Vietnam: 5 senses
Inhale: Vietnam feeds your body through all your senses. New tastes, strong smells, different landscapes, and that special touch added when dealing with people from different cultures.
Vietnam: that black and white picture of a crying, little girl, running during the war. Apocalypse now. Former French colony. And that was I knew about the country.
I made it to the other end of the world out of pure luck. Jet-lagged and without many expectations, after all, I never thought I would make it all the way to Vietnam. But everything changed as soon as I started meeting some of my traveling companions: American war veterans, returning after so many decades. They left the tourist guides speechless while sailing the Mekong Delta, and had most of the travel party listening with religious attention to the stories they had to tell. So many years ago, they had to fight a war that didn’t belong to them. A war that took them all the way across the world, to heaven, and turned the place into hell. Because the Southeast of Asia is the closest image I have of Paradise. And the Cu Chi Tunnels, a trace of that war, has the same putrid smell Dante found at the Inferno.
Vietcong doesn’t mean the same nowadays: It’s a bank, not the liberation party. But the rice fields are still there.
I step out of the bus with my Filipino friend, Carlito. We were both photographers trying to see the world. As we were in his continent, and so far away from mine, I thought that his understanding of the culture (including the sign-language when words were not enough) would be more reliant than mine. One day in Phu My changed my mind.
But first, I had to leave the bus. The problem was, the street was overcrowded with local people trying to sell junk, they would jump all over us, blocking our way out of the buss. I shrunk my shoulders and try to hide behind my friend as I heard tons of words in a language so different from mine.
Phu My is a port city, one of the closest ports to Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon. Even though my excitement for being in Vietnam wasn’t great, people tried to keep my expectations down; I heard so many times that I would find nothing to do in that place. So, as I walked away from the local sellers and looked around, I expected nothing. Isn’t it great when the bar is so low? Especially because that port town with no charm completely exceeded all expectations.
We had our cameras out and our feet ready to walk. But with the summer humidity so high, Carlito suggested that our first move should be to drink something cool. And so we stepped into a KFC. The smell of fried chicken is not my thing, I don’t even like the food, but the mixture of that strong, oily smell and the view of the Vietnamese girls, wearing the occidental uniform of the food chain, was an amazing first impression.
While I was very vividly going through the first of many cultural shocks, my friend was buying our coconuts. I never had coconut juice before, Carlito wouldn’t believe me: “how come!”, he told me, “You’re from Latin American!”. Yeah, well, I’m from that place in South America that doesn’t have coconut trees, and had my very first at the other end of the world, bought in an American food-chain that actually sells fried chicken.
Tact: scooters in Vietnam
I got my motorbike driver's license when I was 14 years old. It was to go around town, before midnight (yes, like Cinderella) and only for scooters. But at that moment in life, it meant freedom. So, to be in a foreign place with a previously known ability, made me feel as if I was able to handle the situation. What was that situation? A see of scooters coming and going from all directions. And then there’s the situation with the drivers and us, who looked so very much like tourists: every few steps we had a scooter-driver offering taxi service, they could take us anyway, and the cost always was one dollar.
Carlito wanted to try balut, I had no idea what that was but sounded interesting enough to accompany him on his quest. He asked around in every restaurant, street market, and bar, without any luck. As we were walking away from our third local, he explained that baluts are a kind of duck eggs.
Tired of all that balut rejection, Carlito stopped one of those scooter-drivers and asked if he knew a place where we could eat balut. The man said yes and offered a ride. Honestly, I thought it was all a tourist trap, that man could hardly speak any English, he couldn’t have understood what Carlito had said! But against my common sense (let’s call it an adventure), minutes later, I found myself on the back seat of a very old scooter, with a helmet that was way too big for my head, sited behind a Vietnamese moto-driver who didn’t speak any English... but with whom I had a great conversation about the rice plantations.
Carlito was on another scooter, close enough from mine. I didn’t have to play it cool when I showed him my thumb up, I was actually thrilled with that situation: that was a full adventure. And I was just scared enough to understand that, after a few minutes of riding, we were actually leaving the city limits behind.
Taste: Duck eggs and local people
My driver parked the scooter in front of a house. Instead of a door, it had a counter and a fridge with cool drinks and beers; instead of windows, eggs and vegetables. On the side, there was a table and infant-sized chairs. It’s quite common in the South East of Asia that houses and local businesses merge into the same thing.
Carlito instantly knew which ones were the eggs we were looking for. To me, they looked exactly as chicken eggs: oval, white. But no. The woman, owner of the store, didn’t speak any English so one of our drivers helped us with translation and asked for some beer, coke, and the famous balut (cooked).
The place was not tourist-attractive: a road with some local stores. The dust of the road and the summer’s mid-day sun made the place look dirty. We were in a different city, depending only on two strangers, but nevertheless, I was having the time of my life: sited in tiny chairs, trying so hard to have a conversation with these two men with whom I only had in common a scooter’s license.
So the eggs came to the table. Carlito made a tiny hole in one of them and drank from it. Then he made a hole in the other egg and gave me to try. After all the drama we went through to get it, I couldn’t wait to try it.
It tasted like an oily liquid, with a salty flavor. I thought It was all right, so far I liked the balut. But well, all good things come to an end, Carlito cracked the egg in two. In front of my eyes, ready for me to eat, half of the yellowish egg yolk and half of an unborn, barely formed, little duck. I was done with it.
Sight: beyond the resorts
Nha Trang is one of the top tourist destinations in Vietnam. Because of that, the road of the coast looks like what you may see in a magazine or travel brochure, including the international 5-star hotels. Two blocks up from the beach, the real place begins.
The port is full of old fishing boats, some floating more than others, and some old warships anchored by the harbor. It’s not ready for cruise ships, but they manage to get their passengers to the beach area. To one side, a local market specially designed for tourists (and the prices were all the same, one dollar); to the other side, colorful, and not well-constructed houses rising over a hill, far away from the brochure beaches.
I found this man who worked as a bike rider. The bike, by the way, had a passenger seat in front of the wheel. And I hired him to take me to the city. He had zero English (and, of course, I had zero Vietnamese), but a set of pictures of all the different places he could take me to. He pointed out to one of those photographs while shouting: sleeping Buddha! So there we went.
On the way to the statue he drove me through streets very far from the international resorts, with wires so poorly tied to the columns, it looked like it wouldn’t survive the next monsoon season; other streets, on the contrary, very nicely arranged for the celebration of the new year. We passed by war memorials and Catholic churches, and streets where the houses had that elegant French style from the colonization.
Hearing: Sleeping Buddha and students painting
At the entrance of the Long Son Pagoda is extremely crowded: street vendors selling all kinds of jewelry, sunglasses, watches, and many other cheap fakes. They stood in front of me every step of the way, while I was trying to just smile and keep on walking. But then this group of people (especially kids) started following me while talking laudly, and pointing at something in my back: I had crackers on the outside pocket of my backpack, and that’s what they wanted. I gave them the package and they ran away with their price.
Once I walked by the temple entrance, no more street sellers. No more kids running around. All that movement and confusion just stayed behind.
The only sounds we could hear in that whole, massive place, were the bells, hit by the devotees. The Buddhist temples are all well designed, and everything in the architecture has a meaning. They have made beautiful gardens and walks from their beliefs, so for example, hitting bells reliefs sadness. There are always steps, lots and lots of them because every step up we take on those stairs helps our soul to release stress (personally, I found more steps than heaviness in my soul). And, of course, the dragons: the guardians.
Maybe because of the difference in our folklore, but the use of dragons in Asian mythology calls my attention in the utmost positive way. I fell in love with those creatures while climbing up temples in Vietnam. In Asia, they are not that terrible and scary animals, but they are seen as protective animals and carry good fortune. They are normally found before Buddha, with the mouth open and the tong out, protecting the Buddha from anyone with bad intentions.
As I was climbing yet another set of steps, I felt somebody was tapping on my shoulder. As I turned around, I saw this girl with a big, wide smile, staring straight at me. In English, she offered to take me to the Buddha if, in exchange, I would buy one of her watercolor paintings. She said the coast of those paintings was 20 dollars while showing me a very beautiful piece of art of a typical Vietnamese landscape, with two girls on a rice field and a water buffalo on the background. Well, I couldn’t afford to spend that money on the painting, I am sorry, I told her. But she kept the smile and told me that she could walk with me anyway.
Together we walked by the Sleeping Buddha, the sole reason I was at that pagoda. Her voice was soft and calm and would talk so much about her traditions without ever making me feel uncomfortable. As I stopped in front of the statue to do my job (I was there to take pictures, after all), this girl told me that the statue of that Buddha was recently made and that, actually, he wasn’t sleeping but dead.
That magnificent white statue actually represents the last illness of the Buddha. A two meters long representation of a curly-haired man, with his third eye, and such a peaceful expression on his face, it conquers all the attention of whoever walks around. On his feet, there’s the sign of eternal life. We, occidentals, are quite familiar with a sort of distortion of that sign, as the Nazis took it to represent their good fortune. My travel companion, this girl, said to me while I was going down on one knee to photograph the symbol, how offended she was that white people always confuse it with the Nazi’s.
Before we said our goodbyes I told her again I couldn’t afford her painting. But I did have something for her: some Hong Kong dollars, Chinese Yuan, Thai baht, that she seemed more interested in than the Vietnamese money I had. Once we did the exchange, I lost my companion.
I had to keep on climbing steps. Once I reached the top of the hill my soul was released of all the mundane heaviness and I got to see the Sitting Buddha. An amazing, as white as the marble, big as my eyes could see, a statue of this wise man.
You can tell who are the tourists and which ones are the devotees. For a start, the local people are around the statue selling souvenirs, while the tourists are buying, with cameras hanging on their necks. While the other ones are barefoot, on their knees, with the forehead stick to the floor. And after the prayer is over, they go to the side and light incense.
The whole temple it’s in the open, but once I got to the Sitting Buddha, a strong and artificial smell made me feel dizzy. A strong smell sweetens the place by the followers of a prince who left his kingdom to discover the secret of life.
Back to the beginning
My bike rider was waiting for me outside the pagoda. I bought him a bottle of water and had to get into a non-verbal language struggle with him because he wouldn’t take it. We had a long conversation, in some invented language, about the different monuments and attractions that he drove me through while riding back to the port. We pass by a war memorial, so I asked him if he had been born when the war happen. He replied: Yes. I don’t understand why.
And then I made it back to the harbor, to that landscape of colorful houses and half-sunk boats. Everything looked the same but… I just saw it differently.