Here are some of my favorite misspellings I've encountered in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Really, how hard is it to open Microsoft Word and hit spell check? Apparently a lot harder than I thought...
I am a Hmong woman. A wife, mother, daughter, sister, village member. I am Hmong. The Vietnamese tried to make us part of their culture once. Some people left my village, others were sent to jail for being Christian or Buddhist. Not my family. Our culture runs through our veins like the roots of the trees on the mountainside, and no one can take it from us. We have always been a part of the earth. My ancestors lived on and harvested this land for as long as time, farming chickens, goats and pigs and growing rice on the tiered mountainsides two seasons out of the year. The animals were fattened and saved for special occasions like holidays and family celebrations. Whatever was left from the rice harvest they would take to the village to sell. They didn’t make much, but it was enough for their simple lives. The men worked in the fields hand planting and picking the rice, and the women cared for the children—three sometimes four or five.
Sometimes I think about the lives of my ancestors and the traditions they passed down to us; how to work the rice fields with water buffalo, the colorful hand woven head scarves we still wear and how to wrap cloth around our bare legs when it’s cold outside. It’s funny to think how much my life resembles theirs hundreds of years ago, yet how many things have changed with the influence of the Vietnamese and tourism.
It's a Tuesday morning. I wake up at five, dress my son, Liaj and walk him to school. I had two other children but they died as babies. It has always been just Liaj and me, but I recently got the joyous news that I an pregnant with my fourth child! Liaj just turned five and just started at the primary school built in my village last year. He is the first generation in my family to get an education. I am happy he can have the education I never got. I can’t read or write but I can speak English!
After saying our goodbyes I catch a ride on a motorbike to the nearby Vietnamese town of Sapa. It is in the north of the country near the Chinese border and has become very popular with tourists in the past few years. I spend the day selling silver earrings, bracelets, woven scarves and purses made by me and my fellow villagers.
I get to Sapa and there are tourists everywhere! I greet them saying, “hello, where are you from? What is your name?” and they turn around stunned at my English! Sometimes they answer me and sometimes they simply rush down the street ignoring my questions.
I talk with the foreigners who do stop and tell them about my culture. Sometimes they even come to my village and I cook them lunch and invite them to stay the night with my family. I get out our nicest bowls, pick fresh greens from our garden and we all gather around the table for a meal sharing each other’s company laughing and drinking rice wine.
The tourists say they don’t have meals like this at home. Their family eats different food at different times and they rarely see each other. This is hard for me to imagine. My family is the most important thing in my life. We share everything.
Tonight the tourists have come. They ask me questions about my village and culture, trying to understand our lives. They look surprised to see my small house with dirt floors and a single bed that my husband, son and I share. They spend time playing with the village children and even give them crayons they have carried along as presents. We don’t have paper, but the kids are happy coloring on wood planks and smooth rocks.
My mother, cousins and neighbors come over and we have a big dinner and sip rice wine all the while telling stories about our cultures. We live such different lives and I’m not sure they will ever understand our choice to live so simply, and I will never understand their busy schedules and separated families, but we have become friends and respect each other.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up and return to Sapa hoping to sell my crafts to tourists. The tourists will give me the money I need to support my family, and I will give them memories to bring home to their countries. Maybe one day they will tell their children about the Hmong villages in Vietnam, and my children will grow up hearing stories from their far off lands and we will learn to listen to the sound of harmony growing stronger with each passing word.
The chatters and shrieks of ten year olds flow from the windows of my bus as we roll through the Vietnamese countryside. The floor is stacked several boxes high with ceramic tiles and a kitchen sink is blocking the isle, so anyone wishing to pass must shrewdly shuffle around the corners or jump over the beast. I can’t decide if it’s a school bus or a hardware store delivery van. We just stopped to pick up more passengers and a thirty something lady slipped into the seat next to me, placing her hand on my leg. Awkward.
While I am debating whether to casually move my leg over or wiggle it a little, she looks down, acknowledging the position, raises her hand and replaces it, now grasping my knee. She clearly wants it here...maybe its my new $8 Ferrari brand jeans? Irresistible. Oh, and did I mention someone just started playing the Titanic soundtrack? Thank you Vietnam, my heart will go on.
How did I become part of this bus circus anyway? It all started with my Halong Bay trip. After an excruciating van ride packed to the brim with tourists locals and luggage, a few run ins with rude tour operators and a hilariously awkward evening on a boat with two Chinese couples, five German guys and a very young Vietnamese girl coupled with an old fat Dutch man (sex tourism anyone?) I found myself wandering around Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay.
Me and a fellow German were shuffled around the island for a day hiking through a national park and wandering around town. When it was time for us to get back on our junk boat for the night the tour guide put us on an unmarked van which dropped us at the harbor where we were instructed to wait for said school bus turned Home Depot delivery truck.
After driving for an hour through the countryside, dropping the school children at their respective homes and delivering the building materials, the German guy and I were the only people remaining on the bus. Much to my surprise we actually made it to the harbor where we waited another hour with a collection of tour guides and boat captains, the German feeding them rum shots all the while, shooting the breeze and waiting for our boat to arrive.
Once again, much to my surprise, a boat emerged from the foggy bay to pick up the two lone tourists waiting at the harbor. The name of the boat was Halong Bay Party Cruiser, which I must admit, did live up to its name. My new tour guide—this time a more amiable and energetic character—kicked off the evening with a Backstreet Boys karaoke debut along with some sort of tai chi flailing arms dance moves. It was stellar. After that the four dollar bottles of vodka started rolling and we sang the night away. This country never ceases to amaze me.
Some pictures from my three day boat excursion to Halong Bay, coined one of the seven natural wonders of the world!
It is no secret that the Vietnamese favor their own people, and rightly so. I would equally favor an American, but when it turns into a Robin Hood act, taking from tourists and giving to the Vietnamese, it becomes a problem. A few days ago I was riding in a tour van packed with 20 tourists, luggage and all. There was not much space, and the four hour ride was going to be less than jovial. A few miles down the road the driver pulled over to pick up a few local women hitching a ride; only one problem, there were no seats left. The tour guide asked three of the tourists the get out of the van, giving their seats to the Vietnamese women and assigning the tourists to the portable fold down seats in the aisle.
If you want to pick up hitchers with your full tour van, whatever. I know this would never fly in a Western country, but being it was Vietnam I could let it slide. Forcing tourists who had paid anywhere from $60-80 for the tour to give up their seats to freeloaders? Unacceptable. I don’t care which country you’re from—Eastern and Western alike, that is just bad customer service.
To make things more exciting, the ladies chattered on their cell phones the whole drive and had an especially loud conversation with each other when the tour guide was trying to explain the day’s itinerary to us. After the four hour journey, we were an annoyed bunch. This, however, would not be my only aggravating bus adventure.
The bus anger was left to brew in my mind for a few days, coincidently perfectly preparing me for a scrimmage with an evil bus driver the following week. I had booked a sleeper bus to the north of Vietnam . It was a bunk bed set up with overly reclined bus seats and I happened to have prime pick of the territory, being one of the first people on the bus. Remembering advice from my travel mates, always sleep on the bottom, I settled on a nice bottom bunk in the middle of the bus. As I approached the seat the bus driver ran at me pointing to the top seat saying I must sit there. I refused, inching closer to my beloved bottom bunk. A British girl next to me—also headed toward a bottom bunk—exclaimed, “why do you always make us ride on the top when the Vietnamese get the better bottom seats? Tell me! Why can’t I sleep on the bottom?”
This tipped the driver off. He turned into something resembling an angry monkey, howling and flailing his arms, all the while ignoring the British girl’s inquiry and yelling at us to take the top seats. This was my breaking point. I had dealt with enough rude people in this country and wasn’t about to tolerate one more.
“Ever hear of someone named Rosa Parks?” I asked. He stared, confused. “Didn’t think so. Well I’m about to rock your world.”
I turned to my bottom seat and plopped down. The driver grabbed my arm threatening to yank me from my seat, and I screamed in protest, “I can guarantee you I paid more money for this bus ride than any Vietnamese person, and I will sit wherever I damn well please.” I shoved my ticket in his face exclaiming, “show me where it says the seat number! Nowhere! You can't tell me where to sit, then.”
Needless to say, he relinquished. This was the first time I had succeeded in a long list of struggles with the locals and it felt good.
Hanoi greeted me with a perfectly foggy jeans and t-shirt type of day. It was love at first sight. The city was charming with European style buildings, windy streets, numerous cafes and merchants pedaling French baguettes on street corners. There was a lake in the middle of the old quarter where locals would come to practice tai chi, play guitar or just sit on benches watching the whole scene. I went for a six A.M. run one morning to find the lake bustling with couples cha-chaing to blaring Latin music and teens partaking in a badminton battle. The Vietnamese really knew how to enjoy themselves.
Dao, the worker at my hostel greeted me with open arms asking all about my trip and what I planned to do in Vietnam. The warm welcome was nice after my four A.M. wakeup, flight, and treacherous journey meandering the unnavigable streets of old town Hanoi to find the hostel. I stumbled into my bed for a mid-morning nap.
It wasn’t long after my first stroll through the city that I learned the words on the lips of every tourist were “rip off,” and my rose-colored romanticized image of Hanoi began to fade. There seemed to be an irritable tension in the air among every traveler I met. Outwardly, I attributed this to the ear piercingly incessant motorbike honking. That’s right, I had missed the rainy season, but if the honking was any indication of the weather, Hanoi would surely be flooded and wiped off the map in no time. New York City, you’ve got nothing on Hanoi.
The locals drove as bad as, well, they sounded. One way streets and red lights meant nothing. Motorbikes, sometimes piled high with four people zoomed, swerved, and u-turned through the narrow streets competing with street vendors and pedestrians who were forced to relinquish the sidewalks to motorbike parking. Crossing the street was an animal all of its own. Traffic (obviously) never stops, so one must boldly step into the blender, as if poking a finger into a fan, and walk roughly at the same pace as the mopeds perfectly timing an entry through the spaces between each oncoming vehicle.
“Ok,” I thought, “this crossing the street business seems a bit dangerous, but no one would actually hit me. This was just a scare tactic, when it came down to me and the motorbike, the driver would surely stop.” FALSE! Apparently in Vietnam, you pay a smaller fine for killing someone than just injuring them, so it would indeed be beneficial for the motorist to go for the kill. Pedestrians beware!
The stressful street scene kept tourists on their toes. Everyone either outwardly despised Vietnam and weren’t bashful to say it, or tried to convince me it was great, nervously twitching all the while. I was somewhere between apathetic and twitching happy tourist. I thought I liked it. That is until I got rudely shuffled out of a restaurant and a shop for no other reason than I can conceive but being foreign. Before I could even say a word, the respective owners flung their hands at me in an out the door type of gesture hissing all the while.
I started to get the sense that Vietnam was out to get me. I was quoted ridiculous market prices that no Vietnamese would pay (like $.75 for one orange) and the locals refused to bargain even a bit. I went to the supermarket and oranges were going for $.75 a pound! Go figure…I eventually began to forgo the markets. If they clearly didn’t want me here, I didn’t want to give them my money.
My first week in the country went like this. There were ups and downs with overly friendly locals who made me want to love Vietnam, and unspeakably rude people who made me hate Vietnam. Likewise, I was flung through an exhausting rotation of content to irate tourist and all the shades between.
After an exasperating run in with a bus driver, I decided this love hate roller coaster was here to stay and I wasn’t getting off any time soon. I pulled out my bossy shoes, toughened up my skin and figured I could play the same game. And things started to get a whole lot better...