Monday, February 16, 2015

Saigon, Vietnam

I remember being in Harrisonburg in the fall, and something, often my Vespa, would remind me that I would be returning to Vietnam in the spring, and I would suddenly be filled with joy and anticipation. My life in the United States has various traces of Vietnam in my daily life, from the Vespa I bought weeks after returning from Vietnam to the Vietnamese coffee I buy in the Asian market and brew with the drip coffee filter I purchased in Saigon a year-and-a-half earlier. Vietnam is close to my heart. When I say that Semester at Sea changed my life, I can make the statement a little less cliché with evidence. How I changed is most evident in my trip to Vietnam six months after the Fall 2012 voyage ended. I booked the trip weeks before leaving, which is action I simply wouldn’t have taken before the Semester at Sea voyage opened up my life to international travel. Something about Vietnam drew me in before I left, and drew me in forever after I left. Bruce Springsteen songs about Vietnam, going to the Vietnamese shopping center in Virginia, meeting someone from Vietnam, going to the Vietnamese restaurant in Windsor Locks, photographs of Vietnam, or simply seeing the word ‘Vietnam’ immediately captures my attention. The morning we arrived in Vietnam awakened my attention and brought a joy and anticipation more fulfilling than daydreaming of Vietnam from the other side of the globe ever could. As we walked off the bus in front of the Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, I immediately recognized the streets and was able to walk towards my AirBnB apartment, stopping for lunch on the way, without a map. The motorbikes, street food, and Vietnamese people felt like a home I missed. The last time I was in Saigon I was busy, visiting sites within and outside of the city. This time, I planned on feeling like a resident of the city, slowly drinking iced coffee and eating fresh Vietnamese food. The bright and modern apartment I found became an even better choice thanks to the friendly and interesting owners who talked with us and made us feel like we had local friends in Vietnam. Throughout my stay they remained around the property since they were converting the building to AirBnB apartments. On the way to the rooftop space five of us got stuck in a four person elevator, which was the first time I ever got stuck in an elevator. The next several days were exactly what I hoped for, although a little busier than I anticipated, as I made myself at home in my Saigon apartment. We had iced coffee in cafes to hide from the midday heat. We had iced coffees in cafes at sunset to watch the busy streets turn to night. We had drinks on a rooftop bar, a growing trend in Saigon, to see the streetlights and motorbikes bring the night to life. I jumped on motorbikes for taxi rides around town, although I had no idea who was an actual motorbike taxi driver and who was a random guy with a motorbike looking to make some money. In the morning I went to the park, where all the locals come to fly their pet birds, do tai chi, play jianzi, and drink coffee. I found popular locations for pho and banh mi, I went to a spa for a traditional Vietnamese massage, and I went to a show at the Saigon Opera House. I walked around the flower market, a sea of yellow and pink flowers in preparation for Tet, the New Year, only a few days away. One night a group of us went on a motorbike foodie tour, where we rode on the back of motorbikes and spent five hours riding around various districts outside of the more popular tourist areas, making several stops for delicious and authentic Vietnamese food. The evening was definitely a highlight of our time in Vietnam, not only for the motorbike riding and the food, but for the fun and interactive company of our drivers who ate with us. I then joined a Semester at Sea field program for a homestay in the Mekong Delta, which was a great way to experience a region of the Mekong Delta I had not visited during my previous trip to Vietnam. We spent most of the day on a few different boats, cruising through both open waters and narrow channels. We docked in a village for lunch, where I wrapped a pet snake around my shoulders, and we took a small four-person sampan boat down a lush and narrow channel and stopped in a village for the night, riding bicycles around the village before sunset, and then helping cook our dinner. The next day we visited Heifer International and put in some work on the farm. The day after, we visited the famous floating market, where various goods are sold from boats in the water. As we left Vietnam, I felt a little sad to leave, and a little like a spoiled child with a bad attitude. I probably shouldn’t have a bad attitude after six wonderful days in Vietnam, but I didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t sure when I would be back. Having traveled to Vietnam twice within a couple of years and always seeking to explore new countries and cultures, despite Vietnam being one of my favorite places in the world, I felt unsure of how soon I would be back and I felt uneasy knowing I might not be back in the near future. One can easily excuse sadness by giving a false sense of comfort that you can always come back one day, which is true, but the world is a big place with many interesting countries to visit, and life is short. I feel confident that I will return to Vietnam one day, and in many ways I could see myself staying in Vietnam for an extended amount of time at some point in my life, but as we watched Saigon fade beyond the horizon as we moved out of the Saigon River, I felt sad, almost like I was betraying a country I love by leaving without any definite plans to return. One of the reasons we often all feel sad when leaving a country is because we make connections during these days in port, with the people and the culture, and then we leave without knowing if we will be back. Fortunately, Vietnam remains in my heart and traces of Vietnam remain in my daily life. Upon returning to the United States, some of the first actions I will take will be going to a Vietnamese restaurant, making Vietnamese iced coffee, and riding my Vespa, which I am tremendously impatient to do after being surrounded by motorbikes for a week. I won’t be in Saigon when I am on my Vespa in Virginia, but my love for Vietnam and the way the culture remains with me, is certainly the reason I am on a Vespa. 

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