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Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Jan 3 – 4

So this is the way I tend to travel alone. Whenever anyone asks me if I want to do something (as long as they don’t seem too creepy), I just say “yes” and go with it. This plan has seemed to work out well so far.

So when Tran asked if I wanted to come with her to visit her grandma in Ninh Binh, I of course said “Yes!” And after my party boat excursion with all the obnoxious hostelers, I was definitely eager (kinda desperate actually) for a more authentic Vietnamese experience.

Sweet Tran went out of her way to met me at my hotel early in the morning so we could take a local bus together to the bus station. I planned to continue heading south after hanging out in Ninh Binh, so I brought my big backpack with me. The bus was packed full of locals on their way to work and I balanced my bag between my legs while I stood in the aisle and smiled awkwardly as everyone stared at me. This already felt much more like the real Vietnam than the cushy tour bus I was on the day before – with AC, TV, reclining seats, and frilly curtains.

At the bus station, we literally pushed our way through crowds of taxi drivers and hopped on a minibus bound for Ninh Binh. It was probably about an hour drive. As soon as we arrived and emerged from the bus, we were swarmed by more pushy taxi drivers, travel agents, and hotel operators all vying for our business. We didn’t have to deal with them very long because Tran’s cousin was waiting across the street with his motorbike. All three of us, plus my giant bag (which is basically like another person) piled onto the bike.

We rode through narrow country roads, past rice fields and farm houses, cows and water buffalo, and we zigzagged through flocks of schoolchildren staring at me and shouting “hello!” and “where you from?”

Soon we ended up at her grandma’s house, located in the middle of a rural area on the outskirts of Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh is definitely not off the tourist track, as it is along Highway 1, the main road running down the country. There are also two nice National Parks nearby that bring in a steady stream of tourists. But because I traveled with Tran and stayed at her grandma’s place, I hardly saw any foreigners the entire time. It’s nice that even in well known destinations, you can take a motorbike and venture just 2 kilometers away from town and you’ll see an entirely different world full of local people living their lives. In the countryside, people tend to be more humble, hospitable, and friendly. It could be because you’re more of a novelty than you are in say, Hanoi. But it is also seems to be that people in the country are not as exposed to the dark side of commercialism that tourism brings. As a result, their approaches for conversation are generally much more genuine – they’re interested in who you are rather than how much money you’re going to give them.

Some other family members lived directly across the street. I couldn’t make sense of what anyone’s relationship was to each other, but it doesn’t really matter. Vietnamese families are very closely knit. And this includes many generations of extended family as well. Tran’s grandmother and her other family members had fairly large houses and seemed to be more well off than the other people in the village.

At Tran’s grandma’s house, I was first greeted by a group of giggly children who had clearly gathered outside in advance to await the foreigner they heard was coming to visit. They took turns daring each other to run up and say something to me. Once one would get close and say “hello”, they’d all burst into hysterical laughter and hide behind tables and chairs. Tran was busy talking to all her other relatives on the porch and I was told to sit on the bench inside. I’m not sure if they just thought I’d be more comfortable that way or if they really wanted me to stay put, but every time I tried to stand up and make myself useful (or make a miserable attempt at conversation), they dragged me back into the house and told me to sit back down. Soon other neighbors came to meet me, but as nobody spoke English (and I spoke no Vietnamese), we all just sat around and stared at each other.

Tran’s grandma would occasionally sit down next to me. She would speak in fast bursts of Vietnamese and then pause waiting for a response. Having no clue what she just said, I would smile shyly and shrug. She’d just keep on talking, pausing occasionally for me to reply, clearly not phased by the fact that I had absolutely no clue what she was saying to me. After a few failed attempts at having a conversation without Tran as translator, the grandma ushered me into the living room where she poured me a cup of hot water and placed something that looked like a goey wad of leaves and a dried up lime into my hand. She didn’t give me any indication of what it was or what I was supposed to do with it – she just grinned and stared at me expectantly. Was I supposed to eat it? Was it tea that I was supposed to drop into my hot water? Was it some sort of incense that I was just supposed to appreciate the smell of and then put it back down? I was very confused. And afraid of doing the wrong thing with it, I just smiled and placed it back on the table where it came from, which the kids thought was hilarious.

Much later, I realized that it was betel nut (a popular and addictive nut that old women are particularly fond of). It rots their teeth and turns their gums a blood red color. Now I’m glad I just left it alone. And I’m very glad I didn’t end up putting it in my tea (as I came close to doing).

I sat awkwardly, not exactly sure what to do with myself. Several more people came in to gawk at the foreigner in their village. They all had lots of questions, but as I didn’t speak any Vietnamese and none of them spoke English, Tran was the only one who could translate. Unfortunately there was only one of her and many of them, so if she left the room to do something else, they’d just keep drilling me questions and all I could do was shrug and smile. Not knowing what to do, I recited all the Vietnamese words I knew (which took all of 30 seconds). Then I counted to 10 in Vietnamese – to which everyone smiled politely. It didn’t take long for the swarm of kids to return and surround me, their expectant faces making it clear that I was to be the day’s entertainment. When I started snapping pictures of them, they were thrilled. And this became their new favorite game – we took turns making faces into the camera, then rushing over to see how the photo came out.

We weren’t at the house all that long before Tran said it was time for us to go. We were going on a day trip to Cuc Phuong National Park. As I put on my shoes and gathered some stuff and to throw into my bag, I turned around to see all little kids peeking over my shoulder. This was my introduction to Vietnamese personal space: There isn’t any. Every movement you make (no matter how basic or mundane it may seem) is on display. And if you’re a foreigner, even the most simple things you do can be endlessly interesting to someone else.

After saying goodbye to everyone, Tran and I hopped on her motorbike and headed to Cuc Phuong National Park. On the way out, we had to politely decline several invitations from neighbors who urged us to stop and eat some fresh fish they just caught from their ponds. Tran was an excellent tour guide – so considerate and helpful. I found out later that she had felt ill the entire weekend but was going along with her plans because she wanted to keep her promise to show me around her town. Had I known that at the time, I would have insisted we didn’t leave the house. But instead, we packed a whole lot of sightseeing into the next two days.

The drive to Cuc Phuong was beautiful. There were so many amazing images I would have loved to have photographed, but didn’t. For one, it felt insensitive to snap photos of people just going about their daily routines not wanting to be bothered. For two, we were speeding by so quickly, all the photos would have come out blurry anyway. But all these scenes of Vietnamese country life were fascinating to watch. I saw tiny kids riding giant water buffalo with no adult figures anywhere in sight, little birdlike old women with shriveled faces perched on top of small stools, entire families navigating narrow canals in small wooden boats, little girls pulling large barrels of rocks easily double their weight, women trudging waist deep in mud to prepare the ground for the coming season’s rice harvest, people with large fishing nets sifting through the water for small shrimp and any other creepy crawly thing that can be cooked and eaten, a handful of children with no pants playing jump rope in the mud.

After about an hour drive in the country, we drove through the jungle for a while. I was really tired at this point and kept having to jerk myself awake so as not to fall of the back of the motorbike.

Eventually, we ended up at the park.

It didn’t look like there were many people there, but as we got closer we saw a few large buses full of Vietnamese school groups.

It’s nice that they have signs trying to encourage people to keep the place clean….

But this is what the park’s picnic area looked like. Along the trail, we saw a woman with a giant garbage bag picking up trash. She said she fills several bags a day.

It was a nice walk through the park.

We saw spiders having sex

and some nice trees.

Then we took a trail to see the most famous tree – The thousand year old tree.

All the Vietnamese college students were there.

Tran and I took a picture in front of the tree.

And everyone else wanted to join us.

After the park, we visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Center, then drove all over town looking for vegetarian food to take home and cook for dinner. We passed many markets with women selling vegetables and I wasn’t really sure why that wasn’t good enough, but Tran seemed to be searching for something specific. Finally we found it – Vegetarian food Vietnamese style.

Back in the kitchen, cooking dinner was an interesting event.

I really wanted to help out, but I wasn’t sure how they did things and I didn’t see a sink or cutting board or anything like that, so I just stood around and felt kinda useless. A bunch of neighbors popped into the house and handed Tran and I some vegetables. One neighbor had some water spinach, another some green onions, another some lettuce. I heard the word “com chay” (vegetarian) mentioned a few times, but I wasn’t sure what was going on. Tran translated that they were all donating some veggies from their garden to contribute to our vegetarian meal. So sweet. It was frustrating not being able to properly express how grateful and appreciative I was. Some of the women began cutting veggies on the floor. I think they might have seen me making a weird face because they had Tran tell me not to worry and that everything would be boiled.

As usual, the ever present children were hovering nearby.

As the food was cooking, the women continued circling me and talking amongst themselves while occasionally pointing at me to highlight whatever it was they were talking about. Sometimes someone would say something and they would all laugh. Clearly I was the butt of some sort of joke, but I couldn’t begin to comprehend what it was about. After nagging Tran to translate the newest topic off their conversation, She said casually “Oh, they’re just wondering why your butt is so big if you only eat vegetables.” I guess that would explain why one of the women kept patting my ass and smiling. Awkward!

Dinner was great and I got a sort of funny pleasure out of knowing that this was probably the first entirely vegetarian meal my hosts had ever had.

At the table, I could tell that none of us were exactly sure of each other’s standards regarding cultural ettiquette, which made for some funny moments. In addition to large scoops of rice, some roasted peanuts, fried water spinach, and our veggie gizzard/shrimp combo, they kept piling giant mounds of raw tofu onto my plate. I would try to eat them but eventually had to tell them to stop – that I couldn’t possbily eat any more. Tran said that they’d never had a foreign guest before and were just doing that so I didn’t think they were bad hosts. This made me feel like a bad guest for eating so much – especially since they had already shown me that their particular fascination with my big butt. I had a nice loaf of bread to add to the table, but aside from the occasional baguette, Vietnamese people don’t really like bread all that much, so nobody wanted any.

After dinner, Tran’s uncle poured me glass after glass of some sort of homemade rice whiskey. I learned to take small sips followed by a big gulp of water rather than downing the entire glass like he did. We drank and talked as Tran helped translate. Everyone at the table wanted to tell me that they considered me to be a brave girl for traveling on my own without speaking the language. I was happy to hear that, because I had spent the entire day relying on Tran for everything and I didn’t really feel all that brave.

After some tea, we all headed off to bed early. I was relieved, because I felt so exhausted. Despite the fact that we went to bed around 9, we managed to walk up at 8 or maybe even later.

After waking up, we immediately headed out the door with Tran’s cousin – him on one motorbike, us on another.

We made many stops along the way and drove through some beautiful scenery.

We went through tunnels

over sketchy bridges

on bumpy, sandy roads lined with beat up houses and crazy rock formations

past temples

some of which were in the middle of the water.

The police were blocking one of the roads to make sure everyone was wearing helmets and had the proper registration. Tran didn’t have her license, so we got in trouble and had to wait around a while. They threatened to confiscate her bike, but we called her uncle and he came to help. I think in the end he just had to pay them a couple of dollars to let us go.

As we were waiting around, I walked down the street to visit a temple.

And we watched all the boats go by.

Some of the boats were carrying big chunks of cement and building materials. They looked like they were barely staying afloat.

The women on these boats peddle with their feet.

After we were able to leave the police, we went to visit a giant temple complex that was still under construction and set to be completed in 2010. Tran teased me, saying that I should get married in Vietnam and have my honeymoon there in 2010.

I don’t know what this says, but it was posted on the back of the temple. Maybe someone who speaks Vietnamese can tell me.

We saw tons and tons of wood being chopped and processed for making the temples. One of the men told Tran proudly that it was Teak imported from Laos. What he didn’t say was that this precious commodity most definitely came from the tropical rainforests in Laos, causing irreparable damage and to the country’s ecosystem.

My favorite place we visited was Tam Coc National Park.

This is Tran and I trying to jump, but the photo didn’t exactly capture us midair.

At Tam Coc, we visited a temple with a pagoda built into a cave.

Then we went on a boat trip.

The woman who rowed our boat was the same woman who cooked our lunch. We went to her restaurant earlier that day, and even though Tran didn’t know her personally, she saw that she was busy and went back into the kitchen to help her cook our food. That’s just the way things seem to work here – everyone is a big community. The lady seemed happy to have the help and she offered to take us on a boat tour for a cheaper price than if we were to stand in line at the normal place where the boats depart. The boat trip was lots of fun. Several times we passed other boats with passengers and the women rowing the boats would pull up next to each other so they could switch drivers. Later our original driver would miraculously appear from a different direction and hop onto our boat again.

During the boat trip, we passed by many people

and houses

And we went through some caves. It felt like I should duck my head, but I’m sure that woman has done this a bunch of times.

We were on the water for a few hours. Sometimes our driver would sing as we looked at all the pretty views.

I think poor Tran wore herself out showing me around.

Back at the house, Tran had to leave early to take the bus back to Hanoi. I was taking a night bus to Hue and it didn’t leave until 8 that evening, so I spent an awkward 5 hours at her family’s house unable to communicate with anyone. At one point, I showed them some pictures I’d taken on my camera, but they were all of Vietnam. And since they see scenes like that on a daily basis, they had no interest. It was too bad I didn’t have photos of Japan or better – photos of my family and life back home. I made a mental note to save some family photos on my computer in case I’m ever in a similar situation again.

At one point, I tried explaining that I wanted to go for a walk and would be back, but the family must not have understood. They panicked, immediately called Tran to tell her I had disappeared, and they had all the neighbors track me down. I only got about a block down the street before I looked behind me and saw a stream of people following and herding me back to the house.

One stern faced woman (who I hadn’t seen at the house before), kept hitting my arm and motioning that I should give Tran’s grandma money. I felt trapped and very uncomfortable and I kinda wanted to cry. I wasn’t sure if they were expecting money all along and considered me to be an ungrateful, rich tourist taking advantage of the poor people’s hospitality and not paying them for it. But I also wasn’t sure if it would be considered offensive or insulting to hand them cash upon leaving. I was planning on sending the family a nice gift later, but I wasn’t sure if they’d just appreciate money more. Then I remembered that I did see Tran give her grandma some money when she left, so when it was time for me to go….I did the same. It wasn’t much (only about $7, which was all I had aside from very large bills). I waited until that pushy lady wasn’t around anymore. Then I wrapped the money in a little notecard that said “Thank You” and handed it to the grandma when I left the house. She didn’t seem offended – she seemed grateful. It was probably the right thing to do. I read later that it is considered common and polite to give a small gift of money to your Vietnamese hosts (even if they’re your own family members).

That night, Tran’s family made another dinner, making sure there were plenty of veggies for me to eat. Again, I felt bad for not being able to express my gratitude. I could say “cam ern” (thank you), but that’s about it. I also wish I had something substantial to contribute to the meal, but I only had my loaf of bread (which I knew they didn’t want). Had I planned ahead, I would have brought something, but we were far away from any store.

After dinner, Tran’s cousin drove me to the bus station (which was just a dark street corner where the buses going between Hanoi and Saigon briefly slow down to see if anyone wants to hop on). We had to wait for about 45 minutes and I’m really grateful that Tran’s cousin waited with me the entire time. I just really wish I were were able to communicate. Both of us probably could have made a bit more of an effort to act things out…but that takes a lot of energy and after our long day, I don’t think either of us were up for it. We just smiled shyly and waited. When the bus came, he helped me get on it and figure out how much to pay the driver.

The night bus to Hue was a trip! The bus seats are kinda like lawn chairs, but bunk bed style. Your legs are always straight out, but the seat back folds to be either a 90 degree angle like a chair or go all the way horizontal like a bed. Your supposed to take your shoes off and put them in a bag before crawling into your seat. My bus was mostly Vietnamese men, but a few tourists got on later. I sat in the front row, directly in front of the TV (not by choice) and the driver let me borrow his eye mask so I could sleep. First the bus played cheesy love songs while clips from Rambo and other action movies played on the screen. Afterwards it was non stop Michael Jackson videos!

Notes:

  • Toilets in Vietnam vary from the standard Western variety to various versions of the Asian squat toilet. Sometimes the toilets are basically just a drain in the floor.

No matter what type of toilet you use, the plumbing can’t handle toilet paper so you must remember to put it in the trash. Most toilets require that you scoop water from a bucket and dump it in to flush.

  • Vietnamese women never cease to amaze me. They’re pretty and petite, but they’re tough! They carry extremely heavy things all day, they do endless amounts of manual labor (often working much harder than the men), they take care of their entire family and sometimes their neighbor’s families, and they manage to make it all look effortless while remaining immaculately dressed and squeaky clean the entire time. Once I saw a woman in pointy, neon green high heels and skinny white jeans tromping along a muddy path in the middle of nowhere. How does she manage to never get dirty? The world will never know…
  • It’s true that Vietnamese people eat dogs, but at the same time they also keep dogs as pets. I asked my friend why some dogs are food and others are pets. She didn’t go into detail, but the explanation she offered was that some dogs are “clever”, others are not. The ones that are not clever (and I assume that’s meant to imply that they don’t understand pain and suffering), are the ones that are eaten. Hmmm…

  • Most restaurants don’t have an adequate supply of water, so they use a big bucket of water to wash all the dishes all day long. If you’re drinking tea, they generally just pour old tea into the cups, swish it around, and dump it out. This is considered washing your cups. Because of this, many local people use tissues to wipe out the silverware and the insides of cups and bowls. It’s just an additional thing you can do to make sure your utensils are clean.

  • I read two different books referring to the mutts in Southeast Asia as “dun-colored.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I looked it up. The term seems mainly to refer to horses, but I suppose these guys could be considered to be dun colored:

  • Vietnam kinda gave me a photography complex. I feel like sometimes it’s OK to take photos, other times not. In a place where most people are just living a humble existence and going about their daily business, it didn’t feel appropriate to run around sticking your camera in their faces. I saw lots of people do it anyway. And I can’t lie, I kinda wanted to….but it just felt wrong. So I apologize for the lack of interesting people photos. There are definitely many many to be taken. I just couldn’t do it.

  • Vietnam has many many endangered animals. Here’s a very informative article about Vietnam’s endangered animals by the author of a book I read, Hitchhiking Vietnam.

  • Chickens

  • Sometimes you’ll come across bathrooms that look like this. I still don’t know which one means girl and which means boy, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. They’re the same.

  • Personal space is not a well understood concept in Vietnam. This can be quite jarring for a Westerner who is particularly attached to his/her alone time. Don’t be surprised when someone pushes you on the street, cuts you off on the road, barges into your room without knocking, touches you while making personal comments about your figure, asks you prying questions, orders food by leaning over your table and shouting across the room to the waiter, cuts in front of you in line, or follows you around and stares over your shoulder as you type on your computer, tie your shoelaces, dig through your backpack, even go to the bathroom. Here is someone’s blog post about personal space in Vietnam. If you’re going to understand and appreciate the Vietnamese people and their strong sense of community (which is really quite wonderful), you should get used to the fact that your personal space will be invaded on a daily basis. It’ll be weird at first, but try not to get offended or bent out of shape about it. When you’re the foreigner in Vietnam, you’re the one who’s weird – you come across as cold, isolating, and unfriendly. It’s best to adapt.
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