or will see can ever be captured adequately by a camera. It’s only first-hand eyes that can see this place (or any for that matter) for what it is.
Well, those are just a few of the interesting observations I’ve made while exploring this land. I’ll make sure to post more about the people, some facts, and more in my next entries!