Travel Journal

Vietnam Part 1, Saigon to Da Nang, 4/9-4/12

(Friday 29 April 2011) by Joanne Chang
Vietnam. Where to begin. Every moment is vivid in my memory yet the memories are scattered about, bouncing around like excited schoolchildren. Visions of colorful lanterns, white beaches, vast mountainous rice terraces, a thousand limestone islands and more motorbikes than I can guess at. Visions of George, sweet George. A truly incredible two weeks with the most wonderful man in the world, exploring and tasting and sharing, free to be and speak who we are. Opening ourselves to all the possibilities of our adventure here and at home as we step into our life together with wide eyes and giddy excitement, giggling uncontrollably at this thing we've discovered, in our self and each other. It is difficult to separate my experience in Vietnam, from my experience in Vietnam with George. And I don't want to. It was awesome, all of it. He colors my days so bright and I welcome every moment we spend together.

The border crossing guard extends my almost-expired visa another 15 days so I have exactly 2 weeks in Vietnam. I spend the first night alone in the backpacker district, post my journal on Kep and am so excited I can hardly sleep. The next morning it's shower, breakfast, and off to meet George! For once in my life I'm on time waiting in the lobby and oh - I see him crossing the street! I run to the door, he walks in, and I throw my arms around him as the rest of the world falls away. Cheesy yes, but this is the truth. He made it, he made it. He is actually here with me, in Vietnam, where I can touch him and see him and feel him next to me. Until the moment he arrives it feels like a fantasy, where anything can happen to make it go 'poof'. But now he is here in front of me and it's real, and we have 2 whole weeks. We are lucky lucky lucky.

The first thing we do in Saigon is learn how to cross the street. Streets are wide with a 20:1 ratio of motorbikes to cars, interspersed with cyclos (bicycle-taxis) and bicycles. It will never look safe to cross, so if there's a clearing 5 feet in front of you start walking and whatever you do, don't stop. The motorbikes part for you like magic. If you stop, they get confused and bad things happen. It feels crazy at first to walk into oncoming traffic, but there's a rhythm to this city, and I like it. I imagined Saigon to be like Bangkok, but it's different. First, everyone is wearing motorbike helmets. And there are way more motorbikes, so the streets are filled with everyone's shiny heads in different colors. The motorbikes seem newer. The people seem hipper. The overall feel is more modern and more rhythmic, less chaotic. There are beautiful parks filled with huge trees, modern art sculptures and fun exercise stations, kids and teenagers playing and socializing until after the sun goes down.

The first things we eat in Vietnam are pucker-your-lips sour green mango and sweet ice coffee that could send you to the moon. We visit the War Remnants Museum, go to the night market (where we discover jack fruit chips!), and walk to the river where George has the best 'pho bo tai' of the trip at Restaurant 17. On Day 2 we go to the Cu Chi tunnels with a tour group that expands from 20 to 50, our tour guide losing his mind by the end of the day trying to keep his "Family" together. We are introduced to Weasel coffee on the way back from Cu Chi (soooo good, but I won't tell you why they call it Weasel), check out the Reunification Palace, eat 'banh xeo' and something that isn't 'banh cuon' at Ngon, relax in the park and scrape coconut out of the shell with chopsticks, and have dinner and drinks at Lam before hopping the 15-hour night train to Hoi An. The trip has begun! Aside from eating and sightseeing we've carefully begun to poke at our future -- where will we live? Together or separate? Want to see India? Start a business? We don't have the answers but it's awesome to be together, talk through the possibilities, share our ideas and know we can do it all.

Train from Saigon to Da Nang
We get soft sleepers shared with two burly, tattooed Australian men. One of them has a Vietnam tattoo and is annoyingly obnoxious to the train attendants, and the other has no idea where he is or where they're going. It's fun to be on the top bunks though, peeking at each other from above the Aussies and watching the sun come up while laying in bed. It still feels surreal, him being here with me, and there's nowhere I'd rather be than in this little train cubby with him. The scenery is beautiful, rice fields and more rice fields, and everywhere people working so hard to make it grow. The houses in Vietnam are different than the rest of Southeast Asia, concrete and brick versus bamboo and wood, and I wonder if this changed after the war. The 15-hour ride goes quickly, we sleep and snuggle, alternate staring at each other and out the window, eat barbecue for breakfast, and before we know it we've arrived in Da Nang, and catch a car ride to Hoi An.


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