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「December 25th, 2014 – January 10th, 2015」Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, & More in Hồ Chí Minh City (Sài Gòn), Tây Ninh, Nha Trang, Việt Nam

Preface:

This past Christmas, I boarded an airplane flight for the first time in five years. The last time I was on an airplane, it was a flight to and from California (San Jose to Los Angeles) for the California State Science Fair, an expense one-hundred percent funded by the [leaves to use GoogleSanta Clara Valley Science & Engineering Fair Association. And before that, the last time I was on an airplane was more than eight years prior, that trip in particular being to the country in-discussion here and now. Long, convoluted story-exposition short: this past Christmas was my first legitimate vacation ever and my first return to my ethnic homeland in more than ten years. So, adequately big deal. (Though before I left on my trip, my roommate and fellow second-generation Vietnamese-American told me that he’s never even visited the country once before, which struck me a bit guilty seeing as how he seemed like so much more of a family-oriented guy and ethnically-identified person than me; he’s definitely more fluent in Vietnamese than I am. I grew up hearing stories of my friends going on vacations to Disneyland, Hawaii, and other such places, both of which I’ve still never been to so I’ve always kind of psychologically used that card to cozy-into a deprived kind of life-style hoping that one day all the hard-work would pay off, the paradigm would completely shift, and constant explorations of new sights and cultures like this here virgin experience would become the new commonplace. But I digress. Again. As always.)

 

As some secondary expositional material and contextual history (directly from Wikipedia):

Việt Nam is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. With an estimated 90.5 million inhabitants as of 2014, it is the world’s 13th most populated country and the 8th most populated Asian country. Since 2000, Vietnam’s economic growth rate has been among the highest in the world, and, in 2011, it had the highest Global Growth Generators Index among 11 major economies. In spite of all the advancements that have been made across the country in recent years, it still experiences high levels of inequality in its social income, access to healthcare, gender rights, and more.

 

We―my father, my sister, and I―departed Christmas evening from the San  Francisco International Airport; and after fifteen plus hours, inclusive of a transfer flight in Taipei (I would later discover that Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport―with its wide array of both traditional and fast food restaurants, bookstores, electronic shops, gate lounges, calligraphy displays, art galleries, thematic decor, even prayer rooms, and much, much, more―is an amazing tourist attraction in and of itself; it is undeniably the best airport I have had the personal pleasure of exploring at least, and one that I very much want to re-visit one day), arrived in  Hồ Chí Minh City, formerly known as and still commonly called by the local people as Sài Gòn―also on Christmas Day, thanks to the difference in time-zones. Despite not doing anything special for Christmas for the past many years, I was more than a little disappointed that I would be spending it this year in an airport and then again in a (native but) foreign country without the possibility (granted, slim) of going on some late-night excursion with friends or at least being online and sharing the abject loneliness of it all with Tumblr followers and or followees (in retrospect, I guess living through two Christmases in one year is pretty cool, in a romantic bucket list kind of way). I didn’t expect it at the time, but I should have (especially after years of idolizing the way that fellow Eastern nation Japan does it just to have that idealization recently crushed upon finding out that they don’t even get time off work): the outward perception that Việt Nam has of the (regionally) beloved holiday speaks through its own manner of celebration, something that is commercial by all means. While there’s no real sense of intimacy, it’s noteworthy how the festive spirit will ironically seem to be omnipresent in the general public more so than in the states (or the one state that I live in at least) in the form of public displays of Christmas trees (constructed of everything from actual fir trees, to box-shaped props, to just ornaments, to blinking lights, to even plastic bottles), sleighs, reindeer, wondrously lit signs, other such fancy light sets, and the like. Of course, most, if not all, of these arrangements were also aimed at the oncoming new year, a much more universal and celebratory occasion.

Both my mother and father’s side of the family reside in Sài Gòn; and from the beginning, we were to lodge with my aunt (mother’s side), who is probably the relative in Việt Nam that we maintain contact with the most. Coincidentally, the pressing matter of whether or not we would have an internet connection throughout the entire vacation was answered when we arrived at my aunt’s household and discovered that it doubles as a cybercafé (not just popular in Japan and South Korea, I suppose), one of three which they manage. In Việt Nam, it is extremely common for family households to operate their business on their very own property. If you visit any considerable Vietnamese community in the United States even, it shouldn’t be hard to scout a (not to be stereotypical) hair salon or flower shop managed in the garage of a family’s house. Well, in the land where that practice imaginably first began, the numbers are astronomically more, as well is the extent that these families go about sacrificing their own living conditions (my most citeable example was witnessing a household watching television together in their kitchen, a kitchen so narrow and confined that one family member was literally peering at the television while sitting out in the front porch area); and it just so happens that one of my own family’s trades is electronics. I guess it runs in the blood. So, easy internet access: check, if you can handle the hell of a bunch of prepubescent, foul-mouthed Vietnamese boys swearing at each other while playing League of Legends, that is. (That game is perhaps the one thing I wish our cultures―or any cultures, really―didn’t share.)

The first two or three days or so consisted of getting over the jet lag, getting used to the hot and humid-ass weather, and hauling our asses to various relatives’ houses to do the obligatory arrival-greetings. My aunt oh-so-graciously arranged a large, air-conditioned room above the internet café (very much like Arnold’s room in Hey Arnold! actually, but without the cool see-through roof) for the three of us, and I’m barely ashamed to say that I nearly spent the first fifth of the entire trip there doing odd things like watching Vietnamese-dubbed Naruto. The first evening there, my cousin even took me to McDonald’s on his motorbike to fulfill my fast-food needs (as well as give me a tour of the city and the two other internet cafés he manages). It was not the last time I had McDonald’s there.

 

As an intermission, a word about bathrooms in Việt Nam:

I don’t like the bathrooms in Việt Nam. Indeed, it is the complacency of everyday life that makes many forget the indomitable truth that not all mankind has the same butt-cleansing method. While Japan has their futuristic toilets that shoot streams of water up your bum-hole, just about every house in Việt Nam is fitted with a bathroom where the toilet and the shower are one-and-the-same. Sorry bath lovers. The layout of the typical Vietnamese bathroom consists of sink, toilet, and shower-hose all in very close proximity of each other, with a drain located at the least-elevated point on the floor so that all spilled water can be, well, drained. This of course means that in the midst of taking a shower, you are very capable of wetting the entire toilet seat and maybe even accidentally misfiring the water as far as the sink-top (or even worse, any present power outlets). This is a type of hygienic hell for me personally, as I am someone who perceives sitting on a wet toilet seat with a dry derriere in the same gross vein as receiving a wet-willy from someone. As if not finicky enough, I absolutely abhor the idea of having dirty hands, washing only one in water, and scrubbing it against the other in a disgusting attempt to get both clean; it just feels like like you made dirtiness worse by making it into a stronger, wet dirtiness. Back to the point, some bathrooms will even have two water-hoses, one being the regular shower-hose and the other being a miniature version used specifically for your toilet needs and affairs. This miniature is stationed within arm’s reach of a seated toilet occupant, essentially where the installation for a toilet paper roll-holder would be. And I say “would be” because toilet paper is not well-used in Vietnamese excretion procedures. Admittedly, this is probably a discrepancy that is technically more hygienic―what with water being a better cleansing solution than dry paper. Nonetheless, it took a lot of getting used to, or rather, it took absolutely no getting used to because I never gave in and always asked for toilet paper (which each of the family households I stayed at had―they just had to spend a minute or two digging through the closet; the hotel I would stay at also stocked the general necessity quite readily, along with a proper toilet paper holder). In regard to public restrooms, male and female divisions will usually occur at the actually urinals and or toilets, which is to say that the sinks and mirrors are co-gender. Outside the realm of movies, I’ve never actually seen a girl―or anyone at that―powder her nose before, but I imagine this a potential dilemma in regard to any such personal hygiene preferred to be managed in one’s own privacy.

Back in (or would it be out) the world outside the bathroom, perhaps the first thing that you’ll notice landing in Hồ Chí Minh, besides the god-forsaken climate, is that the city is undeniably a motor city by its own right. There are just under 8 million people residing in the largest city in Việt Nam, and alongside them are about half as many motorbikes (Wikipedia is telling me 3.5 million and a tour-guide told me 5 million). But the statistics themselves are nowhere near as staggering as the genuine experience of being on the streets themselves. It is without a doubt a place that could be considered a living hell for destination-inclined people.  From on the streets, to on the side-walks, to in already cramped neighborhood paths, motorcyclists go by many means to get to places, even when they’re not in any particular rush to do so; but boy, when they are, you can bet it’s a (whole ‘nother level of a) hell of a lot worse (the countdown to New Year’s and the annual fireworks was like a Y2K type of traffic madness). But alas, there are (at least) two sides to every story; and for me, the streets of Sài Gòn were cultural immersion at its near finest. There was and still is something beautifully poetic about the fellow drivers on the street being so physically close to each other that it in turn creates a level of psychological proximity and emotional affection. Back in Berkeley, one of my most enjoyable past-times as a sensibly tired-of-being-tired student is people-watching on the bus. Being a college student allows for varying day-to-day schedules, which in turn allows for all kinds of bus-time encounters with all kinds of folks, from elementary school students riding the bus home to the elderly waiting at bus-stops with bags of groceries you would personally never buy at their side. Even stronger, motorbike rides in Việt Nam reflect the sensation I would get if a cute girl sat right next to me on the bus (okay, it has actually never happened to me before, but I can gauge the effect it would have on me based off my experiences with the girls who had almost sat right next to me) because you get and feel that close to people despite being on completely separated vehicles. It’s that rare duality of both closeness and comfort that allows my father to oh-so-casually ask the woman next to him for directions while the stoplight is red, allows me to genuinely smile at neighboring kids without feeling pedophilic whatsoever about it because they’re close enough to notice my presence and stare back at me for extended amounts of time, and allows for everyone to just peer around themselves to observe life in the works. Granted, the latter is essentially the stark contrast to being isolated in an air-conditioned car with your music blaring out the speakers, something that I equally consider a legitimate joy of life. But I would be lying if I said I don’t periodically have moments when I want to roll the car window down with my music blaring just so people can notice my presence, my taste in music, and my existence. The most beautiful experience on the road, by far, occurred during the final days of my trips. Amidst a sea of motorbikes were two regular bicycles. The one riding ahead was being manned by a boy dressed in school clothes with a girl, in similar garb, sitting right behind him in the rear seat. Unburdened by the responsibility of steering, the girl was facing the behind, holding the hand of the girl manning her own bike right behind them. They had their outreaching hands connected the entire time I watched them. While the posture resembled it, they weren’t emanating The Creation of Adam levels of divine beauty or anything, it was simply (but beautifully) an innocent kind of playfulness. It was like a scene right out of a movie (and one that I desperately tried to capture on my camera but ultimately failed to do so). I can picture it even now. It’d be a romantic, coming-of-age story. And it’d sell like hot cakes.

So there’s a lot that’s awe-striking about Việt Nam’s motorbike subculture, but let’s go back and weigh the negatives, for nature’s sake. Another surprising thing to me (and the people I told) about Việt Nam is the new and increasing “trend” of wearing mouth-masks. Only, although these mouth-masks can be purchased in tons of different styles and on nearly every other street, they’re not so much a trend of prevailing taste in fashion as they are a trend of necessity. In other Eastern countries, people might wear mouth-masks during seasonal influenza (and probably any other recurring seasons of sickness) either when they are sick and don’t want to spread their sickness or when they are not sick and don’t want to catch any sickness through the coughs of others persisting in the air (or maybe even the coughs directly from one’s mouth that pass through the air and right into your face, if you frequent yourself with such people of inconsiderate nature). Either or, that means a lot of people, possibly a majority, will be donning these mutually protective masks (it’s like the defensive version of a double-edged sword). In that case, the motorbike city of Hồ Chí Minh will differ by wearing mouth-masks not to protect people from each other, but rather, to protect people from, quite literally, their own devices. 3.5 million is a staggering number and the reason it has become so alarming a number is first, the gridlocks that these motorbikes create when in traffic, and second―but more importantly―the immense amount of fuel emission that causes air pollution. The skies of Sài Gòn are gray and monotonous, usually reaching their peak in hue in the early mornings for a short amount of time. As a short-term vacationer, I can’t say for sure if this sight is a certain testament to the crisis in-discussion, but I can confidently say that the smell is. Exceeding approximately 35 miles-per-hour down the street will have passengers intaking so many volumes of polluted air that they might just be wishing that they didn’t throw away that usable-as-a-barf-bag McDonald’s to-go bag in the motorbike’s small (and usually only) holding compartment to make space for that large soda drink. (Though in some cases, even the smell of the contaminated air is no match for a timely stroll through the local fish markets.) All in all, a mouth-mask helps, and it can make you feel like a cool cowboy riding into the sun-set (“No, I’m Dirty Dan!”), but it’s nowhere near a permanent solution. During my two-week stay, the pollution was by far the biggest issue that resided in my concerned mind, mainly due to the fact that my father became sickly mid-trip partly due to it and, of course, the fact that I have now have properly-introduced-and-cherished family members permanently living in it. Needless to say, the long-term effects are hard to imagine.

After doing the necessary meet-ups with relatives as far as the eye can see the blood can inherit and getting over the surreality of it all (“This is that cousin of mine from ten years ago!?”, “The only uncle I actually remember is dead!?”, “This four-year-old is my niece!?”, “Now I’m the uncle!?”), we became close with a few particular relatives near our age with enough free time in their schedule to hang-out with us on a regular basis and show us around. I wouldn’t say that the presence of tourists in Việt Nam is much more than any other significant location, but the presence of tourist-oriented businesses in Việt Nam for one is particularly noteworthy. Maybe it’s because of the general dearth of automobiles other than motorbikes on the streets, but buses in Việt Nam take on a different connotation in that their public service extends well beyond transportation to local destinations such as the grocery store, school, library, etc. They effectively take the place of the transport services that quite literally take you the distance, i.e. subways, trains, and the like. It only takes one experience with a paid tour to notice the fellow buses of “rival” businesses next to your designated one on the street, as they take off from the same starting point, arrive at the same destination at essentially the same time, and follow the same general itinerary throughout the day. They are all even advertised by the same agencies, and the employees of differing companies will seem completely familiar with each other. More on the economy of that later on.

Our first trip-within-the-trip was an approximately three-hour-long bus ride to the Caodaist Holy See temple in the southwest provincial city of Tây Ninh. Caodaism (the worshipped deity being Cao Đài, which literally translates to “Highest Power”) is a joint religion of sorts, bringing together the three main religions of the world, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, each represented by a distinctive color, yellow, blue, and red, respectively. In an agreement with the travel agency, we tourists were permitted to enter the temple and take photographs of the religious practitioners; it was our first tour and our first exposure to the way Vietnamese tour agencies do their business. In short, tour guides will brief you on a fair amount of historical context and offer formal instructions on the bus (or boat) ride and then drop you off at the destination with a specific time allotted until you should be back on the vehicle, which always amounts to not nearly enough time to enjoy the sights, indulge in the culture, and or do anything else considerably meaningful. We only had about forty-five minutes to enter the temple, follow the tracks of the tourists who were already there, take some photographs, and get back on the bus; and with just that, I’m unable to say the experience was particularly eye-opening or moving in any way. A Wikipedia page provides a decent amount of insight though. 

You don’t have to scour far-and-wide to find the brilliance of life-styles there (Việt Nam) though; in fact, my most enriching experiences were in the metropolitan heart of the country. Maybe it was circumstantial or maybe it’s because I’m just more of a city-boy, but sitting street-side at a family-owned restaurant and eating freshly cooked sea-molluscs and shrimp felt much more homely than driving to a far-off location and following a group of people on-foot for hours. But hey, I guess it’s only because I experienced both that I can speak of them relatively and be even more impressed by one or the other. For the record, just about every restaurant in Việt Nam is family-owned (I can only immediately think of the global fast-food chains as being the exceptions), so you can technically get a sense of home from virtually any of your choices to eat at―it just won’t be your home. That being said, it’s not to say that these establishments don’t feature similar qualities in a similar way to how fast-food competitors share the same soulless air of hyper-commercialization. Shop sign after shop sign make their flagrant appearances to street-goers in the same ubiquitous font-type and red color, for eatery and non-eatery establishments alike; and every dine-in location is bound to stock the universal kindergarten-esque, plastic stool-chairs in their outside eating area, thoroughly suited for customers of all ages. It’s practically only the more high-class establishments that will bother to give their customers the luxury of chairs with actual back support, that’s certainly kind of equality that has got this first world country beat.

The only day that we really got away from the city and into real scenic locale was the day we went to visit my grandparents’ (on my father’s side) graves. They were (and still are) buried in the same plot of land that my father was born and raised in, way back when, before the country’s age of motorbikes or McDonald’s or socialism, a decrepit, old place. The actual estate is now much more maintainable than it ever was (probably amounting to no more than a dinged-up, scrap-metal shed in its anti-prime); but beyond the poor architecture was the picturesque quality of the good earth (ironically, not many pictures were taken of the landscape, regrettably so). We had originally taken the bus to reach the household of my father’s cousin, and from there we rode motorbikes to the actual destination. It was about a fifteen minute straight-ride through just this hallway of nature, until the figurative walls of trees, shrubs, and general greenery opened up to reveal the lush fields of grass that hosted the resting places of many people, not just members of my own family. The acres of land belonged to their respective owners, and it couldn’t be seized by the government, so my father told me. One thing was for sure, the air was as fresh as could be; and if you were going to become apart of your own land in passing, this was a damn proper place to be put to rest. Finally reaching the burial site of my ancestors, I was actually a bit disappointed in the design of the actual shrine. In a very uncontrolled sense, I have always had a proactive eye and stubbornness for quality (I was even bothered by the low quality of the photographs my various family members used as framed pictures throughout their houses); but even to the more unfazed eye, I think the appearance was that of a second-rate job. I’m not sure if refurbishing coffins and the shrines that house them is commonly done, but I felt an extra dosage of sympathy when my older relatives were talking about how grave-robbers would come and steal artifacts from the shrine, including the invaluable portraits of the deceased buried there. Low blow, much.

That same evening was the passing of the year. Days before, my father had told us that we would be going on a dinner-cruise to celebrate the new year, and I had misinterpreted this as meaning the actual evening leading into the new year. Needless to say, I was disappointed when we couldn’t realize my vision of dining aboard a ship and watching a gallant display of fireworks from the distance. In retrospect, it was probably for the best, as the cruise itself was an opportunity that was readily available any given day of the week, and the occasion of New Year’s fireworks called for a more bird’s-eye-view kind of arrangement. Although in the end, we failed to do either. We would go on the cruise on a later date (to be fairly disappointed, but more on that later), and the adults were much too exhausted after the bus-ride back home from the countryside to deal with the unbelievable traffic that was already accumulating when we were dropped off at the travel agency’s office around five in the evening. The view from the balcony of my uncle’s four-story-house was admirable, but there was still far too much distance between us and the Bitexco Financial Tower from which the fireworks launched  to give us a realistic sensation of being apart of the moment. Hearing the horns and the engines of the motorbikes that would zoom past the house in a race to get to the optimal viewing spot earlier and now hearing the collective “oohs”, “aahs”, and applause from spectators off in the unknown distance made us feel like the kind of people who didn’t rush to get tickets for a big show and were now simply listening to the show from outside the stadium. (However, with the power of the internet, even you can experience a fraction of the spectacle, as a rather well-captured video of the fireworks display is available for viewing on YouTube.)

Ironically enough, the start of the next year signaled the last of our trips-within-the-trip, but our three-days-and-two-nights-stay in the coastal city of Nha Trang was the longest pit-stop of them all. Nha Trang is a place well-known for its marine attractions, including its beaches, the tourist-inclined scuba diving-tours, and the Nha Trang Bay, widely considered as among the world’s most beautiful bays. While there, I was not aware of any of this. (There is also a biennial Sea Festival that is open to tourists participants, and the city also hosted the Miss Universe Pageant in 2008, the Miss Earth 2010 Pageant in 2010, and will host the upcoming 2016 Asian Beach Games.) We stayed at the Nice Swan Hotel, a quaint lodging that I am only now finding-out (from the website linked) had a pool. In any case, the photographs of the place online look much nicer than the actual location in real life, as per the norm for any hotel advertised online; but I wholeheartedly have no complaints about my stay there. We had arrived on-location at around 5 A.M. (the bus-ride was about eight hours; the automobile had pseudo-bed/inclinable seats in it, but it was still a terribly uncomfortable journey) without any reservations and had to wait for about six hours until rooms were available for us (we lounged around in their lobby for a few hours, brushed our teeth in the lavatories there, and went out for breakfast before returning with still time to kill), but still managed to get some pretty nice rooms; they were definitely just as nice as some hotel rooms I’ve stayed in in the home-country, if not better. We were about a ten minute’s walk away from the beach, a particularly nice part of it too, with art installations, decorative greenery, shopping plazas, and even an outside gym nearby. For whatever reason, we ignored this bounty and opted for the beach-going that cost us about $20-per-person, as a part of a Nha Trang tour. To be fair, the tour included more than just transportation to a beach, but for what it’s worth (or isn’t worth), a handful of these other attractions were just as disappointing as the beach they took us too. The whole tour-package included a bus-ride from our hotel (like similarly explained before, the two agencies had a contract of sorts to publicize each other’s services―you could actually say that the hotel was six-timing that particular tour business because it was also advertising five other agencies, brochures and all posted right outside their doors) to the harbor, a boat-trip to three different islands with their own respective attractions, a complementary lunch served out on the water, an intermission of entertainment during the lunch period, and the return trip back to the hotel. Perhaps the most irksome thing about the whole affair is that as an outsider, you kind of get unsuspectingly lost in the web of business affiliations that can take advantage of your ignorance. The first island we were taken to boasted a large aquarium. Annoyingly enough, said aquatic attraction was charging its own toll for entry. And the truly unnerving thing about it all was that the toll was more candidly a toll for entering the actual island, as visitors were essentially forced to either pay after taking a dozen or so steps off the boat or stay on the dock (or go back on-board the boat I suppose) and wait for about forty minutes until the tour resumed. That forty minute increment served as a bit of a double-edged sword, as even for the people who paid for entry, less than an hour generally doesn’t seem like nearly enough to enjoy all a locale has to offer. Fortunately and unfortunately enough, the aquarium was not quite a sight to behold. We high-tail’d it out of there pretty quickly. Destination number two was the (for lack of better or actual names that I neglected to catch) scuba diving island, again inclusive of additional fare and strict time limit (really now, only about an hour’s time allotted for something like scuba diving is not the business, literally). The decent thing about this stop was that it had a lounging area of elongated beach-chairs for the less adventurous, more relax-inclined visitors, which was good for us seeing as how none of my party shelled out the cash for the scuba diving. This was also the pit-stop to enjoy the “beach environment” at. In contrast to the aforementioned hotel-neighboring beach shores, this bank had less than two feet of sand with a cement wall on one side and the ocean water on the other. Utterly disappointing. I was especially lazy that day and at that point was just happy I had brought my Playstation Vita in my backpack with me. It was a self-made kind of delight. If only they were serving piña coladas at the time.

The next part of the trip was one of the more conflicting parts for me personally. When the crew of the boat adjusted all the benches on-board into a huge dining table and brought out more than enough food for the fifty plus people on board, I was wholly impressed at the extent of customer satisfaction. Not knowing the provided lunch was something explicitly advertised in their brochure, I thought, “Wow, this is something they probably could have gotten away with not doing and not have gotten a lot of complaints about, unlike everything else.” Up right after the fancy luncheon was the most polarizing yet undeniably Vietnamese performance I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes. The event-planners definitely deserve their due credit for employing such a crafty, pandering technique and tailoring their karaoke event to the audience by calling tourists of different nationalities to come up and sing a song representative of their own homeland in front of everyone else. We were treated to a drunken warbling of Oasis’s “Wonderwall”, an awkward lip-syncing of a random Australian hit I did not recognize, and a duet of another random Chinese song that sounded vaguely familiar but I still did not recognize. And then came the pièce de résistance of a Korean-afied Vietnamese girl with her Korean boyfriend being compelled by the audience to go up on-stage and dance to none other than Psy’s two-billion hit wonder, “Gangnam Style”. When confined in your own cultural bubble, you tend to underestimate just how much of an influence two billion views on YouTube can have (I mean we’re talking about nearly a third of the estimated human population here). In any case, it definitely eased the cultural barrier a bit (definite props to the host of the show who was performing with all the guest-singers for knowing all those songs of differing languages too). And while that slice of international pie was undeniably effective, I say the overall performance was genuinely Vietnamese because apart of it was the signature employment of a cross-dressing performer to really get the laughs out of the native Vietnamese on-board (the same performance I just gave props to). And I tell you this now: no matter how many times they have seen it done before, Vietnamese people together will always outrageously laugh at someone in cross-dress. For the show, the staff had brought all three of the agency’s boats together and fastened them so that all customers could observe the karaoke spectacle happening on the middle boat (which we were on); and in looking around at the crowd of onlookers aboard the other two boats, I noticed two individuals that somewhat stuck out like a sore thumb, so like a mildly sore thumb. With their backwards fitted-caps, almost all back attire, arm tattoos, and vapes in-hand, I essentially took them to be lackadaisical locals idly passing their time by going on the tour for the xth time just to come and see (and judge) some new faces of international tourists. Well, the moment the performer came out with his long, blonde wig and coconut bra and those two guys cracked a huge grin on their faces along with everyone else sure proved me the hell wrong. After the show, the crew on-board invited us to jump off the boat and go swimming, as they played more music on the boat’s speakers (from the personal playlist of some local teenagers who were also on-board, a playlist consisting of the most generic American pop songs you can imagine). I’m not too sure why that didn’t happen before lunch or during the karaoke show to save time though. Maybe the formation of the three boats being fastened together was too troublesome. Or maybe Vietnamese people just aren’t afraid of cramps.

After the intermission was completely over, we headed to the next and final island on the itinerary. At this point, I was much too out-of-it to keep record of the island’s name or what attraction it hosted; when we got there, I think everyone was just as fatigued as I was since we all just headed straight for the beach-chairs. The island had a shack selling decent cuisine, and we ate some dried squid with a delectable dipping sauce and some really good stir-fried noodles. I petted a stray cat and then another stay cat that I thought was the first stray cat but wasn’t. Those islands had a lot of stray dogs and cats. At one point, it even started raining, which was a good atmospheric sign of our day coming to a close. And with a final fifteen minutes of sailing and bus ride back to the hotel, so it did.

The next day I stayed at home at the hotel with my younger cousin while the rest of our party went to a spa.

Rejuvenated by the act of sitting on my ass for hours on end while watching movies on a laptop, I was ready to take on more adventures outside. Earlier that day, the younger cousin and I had an outlandish adventure trying to find the closest KFC to get lunch at; in the end, I, or rather, my phone, led us to a demolished building and we settled for a bar/grill right next to it. The lady right outside handed us a flyer that advertised their buy-one-pizza-get-one-free deal. I ordered a hamburger and then later went back to the counter to also order a pizza to-go, completely oblivious of the deal despite just having the flyer in my hand seconds ago. I think the two cashiers were trying to ask me what toppings I wanted on the complementary pizza, but I misinterpreted and told them that I just wanted one; that was perhaps my greatest regret of the trip. When we got back to our hotel room and finally started eating the food, the pizza proved to be edible but the hamburger was outright horrible. Never order beef in Việt Nam; it may be somewhat of a rarity, but that doesn’t make it taste any better, or make it even taste the basic amount of good. The whole ordeal was like one really bad Hollywood movie pitch. What’s more, we even had the ironic ending of my dad and company coming home only about an hour after we finished eating with none other than KFC in their hands for the two of us.

That night, we went to the nearby beach, an outing that seemed more much reasonable when compared to the ~$30-per-person tour or the equally priced spa trip that I eluded. Nha Trang really does have some beautiful city planning aspects to it; right beside the beach shore lied a huge expanse of cement whereon people could just do practically whatever they wanted on. There was just something really picturesque about the environment that I could very vividly imagine living an alternate life and growing up in that local area, playing with friends in my adolescence on that large strip, playing tag, racing, flying kites, and all that jazz. Admittedly, it was plenty dark when we went so we couldn’t really enjoy the beach for what it was worth other than tuning into the ambient sounds of the waves crashing in and pressing our feet into the nice (more than two feet of) sand. After about an hour or so, we headed back to the hotel, though not before getting another taste of the local street life as my cousin got a temporary tattoo of some random foreign words (Sanskrit, I believe) from a random street vendor; the guy probably spent more than five minutes flipping through his binder of pre-made (and probably unoriginal) stencils until he found the one my cousin selected. Beyond that, I guess I realized that girls wanting to get a tattoo of words they don’t understand is a universal phenomenon.

The next day, our last day in Nha Trang, was probably the most varied, and rightfully so. At some point, we had KFC again; this time around, I went along with my father, sister and older cousin to eat there. I was actually a tad bit surprised when the manager there told me to stop taking pictures of the menu; something from my experiences up to that point led me to believe that Việt Nam’s modernity with internet culture and youth voraciously making online spectacles of recordings they take in real life hadn’t developed to the point where people were that wary of their establishments getting too much unwanted exposure yet. Our main destination of the day was Chùa Long Sơn, alternatively called The Dragon Mountain Pagoda or the White Buddha Pagoda. As one might suspect, at the top of the mountainous hike lies, or sits, a humongous Buddha statue. It is also pristinely white, but my friend tells me that it is occasionally the target of graffiti defamation, such as during the time she visited herself. And it’s no lie that the location is a strong scope of the land’s cultural-religious values. The most scarring experience for me was climbing the wearying steps to the Buddha and entering one section where every twenty steps or so sat an elderly and sullied woman begging every passerby for money. It was a huge conflict of pity, dismay, and distaste that welled up inside me once I entered their field of vision. There’s no way you can’t feel sorry for them, and their shrill voices coupled with their excessively slovenly appearances will even scare you a bit―but when they bluntly accuse you of lying when you say you don’t have any money, it’s a kind of a vulgar insult. The Buddha itself is b —-ig. In retrospect, I didn’t really get to admire it as much as I should have; in the heat of the moment (and boy was I sweating a lot), I didn’t even bother walking within twenty-feet of it. After taking a photo of my father standing before it at his request, I proceeded to take a commemorative photo of our party (me excluded of course) on the steps with it in the background. And then we all made our merry way down. As the name of the landmark states, there was also a pagoda at a lower level of the hike. Inside was an adequately brilliant shrine, and one particular view of the rooftops gave me the impression of the aesthetics of a much more Eastern Asian country set-up.

Fast forward one motorbike trip, and we’re back at our Nice Swan Hotel. Despite going to so many places (I’ve even neglected to mention another spot we ventured to that gave a rather nice view of the city’s port), we had gotten home relatively early, early enough to hit the nearest arcade and game-center at least. Inside that mall, I made a decent exhibit of my bowling prowess by scoring the highest; and in another face-off, found out that my cousin-in-law can outright own me in one-on-one Foosball. Of course, the game changes when it’s two-on-two, the way I like it, and those thirty minutes of intense game-play (as intense as spinning a bunch of knobs around to make them hit a miniature ball back and forth can get) were honestly some of the most fun and bonding moments. Even the ones just watching us play were really into it, making it a point to laugh at me every time I hit the ball into my team’s own goal.

Our time in Nha Trang came to end, which meant another bus ride. In a way, an uncomfortable eight hours of constantly shifting sitting positions around couldn’t have come at a better time because the rest of the entire trip was the final moments of rest and relaxation with the fam. It was in those days, with nothing exponential left planned, that I began to get anxious just to finally depart; but of course, in retrospect, those last two or three days feel like they went by in a flash.

The rest of the time was spent eating out with various relatives, something that I’m not unfond of, being a person with a hearty appetite. First up was my older cousin (by a sizable margin of more than ten years) taking my dad and me out to eat seafood with his wife and two kids. Throughout the whole vacation, I had been correcting my dad every time he confused one of my cousin’s name with their sibling’s, and with this came the direct thought of, “Geez, seriously dad, how hard is it to remember someone’s name, especially after them being alive for more than thirty years?” Well, as if by some supernatural intervention, the karmic cavalry came to my aid when the same grievously happened to me. I had met my cousin’s wife (and my cousin himself) for the first time that night, merely minutes before going out to eat with them, and that fresh relationship is exactly what emphasized the touching moment when she corrected her husband when he called me by my older brother’s name. It was so very endearing, even more so because throughout the entire meal, my father and cousin were in complete command of the conversation at the dinner table. Surprisingly enough, it was the first time I was witnessing a wife in such a submissive role, wherein while she wasn’t talking herself unless spoken to, her demeanor was one attentive enough to signify that she was indeed avidly digesting every little thing said by the two unrestrained males clinking glasses of beer and talking their heads off. In that respect, that her only words were used to defend my identity and existence was wholly flattering. To further romanticize and emphasize the standoutup moment, it’s worth noting that this was the second time I misjudged someone’s character by their shady appearance. My cousin, clad in all black, with his slick-back hair and arm-tattoos, who rides a motorbike like he’s in a much too fast and much too furious race and neglects to wear a helmet, was something of an enigma for me to try to read throughout all our interactions. Of course, his status as a family man and his fantastically friendly attitude towards me implied otherwise; but at the very least, that descriptor should justify my inability to rudely refuse mollusc after mollusc after shrimp after shrimp after crustacean after crustacean that he forthrightly handed to me to eat, and also, more relevantly, my inability to correct him in confusing me with my brother (in actuality, it wouldn’t be socially appropriate for anyone to point out an older person’s blunder like that). And thus, the tale of that family outing ends with me being stuffed with serving after serving of seafood and then McDonald’s also afterwards (the way my dad had so cunningly dragged me along in the first place was by telling me they were simply going to eat a few plates of mollusc real quick and then we could grab some McDonald’s on the way home; of course, by the time that “real quick” meal ended my stomach was not feeling McDonald’s at all, but regardless we still went because I didn’t want to make a change in plans in front of the relatives and because I’m more of a fan of eating for taste anyway). Oh, and of course also worth mentioning is the subsequent bathroom adventures I had that night. But I refrain.

Another day, another meal. Bastardizing enough, my favorite food eaten during my trip to the country of Việt Nam was at a French restaurant (that does technically have a degree of history to it though). For the first time in two weeks, the words on a restaurant’s menu reflected the actual appearance and taste of the food. Hell, I’ll even admit that the stuff the adults ordered tasted good. From the lamb and potatoes, to the eggs, to the eggrolls, to the mapo tofu, to the, get this, “chicken stuffed with macaroni”, everything was simply on point. In terms of company, it was one of those quintessential huge dinners where there were so many relatives and relatives of relatives that there was just no way of knowing everyone, or in my case, even half of everyone. But hey, before the adequacy of good grub, they were all okay in my book. It was also around this time that my four-year-old niece would become more comfortable around me and playfully do mischievous things to catch my attention.

The final night was the promised dinner cruise, and boy was it was anticlimactic. Aside from the nicety of having both sides of my family together, the evening was a so-so duration of good enough food, an unimpressionable water voyage, and more playings of “Gangnam Style”.

 

That night, I slept alone at my aunt’s house while my father and sister stayed at my uncle’s house. In very due time, the last morning came, and in turn the last afternoon, our scheduled departure time. Our farewell was impressionable. We had definitely gotten closer to a number of my cousins over the past two weeks, but to see one of them shed a couple of tears for us was genuinely heart-warming. We had arrived at the airport much before our flight-time, but the desire to be prepared for any inconveniences on the airport’s side of things forced us to leave our relatives watching us from outside the building as soon as possible. Halfheartedly, my dad seemed to think that we could waltz right back outside for more finalizing farewells after having our luggage properly loaded, but my sister insisted that we go past the point of no return and head straight for our assigned gate. My father accepted that nonchalantly but I was a bit disturbed as we were still standing close enough to the entrance to see them all withstandingly together behind the belt-barriers and waving at us whenever they caught me looking at them. And that was the end of that. Exit Việt Nam, enter airplane phobia.

 

In the end, this was a journey worth a thousand words―or nine-and-a-half, to be precise in regard to this post. It was chock-full of inspiring moments, one of which being an idea for a whole new subsidiary on this very website about the wonders of travel. This article of course would be the progenitorial post to such a subdomain; but more so than wanderlust, this is a story and lesson about family, the first one learned that’s worth adding to my complicated history of it in a very long time. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would like to return to Việt Nam one day soon (preferably before that pollution problem gets drastically worse); the days following my return home, I found my internet viewership being uncannily bombarded with various news of interest relevant to the place and its people. Sure, part of this was due to me having added my newly-acquaintanced relatives on Facebook and my news feed being automatically adjusted after monitored online interactions with them, but the coincidence superseded just the platform of one of my most un-used social networks and my circle of new Vietnamese friends. By happenstance, I was seeing photographs of Vietnamese cosplayers at cosplay meet-ups in Việt Nam on Tumblr (even more coincidentally, this was something that my older cousin, a middle-aged mother completely out-of-the-loop with that kind of subculture, describing it simply as costume dress-up, was telling me about, without any fore-knowledge of my interest in such stuff) and other such things for the first time online. Of course, they instantly made me imagine the experiences that could have been during my time there and made me remember the impressionable places that I saw when I actually was there that made me feel the same way. In that sense, hell yes, I want to go back. As described in the very beginning of this post, the vacation happened at an inopportune time, completely ruining a lot of end of the year plans I had, but the bug of exploration has been planted and there’s simply no getting rid of it. And beyond that thrill that I honestly might as well get from visiting any new country and culture for the first real time, is the yearning for the unconditional, familial love that has long since eluded me. Earlier on, I said that the environmental deterioration of the country was my biggest conscious concern; in that case, the ego of being born and raised in a first-world-country came in and resides as a strong second. I can’t begin to count the number of times the air of superiority compelled me into thinking my own blood relatives were pitiful country bumpkins. My cousins there use Facebook even more than I do (I presume it being because social media being relatively new to the country as a whole and not being developed enough to adopt the wide array of social platforms we have here, what with Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and whatnot), and I couldn’t find the words to even begin to explain the whole concept  of “when something is free, the product is you” to one of my cousins when she tried accepting the terms and agreements of Facebook messaging on my phone, much to my disapproval. At my grandmother’s house, when we were having our final farewell dinner in the living room with a television turned on in the background, my grandmother looked at the CGI dragon on-screen and said, “That’s not real is it? All of those are extinct, aren’t they?” One night at the beach, while the young-ins (me included)―or I guess I should say younger-ins since a lot of my older cousins are in their late 20s (…and I just reminded myself that I too am not that young at all, being at the gross age of 21…)―were playing in the sand, my father, the only (older) adult who was present at the time sat in the background, as adults tend to do. When I walked up to him, I was a bit surprised to discover that he was absorbed in rather pensive thought; he looked at me and asked if I knew why there were ocean waves. Luckily for me―and his curiosity―I go to college. Unluckily for me and his curiosity, I haven’t retained much from college, from the formal education part of it anyway. At the very least, I remembered the basic spiel about the moon’s effect on pulling the tides of water on Earth back and forth. My father was completely surprised that there was even any correlation between the moon and his posed question at all. I gave him the less-than-basic rundown that I knew and he intended to re-hash it to our Vietnamese relatives when they arrived on the scene. Before actually doing so though, he had to pull this kind of smart alec move and first ask them if they knew the answer to the question themselves. None of them did, “despite being older than me,” you could say. My outer-most, superficial emotional response to the situation was just being irked by my dad for trying to be such a smart-ass (he even prompted me to show them the Vietnamese Wikipedia page that I was still trying to load on my phone for him to read; in the end, he never bothered to look at it himself and when I handed the phone with the page loaded over to the others, it didn’t retain their interest for that long at all―so much for the pensiveness), but the reveal did leave a sort of impression on me. This entire emotional conflict is not without its real world applications. This dynamic of family members being tenuously bridged because of successful immigration stories and being further divided, psychologically, by differing economical and cultural upbringings is not just something for me to write about on my blog and then forget about entirely. My immediate mother-father-brother-sister family is a living example of a success: an immigration success. Throughout our trip, I was more than constantly eaves-dropping on my dad talking to his brothers, step-sisters, nephews, nieces about making the same move to America as he did (now obviously much easier than it was thirty, fifty years ago)―to my uncle about sending his children for the sake of their lives’ betterment, to my older cousins about finding an American spouse to be legalized, etc.. And it all wasn’t without reason. The economic climate of Việt Nam is nowhere near as bad as it was prior; most people do not live in makeshift shelters that have trouble just from fending off against rainfall (not most, but many still, rest assured) anymore. But while someone like my thirty-three year old cousin is not urgently lacking in financial fortitude (she’s actually got pretty lavish clothes and more motorbikes than I could  keep track of), her daily job of working at a dinky “shop” where people simply stop by after their own day of hard work to chain-smoke, play the “fish hunter redemption arcade game” there (the one linked isn’t the same one I’m talking about, that one had a smoking hot mermaid on the logo, haha, but the concept withholds), and lose money is a life-style that is barely arguably deprived. Though this is where the purported victims make a stand. It’s hard to conclusively believe that someone preferring the complacency in their current life over the risk of starting a completely new life in a completely different world means that they know for sure that they would prefer their current situation over any of the ones they could find and or create for themselves away from home (and vice versa); but if I were to do a stark contrast between my immediate family and ones of my relatives’, the family values of those born and raised in this “stunted” third-world-country would win by a landslide. My modern family is in shambles, hell, we could barely even manage to get half of us to go on the trip together. In the light of the affability of our Eastern Hemisphere counterparts, we burst into inferior flames;  and that’s just the reality of it. With that, I don’t have much more to say. At the time, two weeks felt rather enduring, but I figure it would take another trip of just as much, if not more, duration to come to thoroughly convincing resolutions for my experiences that have been left open-ended by reflective thought, not that I want to end this recollection on a dark note. This past Christmas vacation has been truly unforgettable, in beautifully touching ways.

 

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport:

On our way to Việt Nam, we had made a transfer flight in Taipei, Taiwan, but only got to stay in the country for less than one hour. Thankfully, the return trip gave me a better opportunity to appreciate the stop, approximately three hours worth of opportunities. Anticipating the chance before even landing at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, I was anxious to find out if we could leave the actual airport and sight-see the near(est)by areas. Little did I know that with the pageantry that the airport had in store for visitors, there was already more than enough to see for three hour’s time. Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport consisted of four separate sections, A, B, C, D, and each of these sections had within them around nine different gates. And in turn, these gates would have a plethora of different shops in-between them. The estimated time to walk from the first gate to the last gate of any of given letter sections was twenty minutes, if I remember correctly. I walked to all four sections, multiple times. Everything was just so thematic that I couldn’t help but to venture to every area to see the next flashy attraction; in the end, there were a lot of repeat stores and displays, especially once you got to another letter section, but I regret nothing. From the lounges, to the whimsical bookstores, to the high-tech electronics shops, to the fanciful gardens, to the graciously-accommodating prayer rooms, to the classy art exhibits, to the brilliant light displays, to the extravagantly-decorated restaurants and coffee shops, to even the classy elevators, every little thing was picture-worthy. The following are but a small fraction of the visual splendor that the airport has to offer.

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