The bus had stopped, and we piled into the border control centre. A man collected all of our passports and handed them to the single border agent in a neat stack–he listlessly stamped them one by one. I walked to a baggage check manned by someone not looking at the screen, and then the final agent checking my visa had difficulty flipping the pages with one hand while the other texted. Eventually, feeling certain there was a visa in there somewhere, he waved me onward into Vietnam.
Bobby, the eagle-eyed, stared across the street. “Hey,” he remarked, “that guy looks just like Joe Landry. And that girl looks just like Brittany Thurston. That is definitely them.”
Korea has a way of really condensing the world, giving you friends from across the globe, all of whom are at least somewhat adventurous and interested in travel. The chances of being in the same country as one of them in the future is decently high, although the odds of stumbling across some former Korea comrades just on the street in Vietnam had been low enough that we weren’t expecting anyone to appear. And then they did, just wandering down the street across from us.
That they are also very pleasant people certainly made this discovery a bright one. We met them daily for our time in Ho Chi Minh, eating many of our meals together, seeing the major sights of the city, and watching the sunset over the wide spread of the skyline from an overly pricey hotel rooftop bar. (We had their happy hour explained to us on four separate occasions by three different waiters, and still never fully got it correct. We received what one waiter reported to be our free drinks, which we drank. Suddenly another waiter appeared with two more, which he also declared to be our happy hour freebies. Neurotically, we stewed in deep conversation for minutes at a time, debating whether or not to drink the things, lest they charge us another $9 a person for the drinks.)
Much like last year, I just sort of stumbled upon some Lunar New Year festivities, and much like last year, an elderly Asian woman took my enjoyment of the performance as her personal project.
Walking back to my hotel after a morning walk, I stumbled down a street where a bunch of people were doing some dragon dances, possibly to bring blessings on one particular business in the area. They spun and twirled and played various tinny percussion devices, and then several more people joined them, in shaggy dog-dragon costumes, two-men-a-dragon. They did tricks and jumps, all the while some terribly large props loomed nearby.
A Vietnamese granny, standing around happily with her grandkids, noted me and my big stupid DSLR, and began motioning to the props, and miming what might occur. Her sign language was bewildering and idiosyncratic, but I was charmed that she wanted me to get the most out of whatever exactly was happening in this alleyway full of dragons, and kept my eyes where she directed.
In time: a dude in a dragon costume shimmied up something the diameter and height of a telephone pole, symbolically ate a bouquet or something (my studious note-taking faltered that day, and thus the details of the performance grow hazy), tossed off his costume to another dude who had shimmied up the pole, danced a little on top of the pole, and then had to slide down when the police arrived. The best New Year’s celebrations are always the ones with the most tenuous holds on reality.
Our journey to the Mekong was a well-lubricated tourism run-through, with stops at very many places to spend your money, but it still manages to be pretty cool, regardless. We were boated along the Delta, along various rivers inside, and transferred boats to various other craft at least a dozen times, manned at each stage by tinier, older, and stronger Vietnamese women.
We sampled local fruits, ate a lunch of elephant-ear fish-stuffed spring rolls, and wandered through a coconut processing plant (while also purchasing various coconut products). Each portion of our trip was usually followed by someone standing around, hoping to accept our money, to uneven success. After the coconuts, numerous people bought goods, us included. But at the honey centre, despite numerous claims about the health benefits of the royal jelly we have just sampled, no one really wants to pay $10 for a miniature bottle of horrifyingly noxious goo to help us develop our queen bee morphology. Similarly, while enjoying some tropical fruits, local performers listlessly belt out a few Vietnamese traditional songs, with the passion and enthusiasm of people actively inserting suppositories without using their hands. When their tip baskets approached, our desire to be polite suddenly clashed with our upturned-noses at poor performing.
Our bus-ride to Nha Trang was relatively easy: we clamboured onto a sleeper bus, made up of Vietnamese person-sized pods that you jam yourself in and lie down. Ours were at the back of the bus, and thus we were slightly crammed together, but then a tiny, delightful Vietnamese American family climbed alongside of us, placing their miniscule, toe-headed son at the centre, and taking up none of our precious shoulder room. We shared Oreos with him, and were saddened when the family was replaced by three burly Russians.
We are less saddened and more confused when we enter Nha Trang, and discover that every other breed of tourist has been replaced with Russians. They are everywhere, and they are not terribly difficult to spot (gold chains, headscarves and skin paler than our own were the main tip-offs). While crossing the border, a young Russian man on our bus seemed particularly happy about not needing a visa to enter Vietnam, and every beach showed thousands of Russian tourists taking the same opportunity.
We signed up for something advertised as a snorkelling tour, and befriend several other pairs of travelers along the way. When we climb on the bus, the only seat left available to me is a plastic lawn-chair, which I wedge in the aisle between seats. Each of us hopes it is not a sign of what is to come.
We begin to worry about the quality of our trip when the first island we journey to features only the saddest, most boring aquarium any of us has ever seen, filled with desperate, raggedy fish, each seemingly less tropical and amazing than the last. We worry more when the second stop is a sort of man-made water-sports island. Here you could pay additional money to ride jet-skis or banana boats, or take a hilariously unsafe looking parasail trip. We (two Australians, Bobby, and I) decided instead to take the cheapest option: remove everything but our swimsuits and jump in the water. We would try to swim to a nearby island, but as soon as we got close, Steph was stung by a jelly-fish, and Bobby and I had both cut up our legs all over the rocks and were bleeding. We headed back to our transportation.
On the boat, we had a decision to make: find a water-taxi back to the mainland, or begin drinking.
Several beers later, they served lunch, and tied several boats together, advised everyone to pile onto one, and live music began to play. The sound was tinny, the instrumentals were childish, and though they sang songs in several languages, most of the words were forgotten in favour of general la-la-las to the beat. However, prolonged sun exposure and plenty of free wine can make you enjoy anything, and thus we had a great time. Soon the boats parted and we were encouraged to climb onto the roofs of the boats and leap into the water, to receive more free wine (which was, as a result of the splashing, about 25% seawater. The taste of freshness.) and act like boors.
Tourist traps will always be a part of travelling. As long as you have money and others very much want to get it without the hassle of robbing you, they will invent reasons to put you in a place and try to convince you to spend it. The only solution in these sorts of places is to do as we did, and make the best of it. Not every day of vacation will always be perfect, but they will be what you make of them.