On the 25th September Lindsay and I departed Sydney, bound for Vietnam for a three week holiday. One of the things I learned quickly about Vietnam is that it's not really a holiday, it's an experience. A great adventure – one where I laughed and cried, and itched, and had my eyes opened and my gratitude stretched enormously along with feelings of sadness and confusion, over the disparity between a country so downtrodden as Vietnam and a country so prosperous as Australia. But I am wary of describing Vietnam in sweeping terms... it's a country of contradictions. Yes it's been war-torn and the evidence is plain as day, but they get on with things. Sometimes it seems like organised chaos. A lot of the time I'm sure it's just plain chaos. But amidst the dirt and the slums and the questionable street food is a country of colour and crazy and spirit and simplicity. It would be interesting to have visited Vietnam in the '70s and then to have returned now; I'm sure the difference would be profound.
At times I was propelled into sadness based on the living conditions we witnessed. The houses, even in the more developed areas, are often very basic and dilapidated. And in the more remote areas you really wonder how the people fill their days! One day we drove passed someone who was asleep in a hammock on the side of the road, in the absolute middle of nowhere. How and why was he there; what was on his agenda for the day? I remember wondering what the the people even talked about, day in, day out? — Specifically, what developments were happening, what gossip was there to be swapped, in these remote villages, that provided fodder for new conversation?! I said to Lindsay – it's not even as though the topic of what to have for dinner would even take up much time, because it's either going to be rice or noodles or pho! No new developments there! Anyway, I realise that's a very "Western" thing to ponder... how they fill their days... it's just that the contrast is so stark. We're too developed for our own good, sometimes.
One of the standout memories from our trip, but not a pleasant one, was our visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The second floor of the museum has an Agent Orange exhibition that includes extremely large, graphic images of people who were born with deformities as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. I can't even attempt to describe these images... I had to leave the room because the emotion was all encompassing and the reality was bearing down like a ten tonne weight. That because of war... innocent babies were born with horrifying, crippling deformities. That was the worst experience of our trip. At the same time... it is part of the history of Vietnam.
One day we rode pillion on motorbikes, journeying along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and stopped at a minority village; a humbling experience. A very old woman came out of her house (shack) and walked slowly along the path. I was mesmerised by her face because she was just so.very.old. And the amazing thing is that she probably was born in that village and will die in that village and there is just nothing much in that village. Even so... the things she would have seen and lived through, I can't imagine. It was just she and I on the path walking toward one another and for some reason we both stopped and looked at one another and smiled. She spoke to me in her language (village dialect) and I spoke to her in mine. I think we exchanged niceties. We took turns speaking and obviously I have no idea what she said. I said... "Hello. How are you? Nice to meet you. Goodbye". It sounds silly, but we had a little moment, that old Vietnamese lady and I.
Whilst in Hanoi we visited the Women's Museum and watched some videos about the market women – typically the women you see selling goods (pineapples, donuts, flowers, vegetables) from their shoulder baskets in the street. We heard some of their stories, and learnt that they were forced to come into the cities to make extra money selling these goods because they could not make enough money year-round from their farms. One woman said that as a pig farmer, her husband earned the equivalent of only $60 a year. A year! The women have to leave their families behind to come to work in the city for part of the year, and would stay in sharehouses with up to ten other women, paying 32 cents a night. You can't even contemplate those living conditions. That was another eye-opening experience. We left that museum wanting to give our money to everyone on the street... but then, there are so many... you can't give to everyone... and it's a hopeless, selfish kind of feeling. You give to some, and then you return to your first world life. But I don't think you return untouched, unaware. Or unchanged.
...I loved our adventure in Vietnam. We saw many things, met wonderful people and found ourselves in so many ridiculous situations. We rode bikes along the Ho Chi Minh trail, star-gazed while sailing through Ha Long Bay, drank too many cocktails and made our way through the rain to dance with locals at Saigon clubs. And that's just the start of it. Lindsay (sorry to embarrass) was my comfort and protector when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed or when I needed insects taken care of, and a source of so much laughter. I wouldn't have wanted to share my trip with anyone else. The experience made me grateful for the comforts and privileges that I was born into here in Australia. Here is just a small collection of photos from our time in Vietnam.