Day 342 – 6 February, 2016
Vietnamese New Year (related to Chinese New Year), otherwise known as Tet, starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year. I was vaguely aware of this small fact, but it had not factored in to my travel plans in any way. Some other travelers had arranged their entire itineraries around being in one specific place for Tet. And virtually all of Eastern Asia shuts down for one week while the locals go on holiday and celebrate in monumental ways. I was just traveling, like I’ve always done, and did not see how this would affect me until one night in my dorm in Phu Quoc, a random girl from Wisconsin was panicking about getting off the island and bee-lining her way to Hoi An before everything was locked down for the holiday. She had been in Vietnam the prior year during the same week so she said she knew how it works.
I casually thought I should figure out my own onward travels until I found myself in the ferry ticket office with hundreds of shouting and shoving Vietnamese. The phone was ringing off the hook and the 4 employees were completely under water. Queueing doesn’t exist in most parts of Asia so patiently trying to wait my turn was getting me nowhere. In a stroke of luck, I was awarded one of the few remaining fares off the island.
And thus, I found myself in Saigon for the big weekend at a time when most people actually leave the city for domestic holiday destinations like Da Lat or Hoi An or Nha Trang. As a result, I experienced this congested crowded city during the least congested and crowded time of the year. Typically, you would see legendary motorbike traffic, on the sidewalks, going against traffic, cutting across lanes of traffic. What I saw was somewhat more tame and almost orderly for Vietnam.
I spent my first day going to the obligatory stops of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum. It’s not that I didn’t want to visit these places. I just wasn’t quite certain of the reception an American might get. The Cu Chi Tunnels were used during the Vietnam/American War by the Viet Cong (or North Vietnamese) to distribute supplies from Hanoi in the north to the southern districts. During the war, these tunnels were only 1/2 meter high (they have since been enlarged to 1 meter so that tourists can fit inside) and the VC would sometimes crouch inside for days, if not weeks, without a reprieve. There was a firing range where you could pay to fire a whole arsenal of semi and automatic weapons. And there was a demonstration of the types of stake-filled, maiming, sadistic booby traps that they used to create in the forest. Many times throughout the day, I was asked where I was from and upon my reply, I was warmly told that we are friends now.
The War Remnants Museum seemed a bit heavy on propaganda and telling the history from a one-sided victimized viewpoint, yet from what I had ever been taught during school at home in the States had either been glossed over at the end of a semester or had also been heavily one-sided on the evils of communism. War is always going to be messy and no side is ever going to be 100% right. It’s true that many terrible things happened during that era, not the least of which is the introduction of Agent Orange and chemical warfare. I found it important to see and understand the American War from the perspective of the Vietnamese and the museum was chock full of photos and stories that were able to meet that end.
Back in the city, I was joined by Stephie, whom I had originally met in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville a few weeks earlier. We were both heading north in Vietnam and decided to join forces to do so together. The New Year was upon us and what better way to kick off our tour of the country together than to celebrate the year of the monkey out on the streets of Saigon. Fireworks, street food, and rowdy crowds were in order to ring in my first Tet celebration and it did not disappoint.
Meanwhile, Martyn and I were in early discussions about where and when he might join me for a stint of travel. He was keen to come in April, which was still two months away, but it was giving me something new to look forward to beyond my daily travel adventures and misadventures. Truth be told, we barely knew each other and it would be a leap of faith to commit to a 10-day travel companion who would be coming halfway around the world, but he definitely seemed like a risk worth taking. So watching fireworks that evening, I was somewhat preoccupied with what The Year of the Monkey might have in store.
Alone back in the hostel later that night, I was removing my shoes before I entered the living space. I heard scratching and movement coming from the corner of the room. I turned my head to listen more closely and at just that instant, a rat’s face emerged from the garbage bin. I looked at it; it looked back at me. Neither of us moved. And then just as suddenly, it disappeared into the kitchen area. I finished removing my shoes and went upstairs without telling a soul. I guess a sign that I’ve been traveling too long? It did not escape me to realize that I no longer seemed to mind sharing living quarters with rats.