As the bus slowly crept from Savannakhet, Laos towards Vietnam the weather gradually changed from sunny and cheerful to gray and sad, then to chilly and ominously cloudy. Hue greeted us with rain. Surprise! We had created an elaborate plan on how to avoid the pesky taxi drivers we knew would be waiting for us at the bus station and now the rain was messing our plan up. It was 7 pm, dark, wet and we were surrounded by men crowding us with questions “Taxi, Want?”, “TAXI!!!!”, “Where you Going?”,”Which Hotel?”, “Cheap, cheap, cheap”, “Taxi!?”.
Right in front of them we opened our backpacks and started layering over the T-shirts all the clothes we had. Flip flops changed to sneakers and we dug out the only umbrella we had. It got broken somewhere in Japan but propping the slider up by hand would make it work for the evening. We strapped the backpacks to our backs and to everyone’s dismay and disappointment headed into the dark as if we knew exactly where we were going.
Why was I so jaded and had pre-planned our arrival? Almost all the travel blogs I was following warned about the Vietnamese pushy attitude towards tourists, the variety of scams foreigners fell victims to and the constant touting they had to endure. Some people went as far as to state that they will never come back to Vietnam as they felt constantly cheated and disrespected. I figured that if we knew what to expect and acted accordingly we might be able to enjoy the country and it’s people. “If we are to enjoy Vietnam we have to toughen up kiddos” became my mantra the week preceding the journey to Hue.
Arriving in a brand new country one feels vulnerable, especially in the dark. I knew we would be too tired to bargain, calculate, figure out the new money. So we pushed our way past the pesky taxi drivers and fled in the dark of this unknown city on a 3 km journey to the city center. After the long bus ride we were excited to be jumping over puddles of water, walking around motorcycles parked on the sidewalk in random configurations and dodging the rivers coming down at us from overhangs, rain tarps and broken gutters. On the way to our hotel we almost got run over crossing a big street and got our first lesson on how to survive in Vietnam: Don’t expect traffic to halt and let you pass even if you are on a pedestrian path. Ain’t going to happen! The only principle governing the road madness here is “dodging”. One is to drive around objects in front trying not to hit them. As a pedestrian or a cyclist once you get this concept you will be fine. Crossing a very busy road goes like this: get a firm grip of your kids hands and then go into the traffic. You have to either trust that people will react quickly and will drive around you or you will have to wait for a break in the traffic for a long long time. Traffic lights can be helpful to pass through half of the street traffic but are not present at all intersections.
After two days here I can see what bothered the travelers whose stories I read before arriving. Vietnamese people are tenacious and it feels like they can smell you approaching from far away.They are always ready to offer you “a deal” or to ask you the regular “Where you going?”. But we are also noticing genuine smiles and hospitality. Today we felt brave and indulged in a lot of street food and the locals were kind and excited that we are eating with them and not at the Lonely Planet recommended restaurants. Still, we are starting our adventure in Vietnam holding back a little and feeling reserved. I am curious if by the end of our month here our hearts will open fully the way they did in Japan, Thailand and Laos.
P.S. After 2 days I can a few more lessons to the list:
Lesson 2: If you are bicycling in a heavy traffic just pretend you are a big fish flowing downstream with your buddies who love you and have your best interests at heart. When approaching an insane looking roundabout don’t get scared and hit the breaks. Keep going where you need to go. Don’t mind the oncoming traffic headed straight towards you. Somehow, miraculously, you will emerge on the other side unscathed. The feeling is exhilarating. You might surprise yourself by screaming from relief and adding to the maddening noise pollution of loud honks.
Lesson 3: Be prepared for locals to talk about you in front of you and laugh. They might be just amused that you are eating out of a plastic bag like them or they might be saying that your are crazy foreigners who tried 10 pairs of shoes and still bought nothing (the shoes didn’t fit Raina right but that might have not been a good enough of an excuse to back off). As long as you try not to read between the lines and don’t take yourself seriously you will be fine.
Lesson 4: Do not try the street sweet soups. They ARE sweet, too sweet for your own good, even mixed with ice.
Lesson 5: When people are touting you don’t engage because even saying NO all day long can be exhausting. Just smile. It works. The people don’t know enough English and the sweet smile is a dead end.
Lesson 6: Do try local food. You can feast on a dollar. Much more challenging for vegetarians though. Every soup pot we peeked in had meat floating in.