E-mail Update - 2011-11-08

An unsent Vietnam update from the vault

Hey Everyone,

I know it has been a long time since the last travel update and I have had several people tell me how much they miss that. I also know that a lot of people blog now, but I still like the personal email so here it goes. Sadly I have not been on the road backpacking for a long time (since summer 2010 in Asia with Becky). However, as I was going through my emails I saw this email I had started to draft while I was in Vietnam, but which I had not finished or sent out. Before I get into the email I want to set the picture a little back to that time. We ended up spending around 3 months in Asia with about 8 weeks of the time in Vietnam. Vietnam was both Becky and I's least favorite country of the four, pretty much all because of the people. But it was expensive for us to go to due to the Visa costs and we decided that we wanted to see it all while we were there because we never plan to go back. On the other hand I would love to see more of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia (and pretty much everywhere else in the world for that matter) and we have every intention of going again at some point. When I wrote this email I was obviously getting frustrated with parts of Vietnam. After the update I will talk more about things from the year after point of view.

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A lot of the time my updates have been about how much I love the countries I have been too and how amazing the people have been...this is not going to be one of those emails.

However, I was taught that when you review something you are meant to talk about the positives as well as the negatives, so I will try to start with the positives. Vietnam is amazingly beautiful in a natural sense. It is just so green here, it is hard to even describe. In the ocean the water is also very beautiful. In places like Halong Bay they have these beautiful limestone karst formations that just seem to pop out of the middle of the water. They even have them along some rivers. So due to this we have spent a lot of time on boats which again in a sightseeing sense alone have been amazing. Also it is very easy and cheap to rent motorbikes here, which has been great because we have been able go places that they don't take you on tours. Also Becky and I have really been off the beaten path, which is something that the book (Lonely Planet - Vietnam) goes on and on about. In traveling it is like this weird bragging right that you go places where there are not other tourists. We have really been off the track going up to 5 days at one point without seeing any other tourist. In another stretch it was around 4 days completely on our own. Interestingly we went to these areas more to see them, than for bragging rights. The one that is to the west of Hanoi was a trip where we were basically on buses as it was the best way to see the farming areas of Vietnam. Interestingly there was as much corn as there was rice being grown there. We also saw numerous other crops and some amazing stepped rice terraces. On the other trip we went far enough north that only a river separated us from China. There we saw an amazingly beautiful waterfall and a very interesting old cave.

Also there is some food here that is quite good. We have had a lot of really good fried noodles, which is one of the few words that I can say in Vietnamese. There have been good restaurants which we have found here or there, interestingly almost all of them have been international ones like for instance Indian or Japanese.

We have met some really cool Vietnamese people and from the trip have one person from here who I would consider a true friend. We met him while we were staying at the hotel he worked at in Hanoi. We actually stayed up the first night we met him talking to him and his family until 5am, which was about an hour or so from when we normally are getting up here. It was interesting because they gave us free food, Vietnamese tea and beer (for me). Luu translated so we were able to talk to his friend who was also there and his father, which was very interesting. Also, when we have been on the motobike people have been very good in helping with directions. If they don't know they will usually tell us, which is a nice change from South America where people would point when they had no idea because they refuse to just say they didn't know. Plus when we were in South America I could even speak the language. In Vietnam it is all pointing and gesturing.

So yeah that is pretty much what I consider positives and now we can move onto the negatives. First off most of the people here are not very good people. In most countries you have 10% of the people who are trying to rip you off and who are not that great of people. However, you still have 90% of the people who are great people and who restore your faith in the country and in end make you feel good about the country. This is the way it is in places like Bali, Bolivia, Thailand, the Philippines and Fiji. But here it seems like 90% of the people are truly awful people. There are some really nice people like Luu and his family but they are just so hard to find. Now you could say they are this way due to their difficult history and economic conditions, but I feel like the other countries I mentioned have just as hard of lives and yet still are truly good people with the odd exceptions. Here everyone seems to be out for you and it really makes it hard to stay positive about the country. It is fair in my opinion to say the only thing that keeps Vietnam from being amazing is its people. If the country for instance had Fiji's amazing people here I would be glowing about it.

Large areas of the country were destroyed during the American War (as they call it here - Vietnam War for you back in the US). There were whole areas of jungle that were destroyed with chemicals that should have never been used. There are a whole generation of people here in some regions that have deformities and die at a very young age. In many areas there is still nothing but small shrubs or very small trees where there should be dense jungle. So I guess what I am saying is that the US War did a lot of damage to the environment and to an entire generation of people in one area of the country.

The Vietnamese people here now are doing their very best to destroy what is left and poison another generation. We have seen so much slash and burn farming. They cut trees that you can't even make 2X4's out of, not sure what they are using them for. Garbage is dumped everywhere. We hold our garbage all day in the bag and them put in the hotel when we get back. Then to our dismay we see our hotel dump that same garbage on the street. Interestingly, only minutes after seeing that happen we were walking across this bridge and we saw a girl come out on a bicycle and take 2 bags of garbage and drop them right in the river. In buses and cars people never hold onto garbage it is always thrown right out the window. Whatever isn't dumped out is burned. They love burning stuff in the open on the street. I guess it is their country so they can do what they want, but how much of the next generations damage will be self-imposed and there will then be no one to blame but themselves.

When people from other countries come here to setup non-profit companies to help the less fortunate people (because there are a lot of them) they have to bribe government officials and people along the way. It has been interesting to talk with people about this and see how people in Vietnam in the government are more likely to keep the people who really need help from getting it.

The people also see you as a walking ATM and are constantly trying to rip you off. This point isn't so different from other developing countries. However, the people here are much more intense about it and will really get in your face. They will even due the same to each other. The southern Vietnamese people seem worse than the northern ones for this, but both are bad. On the bus ride we had a couple days ago the man collecting money basically forced this young girl on the bus and then when she got off he chased her down and drug her back on the bus by the arm. Interestingly we argued with the guys on the bus for about 4 minutes about price before getting on and in retrospect should have just walked away (which I did try to do once). It was funny to then see an older man get on the bus and refuse to pay what they wanted and see the young guy get in his face about it. It just seems like people here have no respect for anything or anyone including themselves. Again there are exceptions to this but I would say 90% of the people are this way in my opinion.

There is also a large problem with noise pollution. Horns here are used at some points constantly while on the road. Large trucks, buses and other cars have horns that are so loud that they have gave me a headache for the night. They seem to honk them for no reason. Given that there are no enforced road rules I guess this is the only way to communicate on the road.

In a lot of countries people are all up in your personal space. But usually this is at least mildly endearing and they are just curious about you. In Vietnam this went to a whole other level. I have never been touched so much in an unwelcome way. I originally thought this might be more of a problem for Becky that it would for me but I was wrong. The comments towards Becky were more of the creepy guy type saying how beautiful she was or talking about her white skin. It should be mentioned that in the US we consider being tanned to be appealing, but in Asia they have skin whitening cream to make people appear more white. I guess every country wants what it doesn't have naturally. Anyway so what I am saying is that while Becky was touched some it was never by guys and it was more of a touch of the skin on the arms. Not for me. I had both women and men who wanted to touch both my stomach and chest. I think this all had to do with my weight, but maybe they knew it was more acceptable to touch a guy that a girl I am not sure. But either way I actually started getting defensive about it because often it was more of a grab than a touch, which was something I have never had happen before. This was more of a problem in the North when we were off the beaten path.

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I know there were other areas I planned to talk about in that email like how their communist narrative of history is silly in many respects. For instance, in a war museum it will have an exhibit about how US soldiers killer innocent women and children. Literally right next to it there was a picture of a 13 year old girl who got a medal for "Best American Killer" sighting her stats. That is a hard one to reconcile in my mind. Either you want the children involved in the war or you didn't. If a soldier is getting shot at I am sure they could care less if it is a 13 year old girl or a 30 year old man, they are going to shoot back. Either way the museums and historical sites there have such blatant propaganda that it is almost laughable. Another example they showed bodies being dragged behind a US tank and talked about how American's were such savages. But upon further review the bodies being dragged are that of American soldiers. From some articles I read it talked about how Vietnamese soldiers would not let US soldier collect the dead properly and would not give the bodies back after battles. So US soldiers went to dramatic measures to do everything they could to get the bodies out (for instance tying bodies to tanks) because they at least wanted the families to be able to bury the bodies of their loved ones. After being in Vietnam for a while it made me think about how slanted the US narrative on the last 100 years is. When I was in school everything was presented as the US being this golden beacon that everyone else aspired to. Teachers did not mention items like the Vietnam war that would not fit the narrative. They kept wanting to talk about World War 2 which could present the US as the world's "savior". It was interesting to get the other extreme view which to say the least did not seem 100% accurate either.

I will say it did get better when we got to the South. This was mostly because we got back on the tourist trail. But another huge part of it in my estimate was learning to take the tourist buses. Even after traveling as much as I have you make mistakes. One huge mistake on my part was assuming that taking the locals buses is always better and cheaper. At least for the last couple weeks in Vietnam we started taking the tourist buses which for often the same price as a local bus, often less would (using a set price that I would not have to haggle for minutes) pick us up right from out hotel and get us on a decent bus. It is the first time I have ever seen it be cheaper. You could think that I was overpaying for the local buses, but at the start of the trip we did a variety of local buses where fairs were posted and we would ask using a phrase from the Vietnam lonely planet to see what the price should be. So we knew what to pay. It was weird and I guess shows that even when you feel like you know something it can always change in a new country or even within the same country.

Either way Vietnam was a learning experience with a lot of high points and I loved traveling with Becky.

Attached are the following 4 pictures:
- Becky and I at my favorite Waterfall, Mae Ya, in Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand
- A picture of a market stall during my Thai cooking class outing
- Halong Bay in Vietnam
- A typical store front in Vietnam

As always if you want off this list just let me know.

Love & Peace!
Brock